Meet The Sámi Land Defenders of Scandinavia



Meet The Sámi Land Defenders of Scandinavia | Atmos


























 

Four Sami leaders and advocates speak with Nina Gualinga about their relationship to the land, and why the green transition is amounting to a new wave of colonization.

Sápmi—a vast region located in northern Fennoscandia—ranges across tundra, mountains, valleys, forests, lakes, and rivers. Traveling from North to South, the land is varied and multifarious, and carries memories, stories, and songs.

 

In the winter, the landscape is covered in snow. Temperatures can drop to -40 degrees celsius and when the ice thickens on the lakes, a singing sound can be heard from one side of the lake to the other. In the spring the ice breaks and the snow starts melting; birds hatch and the buds blossom. The reindeer leave their winter pasture and seek calving grounds closer to the mountains. Summertime is full of movement, the forest is green and the birch leaves rustle in the wind. The sun never goes down—not even at midnight—and towards the end of summer the land provides all sorts of berries. During fall, vegetation turns yellow, orange, and red, and the hunting season starts. 

 

Across Sápmi, the Sámi people have been stewarding and protecting their ancestral lands long before borders were drawn between the countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. 

 

Jåhkåmåhkke, located just north of the Polar Circle on the Swedish side of Sápmi, is a small town that used to be a place where the reindeer-herding Sámi had their winter pastures, a tradition that continues today. In the Lule Sámi language, Jåhkåmåhkke means “the turning of the creek” (and is also pronounced Jokkmokk in Swedish). There are nine Sámi languages spoken across Sápmi. 

 

For over 400 years, people from all over the area have gathered in Jåhkåmåhkke in the coldest time of winter to trade fur, crafts, and food. The market was established by the Swedish royal power in the early 17th century, with the aim to collect taxes, spread the word of God, and ultimately strengthen the state’s grip on the Sámi people in the North. The creation of a commerce hub in the middle of Sápmi territory is only one example of Sweden’s long and ongoing history of colonizing and assimilating Sámi people. But with time, Jåhkåmåhkke became a gathering spot for both Sámi and non-Sámi people from across Scandinavia; a place to take shelter from the cold, to meet people, share crafts, dance, and share joy. 

 

Below, Nina Gualinga travels to Jåhkåmåhkke to speak with Sámi friends and land defenders on the frontlines of the fight against colonization and climate change in Scandinavia.

Nina Gualinga

What is your name, and what is the story of your name?

Aslak Holmberg

The Sámi way of saying my whole name is Skuvlaalbmá Áslat Niillas Áslat. The first part (refers to) my great grandfather, then his son, Áslat, who was my grandfather and my namesake. (The name also refers to) my father, Nilias, and lastly, my own name. But, in my passport, it says Aslak Holmberg. I guess this is a good introduction to who I am (because) I have grown up in two cultures. My mother is Finnish and my father was a Sámi. I’ve had both of these cultures and both languages in my home since childhood. I am from the village, Njuorggán, which is the northernmost village in—what today is—Finland at the border with  Norway.

 

I live right next to Deatnu river—Tana in Norwegian—(which is) the biggest salmon river in Europe. In my childhood, my father was working as a reindeer herder so I grew up halfway in a reindeer herding family.  We had our school in a reindeer corral village up in the tundra.   Summertime was for salmon fishing—I’ve been going out to fish with my father since I was two years old. Obviously, my contribution at the time was quite modest! Since I was 10 years old I have been fishing actively, almost on a daily basis during the summer season. It’s  been very important for me throughout my life.

Nina

And today you are the president of the Sámi Council, representing Sámi people from Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. What does your work look like?

Aslak

A lot of the work is political, representing Sámi civil society, for example at the United Nations. We are one of the permanent participant organizations of the Arctic Council, and we sit by the same table as the state representatives, but we don’t have a voting right. 

Nina

Where are we at when it comes to recognizing Indigenous rights in Scandinavia?

Aslak

Where to even start? Most of Finland used to be Sámi territory. My region was one of those that was colonized last. Here, colonization came from the south, while in Norway colonization came from the coast. Many coastal Sámis faced strong Norwegianization and have lost the Sámi identity as a result. But the inland, including the Guovdageaidnu area, was protected by the vastness of the tundra.

 

The structures of colonization have been similar everywhere. First, it came through Christianization, criminalization, and systematic execution of our spiritual leaders who played a key role in our villages. Then, the practice of governing our territories was slowly taken away from us. Generations of Sámi children were taken to residential schools where they were not allowed to speak Sámi. Everything was taught through the colonial lens. My father went to a residential school. I think the last ones closed in the 1970s, so of course that legacy is still present with us.

Nina

People tend to think that colonization happened 500 years ago, but as you’re saying, the residential schools closed in the 1970s.

Aslak

Then again, there isn’t so much awareness of the present colonial reality either. A lot of the Sámi territories have been lost to intensive forestry, agriculture, or intensive forms of fishery. And, of course, now this “renewable energy” and “green transition” are pushing for changes and dispossession of our lands again.

“A lot of the Sámi territories have been lost to intensive forestry, agriculture, or intensive forms of fishery. And, of course, now this “renewable energy” and “green transition” are pushing for changes and dispossession of our lands again.”

Aslak Holmberg

President, Saami Council

Nina

I see this narrative everywhere now whether it’s in Scandinavia or South America. Rarely does the world think about at whose cost this green transition is happening…

Aslak

It’s a trend that has increasingly impacted our territories, and it’s important to look at it through the historic context that I shared. Simply put, we are losing territories and we don’t have a say on how our territories are being used. 

 

On the Norwegian side, just across the border where I live, there is a major push for new wind energy development. And on the Swedish side, a lot of Sámi villages are suffering from the impacts of mining activities. Every project is being painted green. It’s a new form of colonization. They just try to make it sound like it’s good and it’s necessary for the planet.

 

Most of the old growth forests have been logged already, and the state parks and forests enterprises claim ownership over about 95% of Sami territory on the Finnish side. In the sub-Arctic, where we are living, it can take 300 years for a tree to grow 10 centimeters thick. Can you really talk about renewable resources if it takes 10 generations to renew something? It’s not really renewable if it takes 500 years to renew, is it?

Nina

You really make a point! In what ways does Sámi culture protect and mitigate climate change?

Aslak

Through our traditional way of using these lands. It’s not a coincidence that most of the world’s biodiversity is found on Indigenous Peoples’ land. We have lived here for centuries and millennia. We couldn’t have done that if we were living in unsustainable ways.

 

Now, we’re losing tundra and it’s becoming forest. The reindeer grazing limits the growth of trees. This is significant for climate change mitigation because the tundra reflects sunlight. So, yeah, basically reindeer herding is maintaining the albedo effect of the tundra.

Nina

I’ve read that if the tundra starts to melt it will start releasing carbon dioxide.

Aslak

Yeah, the Arctic wetlands hold twice as much carbon dioxide as is currently in the atmosphere. The Arctic wetlands are supported by the permafrost, but when it melts, carbon dioxide and methane are released. It is a really significant contribution to the overall climate pressure that everybody will experience.

Nina

Wow! I didn’t know those numbers. What’s your experience at spaces like COP or the UN Climate Change Conference?

Aslak

I would describe the COP as the most depressing festival in the world. It seems like the actual negotiations are a minor part and it  feels, to a large extent, like a greenwashing arena.

Nina

I’m glad we are here and not at COP. How’s your time here at the market been so far?

Aslak

I’m here almost every year, so it’s a special place for me to meet with the friends on the Swedish side of Sápmi. It’s basically the only significant Sámi gathering on this side of Sápmi. It’s a lot of fun—but I feel like there isn’t enough time. The most important gathering spot is the Sámi dance and I was left with the feeling that I didn’t get to say hello to everybody. (The event) always feels like it ends too quickly.

Nina

That’s sad, but maybe it leaves room for afterparties too?

Aslak

Definitely! A big part of the weekend is looking for an afterparty. You know, sometimes it’s -40 degrees celsius and people are walking for kilometers in Jokkmokk trying to find a party.

Nina

So you will come back next year?

Aslak

Yeah, of course. I’m already planning it.

Nina

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Evelina Solsten

The reindeer have always been a part of me and my life. I belong to the Tåssåsen Sámi village where I grew up herding reindeer. This is also what I want to continue doing in the future.

Nina

Why did you choose to continue in your father’s footsteps? Why is this so important to you?

Evelina

The reindeer is our heritage. The language revolves around reindeer. Our belief systems, that were banned with the Christianization of Sweden, revolve around the reindeer. Craftsmanship is dependent on the reindeer—(we) get (our) materials from the reindeer. It is thanks to the reindeer that my ancestors survived; they provided food, clothing and help. So a promise was made between the reindeer and the herder—in exchange for food and clothing, we will protect, love, and take care of you. Through the difficult times, our love for the reindeer has become a motivation to keep fighting. In some moments (we) may (feel that we are) not able to fight for (ourselves), but then (we) remember that, “(we) have to fight  for the reindeer.”  When the reindeer feel good, we feel good.

 

Now, there has been talk that they want a wind farm in the area where my family and I have our reindeer for winter grazing. This would mean that I would never be able to be in those areas with our reindeer. A wind turbine causes the reindeer to lose much of their instincts; they do not notice predators and many other things.

“It is thanks to the reindeer that my ancestors survived; they provided food, clothing and help.”

Evelina Solsten

Sámi leader, Tåssåsens Sameby, Glen, Jämtland, Swedish side of Sápmi

Nina

You have shared much of this on your social media.  What motivated you to want to share this knowledge with others?

Evelina

I’ve missed having someone to relate to as a role model, (and social media helps with that). I couldn’t relate to other people my age.  After summer break, when my classmates talked about what they did during their time off, I would speak about calf marking. And then also, I have (experienced) prejudice and hatred against the Sámi my whole life—people saying “You bastards have nothing to do here, you are an unnecessary people who should not exist.”

Nina

It is very strong of you to continue to spread awareness about this. Do you feel a responsibility for future generations?

Evelina

There is always a risk that we will lose everything. The governments are not protecting us. The fear is always present: “If I don’t have the strength to fight, then our traditions will disappear with me.”

 

I want to honor my older relatives. I think a lot about my grandmother who experienced a lot of hardship because she was a woman and a Sámi person. But she is the one who preserved (our) language. I don’t want her resilience to have been in vain. I also feel a responsibility for my future children, (and so) I want to preserve the Sámi culture. I love reindeer herding and I would never want to do anything else.

Nina

Tell me about yourself.

Mihkkal Haetta

I’m Juhán Issáha Roberta -ja Stuor-Isku Rávnná Mihkkal Mihkkal Hætta . I come from Guovdageaidnu, (also known as) Kautokeino in Norwegian. My family is from this place and we’ve always lived here as far back as we know. I feel lucky to have been raised here with the culture and language so close to me; (to be a)  part of the community without doubting my place.  I’m a filmmaker and I have my reindeer mark, so I am a reindeer herder, too.  For me, the land is where I get my power and my inspiration. My mental health goes up and down (in accordance) with how the land feels.

Nina

It’s part of you. I’ve been inspired by the work you and Elle Rávdná are doing. Can you share about the Fosen case and the action you took outside the Norwegian parliament?

Mihkkal

Yes. There are 151 illegal wind turbines built on the grazing lands of the Sámi people in the Fosen area in southern Sápmi. The Supreme Court of Norway ruled that those wind turbines were never supposed to be built in the first place because they violate Sámi rights. There are only a few thousand South Sámi speakers and one of the only—if not the onlyarena where they can speak Southern Sámi is at reindeer herding. Because of the windmills, the reindeer will not be able to survive. In this way, the windmills are also killing the South Sámi culture and language.

 

Last year, we organized a protest together inside The Ministry of Energy with Norske Samers Riksforbund Youth and Natur og Ungdom. We were just falling asleep when the police came in the night and carried us out. We were taken to the police station and as soon as we were released, we came right back and started a five-day protest outside different ministries around Oslo. But still, nothing happened. So, when it was approaching 700 days since the Supreme Court ruled the windmills illegal, we decided to set up a lavvu, a teepee, outside the Norwegian Parliament. I lived there for five weeks until others joined me, and then we went inside the parliament to start a yoik (traditional song) protest. We yoiked all the power yoiks. We yoiked the wolf as the Minister of Petroleum and Energy. It was very powerful.

“When you’re young you’re not supposed to deal with these big issues, but when it’s about our future as a people we have to. No one else will do it for us.”

Mihkkal Haetta

Sámi leader, Guovdageaidnu, Inner Finnmark, Norwegian side of Sápmi

Nina

This is inspiring for Indigenous youth all around the world. It takes a lot of courage. The people of the area where you’re from have a long history of resistance, like the Alta uprising in the 1970s. Do you feel inspired by the people before you who resisted?

Mihkkal

Definitely. The Alta uprising and their civil obedience inspired our protest—like the way they set up their lavvu. Our protest was a continuation of that protest. We are still fighting for our land rights. And the protest we organized one year ago, sparked the biggest civil disobedience protest (in Norway) since the Alta case.

Nina

There’s this huge burden placed on Indigenous youth to not only defend our identity, land, culture, but to also  take on climate change. How do you deal with this?

Mihkkal

I feel my youth is being taken away from me. When you’re young you’re not supposed to deal with these big issues, but when it’s about our future as a people we have to. No one else will do it for us. So, we use our youthful energy to protest. We do it for the next generations. 

 

The Fosen case has taken a lot of energy from me, so I have to remember to rest. Coming from Guovdageaidnu where we don’t have to question our identity, where we can be proud Sámi, we can support those in the South. But we also need allies! 

Nina

That’s beautiful. You draw inspiration and strength from the land and community around you, so you can support relatives and friends in other areas that are struggling. The Jokkmokk market is also a gathering place for Sámi people. How’s your time here been?

Mihkkal

This is my first time in Jokkmokk, so it’s really special. With the borders, we lose connection with the rest of Sapmi (in) the Swedish and the Finnish side. This is a great spot to hear about the issues (people are experiencing) on those sides of the border. Also, you can dance, have fun, hang out with your friends, gather energy, and restore the batteries to take the fight onwards.

Nina

What is the legacy that you want to leave for future generations?

Mihkkal

As a filmmaker, I want people to draw inspiration from my films. I want art to continue to thrive in Sapmi through film; through the yoik; through everything. As an activist, I want to achieve that my children and grandchildren don’t have to fight; that they can just be, and not have to justify their existence. That they can just be Sámi.

Nina

That’s powerful, and also very heartbreaking at the same time—that you still have to justify your existence. Thank you so much for your time and everything that you’ve shared.

Nina

How would you introduce yourself?

Sofia Jannok

Who I am depends on who is asking. If it is you asking, or someone who is initiated, I am Mihkkal Biera Lásse, Ella-Britte, Máret Sofia. (My name) mentions (my) grandfather, my mother, and lastly my name. I am from the Sámi village Seidegava in Luokta-Mávasreindeer herding district. Our central tundra is Árvas. 

 

But officially, I am Sofia Jannok, an artist and songwriter, (but) that’s probably what I relate to the least.

Nina

What is your relationship to the land, the forest, and the tundra?

Sofia

It is my home. And home is not just a building or a place. It is the whole wide area where my family and my relatives move around with our reindeer as one big family.  The land is like family. Here, everything has a name. I don’t say that I go out into nature; I name where I’m going because the smallest cold spring, small lake or marsh has a name. We are an extension of our surroundings and they are an extension of us. But I feel that we humans are definitely subordinate. The land is always here, but we humans come and go. 

 

This is why, when a threat arises against the home, it becomes very personal. It encroaches on my safety, and everything I know, everything I am, everything I stand for, and everything I care about. Our history and all our stories lay in these lands, they live on here.

Nina

What do you think about the word “nature?”

Sofia

We never talk about “nature” at home. We don’t talk about it because we are nature. When people say that they are protecting nature, they are creating a distance between themselves and “nature.” Whereas with us, we are not separate from each other. As I said, each place has a name. In (the) Sámi language, we have at least 300 words to describe snow. Lumping everything (under the term) “nature” is so anonymous. For us, the surroundings and the land are not anonymous. We know exactly where to go, what to watch out for, where there is good fish, what time of the year and where grandma picks the cloudberries. Everything.

 

I think this is what makes me feel that the fight for the environment is so different within the Indigenous world (compared to) outside; (we have) such different ways of relating to the land. I have heard in the environmental movement that it is we, humans, that are the biggest threat to nature. But I have a completely different perspective on this. If you believe that you are separate from nature, you have obviously been fooled. Because it is completely impossible. We are flesh and blood. Earth is where we come from and it is to where we go back to.

Nina

Yes, it really is. The Swedish and English languages are so limiting when talking about nature. There are many different ways to express yourself—and one of your ways has been through music, through the yoik, the traditional Sámi song. How did you find your voice through music?

Sofia

Now that I have lived for a while, I begin to see that I did not choose this path, but that the voice is a gift that I have to take care of. My grandmother told me when I was younger, “You have been given the voice.” She belonged to the generation that had been taught that juoigan, yoiking, was forbidden and sinful. She also told me that her mother yoiked when she was young. However, after they were forcibly displaced and relocated from their ancestral lands, she stopped.

 

Sometimes I think I am meant to carry on my great- grandmother’s voice. I never met her, but I’ve started to think this because it’s not something I chose, it just happened. I was lucky enough to grow up in Jiellevárre where my mother and other strong women made sure that a Sámi preschool had opened, located next to the Sámi school where my father and other elders went to. There, I was surrounded by yoiking. I started singing for the public when I was 11 years old.

 

This one time on Swedish television I was asked for the first time by a presenter: How does it feel to be Sámi? I remember thinking, What does he mean? So, I replied: How does it feel to be Swedish?

“The fact that we even exist is a revolution. The fact that we are still breathing today, is an act of rebellion.”

Sofia Jannok

Artist, Actress, and Activist, Arvas group of Luokta-Mávas Sámi reindeer herding district

Nina

You have been very involved in the fight against state-owned Sveaskog forest company (which is the largest forest owner in Sweden) and the mine up in Gállok. What is at stake?

Sofia

Yes. I have become a mother quite recently, and I have a really hard time talking about this—I feel so incredibly sad. 

 

Swedish forestry has been completely disastrous. It started 70 years ago when they started with nasty clear-cutting and the destruction of old growth forests. Today, there is very little grazing land left for the reindeer to live on. What is at stake is everything. Reindeer cannot live without pasture. And the reindeer have been our lifeblood because as long as the reindeer can live in this barren north, so can we. They have been our protectors. Mother always says, “They can do whatever they want. As long as the reindeer can live, so can we.”

 

At the same time as the fight against Europe’s largest forest company who have also planted invasive tree species that they refuse to take down, we found out that they (the government) want to (plan) for yet another mine. It’s so sad, I can’t even talk about this. I feel since I’ve become a mother, I should really be on the barricades even more. But I just feel so sad. I want to protect my little son and I want him to have a close relationship with the water, with the forests, with the tundra. I want him to have a safe upbringing.

 

The problem is that it never ends. It is going at a breathtaking pace now and what scares me the most is that, now, it is being done in the name of the “sacred climate.” It’s like a new wave of colonization. My grandfather would have cried blood if he saw this. Now everything must be destroyed in the name of the green transition. All these lands must bear the conscience of the whole world. “Let’s destroy everything to save nature.” 

Nina

Do you feel that the reindeer is a symbol of hope?

Sofia

As long as the lands give birth to the reindeer, we will survive. 

 

They’ve been trying for so long to wipe us out, but haven’t succeeded. We are tough like the mountain birches that cling to the edge of the mountain. Our roots are so deeply rooted in the Earth that they cannot be wiped out. And in those roots, are the roots of our foremothers. The fact that we even exist is a revolution. The fact that we are still breathing today, is an act of rebellion.

Nina

What legacy would you like to leave to the world and future generations?

Sofia

I wish that there is no trace of me when I leave this world. My music may remain, but the tundra must still be intact without any trace of us. This is the most valuable thing I can offer to future generations.

Nina

What have you appreciated about the Jokkmokk market?

Sofia

It is that you are here, Nina. I’m not even kidding. I met my family, of course, that is important. One thing about Jokkmokk’s market is meeting people, and meeting with you again. There is something incredibly empowering and hopeful about these ties that form between us. Reflecting weather, as Indigenous sisters and brothers. We can feel vulnerable and small in this “big society,” but it strengthens us to see each other again. Now, we have known each other for almost 10 years and it feels incredibly nourishing to be able to see your own reflection in another Indigenous sister.

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