Monday, March 7, 2011

“Four Legs Good”: Sara Wheeler on the Sámi

Just one last post about Sara Wheeler’s new book about the Arctic, The Magnetic North, and then I’ll move on. I'm now reading Gretel Ehrlich's book about her travels in the circumpolar Arctic, In the Empire of Ice.

 In a post a week ago I talked about a likely mistake she made in her chapter on Lapland with Johan Turi, so no need to rehash that. Instead I’d like to express a little consternation at the sketchy nature of the chapter, “Four Legs Good,” and then add a few specific comments about Sámi culture.

Most of Wheeler’s hands-on knowledge of Scandinavian Sápmi seems to come from a couple of days she spent in the company of Lennart Pittja, who runs a company called Pathfinder from his home district near Gällivare, Sweden. Pittja, whose father is Sámi, is a likeable and informed man and believes strongly in providing tourists with correct information. He’s not the only Sámi to engage in tourism; he is certainly one of the best guides you could have. I, too, spent some time with Lennart Pittja and his assistant Anders, in 2004, when I was writing a long article for Slate about traveling in Sápmi, and Lennart appears in my book, The Palace of the Snow Queen. The problem I see is that Wheeler doesn’t seem to have talked to anyone else in Sápmi, but instead cobbles together a chapter about the Norwegian resistance, Johan Turi, and assorted statistics about the Sámi people from written material.

As a result, she doesn’t write anything that’s exactly wrong, but much of it lacks context and the multivoiced resonance that good journalism can provide. As an example, Wheeler writes, “A Sámi parliament of sorts does exist in Sweden, based in Kiruna, the most northerly town, but it has no constitutional status and, according to Pittja, is little more than an advisory service.”

First, of all, it is not a parliament “of sorts.” It is a parliament with elected representatives and a budget. Not every Sámi person thinks much of it but many are proud that it exists at all. It’s true that the parliament has no particular power to change Swedish government policy, but to disregard the Sámediggi (the parliament) as a symbol of autonomy seems rather disrespectful. Several generations of Sámi activists worked hard to establish its structure and demand its recognition.

If you want to look more closely at institutions that the Sámi have created in the last forty years, you would look not only at the parliaments in Norway and Sweden, but at the Sámi libraries in Karasjok and Jokkmokk, the community college in Jokkmokk, the Sami studies programs at the Swedish University of Umeå and the Norwegian University of Tromsø, at the natural history and ethnographic museums in Karasjokk, Tromsø, Jokkmokk, and, perhaps most interesting of them all, Siida in Inari, Finland, where gatherings are held regularly, and film festivals, musical events, art exhibits, and conferences all take place.

One of the things that the Swedish Sámi movement does very well, I think, is to have created material in print and online about modern Sámi lives. This material is available in English at Sápmi. The Tromsø Museum also has a wealth of information in English about the Sámi people. The Sámi have an uphill job explaining to the rest of the world that they are not all reindeer herders, do not live in tents, and do not get about in sledges drawn by reindeer. They are designers for Ikea, college professors, office managers, artists, teachers, journalists, and cab drivers. In Sweden a few years ago, I was waiting at a bus stop after getting off the ferry from Gotland and fell into a conversation with a young woman listening to her iPod. It turned out she was Sámi and an air traffic controller, originally from Gällivare (she knew Lennart Pittja).

Only ten percent or fewer of the Sámi now own reindeer. Therefore, Sámi identity rests on many different aspects of life, from certain dishes, to religion, to family memories, to music and culture—not just from the past but from a culture that is constantly being created. To write about Sámi mainly as disenfranchised herders and to cast them as only victims of land grabs and pollution is simplistic and robs the reader of a truer picture of life in the North. The Sámi have been persecuted and defamed for centuries, but they are far from dying out. Their culture has made a strong resurgence in the last decades and their resilience should be applauded. The point might also be made that the Scandinavian Sámi are also Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish citizens and, as such, have access to better health care and benefits than most people in the United States, not to mention the developing countries. A number of Sámi use their relative privilege to connect with other indigenous peoples around the world and find common cause.

To end, it’s important to also point out that Fennoscandia is quite different in geography and population than many of the places that Wheeler has visited. The entire “Northern Skullcap,” as it’s often called, is a rich mix of peoples: Finns, Norwegian-Finns, Sámi, Russians, Norwegians (even a small colony of Sri Lankans who now live in the North of Norway and work in fish factories). The fishing cultures along the coast go back many generations; these people are also affected by climate change and are responding to it. A visit to Vadsø or Hammerfest might have been an interesting counterpoint to Wheeler’s other stories of Arctic cities like Murmansk and Fairbanks.

I notice that Gretel Ehrlich doesn't have a chapter about Fennoscandia in her book, perhaps in recognition of the complexities involved in trying to write about Northern countries that have a very different cultural and economic base than the rest of the Arctic.

No comments: