Knowing the ‘Sami’ dimension of Sweden


Before a couple of weeks, when I was in Umeå for the conference on investigative journalism, I also had the opportunity to explore another dimension of Sweden. A dimension that one does not get to experience when constrained within big Southern/lateral cities like Gothenburg. Umeå, with its European cultural capital title for 2014, also showcases life and culture of the indigenous population living in the Arctic circle. Yes, the people living way up North. This populace lives in the polar region that is shared between the Nordic countries – Sweden, Norway and Finland, and also Russia.

The indigenous people are called the Sami people. Amusingly, the word Sami in my mother-tongue Tamil translates to God. The tourist version of the Sami family in our trip were as expected, amused at this coincidence.

The indigenous people primarily rear reindeer. Their survival and livelihood, both depend heavily on these animals. Meat processing, hide-based products and anything that can be tangibly manufactured out of reindeer is their small scale enterprise.

The relation between the mainland Swedes and Sami people though seems to have been under tension for sometime now. After a quick round of checking I was made aware of the conflict of interest between the Sami people and the Swedes.

Sweden, in the last century, and even now is heavily dependent on its mining industry. But, most of the mines happen to be far up North. For instance, Kiruna, the northen most town of Sweden is all but a heavy mining city. As one moves northwards, the territory historically also has been wandered by the Sami people to rear their herds of reindeer, and hence they claim ownership, in a sense. With industrialisation and increasing mining, the Sami people have found it necessary to resist the ‘encroachment’ of their territory.

The Sami resistance is a movement that captures this conflict of interest.

Sami Resistance

Sami Resistance

Only couple of interactions and a few days cannot reveal the scenario in its entirety. Nonetheless, this interaction has been an interesting lead to know some more nuances of Sweden.

Getting back to the Sami culture, as mentioned earlier everything about their lives revolves around reindeer. The food, the hides used inside their shanties and fables – everything. It is in a way nostalgic to see people who in many ways reflect the background from which many of us have grown out.

Another exciting part of the Sami tradition is the ‘joik‘(or yoik). It is traditional Sami song, which has more significance than simply being traditional singing. The Sami guide who was with us, in fact sang out his ‘unique’ name in joik. He claimed that although their official names today might be the commonly used ones, but their joik names, which majority of the Sami descendants today feel uncomfortable to sport, are long, about ten seconds long song and unique to an individual!

During the interaction, of course we had to taste the traditional Sami food, which was nothing to complain about – I in fact relished it – reindeer meat stew, traditional bread with lingonberry juice. The stand-out item though was coffee with cheese and salted meat, which we were told was carried by Sami people when they would go out shepherding their reindeers.

Sami food and coffee

Sami food and coffee

We missed out on the dog-sledge ride which is another typical Sami aspect of life, but I shall be returning up North later this year to catch the Northern lights and will then have to get on the dog-sledges. I still cannot quite fathom the hardships they might have faced, to have survived with an efficient lifestyle that now sails them through the harsh winters far up north.