THE SAMI SOCIETY
The Sami have long lived in the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula. A question that is often asked is: where do the Sami come from? The answer which can be given today is that the ancestors of the Sami are to be found among the hunting and trapping people who lived in the Arctic area of the Scandinavian countries during prehistoric times.
Today the Sami live in four countries: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. The Sami are an ethnic minority and the indigenous people of these countries. The area the Sami inhabited, today called Sápmi, stretches from Idre in Dalarna in the south, to the Kola Peninsula in Russia to the northeast.
The number of Sami is estimated at 50,000 – 75,000, of which 15,000 – 20,000 are in Sweden, 30,000 – 50,000 in Norway, and 4,000 – 5,000 in Finland as well as around 2,000 in Russia. In the past few decades emigration away from Sami core homelands has been extensive, resulting in that 20% of Samis now live outside of the area.
Sweden’s far north has always been a land apart, where settlements are the exception rather than the rule. Blanketed by forests and dissected by clear cold rivers, little disturbs the tranquil peace of the land located nearly one thousand kilometres north of Stockholm – that is, until the first weekend of February each year.
Dubbed the world’s “coldest market” on account of the temperatures which can plunge as low as minus thirty-five, tens of thousands of people from all across this vast region as well as further a field descend upon the tiny town of Jokkmokk, located just above the Arctic Circle, for the annual winter market, or Jokkmokks marknad as it is known in Swedish.
Market stalls bustle during the three days of intense trading, in which all manner of hides and furs and other non-furry goods are sold, so continuing a tradition that spans over four hundred years. While wearing fur may have gone out of fashion elsewhere in Sweden, here in the far north it is not a question of choice but a necessity against the frigid cold, and where hunting constitutes a virtual birthright.
Meanwhile, for cold and weary shoppers, traditional Sami tents or lávvu are the places where cups of hot coffee are proffered whilst numb hands are warmed over a birch fire. For those seeking greater sustenance, reindeer and even bear meat adorn the menus of the local eateries.
The annual event is more than just a market, however. Jokkmokk is the cultural capital of the Swedish Sami – comprising Europe’s only indigenous population – and the market represents an opportunity to showcase their culture, with the vivid colours of their traditional dress replete with reindeer-fur boots easily distinguishing the locals from the tourists. Attractions include husky sledding on the frozen lake behind the town, traditional Sami yoik singing by promising young artists and even a chance to discuss politics with representatives of the Sami parliament. Indeed, it is easy to forget that one is still in Sweden, until one spots that the same nationwide state-run alcohol store and ICA supermarket have penetrated this remote corner of the country – except that for shopping errands it is more convenient to get around using a kick-sledge.
The resurgence of Sami pride in their heritage and identity is being led by its youth who are rediscovering and reinterpreting their culture through music, theatre and handicrafts. A Sami education college stands in the centre of town where one can learn the traditional art of duodji – Sami handicrafts – or even study the Sami language, which bears some resemblances to Finnish. For many of the college’s students – both past and present – the market is the moment of the year they have been waiting for: to show off their intricate handicrafts and designer ware. Exquisite but expensive, glass cabinets house some of their latest creations as they would do a Gucci watch.
The reindeer race is one of the highlights on the final day of the market, which sees the snorting animals hurtle around a circuit at break-neck speed pulling a sleigh and occupant behind them. Competitors vie for the fastest time while facing the danger of being flung into the nylon netting.
After three days of frenetic activity, the stalls are dismantled and instead the silence of nature pervades the town’s streets once again. “We enjoy the market every year”, explains a local resident, “but we also enjoy the peace when it’s over”.
While the majority no longer herd reindeer like their forebears, Sami identity is adapting to the future while maintaining its distinctiveness. It would thus seem that, unlike for many other indigenous peoples across the world, the outlook for the Sami and their culture is positive.