• Discovering the Sami

    Sami reindeerSemen in a Sami traditional house

    A souvenir shaman drumSami art 5

    The onset of spring tends to bring with it an inherent wish for renewal, a longing to experience something different, and an eagerness for a fresh start. Certainly a holiday in Lapland, Finland, wherein one could enjoy the crispness of the Arctic Circle in the company of the indigenous Sámi people may sound fantastic and surreal. However, in reality, this ‘faraway land’ is only two flights away from our islands.

    There are several ways of reaching Lapland, one of which is to fly to Gatwick and then to Ivalo airport. High standard tourist resorts provide a varied choice of accommodation, whilst a wide range of activities are available according to the period of one’s visit due to the changing seasons.

    In this part of the world, the spring season starts at the beginning of March and finishes at the end of April. The middle of March is renowned for offering a good possibility to observe the Northern Lights as the weather is clearer and no lights are around. During mid March, the daytime lasts for nearly twelve hours, and it stretches to sixteen hours in April, leaving ample time for many activities.

    Within this remarkable landscape, one can opt to relish the opportunity to learn about the ancient indigenous Sámi culture and traditions, and to get to know better the Sámi people. Presently the Sámi population is about 75,000 and the area in which they live, stretches all the way from central Norway and Sweden, across the far North of Finland, and into the Kola Peninsula which lies in the far northwest of Russia. There are around 8,700 Sámi living in Finland and they speak three languages: Northern Sámi, Inari Sámi or Skolt Sámi. Sámi national dress varies from one region to another, identifying where the wearer’s family is from. Generally the Sámi national dress is very colourful in representation of the bright and glowing reflections and hues of nature.

    The ancient Sámi believed that everything had a spirit, even space itself, and their ancient mythology was a form of nature worship. During this distant past, these people believed that only the shaman of the village community knew how to contact their divinities. The shaman communicated with these divinities through the use of a particular drum which on its surface, made of reindeer skin, portrayed life and the universe in the past, present and future.

    The traditional Sámi livelihoods are thoroughly linked with nature. Fishing, hunting and the production of handicrafts are still significant activities. Yet the main economic occupation for the Sámi is surely reindeer herding. The Sámi people and reindeer have lived side by side for hundreds of years and this led to an extraordinary relationship between them. In fact, reindeer live in a state of semi-domestication as the herders take care of them during the part of the year when the climate gets too cold even for such sturdy animals or when there is not enough food in the forest to feed the entire reindeer herd. Once these difficulties are over, the reindeer are released back in the wild.

    There are about 200,000 reindeer in Lapland and approximately 6,500 reindeer owner-herdsmen. The round up season of the reindeer begins after the animals’ rutting period which takes place in the latter half of October. Owners identify their herds by means of a special mark which is made on the animals’ ears. In summer the reindeer are rounded so that the calves will get the same marking as their mother. Later on, in autumn, these animals are gathered once again so that they can be counted, separated, or slaughtered. Since not all reindeer are the same, the owner will be on the look out for particular qualities in his animals. The reindeer which are more tame and strong will be chosen and trained to pull sleighs, whilst the ones with the most attractive coats and healthy characteristics will be retained in order to mate and provide the best calves. A number of others will be butchered for their meat and skins.

    Reindeer have always been very important to the Sámi culture and history, and to the tourist industry. Indeed, there is rarely any waste of reindeer as the Sámi people have always been extremely resourceful and respective of nature. In fact reindeer leather is used for making clothing and accessories, hides are turned into jackets, shoes, boots, purses, cases, hats and pants, and antlers are crafted into buttons, knife handles and jewellery. Meat is prepared in several ways: salted, air-dried, warm smoked, cold smoked, roasted, boiled, fried and sauteed with butter and onions. Many of these reindeer products are found in souvenir shops, and reindeer meat can be enjoyed in restaurants, even in the form of burgers!

    For those who prefer to have a closer look at the reindeer themselves, there is the opportunity to follow the practice of the round ups. Surely, throughout the years many things have changed from the traditional way of capturing these animals since technology has now introduced the use of snow-mobiles, mobile phones, electric torches and many other gadgets which increase the efficiency of this job. This does not mean that all are happy with this situation as the elders find it quite difficult to update themselves with the often changing methods. Visitors could also choose to ride a reindeer sleigh which is guided by Sámi individuals. Often this ride will also entail a visit to a reindeer farm where tourists can explore the traditional Sámi huts and taste the hot berry juice that is cooked on a fire set up in the centre of a huge tent.

    The Sámi culture is also embellished with many narratives and legends and if one is lucky enough to meet a Sámi storyteller, it will definitely be a day to remember. However, small selections of books that are available in a number of shops will illustrate clearly some of the traditions of this indigenous culture. A lovely memoire of these people can be owned through distinct local artistic drawings such as those of popular Sámi artist, Merja Aletta Ranttila, in which she captures the charming allure of her people.

    In order to complete this rare opportunity of observing a still thriving European indigenous culture, one must also visit Sajos, the Sámi Cultural Centre that was opened in January 2012, wherein one has the chance to capture the essence of contemporary ‘Sámi land’. Moreover, for those who are interested to delve further into the history of this ancient culture, a visit to Siida, the Sámi National Museum, is a must.

    (This article was published in the Travel Section of The Sunday Times of Malta, dated 30th March 2014)

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