IT MUST be weird for many people to learn ancient, nomadic peoples still migrate across vast areas of wilderness in what is considered to be the richest and most developed region of Europe. It was for me. But it’s a fact.
I only became acquainted properly with the culture of the Sami people of Scandinavia, and Northwest Russia, through working on my novel Pedersen’s Last Dream. Before that, I had known them as Lapps from Lapland, an ill-defined nation tangled up with images of the North Pole and Santa Claus. And I’m half Norwegian. Little wonder they have come to find the term Lapp degrading and perjorative.
My preconceptions began to change while doing background research for the main protagonist of my manuscript in Tromsø Museum. It was there I began to understand a little more of the fascinating history of the Sami people and heard my first joik, the musical chanting, which reflects their surroundings and culture. What surprised me most was the similarity it bore to the music of the indigenous Navajo tribes of the Southwest region of the USA. And I also began to realise my own Scandinavian family may have had Sami links.
My relationship with Navajo culture had sprung from an interest in their textiles and baskets after dealing in tribal rugs and weavings from around the world since the 1970s. But the similarities between Native American and Sami culture didn’t stop there.
It had been surprising enough to find many Norwegian Samis still lead nomadic lives herding semi-domesticated reindeer across the tundra. Still more surprising to find they live in lavus during the long journeys, which are constructed the same way as the tipis of the nomadic Great Plains tribes of North America.
Though I’d already began to understand some of Sami culture from a visit to Røros, much further south in Sør-Trøndelag county, one year earlier, Tromsø Museum was the real starting point. It was there I realised the magic of the Samis, as I began a three month pilgrimage to discover my family roots in Hammerfest, which is about as far north as you can get in Europe.
My grandfather, Remi Planting, had been born in Hammerfest. Some names contained in old family documents suggest we might even have Sami blood, stretching back to the time the Plantings lived across the border in Finland.
The Samis of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, though sharing origins, have separate cultures distinct enough from one another to qualify as tribes. In Norway the Samis of the north are distinct from the Samis of the south.
Though many Sami have assimilated into contemporary Scandinavian and Russian society, in the frozen northern wastes, there are those still fishing for salmon and cod, or herding reindeer, more or less in the same way their ancestors did for thousands of years.
Like Native Americans, along with colonisation of their traditional lands, came discrimination. Their language and religion were banned in schools. Joiking was considered music of the devil to strict Lutherans, and Samis were made to feel ashamed of their rich heritage, even until very recently. But things have changed. In Norway Samis have had their own Parliament since 1989. In common with many Native Americans, their culture is being revived and Samis have regained their pride. Fortunately, they are not copying some of their cousins across the Big Pond, by cashing in and opening casinos while commercialising their culture way beyond the point of parody.
As with many other areas of contemporary US life, modern Native American culture has become tainted with fake spirituality. Recordings of Native American music are made more ‘authentic’ with virtual techno winds blowing across an LA studio, and ‘enhanced’ by pan flutes, echoing like they’re being played in the toilet of a vast airplane hanger. You can be pretty sure pan flutes were never played round the hogans in ancient Arizona of a night. But then record producers returning from coke-fuelled trips to Machu Piccu in Peru decided to sex things up for New Agers wanting to chill out. Due to that, I ain’t going to give you an example. However, here’s a more authentic recording of a Navajo Circle Song from 1957.
Original Sami recordings are also hard to come across, but modern Sami music is alive and well due to the fact it has yet to be commercialised on a grand scale. I was blown out by this great performance of Sami artist Mari Boine with her band recorded at the Oslo Opera House in 2009. Most of her music is very impressive and worth looking out for.
And if you got through that one, you’ll love this one from the same concert. With Mari Boine you have to go with the build up and then it all breaks loose.
Another link to Sami culture is this 55 minute documentary Last Yoik in Sami Forests produced by the Sami Council.
For more information on the Sami people and their long history go to: Important years in Sami History