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Fallout, Modern Inroads : Lapps Struggle to Maintain Their Culture

June 27, 1987|TYLER MARSHALL | Times Staff Writer

AMMARNAS, Sweden — Outside the community center, in the Arctic summer sun, stood an array of vehicles that included pickup trucks, Volvo station wagons and an Audi with the antlers of a reindeer on the back seat.

Inside, a group of Lapp villagers had met to talk about the invisible peril that descended on them and their reindeer herds just over a year ago: radiation from the April, 1986, nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, in the Soviet Union.

The grazing lands had been so contaminated by radioactive cesium that virtually all of the 2,000 or so reindeer the community took to market last year could not be sold. This year, the animals will be taken in earlier, before they can consume great quantities of contaminated grasses from the summer grazing lands, in the hope that perhaps half can be sold.

'Still Very Afraid'

"We must stay optimistic, but we are still very afraid," said Stig Martin Persson, the reindeer breeder who served as chairman of the community center meeting.

The fear is well-founded. Except for those in the immediate area of Chernobyl, no group has been hit harder by the reactor disaster than the Lapps, the tough, resilient people of the European Arctic whose centuries-old culture has managed to survive despite the intrusions of the 20th Century.

In the days just after the disaster, heavy rains deposited strong concentrations of radioactive material on the fragile grazing lands, sowing the seeds of cultural and economic catastrophe for the Lapps (who refer to themselves as Saami in their Finno-Ugric language).

Few doubt that the loss of the reindeer herds would destroy the Lapp culture, just as surely as the end of the buffalo signaled the end of the North American Plains Indians over a century ago. The reindeer's significance is underscored by the fact that nearly a quarter of the words in the Lapps' language relate in some way to the reindeer.

'Irradiated' Reindeer

"Instead of being hunted to near extinction, like the buffalo, the reindeer has been irradiated," Jorgen Bolin, legal adviser to the Swedish National Saami Union, told a recent visitor. "There's a lot of concern the result might be the same."

Just how long the radioactivity will remain is uncertain, but most experts believe it will be many years. Government assistance in providing hay and food pellets to keep herds from feeding on radioactive lichen in the winter grazing areas has reportedly eased conditions, but only slightly.

"The level of cesium 137 (in reindeer meat) will be from 10% to 25% lower than last year," according to Prof. Gustav Ahman, a reindeer specialist at Sweden's University of Agricultural Sciences, "but it's going to be a problem for several years still." The permissible level of radioactive substances in meat varies from country to country.

The rains that carried the Chernobyl fallout fell mainly on Norway and Sweden, where roughly 85% of the Lapp population live. Last year, the Lapps received government subsidies to avoid economic collapse, and they will receive more in the years ahead. The Swedish government has already paid out the equivalent of nearly $60,000 to each Saami household engaged in herding, while Norwegian officials estimate that the disaster has cost the government $25 million so far in compensation.

For many of the recipients, the subsidies represent their total annual family incomes for last year.

Keystone of Culture

But subsidies alone are not considered likely to sustain a people who look on reindeer breeding not just as an economic necessity but as a keystone of their culture.

Many were deeply upset that some of the contaminated meat bought by the Swedish government was resold as food for mink, marten and other animals valued for their fur, not their meat.

"It is a very special but very difficult way of life," a reindeer breeder named Per-Stafan Labba said. "You cannot do it just to feed to other animals."

The impact of Chernobyl has also jarred the Lapps' sense of freedom, which once, long ago, seemed almost infinite.

"No one asked, no one explained," Labba said. "It just happened. Suddenly you realize your life is no longer your own."

Dealing with the impositions of modern life is something the Lapps have managed effectively since the 13th Century, when the first Norse and Swedish trappers ventured north into the hostile cold in search of mink and marten, for their fur. It has been a struggle ever since.

Migrants from Central Asia

The Lapps are believed to have come from Central Asia, and to have brought with them a language and heritage different from that of the Scandinavians and most Europeans. They settled in the Arctic reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and what is now the Soviet Union, in a loosely defined area still known as Lapland. The Byzantine chronicler Prokopios marveled at the ingenious method of winter travel on skis, most likely a Saami invention.

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