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In Frozen North, Ancient Culture Trades In Its Sleighs for Suzukis

Scandinavia: Until recently they were nomadic herders, but today's Sami live in modern towns and commute to their reindeer--that is, when they keep herds at all.


KAUTOKEINO, Norway — When Per Johansen Eira heads out to tend his reindeer, he's a living embodiment of the changes that some of his fellow Sami fear have swept their ancient culture too fast.

Like generations of Sami before him, he spends his nights on the tundra in a tepee, but he pulls the tent's log poles behind a shiny new Suzuki four-wheeler rather than a reindeer.

"Nobody uses reindeer anymore," says Eira, 62, who lives in a modern house when he's not off herding. "Sometimes I miss the old ways, but it's much easier now."

For more than 9,000 years, the Sami--the name they prefer to Lapps--led nomadic lives tied to reindeer. They moved through the arctic with their flocks and depended on reindeer for food, clothing, transport--and even objects of religious worship.

Today, of the estimated 70,000 Sami scattered across Norway, Sweden, Finland and northwestern Russia, only about 10% still herd reindeer. And, thanks to year-round roads, snowmobiles and other modern amenities, most of those who do herd live in towns and commute to their flocks.

"Sami culture has probably changed more in the past 30 years than it did in all the preceding centuries," says Nils Oskal, a professor at Sami College in Kautokeino. '

The indigenous people of Europe's arctic have traded reindeer sleighs for snowmobiles, tents for houses, reindeer pelts for synthetic fibers, tepees for permanent houses and--when they can--herding for modern jobs.


Despite the changes, places like Kautokeino, a village of 3,000 that is 90% Sami, can still be a shock to ethnic Scandinavians, who find they understand neither the language nor the culture of towns in their own countries.

"When I moved here I thought Sami were Norwegians. That was very, very wrong. They are fundamentally different," says Line Henriksen, a Norwegian who moved to Kautokeino a year ago.

The Sami language is distantly related to Finnish and Estonian, with three distinct branches that even among Sami are mutually unintelligible.

Sami are much more strongly family-oriented than their Scandinavian countrymen. A typical Norwegian's house is decorated with paintings and other artworks; Sami houses are filled with photos of family--great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles.

Clan hostilities also are pronounced among Sami, who mainly live in inland areas, while most Scandinavians in the region live along the coasts.

The archetypal Sami is smaller than Nordic people, with darker hair and eyes, although physical differences are blurred in many cases after generations of "Scandinavianization."

Coping with the modern world has proved tough for Kautokeino, which just 20 years ago had little contact with outsiders. There are too many reindeer, too little land and too few modern jobs.

Unemployment sometimes hits 17% in Kautokeino and Karasjok, the main Sami cities of Norway's arctic. The national jobless rate for Norway is about one-fifth that.


On the outskirts of Kautokeino, Ole Pulk, 62, has found a new job--catering to tourists. He stands outside a Sami tepee, wearing a colorful traditional costume. He sells reindeer skins and homemade trinkets, which hang from a rough log frame.

"I miss it," Pulk says of his early years as a herder. "Before, there were no roads, no snowmobiles. You had to walk into the mountains and carry a pack. It was heavy. It was cold to sleep on the ground. It was fun in the old days. Now herding is just driving to the herds and driving out on snowmobiles."

One of the few things that hasn't changed is the resentment, even hatred, felt between some Sami and some Scandinavians.

For two centuries, the Nordic governments tried to turn Sami into Scandinavians. The herder culture was discouraged, their religion banned and the Sami language forbidden in schools well into the 1960s.

"I heard from my teachers that there was no point in learning Sami because it would be a dead language in a few years," says Dan Robert Larsen.

Twenty years later, at age 35, Larsen is the editor of the Sami-language newspaper Min Aigi in Karasjok.

King Harald V of Norway took a rare step on Oct. 7 when he publicly apologized to the Sami for the attempt to wipe out their culture. "We must apologize for the injustice the Norwegian state once imposed on the Sami people through policies of Norwegianization," he said.

With the reversal of repressive policies in recent decades, the Sami have made giant strides as an indigenous people, gaining their own parliament, schools, institutions and special protection of their ancient culture.

Now, on the other side, some Nordics say things have gone too far. Old hatreds emerge in such things as a recent handbill, of uncertain origin, that proclaimed: "The only good Sami is a dead Sami."

In Norway's northernmost county, Finnmark, ethnic conflict flared last spring over a government commission's proposal to set up a board to manage the public lands that make up most of Finnmark, which is home to about half the country's roughly 45,000 Sami.

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