In September of 2012, I left my home in Austin, Texas to spend the next year living in Sweden. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to live in such a progressive country. I thought that I’d be able to use photography and my background as an ethnographer to share elements of Swedish culture that could help amplify social perspectives on how the Swedes had become world leaders in sustainable development, egalitarianism, and global human rights. However, after arriving in Sweden and starting to learn about some of the lesser-known aspects of Swedish culture, my plans quickly changed.
I became very interested in the Sami, an indigenous group native to the Arctic Circle and inhabiting Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula - known as the area of Sápmi. By tradition, they are reindeer herders who have lived semi-nomadically in this seemingly uninhabitable region since time immemorial. In Sweden today, there are approximately 20,000 Sami with 3,000 Sami practicing reindeer herding and managing approximately 250,000 reindeer in areas scattered across the northern 40 per cent of the country (Halász 2012,183). Learning about the Sami ultimately led me to discovering an entirely different narrative about Swedish citizenship than the commonly told story of equality for all.
Although the Sami aren’t confronted with many of the socio-economic concerns that commonly challenge indigenous peoples throughout the world, such as grave health problems and severe poverty or hunger, I was surprised to learn that Sweden has been heavily criticized by the United Nations and other groups for its “failure to tackle the most pressing issues for Sami, in particular those related to land and resource rights” (Halász 2012,183).
In 1989, The United Nations adopted Convention ILO 169, the only legally binding UN document that deals exclusively with protecting the rights of indigenous peoples all over the world. Many countries have ratified this act, but Sweden, although it has signed almost all relevant conventions on human rights that the UN has set forth, has still not ratified ILO 169. In Sweden, reindeer herders have some rights to the land for reindeer husbandry, but the government maintains the power to take over the land - if it is in the national interest. This competition for land traditionally used by Sami herders spawns from many different fronts, including mining, hydropower, tourism, forestry, and wind power. It is a bewilderingly complex battle for land and resources that naively, I had not expected to find.
My first trip to Sápmi begins in the midst of a bone chilling winter. In December the sun hovers over the horizon, casting a golden light across the snow-heavy trees. It’s heaven on earth for a photographer. You see herds of reindeer and the occasional moose and can’t help but feel that you are in a place where nature is king and you are a mere guest, or even an intruder at times. In this region, the wants and needs of modern man, such as ski slopes, logging, dams, and mines, seem out of place and in juxtaposition to the majestic landscape. I would soon learn that fulfilling a growing demand for resources was leaving a heavy industrial footprint in pristine Sápmi.
I began my journey in Östra Kikkejaure, a region just about an hour’s drive west of Piteå where I met with Torkel Fahlgren, a Sami reindeer herder and chairmen of the local Sami community. Torkel invited me into his home and told me a story which illustrated the Sami way of life and how it's now threatened. He fed me coffee, bread and cheese, and my first taste of fresh reindeer meat. I had hoped to start gaining insight about the various pressing issues regarding land and resource rights. But instead Torkel told me about his life growing up as a reindeer herder. His father had taught him how to designate between different types of snow, how to herd reindeer, and most importantly, how to live in peace with nature. I was surprised at how open Torkel was in sharing his personal life with me, especially when he went on to tell the story of the day his father died.
Torkel was in the forest tending his reindeer and stopped for a fika (traditional Swedish coffee break). Looking beyond the trees, he heard something large approaching. It was a great white reindeer that stopped just a few feet from him. He was far too close for a wild reindeer and it struck Torkel that he was completely alone. The reindeer didn’t seem to fear Torkel’s presence whatsoever and he stayed so close for what felt like several minutes.
They exchanged a long stare into each others eyes such that Torkel felt as if the reindeer had something to tell him. What was that massive reindeer trying to tell him? After several moments the reindeer appeared to smile, letting Torkel know that he was on his way. Torkel, now awestruck, continued pondering the meaning of this encounter and packed his gear as he made his way to a friend’s house on the other side of the forest. He approached the door of his friend’s cabin and was greeted solemnly. His friend told Torkel to have a seat. Torkel quickly told his friend not to say a word. It all made sense now. His father had passed away. Now, he knew the meaning of the reindeer's visit.
That evening Torkel made his way back home, where his wife greeted him. She hadn’t heard the news yet, and Torkel waited to compose himself before telling her. His wife noticed his weariness and before he could say a word, she told him to have a seat and rest. When she finally called him to dinner he entered the dining room to find that she had decorated the table all in white, prepared a big dinner, and there was a white note folded and placed on his dinner plate. Torkel sat down and read the note. She was pregnant. He was going to be a father.
It took me some time to completely digest Torkel’s story. Of course it was very personal and touching, but I don’t think that I quite understood its meaning until spending more time in Sápmi. The Sami are deeply dependent on and connected to the environment, land, the weather - and to their community. The arctic region can be profoundly harsh with winter temperatures reaching -40F, deep freezes, heavy snow, low visibility, and long nights. They must rely on each other and have done so for thousands of years. Nature dominates life and the Sami consider themselves stewards of the land, preserving it as best they can for future generations just as their ancestors preserved it for them. So there is a circularity to life that comes embedded with an added sense of responsibility.
Torkel felt the timing of his father’s passing and the news of becoming a father was just as it should be. It was a continuation of life. Nature had given and now it was taking back. I realized that Torkel’s narrative was not just a story. It was a vehicle encapsulated with his views on life and death, nature and man, and the centrality of reindeer herding as a key component to his cultural and spiritual identity: his core values as a Sami.
In the moments of silence and reflection that followed, we gazed out from Torkel’s kitchen window where we could see the pilot project for Markbygden, a massive 1,100 turbine wind farm project with plans to cover 450 square kilometers on reindeer grazing land. The integrity and ecologically sustainable use of these lands is critical to the migration of reindeer and the practice of reindeer husbandry. For Torkel, the view from his window was perhaps symbolic of many unanswered questions for what lay in the future for Sami reindeer herding. It also symbolized the antithesis of his livelihood and imposing future loss of his cultural heritage as a Sami.
Contrary to what some may think, the Sami are not against sharing the resources of Sápmi with the rest of the country. In fact, some Sami support the new industries coming to the North. But, as the former president of the Sami parliament Lars Anders Baer points out:
The issue is that today’s global climate debate focuses primarily on the symptoms of climate change. From a Sami perspective this is not good enough. Our holistic approach dictates that we all have to look at the underlying causes of climate change – the processes of industrialization and globalization, our lifestyles, our consumption habits, and the continuing large-scale exploitation of natural resources (Baer 2011).
In the past, the Sami have been successful in halting developments in Sápmi areas by lodging complaints with the United Nations, as was demonstrated in 2005 when the UN intervened and ordered logging to cease in Northern Finland because of the damage it was causing to reindeer grazing pastures. Currently, the Sami Parliament is protesting the Markbygden windmill project because of lack of consultation, the disrespect of the rights of the reindeer herding communities, and the absence of will to give the Sami villages adequate compensation for loss of land and livelihoods. Further north, on the outskirts of Jokkmokk as well as in several other areas, mining exploration companies such as Beowolf (UK) and Hannans (Australia) have been making plans for open-pit mines on crucial reindeer grazing pastures. Mining in this area would leave more than 20,000 reindeers without grazing lands.The Sami are vigorously protesting this and writing letters to the United Nations in hopes to protect their livelihood, cultural heritage, and reindeer grazing lands.
In many ways, human rights issues are the zeitgeist of this decade. The situation in Sápmi is a ripple in the ocean of inequality. It’s a place where controversial matters related to human rights, equality, and climate change have met in a battle between land and culture, resources and power. The Sami have a keen understanding and awareness for nature and the land, and a holistic approach to life reaching back thousands of years. This should not go unnoticed. If we take the initiative to pause for a moment to listen to the Sami we will hear their point of view and perhaps begin to understand that land and resources aren’t just for our generation, or for the needs and desires of today, but should be preserved for all future generations to come. Just as I came to hear the profoundly universal resonance of Torkel’s story, the world stands to gain from reflection on the Sami people, Sápmi land, and the implicit contradictions between ethical and sustainable conduct, and constant development.