Sun, May 15, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Life thaws somewhat in Europe's frozen north

THE GUARDIAN , Vestertana, Norway

The Northern Lights twinkled above us as we watched the distant grey shapes of the reindeer trudge up the valley in single file through the deep, sucking snow. Lars Mathis Gaup, the herdsman, indicated with a perfunctory wave of the hand that he wanted the snowmobile engines turned off. He was worried: The animals were hungry, stressed and confused, and progress on the 100km trek to their summer pastures was slow.

"How many reindeer do you have?" I asked.

He said he didn't know, but of course he did. I should have known better. One thing you don't ask a Sami reindeer keeper is how many animals he owns. It's tantamount to asking to see his bank statement.

In the mid-1990s most of Lars Mathis' herd died from starvation after the lichen, the reindeers' staple diet, became locked under a thick layer of ice. His economic recovery program was more imaginative than most. In addition to building up his herd, he decided to open up the little understood life of the reindeer herdsman to the wider world. He believed that diversification through low-key tourism, combined with some gentle education of the Daccu (non-Sami), was the way forward.

The 100,000 Sami spread across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia were once known as Lapps, but this word is now considered derogatory: Lapp means a patch of mending cloth and has associations with poverty. A more enlightened government in Oslo has finally recognized the rights of Europe's last indigenous people, who have their own parliament and a stronger voice in public affairs.

For a taste of how it used to be I was taken by 61-year-old Edvin to Vestertana school. It was the first time he'd been back for 49 years, even though he lives only 5km away. His hand shook as he turned the door handle of the boarding establishment he referred to as "the torture chamber." Here, along with 40 other Sami boys and girls, he'd gone through eight years of hardline Norwegian ethnic cleansing. They were beaten if they spoke their own tongue, since the aim was to kill off Sami culture.

Edvin pointed out the stain on the blackboard where he'd thrown an inkwell at the teacher. Tears rolled down his face as he showed us where, on countless occasions, he'd been hauled out of bed and caned.

"Ever since I've been half a man," he said. In the 1970s Norway closed down its brainwashing schools, and now anyone has the right to be taught in the Sami language.

But Oslo still gets it wrong. Not appreciating that the semi-nomadic life of the Sami revolves around the siida, or family clan, and that migrations necessarily cross provincial and national boundaries, it imposed grazing regulations designed for southern cattle farmers.

Its law against driving snow-mobiles off established tracks is meant for tonne-up tearaways, not working herdsmen in the frozen Arctic wastelands. There is no better place for slaughtering reindeer than in Finnmark's natural refrigerator, but the EU requires reindeer to be driven hundreds of kilometers to an abattoir.

There is local resentment, too. Last year Lars Mathis' cabin was burnt down. And, as we approached the fjord with the herd, we were met by hisses and grunts of disapproval from Norwegian fishermen. The Gaups had heard it all before.

Anne-Magritte, Lars' 20-year-old daughter, sat in her traditional lavvu tent and sang the Sami national anthem.

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