400 YEARS OF MARKET TRADITION
The valley of the river Lilla Luleälven, as we call it today, has for centuries been regarded as an excellent winter camp by Jon-Mikko’s forefathers, the forest Sami. Some time during the late Middle Ages, a patch of the valley placed within the river bend encompassing the northern shores of Lake Talvatis became a trading centre. The Sami appropriately named the place Jokkmokk, meaning “a bend in the river”. The Swedish King Charles IX recognized the importance of the area and decided to establish an official marketplace in 1602. Having a trading focal point in the north made it easier for the monarchy to collect taxes and gain control over the Sami economy and territory. A few years later the church was built, but Jokkmokk did not become a permanent settlement until the end of the 17th century. The Christianization of northern Scandinavia was well underway at that time. Sami shamanism was forcefully eradicated. Sacred drums, used to induce a religious trance and owned by almost every family, were burned. The Sami resisted for almost a century, practicing their sun-worshiping religion at home. At the same time, Christian missionaries were determined in their work. The Sami eventually became regular church goers and winter market days in Jokkmokk provided an opportunity for the priests to meet their parishioners who were usually spread over the vast territory of reindeer pastures.
Over the last four centuries, the Jokkmokk Winter Market has been an important event for answering essential sociopolitical questions and holding court sessions and trials. This has also been the place where the Sami minority has fought its ongoing battle for the preservation of its unique culture and identity. In Jokkmokk, as in all of Sápmi, the Sami have constantly resisted colonization. They were wrongly perceived by the Swedish authorities as nomadic people without any right to own land. Early Swedish laws defined Sami ethnicity entirely on the basis of economic activity. People were considered Sami only if they participated in traditional work, mostly reindeer herding. Sami engaged in agriculture or any other economic activities were legally and culturally assimilated as Swedes. Exposed to policies of assimilation and paternalism, nothing remained for the Sami but to helplessly observe the exploitation of natural resources and their land being divided among different Scandinavian rulers. To add insult to injury, the minority was constantly exposed to different forms of institutionalized racism. Sami had to deal with prejudice on a daily basis. Consequently, a large number of families stopped teaching their children their native language. Even during the traditional winter market in Jokkmokk, many decided not to publicly display their nationality. They were almost completely robbed of their identity.
Sami language and culture were suppressed and their rights curtailed until recently, but they have managed to prevail. Sami from the entire Sápmi region adopted a common flag in 1986 and formed Sámediggi, Sami Parliaments, in Sweden, Norway and Finland. The Parliaments are united under a common political umbrella known as the Sami Parliamentary Conference, which also includes representatives from the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Swedish government formally apologized in 1998 for the wrongs committed against the Sami. Two years later, Sami was recognized as one of Sweden’s minority languages. However, many issues remain open for future generations of Sami to tackle, mostly associated with cross-border grazing rights, whether or not Sami should pay compensation to farmers and forest owners for property damaged by reindeer herds, and establishing better control over the exploitation of natural resources in Sápmi.
GLOBAL ISSUES, LOCAL MISERY
While spending time with the reindeer herders in Jokkmokk I learned that it is considered rude to ask how many reindeer they own. Anything to do with the health of the reindeer is a taboo subject as well. One theme is particularly sensitive. At the crack of dawn on 26 April 1986, thousands of kilometres away from southern Sápmi one of four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine - then part of the Soviet Union - exploded, releasing approximately 100 times more radiation into the atmosphere than the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. Carried with the northern winds, the poisonous clouds released their contaminated rain over the reindeer pastures. Soon afterwards, scientists measured high levels of radioactivity in lichen and fungi, and consequently in the bodies of the reindeer. 30 000 animals had to be culled and buried that winter, since the meat had been pronounced unsafe for human consumption. It was a terrible blow for the local Sami economy and the reindeer herders found themselves in despair. This large-scale environmental disaster showed the vulnerability of communities of indigenous people whose livelihoods still largely depend on gifts from Mother Nature. The future seemed uncertain for a while, but the Sami have proved remarkably resilient and resourceful. They rescheduled the traditional slaughter time from late to early autumn, and thus prevented the deer from feeding on lichen. During the winter months they have started to supplement reindeer natural food with hay. The reindeer meat has become safe again. Today, a variety of reindeer meat products can be found in almost every food store in Sweden and is considered a delicacy.
The natural environment and traditional way of life within the Arctic Circle are also threatened by other global issues - climate change in particular. The constant burning of fossil fuels in power plants, vehicles and industrial facilities around the world, and the resulting release of large quantities of additional CO2 into the atmosphere, reinforces the natural greenhouse effect, which in turn induces climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown in its reports that areas within the Arctic Circle are already experiencing reductions in the thickness and extent of glaciers and ice sheets. The resulting biophysical change in the environment is most likely to affect wildlife, especially higher predators, mammals and migratory birds that are adapted to cold weather. It has been forecasted that climatic barriers to species invasions to the North are decreasing. Specific ecosystems and habitats are especially vulnerable to such invasions. Rises in temperature and changing landscapes could damage or reduce the usefulness of the existing infrastructure and thus may have an adverse effect on traditional indigenous ways of life. On the other hand, global warming may bring some benefits in the first stages of climate change. Reindeer herders are likely to witness shorter winters and better growing conditions for grasses, but those benefits will be site specific and highly variable at different locations. We can expect to see many changes affecting the traditional lifestyle in the North. Everyone that lives here will be exposed to additional stress. The historical resilience shown by the Sami as an Arctic indigenous people will be put to the test once again.
to be continued...