ESCAPE FROM OBLIVION
When I arrived in Jokkmokk for the first time autumn had just started. It was getting cold. At first sight, there were no clues that I had stepped into the cultural heart of Sápmi, the very sacred territory where a small indigenous nation had fought for its rights over several centuries. In order to look deeper, I decided to start at Ájtte, Swedish Mountain and Sami Museum, established in 1989. Everything is arranged here to tell the visitor a story about the surrounding wetlands, forests and mountains. It is a story of survival of indigenous people and settlers within a harsh environment exposed to a severe climate. Some visitors who seek more details also decide to conduct research of their own in the unique collections of natural and social history literature in Ája, Ájtte’s archive and library.
Books and exhibitions are excellent ways to learn about the region, but I felt the real living pulse of Jokkmokk inside the local workshops. Following tradition, local handicraft artists patiently transform reindeer antlers, hides and pelts, birch burls, roots and wood, as well as iron, silver and wool into exquisite utility goods and works of art, Sami Duodji. At their warm and modern homes women produce traditional Sami Costumes, gákti, still used as festive and Sunday clothes. Almost every traditional family in the Jokkmokk area is engaged in some kind of handicraft production for their private use or as a convenient way to boost their income. Only the very best artists can make a living from handcrafting, especially when they have to compete with imported merchandise sold as original Sami products. An urgent need to protect the genuine Duodj was identified and local craftsmen, in association with the private Sami Education Centre in Jokkmokk, have introduced a proof of authenticity. The centre, founded in 1942 as a high school, provides education in reindeer husbandry, traditional cuisine and handicraft, which can be, these days, combined with the official Swedish high school programme. Sami in Sweden were not allowed to organize their own education until 1981, so the Sami Education Centre has had a central role in the preservation of Sami heritage, traditional values and knowledge, saving them from oblivion.
I came back to Jokkmokk just before the Winter Market. The streets were completely transformed. Each and every soul was getting ready for the winter festival, one of the year’s most festive celebrations. Right in the middle of the town, the hawkers were setting up their stalls, chefs cooked in the streets and Sami of all ages proudly walked around wearing colourful gákti. The traditional costumes did not prevent anyone arriving to the market in their modern cars, recording the event with the latest camera model or using their mobile phones. Immediately it became clear that much of Sami life is very modern, but strongly intertwined with tradition. This three day market, that takes place on the first weekend of each February, attracts 30 000 visitors. To entertain their guests, locals prepare numerous cultural events, exhibitions and attractions. One of the most genuine events turns out to be the evening Sami dance, an opportunity for the young Sami to relax and meet potential partners and spouses. The live band was playing modern music. The red, blue, yellow and green colours of their gákti at one moment seemed to merge rhythmically and the next the colours were vibrating wildly under the dimmed lights, disregarding completely the rhythm of the music. While admiring their traditional kolts, I was talking to the dancers. They turned out to be incredibly familiar with one another, approachable and responsive. I learned that they take great pride and joy in everything Sami and especially their harmonious relationship with the reindeer.
During the two final days of the market, on the frozen surface of Lake Talvatis, tourists can take part in the Reindeer Race. The organizers use untamed reindeer to pull a couple of excitement-seeking tourists on a sledge round a race circuit - a made-up activity that was never originally performed by Sami. Much more authentic is the Reindeer Caravan, driven by the locally well known Per Kuhmunen and his family members, all dressed up in traditional costumes. The caravan consists of several reindeer pulling Gieris, wooden banana-shaped sledges used to transport personal belongings and people,and passes through the centre of Jokkmokk each day of the market just around noon. Not surprisingly, tourists swarm around the caravan wanting the promised instant experience of the life in the north. What they actually get is a completely different story. It can be most closely compared with standing in the middle of a crowd during a rush hour in any major city in the world, only here everyone is snapping with their cameras. Meanwhile, the reindeer herders, Stefan Länta and his relative Jon-Mikko, live real everyday life tracing the runaway reindeer. This was where I wanted to be, so I left to reunite with them.
Despite the modernization and urbanization, most of Jokkmokk’s countryside, well known for its beauty, has remained, so far, relatively unspoiled. I was fortunate enough to be standing there on the surface of a frozen pond surrounded by nothing but forest. At one point, the silence was broken by the distant sound of a snowmobile engine. Soon afterwards, a hundred or so reindeer were racing down a nearby steep slope, and Stefan and Jon-Mikko were following closely behind. This was the moment that I will remember about modern reindeer herding. It is not just a job but a way of life. Modern technology made it more efficient and certain. What remains uncertain are the new health risks affecting snowmobile drivers, the sustainability of intensified reindeer herding, the unsettled land rights between Sami and forest owners, and the effects that global climate change may have on the Arctic Circle.