It is impossible to talk about the Sámi – the last indigenous people of Europe, originating from Lapland – without talking about reindeer.
They use the skin for clothing, the meat for food, the bones for medicine. Once wild, reindeer were domesticated by the Sámi thousands of years ago and allowed people to survive in a landscape so harsh that it also uniquely in Europe preserved their culture against outsiders.
Living across the north of Finland, Norway, Sweden and into Russia, the Sámi are Europe’s only remaining indigenous people,. Of the total population of some 70,000, just over 7,000 live in Finland, with 40,000 in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden and perhaps 2,000 in Russia. Their former lands – called Sápmi by them, Lapland by others, although the word “Lapp” once used to describe the people is now considered derogatory – have been broken up by national borders.
Without the reindeer, there literally would be no Sámi. While they have now abandoned the nomadic lifestyle of following their herds, and only one in ten Sámi still makes a living from them, the reindeer still roam wild. Asking a Sámi how many reindeer he has is as rude as asking anyone much they have in the bank but it is thought there are some 220,000 in Finnish Lapland alone. While predators such as bear and wolves are growing in number, the biggest threat is the loss of lichen, their sole winter diet, as the logging industry harvests too many of the older trees the moss thrives on.
Nils-Henrik Valkeapää, who I meet at a Sámi cultural center in Finnish Lapland, is possibly as Sámi as you can be. With his white hair and beard, and colorful Sámi costume, he could pass for more serious-minded Santa Claus. It turns out he was even born on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. His father acted as midwife when his mother went into labor in the wilderness while on their way to the doctor. Now a member of the Sámi parliament, he is a teacher who has spent his life trying to preserve Sámi culture and language and has seen some dark days.
“In the 1950s and the 1960s, many Sámi thought speaking even bad Finnish to their children was better than undermining their linguistic development by speaking Sámi.” he says. “Thankfully, things are much better now.”
Things are so much better now, in fact, that some Finns pass themselves off as Sámi, by wearing the traditional clothes and using the culture just to entertain tourists, a fact that causes real concern. “To be Sámi, you must be born Sámi,” he says. “You have to speak the language and you must have ancestors who are Sámi. We interact with nature in its original state. Finnish people want to conquer nature.”
He laments the changes – the “harmonization of lifestyle,” as he calls it – in the past decades as younger people become more integrated into modern Finnish society and move to the city.