Adjust the text

Interview: Indigenous Scandinavian Sami People Tell Stories of Resilience and Hope


Dr. Lena Aléx

Sami people have lived in the Artic region of the Scandinavian countries for thousands of years. Traditionally, the Sami have organized their lives around the movement of reindeer herds.

Today approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Swedish Sami maintain their rich culture while being part of Swedish society.

What can we learn from the Sami about the human journey, and the many ways of growing old in a multicultural world?

Lena Aléx at Umeå University in Sweden explored these questions in her study of old Sami women.

The findings, published in the September, 2016 issue of Ageing and Society, are mind-opening and uplifting.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Lena Aléx in Umeå, Sweden.

Ruth Dempsey: Can you give me a brief description of the women in your study?

Lena Aléx: I interviewed nine Sami women who had experiences living in an indigenous Sami culture, and in a "roadless land" in the north of Sweden.

I met the women in their own homes over a period of two years. They ranged in age from 75 to 90. Three of the women were married and six were widows.

RD: Like Canada's indigenous peoples, the Swedish Sami have lived through a period of forced assimilation. What did this mean for the Sami?

LA: The women described difficult experiences when they had to live in special Sami boarding schools, far away from home. They were forbidden to speak their mother tongue.

Because these women spoke mostly Swedish, their children did not learn to speak their Sami language

They also described Swedish laws that forced reindeer owners to relocate, and reduced the possibilities for reindeer herding.

RD: How did they cope?

LA: The women talked about three things, in particular, that made a difference.

The first is feeling connected. For these Sami women, this meant living in a forceful family that nourished their feelings of being culturally special.

For instance, one woman recalled wearing the traditional Sami dress as a child. "We were hardly ever ill," she said, "despite the biting cold."

Spirituality fostered feelings of connectedness. The women described Sami hospitality and interest in people. Another said Christianity had encouraged a sense of solidarity towards others: "You never know who you are meeting, and if God passes, he walks in disguise."

And they spoke passionately of living close to the reindeer and the mountains. "Without the reindeer you were poor, both in spirit and soul," one woman observed. "Yes, they belonged to our lives."

RD: A feeling of independence was also important…

LA: That's right. Feeling independent meant being economically secure. They stressed the importance of having worked and earned their own money.

Five of the women had been reindeer owners, including one who had been a herder.

Fluency in the Swedish language meant they could work in mainstream society. Several told me that they had held jobs within Swedish society, two as teachers. One had several jobs in the south of Sweden, and one worked in a church as a young woman.

In old age, they appeared to be financially secure.

The women also talked about being on an equal footing with Sami men.

However, they noted that their work serving the herders, caring for children and making crafts was less highly regarded. For instance, sons who worked with herding had more opportunities to own reindeer because men were viewed as the breadwinner in the family.

One woman, reflecting on what life might have been if she had been born a boy, remarked with a laugh: "Yes, If I had been born a boy, I'd had been able to make a profit."

RD: The third factor was the women's ability to extract meaning from their everyday lives. Can you give me an example?

LA: The women derived meaning from sharing their stories. Several spoke poetically of belonging to the reindeer culture and the ancient Sami society.

For instance, one woman described standing outside the tepee as a young girl and looking at the stars and hearing the sound of the reindeer pushing their antlers against one another.

Another recalled being selected in her youth to meet the Swedish royal family.

Also, herding remained an important source of meaning for these old people. They compared herding from ancient days with herding today.

One woman had recently joined the herders to round up and sort out the reindeer.

Those too old to follow the reindeer, still longed for the mountains. "Yes, you know the mountains were very desirable in the summer time for migratory Sami," one woman said. "Yes, it is a longing. It is a terrible longing … a desire."

For relaxation, the women created Sami arts and crafts. Crafting was also a way to express their creativity, and pass their cultural traditions on to their children and grandchildren. The women found immense satisfaction in using their mother tongue, which they had long been forbidden to speak. "It is so wonderful. You have no idea," one woman remarked.

RD: What about barriers to their well-being?

LA: As I mentioned earlier, the women were forbidden to speak their language and compelled to attend boarding schools. They recalled weeping bitter tears when their parents were forced to leave them at the school.

These separations marked their lives and caused deep pain. One woman stated that this was a time when it was considered dirty and degrading to be a Sami.

Also, Swedish laws forced reindeer owners to move from their lands, resulting in great hardship.

One woman who did not own reindeer felt unfairly treated both by reindeer-owning Sami and the government. Later in life, she wanted to use her parents' cottage in the mountains, but neither the Swedish government nor the Sami village would allow it.

When the women talked about health, they stressed that they had been healthy and came from forceful families; yet they disclosed Tuberculosis had shadowed their lives. Some of their brothers and sisters had died from the disease. Some seemed to find it difficult to even mention TB, emphasizing they had not been carriers of the disease.

RD: So what do you take away from your study?

LA: There are a couple of things that stand out for me.

These old people seem to find sharing their stories an important source of resilience, and a way to uphold their cultural identity.

The women emphasized the importance of family. But they also spoke of forging working lives of their own as reindeer owners, crafters, teachers or employees in other parts of Sweden. This was unusual for women born in this region, at this time. Few rural women in the north of Sweden had access to education. Most did domestic work.

The women also stressed that gender equality had always been important in Sami society. I found this astonishing. I expect they may have been influenced by debates advocating gender equality in Swedish society as well as the thinking of young, gender conscious Sami women.

The old people in our study were upbeat about their lives, despite years of discrimination and coercion by the Swedish state. As one woman remarked, "I have lived a happy and good life in a mix of two cultures."

RD: What is the status of the Sami in Sweden today?

LA: Today there are many young and middle aged people in various parts of Sweden claiming their Sami identity.

In the past, people who belonged to a herding district or spoke a Sami language was recognized as a Sami. In 2000, this was changed. Today, a person who has a Sami relationship and who wishes to be defined this way, is identified as a Sami.

Sami children have the right to be taught their mother tongue in school. Also, television news is presented in the Sami language. Older adults are seeking to have Sami-speaking staff in nursing homes.

However, reindeer herding, which remains integral to the Sami way of life, is threatened by mining projects, which reduce pasture for the reindeer herds.