ÁkhÁt mother earth
Defending their land
ÁkhÁt mother Earth PART 3
Text and photographs by Valentina Tamborra
Video by Daniele Cagnazzo

Sami: Defending their land

“You must defend me”: The shamans (Noaid or Noaidi in Sami) believe that this is the first will of Mother Earth.

It’s due to this admonition the Sami are fighting a real battle today against what is risking to harm or puzzle the place they live in and, how they like to underline, it’s the one and same for all of us. 

The most recent case is the one involving the Repparfjord where the Nussir Asa mining company tried (is still trying) to set up a copper mine. A group of activists created the Markopp Camp with the goal to block the mine building works. Between the activists there are Reindeer and Sea Sami as even Norwegians which are sensitive to the sustainability topics.

The major concerns are that the building process and the future mine waste management could destroy the habitat of the fjord menacing the biodiversity either as a fishing area or as summer reindeer grazing point. It’s a Reindeer Sami chief guiding the protest: Utsi, a man in his 60s who devoted his life at the reindeer herding. 

It’s him explaining us that this area has already been used as a mine site during the 1970s: the outcome was that the pollution killed all the fishes. Today the expected waste to be dumped into the fjord is around 20 times higher than the first mine. 

In fact, it’s just since the 2018 that the Norwegian law forbid the mining waste disposal into the fjord’s waters, but at that time Nussir ASA already had the permits. Today, thanks to the joint intervention of the activists and the Government, the construction works has been halted and they are on hold for the 2022, so far. 

During the last July Greta Thunberg, known Swedish activist for the sustainability and climate change fights, gave her support to the cause. 

One of the most important leaders of the protesters for the Repparfjord is Beaskka Niillas who is even personally involved in the curatorial management for the Sami Pavillion at the 2022 Biennale di Venezia.

Together with him there is his wife: Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska, famous traditional “joik”singer and always part of those fights defending the environment.   

She has even dedicated one of her joiks to the endangered fjord and she sings it in front of us during a grey and rainy Arctic July. Surrounded by a perfect silence, it’s like the sound is coming directly from Sara’s soul. Maybe that’s the secret of the “joik”, the traditional songs that are inspired by the nature and everything it belongs to. They are “songs of the soul” as Sara defines them “listen to the natives, we know what to do”. 

Riddu Riđđu: a little storm by the coast, from the Arctic to Venice

The Riddu Riđđu Festivàla is an international natives’ festival that takes place every year in Manndalen in the Kåfjord Municipality –  Nord-Troms. “A little storm by the coast”, that’s the meaning of Riddu Riđđu.

And it’s really like a strong wind, a real “tsunami”, the cultural awakening of this arctic people.

For over 30 years, since1991, the festival has worked to create more awareness and pride within the Sami. Today it’s an international reality and on 2009 it has received the status of national hub therefore it’s one of the 12 Norwegian festival who are granted a support by the State.

The origins of this festival trace back to 1991, when some of the young local Sami meet up for a night between friends. There starts a discussion of one of the most argued topics: awakening and the celebration of their own identity with the recognition of their roots. 

There are still many that associate the idea of being Sami with something negative, a shame. This feeling is shared by many young and elders, and many don’t know their own language. They speak just Norwegian and barely can understand the mother tongue of their grandparents.

It’s this group of young who feel the urge to give life at a real “awakening” through the art, music and the expression of their own traditions The Festival is not well received. Those young find a lot of resistance and frictions, they are mocked, seen as dreamers or fools. The boards showing the Festival are burnt, and they have been subject of sabotage actions from other Sami too. The community is divided: from one side the wish of re-discovering their past and roots, on the other side the habit of denial. 

No matter what, those young don’t quit and the Festival becomes bigger and bigger every year in numbers and scopes. The resistance towards this event weakens and the Festival becomes to receive support from the local community, audience and artists. The desire of learning the Sami language brings to Sami language classes and so the workshop for handcrafting Duodji, the traditional handcrafts tools and objects.

During the last 2017 Her Majesty The Queen of Norway, Sonja Haraldsen opened the edition. But it’s during this April 2022 that the Sami will be living another very important moment: for the first time ever they will be at the Biennale di Venezia with an entire Pavilion dedicated to their culture and history.    

The artist involved are: Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, Anders Sunna.

They all, through their art, wish to transfer a fundamental message for the Sami People: listen to the natives, they have always lived with the Earth, they know what to do. 

Political activism meets art and vice-versa. The pieces that will be taken there have all the goal to spread more environmental awareness and protection, environment considered as “home” of those arctic people that on this land they have always founded their story. 

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Sami Parliament

Just only in the 1989 a Norwegian Sami Parliament has been funded and so, recognizing their rights. It has been built in the town of Karasjok and its architecture reminds a lovvo, even if modern and avant-garde.

While since 1956 a Sami Council exists. It’s a voluntary NGO that has the goal to promote the culture, the defense of rights and interests of this people. 

The constitution of a Sami Parliament is particularly important as even the Sami shared the same grim fate of many natives around the world. Therefore, having officially their own political entity is fundamental.

The former Sami Parliament President Aili Keskitalo (Oct 2017- Oct 2021), is a strong supporter of the fight against and non-environmentally respectful modernization. We met her on last July during the Riddu Riđđu Festival and she expressed the desire that any green economy really keeps in mind the needs of the native people: “Without our environment, without our lands, without our waters we have no reason to live here, we have no reason to exist”. These are her words.

The new President, Silje Karine Muotka, backs the Aili Keskitalo ideas. Preserving their principles, the environment, their lifestyle and traditions is what is today really worrying this people. 

Julhs Silver Gallery: worlds crossings at the end of the world 

It’s 1959 when Frank and Regine founded “Juhls Silver gallery”. They come from two totally different worlds; Frank from Denmark and Regine from Germany. They don’t know each other, they never met before, but both leave their own country pushed by the wish of finding a pristine nature and a lifestyle away from the chaotic cities. 

They arrive in Kautokeino when this small village is still lost in the tundra, without paved roads and the Sami still live on their traditional lifestyle. Regine begins to works helping a family of reindeer herders and learns the art of reindeer herding.

Frank lives out of nomadic herders’ silver jewels reparation; their only precious items. It’s important to notice that none of these jewels has been made by Sami themselves, but reached them through barter. During the transhumance in fact the herders had the chance to meet other worlds and they adopted other cultures symbols and objects. Within these jewels isn’t rare to find silver spoons or Christian crosses, Bergen filigree brooches and a symbol called “solar wheel” from Siberia.

When Frank and Regine met during a rigid arctic winter a love is born and with it an art partnership which made them work together until the last days of Frank’s life who passed away on 2020. 

Together they build Juhls Silver Gallery “brick by brick”. This place begins to become a point of reference for the Sami community. Here they can repair their silver objects and deposit them when they leave for the long and tough transhumance from the tundra to the coast. Soon Frank and Regine understand they can do more than just repairing jewels, they can make new and original ones following the tastes and wishes of the Sami.  

The more work they have the more they become attracted by the endangered cultures and Jhuls Silver Gallery begins to host rare manufactures from all over the world. Inside this house “at the borders of the world” there is a wing dedicated to India, another one to Afghanistan, one more to China and so on for as many places as possible.

Regina and Frank sell the crafts and donate a portion of the proceeds to their home communities that are struggling.

Text and photographs by Valentina Tamborra
Video by Daniele Cagnazzo