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According to the ancient Sami religion the Akhá are “The mothers”. Their names are Maderakka, Juksakka, Sarakka, Uksakka. They are the bearers of life, they decide who will give birth to a man and who to a woman. They take care of families, they live with the people of the earth, they mingle in the same spaces, yet do not show themselves to the human eye. They are the deities of nature. A Nature which dominates these vast frozen lands swept by the North winds. Spirituality and tradition, innovation and redemption of one’s roots, magic and reality. The Mother Land of a people without borders, a Earth Mother of a nomadic people.
Beyond the Arctic Circle, in the world’s far north, between Tromsø and the North Cape, there live a people with ancient roots who are deeply connected to the Earth: the Sami. In a sort of mystical solidarity, their lives follow nature’s rhythm, abiding by it every day. In truth, living in such an extreme environment, man finds himself continually challenging himself more than nature. The Sami have lived in close contact with their land for hundreds of years: a testimony to this are the engravings at the Rock of Alta, the UNESCO site of the homonymous city, in the Norwegian state of Finmark. These rocks have a composition similar to those of the Val Camonica, in Lombardy (northern Italy) , and testify that these ancient people has always lived here. Despite the Sami today being perfectly integrated within the modern lifestyle, ancient crafts, such as reindeer breeding live on, as do the whispered beliefs of shamanism.
A “route 66” of ice runs between Tromsø and the North Cape. It is the road which leads you to the northernmost part of Norway. Woods, lakes, fjords, mountains: a breathtaking scenery compelling you to stop over and over again and take in its beauty in deep breaths. Yet there is a point which is a both a passage and border. An unperceived frontier.
It is the Manndalen Valley: one of the areas which is home to the coastal Sami. A café, a gas station and a supermarket, not much else. Yet, this land is rich in history, tradition and magic. From here, by taking one of the hidden roads through the woods you will climb to where the earth becomes similar to the moon’s surface and the sky looks so near you think you can touch it: the tundra.
Golden eagles, arctic foxes, reindeer and, on the horizon, a few cabins, a fence and a few men. They are the Sami of the tundra, nomadic shepherds who dedicate themselves to breeding reindeer. Because, while this is Norway, it is also “Sápmi”. The “Sápmi” territory comprises an area which includes the borders of four states: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The area has its own flag, and its colors identify the different areas: red for Sweden, green for Finland, yellow for Russia and blue for Norway, where most of the Sami live.
The Sami are also known as Lapps, but few know that, originally, this was a derogatory term. Lapp derives from the Swedish word meaning “tramp, hobo”. Crossing the Norwegian tundra we finally reach Kautokeino and Karasjok: the former is the cultural capital of the Sami, and here 90% of the population speaks Sami, while the latter is the seat of the Sami Parliament.
Between 1850 and 1970, the Sami people were subjected to a harsh policy which went by the term “Norwegianization”. During this period, the Sami living in Norway were prohibited from speaking their own language and forced to take on a Norwegian surname in order to purchase land and integrate with the rest of the population. Belonging to the Sami people was seen as something shameful.
Adults assimilated the Western way of life and, only with extreme difficulty, some of them – especially the Sami of the tundra – continued to work with reindeer and to safeguard their traditions.
Children born during the period of “Norwegianization” often did not even learn their own language. Their parents, to protect them and make sure they integrated with the Norwegian population, spoke to them only in the language imposed by the government. To date, there are many adults who feel they have lost their roots
The Sami of the Coast were the hardest hit by the policy of “Norwegianization”, known as “Fornorsking av samer”. In fact, living on the fjords along the country’s coastline, they were among the first to undergo this process. Among them, the percentage of people who do not speak Sami is extremely high.
Generally, people aged between 30 and 60 years of age do not speak their mother tongue. To overcome this, several initiatives for identity recovery have been implemented: the Sami parliament has reintroduced their own language in schools and, with it, also the study of their history and traditions.
The Sami of the tundra, on the other hand, nomads dedicated to reindeer breeding, suffered less from the process of “Norwegianization” and, in cities such as Karasjok and Kautokeino, 85% of the population speak Sami as their first language.
In 1997, in an official speech, His Majesty the King of Norway Harald V, recognized the actions of the Norwegian state and presented an official apology on behalf of the government to the Sami people.
“The state of Norway was founded on the territory of two peoples: the Sami and the Norwegians. The history of the Sami is closely intertwined with that of the Norwegians. Today we express our regret on behalf of the state for the injustices committed against the Sami people through the harsh policy of Norwegianization.” It was a pivotal moment for the Sami: the first official recognition by the Norwegian government.
Having been catalogued into 11 different dialects, one of which became extinct in 1800 and another in 2003, the Sami language is very complicated. Only six dialects can draw on a literary history and we should bear in mind that, for a single word, there are dozens of different expressions. A concrete example is the word “snow”. Living in the Arctic – where snow, ice and little light are predominant for six months of the year – it is vital to be able to better define one of the essential components that determines these people’s ability to travel and work in territories as harsh as the tundra. And so, very different words are used to describe snow depending on whether it is dry, fragile, floury, or frozen.
Although the Sami are prevalently Lutherans, they retain an extremely strong connection with their original religion, shamanism. The Sami’s ancient religion embraces a range of traditions and customs. The creed, in fact, is naturalistic and does not have a founder or a set of rules that regulate the forms of worship.
Shamanism was a polytheistic cult that drew its inspiration from nature. Among the most ancient deities we find Mother Earth (the one who governs births and therefore life) and the God of thunder. This ancient religion was based on an animistic perception of the world and a form of shamanic worship in which the drum and the execution of Joiks, typical songs inspired by nature, were of particular importance. For shamans, nature has a soul and is considered a living being just like mountains, lakes, rocks.
For this population, respect for Mother Earth is still the basis governing all action. Before hunting, before fishing, and at the start of the transhumance season, they thank Mother Nature and ask her for permission to carry out the activities.
It was the missionaries who, between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, wrote down some of the pre-Christian beliefs of these people. With Scandinavian and Norwegian settlers advancing, entire Sami communities were forced to abandon pagan religious practices and become Lutherans or Catholics.
It was in Norway, in 1716, that the Seminarium Lapponicum was established. The organization’s task was to Christianize the Sami by providing them with the Holy Scriptures in the Sami language. This initiative failed because the ecclesiastical majority opposed the preservation of traditional values (including language) and proceeded to the seizure and burning of symbolic objects, such as drums, linked to pagan worship.
It was with the arrival of Lars Levi Laestadius, in the 19th century, that a real turning point took place. The Lutheran pastor of Sami origins founded his own movement, “Laestadianism”. The first precept of this movement was the remission of one’s sins and the encounter with the Holy Spirit.
Following the settlers’ arrival, and with the profound change of life, the imposition of new habits, forced expropriation of land and the loss of the mother tongue, many Sami fell into the spiral of alcohol. Previously alcohol had been used for shamanic practices as it was fundamental to induce a state of trance.
Through to the foundation of his religious movement, Laestadius, helped the Sami find a new salvation from the spiral of desolation into which they had fallen after the invasion of the settlers, but at the same time he imposed on them very restrictive concepts creating fractures within the community.
Those who did not convert were looked upon with suspicion and were in one way or another banned from the community.
To this day, many Sami practice Christianity, although they continue to retain figures such as the “healer”. The difference with the past is that, while then the healer/shaman would use the drum to connect with the gods and heal a person, now the healing is done through Jesus and the use of the Bible. This mixture of Christianity and paganism comes across even stronger when we discover that the Sami celebrate their “Nissetoget”, or New Year, at Christmas time.
There is no written trace of this rite that takes place in the valley of Manndalen, and therefore its origins are not clear. The celebration begins several days before December 31st with the construction of monstrous masks. They are prevalently made of natural materials such as skins, animal bones and skulls. The artifacts created represent demons or evil and therefore need to be frightening.
The masks made in this manner are worn on the night of December 31st. Nobody knows who is behind each mask but there is a very clear rule: you are not allowed to part in the procession if you are not wearing a mask. Should anybody attempt to do so they would find themselves attacked by “demons” and forced to leave.
When midnight comes, the procession reaches its climax with the great symbolic bonfire. Then, the Sami, still wearing their masks, dance around the fire and at a given moment they take off their masks and burn them, then proceeding to throw the rest of the costume into the flames. This rite represents the expulsion of evil and the moment when they address their prayers to the gods so that they can have serenity for the coming year.
Again, if you venture into the tundra or the lonely valleys you will find what are called “Sieidi”. These are rocks with a prominent shape, which according to the Sami are endowed with supernatural powers.
The Sami leave offerings on them such as coins, reindeer horns, fish or meat, to win over the gods of nature, in the hope of a good catch or a good year of hunting or breeding. Even today, no Sami dares touch an offering placed on one of these stones: they believe it brings bad luck and that the spirits of the ancestors will come back to take revenge. The only way to appease the spirits is to return what has been stolen.
The bond with their ancestors is of great importance to the Sami: death, which is seen as a passage and a part of life, is not the end of everything. According to their culture, those who have preceded us are somehow eternally present.
In addition to the sacrificial stones, other rocks are also objects of worship: in fact, before the advent of Lutheranism, the Sami identified places with stones of a particularly elongated shape towards the sky as being sacred. These places symbolized the union between the earth and the invisible world.