Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lapp Rap

The north of Fennoscandia (I had never known what to call the landmass that incorporates Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Kola Peninsula and Karelia as people get annoyed if you include Finland in Scandinavia and Nordic just doesn't work as a noun) is home to the EU's only indigenous population, the Sami (or at least that's what they claim, although I might include the Basques as well, but that semantic argument will have to be for another time...). Many people may know them as Lapps - hence Lappland - but in the same way that Eskimo has given way to Inuit one should now refer to them as Sami. There are about 75,000 Sami living in an arc from just north of Trondheim to the tip of the Kola Peninsula, with the grand majority of them living in Norway. Traditionally the Sami have been either fishermen or reindeer herders, with the latter visible everywhere in the Lappland interior and I'm continually amazed at how they were able to carve out a niche for themselves in such an inhospitable environment. Both industries are still important for the Samis, but technology advances mean that instead of using dog sleds and snowshoes to round up the reindeer snowmobiles and even helicopters are used instead. Despite having such a colourful and unique way of life the Sami don't have a particularly high profile, even within the countries where they live, where people are more likely to know more about native North American tribes and the differences between Apache and Iroquois than they are about the Skolt and Fell Sami. This is probably due in part to the fact that people find it hard to face up to past injustices that they have committed against others and also in part to the fact that, in appearance, the Sami are hard to distinguish from their neighbours: they are perhaps a little shorter, their faces a little more rounded, and the corners of their eyes a little sharper (a bit like the Hollywood actress Renée Zellweger who, incidentally, is probably the world's most famous person of Sami descent).
Santa may be here in Lappland, but this is as close to a picture of him as I was going to get: a snapshot with the avuncular bearded saint costs 40 euros. At least I now know how he pays for  all the presents he distributes.

Things are gradually changing with the last couple of decades in particular showing an upsurge in interest in traditional Sami culture, both as a new-found pride in a different identity and as a means of creating and attracting tourist interest. Throughout the Sami areas of Norway and Finland (and, I'm assuming, Sweden too, although I have not been there) the creation of Sami parliaments and education of Sami languages in schools and day-care groups has pulled some of these from the brink of extinction. The Lonely Planet guidebook to Finland says that one of the Sami languages, Inari Sami, is on its last legs and about to die out, with only a couple of hundred speakers left. When staying there I was lucky enough to be hosted by Suvi who, despite being from the south has taken an intensive course in the language and her two little kids are learning it as a first language. Not only that but she is also a member of the most popular and first (and only) Inari Sami girl band. The resurgence of a language like that is heartening to see and sometimes manifests itself in strange ways. Whilst grilling sausages over an open fire by the lakeside (a typically Finnish pastime) she explained to me that she had produced a documentary in Inari Sami and that it was the first ever documentary in the language; in fact pretty much anything that is done in the language is ground breaking. For example all the young Inari kids want to be rappers - not because they have grown up in a tough 'hood with gun violence and crime, but because the only (semi-) professional musician in Inari Sami happens to be a rapper, so that is the only role model that the kids have.

The most famous inhabitant of Lappland, however, isn't Sami but is instead a Greek immigrant. Nicholas of Myra, aka Saint Nicholas aka Santa Claus has been hanging out in Lappland on the Arctic Circle for some time now. He has become such an institution that not one, but two theme parks have sprouted up just north of Rovaniemi, Finnish Lappland's capital, on the Arctic Circle, devoted to the jolly fat one. It is now possible to visit him all year round and have one's picture taken with him (which one can purchase for the bargain-basement price of €40). The whole experience must be quite magical in winter with the snow laying all around and the stalls selling all sorts of festive goodies, but now, in the middle of summer, with hardly a soul about and souvenir stalls flogging mountains of tat it all looked just a little bit sorry - not that that stopped me from regressing to my childhood and sitting next to him to tell him that I had been a good boy (so far) and was worthy of being kept on his list.

This past day I have also been getting myself ready for my first proper trek as I will be heading off to the Oulanka National Park to walk the Karhunkierros path, one of Finland's most popular forest trails, which is 80km long from end to end. I just hope that I have packed enough food, but also not too much that it weighs me down. Hopefully I will have survived and be able to write a report in 5 days or so.

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