SEASON TWO | EPISODE FIVE
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Nick Mott This season of Threshold is underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and I’m walking in a long parade with a couple thousand extremely happy Norwegians.
Amy Martin I’m in the town of Longyearbyen, which is on a Norwegian archipelago called Svalbard. It’s way up in the Arctic, about half-way between Norway and the North Pole. I happened to be there on May 17th , Norwegian National Day, and people here are celebrating in style.
Amy Martin I love your dress. Does it have a name?
Kari Ellingsen Bunad.
Amy Martin Bunad?
Kari Ellingsen Yeah.
Amy Martin What is the history behind it?
Kari Ellingsen It’s, every part of the country has their own bunad. So it sort of shows where you’re from.
Amy Martin This is Kari Ellingsen, she’s 26, and like many of the women and girls in the parade, she’s wearing an old-fashioned dress, embroidered with ornate flowers. And she says this word, bunad, applies to the outfits that many of the men are wearing, too.
Amy Martin So do you know where they’re from, by looking at them?
Henning Skjetne The woman, her dress is from the north, I guess.
Amy Martin That’s Kari’s boyfriend, Henning Skjetne, also 26. Almost everyone in the parade is carrying a little Norwegian flag, and not just carrying it, but waving it enthusiastically, smiling big, and spontaneously bursting into cheers.
Amy Martin It’s a long, jubilant river of fluttering red, winding its way through the snowy streets of this high Arctic town.
Henning Skjetne It’s springtime, and everyone’s happy.
Amy Martin Norway has a lot to be happy about. It’s beautiful, wealthy and deeply egalitarian. The Economist magazine currently ranks Norway as the most democratic country in the world, and they’ve has also set some very bold climate policies: for example, they’re aiming to phase out the sales of new gas and diesel vehicles by 2025. And everyone I talked to at this parade, including Kari and Henning, seems truly proud of what the country has come to stand for.
Kari Ellingsen I know that some people may think that it’s like, [NORWEGIAN], nationalistic. It’s not Norway for Norwegian, but it’s like, sort of, Norway for everyone. And I think it’s like a celebration of the human rights, and freedom of speech.
Amy Martin Mix in these ideals with the sheer physical beauty of this country, with steep mountains rising out of sparkling seas, and you can see why people here get a little misty-eyed when the national anthem is played.
[MUSIC: Norwegian National Anthem]
Isalill Kolpus What is Norway? Yes, Norway is Vikings, and farmers, and the bunad.
Amy Martin This is Isalill Kolpus, and she says there’s a shadow side to this story of national pride.
Isalill Kolpus Everything Norwegian is this. And what did we decide was not Norwegian? Sámisare a part of what was decided: that is not a part of Norway.
Amy Martin The Sámi are the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia and western Russia. Today, the Sámi are strongly associated with reindeer herding, but historically, they provided for themselves in all sorts of ways: they fished and gathered plants, hunted seals and moose. They developed nine distinct but related languages, and traded with each other across their Arctic homeland, which they call Sápmi.
But when the kingdoms in the south began to form into the nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, borders went up across traditional Sámi migration routes, and their languages, traditions and spiritual practices were driven underground. In recent decades, Sámi people have been finding their voices and reclaiming their culture. But at the same time, they’ve been trying to come to terms with a new threat to their way of life: climate change.
We’re going to explore all of this on the next two episodes of Threshold.
Amy Martin So is it just me, or have Vikings have become really popular lately?
[VIKINGS TV SHOW]
I mean, for a while, it was all zombies, zombies, zombies. But now it seems like you can’t throw an axe without hitting a Viking. There’s the TV show – that’s what you’re hearing in the background – but also movies, Halloween costumes, it’s seems like everywhere I look it’s Odin and Thor and runes.
The Vikings were Germanic people who immigrated into the southern part of the Scandinavian peninsula. Their culture flourished and expanded over a period of about 300 years, starting around the year 800. That seems like a very long time ago to us now. But way before that era, another culture had already taken root in Scandinavia – the Sámi. Their ancestors were likely among the very first people to enter the peninsula when the great ice sheets retreated, more than 10,000 years ago. So, when the Vikings got in their ships and began exploring the long coasts of present-day Norway, Sweden and Finland, they may have heard the voices of Sámi people ringing out from the forests as they sailed by. Voices that might have sounded something like this–
Krister Stoor [UMEÅ RIVER JOIK]
Amy Martin This is Krister Stoor. He’s Sámi, and this way that he’s singing is called joik.
Krister Stoor My name is Krister Stoor. I’m 58 years old.
Amy Martin We’ll be going back to Norway in just a bit, but I’m talking to Krister in Umeå, Sweden, a university town about 400 kilometers, or 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. And this is an Umeå River joik. It’s meant to evoke the river flowing just a few miles away from us. Krister says you don’t joik about something or to something. You joik it, you connect, or almost commune with something, through song.
Krister Stoor You have to be the river. To joik it, you have to become that thing.
Amy Martin Everything in the Sámi world has a joik. Trees and creatures, villages and mountains. And people, too.
Krister Stoor Every person, even you, have your own song. But you cannot create your own song. So if I knew you better, I could say this is you, describing you. As long as you have your own joik, and people still know how to joik you, you’re alive.
Amy Martin Even if you’re not physically alive. Joiking blurs the hard line between life and death: it doesn’t only pay respect to those who have passed on, it evokes them. And the joik can bring other things close, too.
Krister Stoor Take the swan. [SWAN JOIK] There you must feel how the wings come when he comes at spring. [SWAN JOIK] And if you don’t sing that the swan will not come, so when the swan is coming, then the spring comes. It’s not the other way around.
Amy Martin The joik brings the swan, and the swan brings the spring. It’s powerful. This might have been why the Vikings respected the Sámi, or even feared them. Even though Vikings are now usually portrayed as aggressive, bloodthirsty people, like the Sámi, Viking culture was centered around intimate connections with the natural world, and both groups had lots of stories of beings who shape-shifted between human and animal form.
Most scholars agree that the Sámi and the Vikings co-existed in relative peace for hundreds of years. But when Christian emissaries began arriving in Scandinavia, things changed. At first, both the Vikings and the Sámi resisted the new religion, but within a few hundred years, the Vikings had more or less surrendered to Christianity. The Sámi continued to resist. In the 1600s, the church decided joik was a form of sorcery, and banned it, along with Sámi drumming.
Krister Stoor It was still considered a sin in my home area. So you didn’t really hear people do it officially, but when they were alone or if they were drunk.
Amy Martin Krister grew up north of here, near Kiruna, Sweden, and every so often, he heard people around him singing in this special way. But when he asked questions about joik, some people wouldn’t talk about it. Others said, “No, I don’t joik,” even though he had heard them do it. So he kept asking questions, and eventually he became one of the first people ever to write his doctoral dissertation about joik. He’s now a senior lecturer at the Department of Language Studies and the Department of Sámi Studies at Umeå University. And even after all these years of research and reflection about it, he can still get the feeling that joiking is wrong somehow.
Krister Stoor I know my history. But still I can feel that, yeah, somewhere behind, “Oh this is not correct.”
Isalill Kolpus So I think a lot of the kids attending this school are Sámi, without either realizing it or without wanting to realize it.
Amy Martin Isalill Kolpus is 27 year old, she teaches at a high school in the Arctic city of Tromsø, Norway. And I just want to flag here that although we’re bouncing back and forth between Sweden and Norway, there are also Sámi people in Finland and Russia. Isalill says the experiences of the Sámi were different in each country, but there are some common threads.
And one of the big ones is this pressure to assimilate. Sámi people are white. They don’t necessarily stand out visually in the dominant Scandinavian and Russian society. And this is one of the complexities of being Sámi. You can hide your identity if you want to. And on the other hand, if you don’t want to hide it, you sort of have to make a point of it. And that can be uncomfortable, so Isalill says she understands why many of her students either don’t know they are Sámi, or don’t want to claim that identity.
Isalill Kolpus And I try to say to them, if your family is from northern Norway more than two generations back, a Sámi might have snuck in there.
Amy Martin For hundreds of years, the Sámi were considered inferior, first by the church, and then by the state. She says in the 1800s the pressure on the Sámi really ramped up.
Isalill Kolpus There was this thought that to create a nation you have to have one language. Like, one language, one nation, one people. That means if it’s not Norwegian it doesn’t really fit our project right now. It’s like, “it’s not that convenient that you have a double identity. You have to choose one, and please choose the Norwegian one.”
Isalill Kolpus And then they were concerned about loyalty, for the Sámi people, or a lot of them were nomads, crossing the borders. And so they were like, you have to choose. You have to choose one. One nationality. Because we’re building a country over here. Please join.
Amy Martin Hundreds of years later, Isalill herself felt that pressure to choose. She says when she was growing up, no one in her family talked about the fact that they were Sámi.
Isalill Kolpus Yeah, it’s such a weird thing because I’ve always known, because my last name, it’s Kolpus, and that’s an old Sámi name. And so I’ve always known, and I’ve always, like, I’ve heard my grandmother and my grandfather talking Sámi, but I didn’t really realize it or understand it until I was like 18.
Amy Martin That was when Isalill’s cousin received her first gakti, the traditional Sámi dress.
Isalill Kolpus And I was like, oh! Oh, that’s right. We’re, we’re actually Sámi. It’s not just like some of us are, but we all are. And I started exploring more and I got my first gakti.
Amy Martin An elderly relative passed the garment on to Isalill.
Isalill Kolpus It’s, it’s the most beautiful piece of clothing I’ve ever seen.
Amy Martin And Isalill says it was transformative to make her Sámi identity visible – not only to the outside world, but to herself.
Isalill Kolpus Like when I put on the gakti, or when I had my first Sámi conversation with my grandmother, it was just, it was like coming home or something. I even get like, teary-eyed thinking about it, I just went, oh my god, I’ve been missing this my whole life. This should have been my mother tongue, I should have been wearing these clothes every like, 17th of May, and just feeling that I belonged there. Not that I don’t feel I belong in Norwegian culture, because I feel a hundred percent Norwegian, too. But it was just...it just felt so right, those little first steps. And then I went OK. I have to go all in now. I have to commit to this. I don’t know I just, just felt right. Yeah it was strange. Yeah.
Amy Martin She started sharing pictures of herself wearing the gakti on social media and sometimes writing posts in Sámi. Lots of people were supportive, but not all. A cousin told her that some aunts and uncles didn’t approve.
Isalill Kolpus I don’t know how, like, how annoyed they are, or if it’s just like a comment in passing, like, ”Oh she’s Sámi now,” or something like that. Which you hear a lot when you when you’re a part of the Sámi population who are reclaiming, you hear a lot of, “Oh, you’re Sámi now.” And you go “No, no, I’ve always been Sámi.” But I try not to think so much about it, I try to focus on the other side of the family who is really supportive, and a lot of my cousins on that side has also started to wear the gakti.
Amy Martin There are now Sámi parliaments in all four countries, and Sámi people are increasingly making themselves seen and heard in all sectors of society. For Isalill, this process has happened in tandem with becoming more politically involved, especially around environmental issues.
Isalill Kolpus Like, a lot of people say, “oh you’re indigenous and you must be in touch with nature.” Yeah maybe. But I hope that I would care about the same issues even if I wasn’t Sámi. But it’s a fact that a lot of Sámi culture is intertwined with nature and a lot of our expressions are based in how we used to live very close to nature, and some of us still do. Me, I’m like what you call a city Sámi, or like an asphalt Sámi, is like the derogatory term. But, we have a lot of issues that affect us as a people, as a culture. At the same time, it affects nature. We see that it affects the way we want to keep our culture alive or the way we want to live. In that way, my Sámi identity and the part of me that cares about the environment is two sides of the same story.
Amy Martin Isalill says Sámi communities are fighting the expansion of mines, railroads, and logging operations on land that they consider to be their ancestral home. And, she says, many Sámi people are very concerned about what’s going on in the ocean, too. Norway owns vast offshore oil reserves, and it’s that oil which has made Norway one of the richest countries in the world, ranking right up there with Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. Just a few days before I met Isalill, the Norwegian government had opened up more than a hundred new areas for offshore oil exploration.
Isalill Kolpus I don’t get it. It’s such a bad choice. Why should we just keep pumping up oil and being, pretending to be moral superior to everyone, going, like, “Oh, we’re the happiest people in the world while we’re drowning in oil.”
Amy Martin Norway doesn’t actually use much of that oil – they export what they drill, and supply almost all of their domestic energy needs through renewables. But Isalill says that doesn’t make up for the fact that the oil and gas Norway is drilling is still going to get burned, somewhere, and that heats up the planet.
Isalill Kolpus If there’s one country in the world that can afford to be green, it has to be us.
Amy Martin She thinks Norway is trying to have it both ways: a reputation for environmental leadership and the fossil fuel wealth. And she says it’s time to make a choice.
Isalill Kolpus If we just make the decision, and just go no, no more. We don’t open anymore oil rigs now, no more fields, no more areas. Than we are forcing ourselves to look in the other direction.
Amy Martin I think that’s why I’m so interested in this contradiction that Norway is facing because it is the same contradiction that the whole world is facing it’s just sort of concentrated in more easy to see: humanity has to make a definitive decision.
Isalill Kolpus Yeah. When is it enough information, and when do you have enough knowledge to know that this is a bad idea?
Amy Martin We’ll have more after this short break.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and we’re going to spend the rest of this episode in Sweden. Like Norway, Sweden is a world leader when it comes to climate change policy. In 2017, their parliament voted to become a completely carbon neutral country by 2045. As in, net zero emissions. Sweden also has a very strong social safety net, and is a recognized leader in human rights. So, if there’s anywhere you would expect a minority group to be welcomed, it’s Sweden.
Charlotta Svonni So it’s really important for me to say that I am really grateful that I belong to the state of Sweden, of course, because that’s a privilege to belong to this kind of country.
Amy Martin Charlotta Svonni is a PhD student in education at Umeå University.
Charlotta Svonni But the problem is that it’s when you’re Sámi you are discriminated. And this is a big issue.
Amy Martin And that’s not just historical, that’s continuing?
Charlotta Svonni That is continuing.
Amy Martin Like Krister Stoor, Charlotta grew up in the north of Sweden, in a reindeer-herding family. But, she says–
Charlotta Svonni We also have to remember and recognize that it’s not just the reindeer herders that are Sámi. There are just Sámi all over Sweden, and it’s just a minority of us that have reindeers.
Amy Martin Charlotta made a point of mentioning this to me right as we started our interview because throughout Sápmi, there’s a tendency to simplify the Sámi story down to reindeer herding and nothing else. And in Sweden, this actually became law: the Reindeer Grazing Act of 1886.
Charlotta Svonni The state of Sweden decided that the only true Sámi were the ones that was reindeer herders in the mountain area. If you were a reindeer herder in the forest, or if you were a fisher, hunter, or just whatever, then you had to be Swedish.
Amy Martin So this huge portion of the Sámi community was basically de-Sámi-ized. Or they tried to.
Charlotta Svonni Yeah, yeah.
Amy Martin Thousands of Sámi families in Sweden were just suddenly not Sámi anymore, at least in the eyes of the state.
Charlotta Svonni So in my point of view, it would be like, ok, if you don’t own a cow, you’re not American. Right? Could you have that kind of law? It doesn’t make sense. People are people, and you shouldn’t be defined by an animal. And I don’t think any other people would say, well, I belong to this if own a pig. Well. [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin The logic behind the reindeer law seems to have been to control the Sámi by trapping one part of the community in amber, while erasing all the rest. This mindset was summed up in the slogan: “A Lapp should be a Lapp.” “Lapp” was the term outsiders used for the Sámi, and northern Scandinavia is still called Lapland. For the Swedish-speaking majority, this slogan, “a Lapp should be a Lapp,” basically meant “a mountain reindeer herder should stay a mountain reindeer herder.” All other Sámi people should assimilate.
Charlotta Svonni There is today a conflict within the society, caused by the government: divide and conquer strategy, I think.
Amy Martin More divisive laws followed. Special schools were set up for children of Sámi reindeer herders, which again, singled these families out as somehow more authentically Sámi than anyone else. But these schools offered a lower-quality education, because the Sámi children were assumed to be less intelligent. Then, in 1922, the story takes what might be its darkest turn. This is when the Institute for Racial Biology was established in Uppsala, a university town near Stockholm.
Charlotta Svonni I’m not sure if this is true or not, but they say that Hitler was really impressed by the research that Sweden had in Uppsala. We had this racial measuring and stuff, they came up here and they were, you know, measuring the heads of little kids, they have to stand there all naked, like, you know, like animals. And they were not treated with respect at all. And this is my grandma’s generation.
Charlotta Svonni What they were thinking was that if you had some kind of, type of skull, you were more stupid. And if you had this more skull that was more longer, you’re smarter.
Amy Martin All of this is complete nonsense, with no scientific basis whatsoever. But this was no obstacle for Herman Lundborg, who helped to found the Institute for Racial Biology and remained its leader until 1936. He contributed significantly to the eugenics craze of his day. This period in Swedish history was dramatized by film director and screenwriter Amanda Kernell. Her first feature film, Sámi Blood, was released in 2016, and went on to win major awards at festivals around the world. It tells the story of Elle Marja, a young Sámi reindeer herder coming of age in the 1930s.
Amanda Kernell But of course, many of the scenes in the film could just as well have been today, in many ways.
Amy Martin Amanda says like the protagonist in her film, she sometimes hid her Sámi identity when she was growing up. She wasn’t ashamed to be Sámi, but didn’t want to be forced to serve as some kind of Sámi ambassador to the rest of the world all the time.
Amanda Kernell If you tell people that you are Sámi, then you have to be a representative of a whole people. And you have to be a teacher, and you have to be a historian, you have to also be a very good, you know, almost a lawyer, right? You would have to start to defend some things. And I think most people, then, are not prepared to do that everyday.
Amy Martin And Amanda says another thing that happens when you tell people you’re Sámi is that you get asked to joik.
Amanda Kernell And of course I’ve had that experience a lot of times
Amy Martin Where people have said, “joik for us!”
Amanda Kernell Yes, of course. I mean, that happens all the time. And sometimes I’m proud to do so and sometimes when I was younger you feel different. In not a good way.
Amy Martin Like, “Perform your otherness for me.”
Amanda Kernell Yes.
Amy Martin Amanda put this experience into her film too.
Amanda Kernell There’s a scene where she’s at a party in Uppsala in the city down south and with all these Swedish students and they study anthropology, and they really want her to joik, to sing in Sami.
[FILM CLIP: Sámi Blood, joiking scene, students talking]
Amanda Kernell And she doesn’t know if she should do that or not.
[FILM CLIP: Sámi Blood, joiking scene, students talking, moment of pause]
Amanda Kernell And then when she does there’s a strange ambiguous feeling of, they kind of appreciate it but they don’t understand it.
[FILM CLIP: Sámi Blood, joiking scene, Elle Marja singing]
Amanda Kernell And she, suddenly she doesn’t really fit into the group, but she’s a circus, you know, she’s kind of a circus animal.
Amy Martin Elle Marja sings tentatively, and then suddenly stops, and walks quickly away. All of the complexity of being exoticized by these people is written on her young face. Amanda says after film screenings, young Sámi people often come to talk to her.
Amanda Kernell And the first thing they talked about was like this joik scene, like, that has happened to me so many times. I’m so happy I’m not alone with this. You know, I don’t know how to handle that.
Amanda Kernell This internalized colonization, and racism, and this colonization of our mind. We all have that. But we don’t even know it.
Charlotta Svonni That is also how, I think, lots of us have always got that feeling that we are not as smart, because that is how people, you know, look at us.
Amy Martin Charlotta Svonni.
Charlotta Svonni And you get that picture of yourself.
Amy Martin It gets in deep.
Charlotta Svonni It’s really deep. And you don’t even, we don’t even think about it. I think it was in my thirties, maybe just eight, 10 years ago. One day I was like, well, I’m not uglier than everyone. My people is not other than everyone else. Why have I thought that? One morning. It’s like, what? I have never even talked about it. We have never talked about such things at home, or... It was so sad to realize. I have thought for so many years – oh you see my tears coming again – that we are uglier than everyone else. Yeah it is. And I’m glad I realized that before I died. But ah, yeah. That is what we are taught, and we have not talked about.
Krister Stoor [LOVE SONG JOIK]
Krister Stoor I can do a love song from my home.
Amy Martin Krister Stoor.
Krister Stoor The lyrics are: beautiful as angels, and a voice like a loon.
Krister Stoor [LOVE SONG JOIK]
Charlotta Svonni When I’m out skiing you know and you feel the wind, and the powers, like I can just stand there in the forest and start to joik that feeling or that environment.
Amy Martin Charlotta says she didn’t grow up joiking, but now, sometimes she does it. She says joik is hard to explain how it happens. And she’s good with that.
Charlotta Svonni Why should we always have to explain, what I am, what we are, what we think. Well, if you don’t can explain, it does it then exists? Well, but I also got one argument that was interesting, that I heard a lot when I was younger, it’s like, but if the reindeer herding doesn’t contribute to the BNP, why is it important?
Amy Martin BNP is just Swedish for GDP, gross domestic product.
Charlotta Svonni And as a young person, I was going, oh, well, I don’t know, maybe, well, I couldn’t answer that. And today I think, well, is that the only way of thinking, if you can’t contribute with BNP then it can’t exist. Is that the kind of world we want? And especially today when we have this huge problem with the change in the climate. So maybe we should back off from that kind of perspective to save this planet.
Amy Martin We’re going to spend the next episode with a Sámi family in Norway who are contending with the effects of climate change on their reindeer herd. But before we leave the subject of joik behind, I have to mention Sofia Jannok. She’s one of many Sámi musicians who are reclaiming joik and using it to help make Sámi people and Sámi issues more visible. This is one of her songs, called We Are Still Here.
[MUSIC: ...we are still here…]
Nick Mott This season of Threshold was created with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Park Foundation, and our listeners. Our production partners are Montana Public Radio and PRI’s The World.
Amy Martin Threshold is made by Nick Mott, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki and me, Amy Martin, with help from Frank Allen, Jackson Barnett, Josh Burnham, Michael Connor, Rosie Costain, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein, Zoë Rom, Nora Saks, Maxine Speier and Zach Wilson. Special thanks to: Susanne Amalie Langstrand-Andersen, Lars Andreassen, Kjersti Myrnes Balto and the Markomeannu Moms, Michael Gundale, Anne Henriette Reinås Nilut, Lars Östlund, Shanley Swanson, Line Vråberg and Nordisk Film. Our music is by Travis Yost.
You can find links to the film Sámi Blood, to Sofia Jannok’s music and a whole more at our website. And if you’d like to be part of the community helping to get this show made, you can do that at our website too. Just go to thresholdpodcast.org, and hit donate.