Summer trip to Sweden 2010

The journey’s end

By Richard Jones-Bamman on June 19, 2010 4:53 PM

Farewell to the Arctic

We left Jokkmokk on Friday afternoon, having concluded the course with Krister Stoor that morning. I think it’s safe to say that everyone considered this a bittersweet moment–happy to be heading toward home, but sad to depart from new friends and to see the trip coming to an end.

Once back in the van, with our two official road songs (Anders Glenmark’s “Högre Standard” and Wimme’s “Texas”) having provided the necessary accompaniment for a proper launch, we quickly settled into travel mode, i.e., virtually everyone fell asleep or remained contemplative as the miles passed by. Within a half hour, we had dipped below the Arctic Circle for the first time in nearly two weeks and the seemingly endless woods gradually gave way to farmland, the latter a testament to the early settlers who began arriving in this area over 500 years ago under the auspices of the Swedish crown. It’s hard to imagine how people eke out a living as farmers in a region where the growing season is so short, but clearly they manage to do so.

Friday’s journey was actually quite short, bringing us only as far as Luleå, the northernmost of the “å” cities (Umeå, Skellefteå, Piteå and Luleå, from south to north), each of which takes its name from the old term for river, since they all mark the mouths of major rivers merging with the Bay of Bothnia, the brackish sea that separates Sweden and Finland. More specifically, however, we’re not in Luleå proper, a fairly large, modern city, but in Luleå Gammelstad, the old town that lies about 15km NW, and was once the original site of Luleå. Some 500 years ago, this settlement actually sat on an island, surrounded by the Lule River, and part of an archipelago that eventually disappeared due to an up shift in the land that raised the coastline significantly and led to the decision to move the town to its current location.

Beyond this rather striking geological oddity, however, is the fact that Luleå Gammelstad is home to a stunning 15th century church Luleå that has remained in constant use, despite the obviously radical shift precipitated by the Reformation that brought Catholic parishes under the aegis of the newly established state Lutheran church. Unlike other sections of northern Europe, however, where similar transformations occurred, most of this building’s religious symbols and artifacts associated with the “old” religion were not stripped by the Protestants, but were left in place. As a result this church is the closest thing to an intact medieval structure as one is likely to find in Scandinavia. The vault over the altar is still decorated with elaborate paintings of scenes from the bible, most of them grim reminders of what would happen to non-pious parishioners. Additionally there is a magnificent carved and gilt altarpiece from the 15th century, and what is considered one of the finest medieval carved crucifixes suspended over the choir. All told, this church certainly merits a visit if one is in the area…but wait, there’s more.

As we learned when visiting Arvidsjaur a couple of weeks ago, until the early years of the 20th century, all Swedes were required to attend church on a regular basis, the frequency determined by their proximity to the parish seat. Luleå residents were no different, but given how few of them actually lived close enough to the church to simply show up on Sunday morning, only those living within a 10km radius were required to make the trip every week; those within a 20km radius came every other week, and so on. This eventually resulted in the establishment of a kyrkstad (church town), consisting of more than four hundred, privately owned small red cottages, set in concentric circles surrounding the church grounds. Today, these cottages are all lovingly maintained, serving primarily as summer cottages, with artists’ studios, cafés and other amenities interspersed among them. Car traffic is limited to those residents needing to load or unload goods–otherwise this is a walking town. By the way, Luleå Gammelstad has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it will continue in this same fashion, minus tawdry fast-food franchises or even a grocery store, for the foreseeable future.

“Music opens a space within us that we can’t open ourselves.”

When we arrived in Gammelstad, I was more than a little dismayed to discover the church was closed, but this was soon eclipsed by the realization that this was because a concert featuring local folk musicians was scheduled to take place there in the evening. Therefore, several hours later, with dinner securely tucked under our belts, we made the short walk up the hill from the hostel and joined a small assembly of local people for an evening of music. This particular concert marked the opening of a spelmans stämma (folk festival), one of myriad such events that occur annually in Sweden during the summer. With very little effort, other than the travel involved, it would be very easy to attend a stämma every weekend from June through August, each one featuring a blend of local and nationally celebrated musicians, all gathering to exchange dance tunes and traditional songs in a decidedly non-competitive atmosphere. What’s happening here is the conveyance of traditional knowledge–there it is again–whether it’s aimed toward the continuance of regional dance repertoire or simply sharing the experience of making music across generations.

The concert began with a small ensemble, most of whose members played the nyckelharpa, a bowed instrument unique to Sweden. A friend of mine once described this oddity as the unfortunate progeny of a fiddle and a typewriter, and given its array of keys and its violin-like shape, I think he may be onto something. Nevertheless, it’s an instrument that the Swedes have embraced quite passionately since a major folk revival in the 1970s rescued it from obscurity. I find it even more interesting that the majority of players have built their own instruments, usually by attending one of the many community-sponsored evening workshops found all over the country.

The acts that followed the Luleå Nyckelharpa Club were diverse in terms of instrumentation and repertoire–one group even closed their set with a fine rendition of the American hymn, “Have Thy Way, Lord” composed in 1909. What all of these musicians shared (and one might argue the audience, as well) is a belief in the inherent value of amateur music making, an attribute that I find all too often missing in contemporary society, which seems much more interested in watching others attempting to be professionals with mixed results. None of these musical groups was of professional caliber, yet that in no way impacted the overall result of the concert: it was simply a very enjoyable evening of people playing music together for all the right reasons. As the parish minister reminded us during his short homily, music provides a trip into ourselves while simultaneously encouraging us to connect with others. Couldn’t have said it better if I tried.

On our way back to the hostel, a young man to whom I had spoken earlier stopped us, and asked if we’d like to take a look at the town from the top of the bell tower, a free-standing building in front of the church, built in the 1850s. How could anyone decline such an invitation?

Moments later, after climbing up several flights of increasingly narrow and steep stairs, we found ourselves gazing out over the entire countryside, as our guide pointed out interesting historical facts about the church, the town and the region. This is decidedly not something that other tourists experience. The tower is closed to all but church personnel and their guests, yet somehow this young man had recognized in our group a level of interest that deserved this little reward, and for that we are all indebted to him and his generosity–I doubt very much that any of us will forget this experience.

And finally the High Coast
Most of today was spent driving due south on E4, the closest thing one finds to a freeway in Sweden. Much of it comprises two wide lanes, with a non-descript “neutral” zone in the center for passing purposes. Periodically, however, the road narrows significantly and the speed limit drops to 70kph (about 45mph) as E4 courses through small towns along the way.

Within a couple of hours, we were back in Umeå, the town we stayed in before heading up to Jokkmokk, and home to Krister Stoor, his wife Karin, and his two sons, Lars-Henrik and Per. Before leaving Jokkmokk, Krister had asked if we’d like to stop by for a cup of coffee and one more round of farewells, an offer we gladly accepted. When we arrived, however, Krister and Karin surprised us with a big platter of freshly made Swedish waffles, served up with homemade blueberry-raspberry jam (fruit from their garden) and whipped cream. Needless to say they disappeared quickly, and soon thereafter we said our good-byes to all and once again hit the road.

A number of years ago, my family and I discovered Sweden’s Höga Kusten (High Coast), another geological phenomenon that resulted from an up lift that raised the coastline significantly and created many small bays with protected harbors. Not surprisingly, this ultimately became one of the most important fishing regions in northern part of the country. While there is very little commercial fishing there now, the area is still full of small fishing villages, made up of yet more, tiny, red cottages nestled around the harbors. Additionally, there are a number of so-called fishermen’s chapels, very small churches housed in structures that would easily be mistaken from the outside as personal homes. This tradition began as a means of discouraging thieves from stripping the interiors, but continued after this threat was eradicated, as an architectural style unique to the High Coast.

Having encountered one of these chapels on a family excursion in the past, I thought it would be worthwhile making a small side trip to see if we could duplicate the experience. After a couple of false starts, we finally found one sitting just above the village of Norrfällsviken. We had to wait a few moments before entering the chapel because a wedding had just concluded, but once inside it was clear the effort expended to find this place was worth it.

The chapel was built in 1649, and has been renovated on several occasions, but remains a charming reminder of the importance of the church, even in these remote villages. The interior is quite stark, having only a few paintings from various eras, and a simple elevated pulpit from which the local priest delivers his readings and sermons. As is the case in all of these fishermen’s chapels, however, the most distinctive feature is a model ship suspended directly over the altar, serving as a reminder of the importance of this livelihood in local culture.

We concluded this small adventure with a meal of fresh fish from local boats, served up in a small restaurant right there in the village. Among the dishes sampled were warm-smoked salmon, fried herring and…hamburgers for the non-fish eaters. And of course, there was room for ice cream.

Tomorrow we’ll continue south to Uppsala, where we’ll spend the night before heading for the airport early on Monday morning. With any luck, we’ll finish up our stay in Sweden with a visit to Skokloster Slott, a magnificent 17th century castle that remained in the same family until late into the 20th century, and as a result is in exceptionally fine condition. Since I doubt I’ll have time (or the energy) to update this blog tomorrow evening, however, this will be the final entry. My thanks to all who helped make this trip possible, and to my stalwart and patient fellow-travelers. You did great, gang, so here’s a little reminder of the trip, just for you…


Samij Åhpadusguovdåsj

By Richard Jones-Bamman on June 17, 2010 4:26 AM

The facilities that serve as our home base and classrooms here in Jokkmokk are part of an institution that has provided education for Sámi students for more than 50 years. The school was originally chartered as part of the folkhögskola system, an alternative secondary education program that has made it possible for thousands of Swedes to further their educational goals without necessarily following the structure of a more conventional high school program. Moreover, many of these schools were founded with specific curricula and/or specific populations in mind, and the institution here in Jokkmokk was no exception–from the beginning, the focus was on Sámi duodji (handcrafts) and language, and the intended students were exclusively Sámi. Over the years other lines of study have been added–the current lineup includes handcrafts, language, reindeer husbandry and traditional culinary arts–and the policy toward non-Sámi students has been relaxed in some instances. Primarily, however, handcrafts and language remain at the core of the school’s curriculum, and virtually all of those enrolled here are Sámi.

Up to this point, our contact with the institution has been limited to the use of a classroom and the dormitories, since all of the students who attend during the school year have already gone home for the summer. This week, however, in keeping with the course’s general theme of traditional knowledge, we were more formally introduced to the faculty and their areas of specialization, resulting in a very practical example of how traditional knowledge can be put to use in a decidedly modern context, and why it is so important to retain.

After an introduction to the history of the school, now known as Samij Åhpadusguovdåsj (The Sámi Educational Center), the class split into three groups, each with its own interpreter, and over the next couple of hours we rotated among four faculty members’ classrooms/workshops. The presentations included language instruction (all three major Sámi languages are taught here, North, Lule and South Sámi), two different handcraft workshops (antler/wood and skin/textiles), and the newest addition to the curriculum, traditional culinary arts. In each instance, what became clear immediately was the expertise of the instructor, and her/his commitment to passing along knowledge and skills that have nearly disappeared in contemporary Sámi culture. This is perhaps less the case with language, which has actually enjoyed a marked revival in the last two decades, but the fact remains that the majority of Sámi speak very little of their own language, unless they happen to be reindeer herders, an occupation that has an incredibly rich vocabulary of specific terminology that can’t be easily translated.

Michael Pirak is one of three full-time handcraft instructors. Within traditional Sámi culture, men have worked exclusively with so-called “hard” materials, including horn/antler, wood and metal. As the son of Lars Pirak, undoubtedly the most famous Sámi duodji artist of the last century, Michael grew up working with all of these materials, and has obviously mastered the techniques necessary for creating traditional objects (knives, cups, bowls, etc.) that are both functional and beautifully designed and executed. He also appears to have inherited his father’s interest in creating new forms that simultaneously retain the thread of tradition, while fulfilling the artistic impulse to innovate. His father, for example, is best known for having sculpted a saltcellar in antler that captures the spirit of the ptarmigan, the small bird that is found in all arctic and sub-arctic regions. During his lifetime, Lars Pirak produced thousands of these, and counted the current queen, Sylvia, among his best customers. At his father’s request, Michael continues to produce a few of these each month, but his own interests lie more in creating other finely crafted functional items such as spoons and butter knives, carved from antler and horn.

In the past, virtually all utensils and storage items were made from available materials within individual families. Those made from wood were typically constructed using birch, which is not only abundant in this region, but provides a naturally occurring anomaly, a burl, that easily becomes the basis of bowl or cup. Once the burl is removed from the tree, it’s roughly carved into its intended shape and then left to dry before the craftsman proceeds. While it would obviously be easier to use modern carving tools for this process, a Sámi craftsman relies only on his knives, most of which he will also have crafted. The result, as seen in this picture, is a thin-walled vessel that is surprisingly strong, and is also a testament to the prowess of the individual carver. Decoration is almost always a feature of any of these handcraft products, but is subject to a great deal of regional variation.

As a result, one of the tasks of all of the duodji instructors is to ensure their students learn the proper patterns of their respective home regions–yet another example of the value of retaining what we keep referring to as traditional knowledge. Students emerging from the two-year program here at Samij Åhpadusguovdåsj are thus not only skilled in working with traditional materials, but can also be expected to pass along the lore of their families and communities.

Lisbeth Kielatis is one of two full-time skin and textile instructors at the school, and her enthusiasm for her subject was such that she hardly required any interpretation, despite the fact that she spoke only Swedish to the students. Her gestures and facial expressions easily conveyed the information she sought to impart to her charges. Her presentation began with an explanation of the need to gather proper materials, including the right bark to be used in the tanning process, which begins immediately after the annual fall slaughter. She emphasized that every inch of the reindeer is used–to do less would be to demonstrate disrespect for the animals that have historically provided so much for Sámi populations. The tanning procedure, for example, removes most of the fat from the hide. In order to assure its pliability the newly tanned hide is subsequently treated with fat that is found in the reindeer’s hooves, which also makes the skin virtually waterproof.

As was the case with the “hard” duodji products, these “soft” products are subject to subtle but important regional distinctions, ranging from the type of seams chosen to more obvious difference is decorative patterns. Moreover, as Lisbeth stressed, there are gender restrictions that one must take into account, most frequently evident in the colors used. One of the great sources of humor among Sámi populations is the all-too-frequent appearance of a tourist sporting an article of clothing that clearly is intended for the opposite gender. Without the necessary knowledge to “read” these articles, however, it’s easy to understand why a person would make this mistake, so it’s incumbent upon the duodji students to learn all of this information as well.

The newest line of instruction, the traditional culinary arts program, is taught by Greta Huuva, who grew up in a migrating reindeer family where she learned first-hand how to choose, preserve and use berries, mushrooms and local plants that have been important food resources to Sámi people for millennia. Her approach to teaching this information to a younger generation is based in oral tradition, wherein students learn as she did, by going out into the woods and gathering and preparing the materials at her side. Once back in the kitchen, however, the perspective broadens considerably, as students learn to use these resources not only in the traditional manner, but also how to incorporate them into food that would easily pass muster in the trendiest restaurant.

In keeping with this approach, Greta began her presentation by offering a wide selection of dried berries and plants to sample, each one playing a different role in creating both traditional and modern Sámi food. Among the most fascinating was the source of cooking fat, which within a migrating culture has to be something that can be stored without refrigeration and without fear of it becoming rancid quickly. The solution is simple and ingenious: fat from the reindeer is collected at slaughter and placed within one of the animal’s stomachs (they have four). After being stitched up (using sinew made from the hind leg tendons) the resulting small orb is hung up in a warm, dry environment, preferably a tent or turf hut with a slow fire. Once thoroughly dried (and partially smoked), the fat is now usable for up to a year without any risk of contamination or rancidity. Since it imparts a particular taste to everything, Greta insists that students learn this process and how to use the product properly, even though cooking fat is readily available in any store.

Of course, the best part about visiting a cooking school is being able to taste what emerges from the kitchen, and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Here you see two examples of “modern traditional” Sámi food: On the right is a bit of smoked arctic char atop a piece of home-baked bread, complemented with a condiment made by slightly fermenting milk with kvanne (Angelica archangelica) a plant that grows all over the arctic and sub-arctic, and is a significant source of Vitamin C. On the left, a piece of soavas (cold-smoked reindeer, a real delicacy) is perched on a roll of freshly baked flat bread, accompanied by more of the fermented milk. I managed to get this photo before these last two pieces disappeared quickly, leaving everyone who tried this innovative food amazed with the results–in short, this is great food. Wish we could bring some home to share, but I’m afraid the photo will have to suffice.


To the top of the world and back again

By Richard Jones-Bamman on June 14, 2010 5:19 AM
Här slutar almän väg…

“This is the end of the public road…” With this simple sign confronting us on Friday evening (June 11), we realized we were in for quite an adventure as we arrived in Nikkaluokta, a small settlement that literally lies at the end of a road running west from Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town. With Krister ensconced in the navigator’s seat, regaling us with stories and information and selecting our road music, the journey up from Jokkmokk was thankfully uneventful, save for a couple of moose sightings along the way, and yet another encounter with Swedish pizza (last time, I promise, gang.)

Krister had been asked to attend a confirmation class for 43 Sámi teens, where he was to conduct a joik workshop and encourage the young attendees to embrace their culture as they approached the change in status that confirmation entails. Since I suspect the profundity of these activities may be lost on most readers, let me simply state that for nearly 200 years, Sámi people were taught by the church that joik, their unique vocal music, was sinful. That the state church now encourages a joik workshop, where students learn not only the significance of this musical genre, but also how to perform it, speaks volumes about the change in relationships between the Swedish majority and the indigenous Sámi minority, especially here in the north. But enough of my lecturing–suffice it to say that this arrangement which brought Krister to Nikkaluokta, provided the rest of us with the opportunity to experience a part of the country that remains one of Europe’s last untouched wilderness regions.

With a permanent population of about fifty people, Nikkaluokta wouldn’t merit a spot on all but the most detailed maps, were it not for the fact that this little settlement serves as the entry to Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain (2104 meters, or 6903 feet). Each year several hundred intrepid souls attempt the ascent that requires a 20km trek from Nikkaluokta just to reach the base of the mountain. Throw in completely unpredictable weather, and the result is that few actually achieve their goal. While we obviously had no such lofty ambitions, I did want the gang to experience as much of the area as possible. First on the agenda, therefore, was finding them a place to stay.

As I trust you all can imagine, Nikkaluokta doesn’t exactly cater to tourists whose expectations extend beyond very basic shelter. Initially, it appeared that the group might be housed in a couple of large tents, but thankfully we located a small one about five minutes’ walk from the field station/café that serves as the last outpost before one begins exploring this vast region on foot. I have to admit feeling a certain amount of trepidation about this, especially after hearing the gasps and strained giggles when it was clear that the accommodations did not include running water (i.e., no bathroom), but I’m a firm believer in humans’ abilities to rise to a challenge, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t proven wrong in this instance. Once the initial shock had worn off, they figured out how to deal with the situation and made the best of it.

On Saturday morning (June 12), we set off from Nikkaluokta along one of the many paths comprising a complex national trail system known as Kungsleden (the King’s path). These are maintained year round and often connect a series of huts/shelters, where hikers can rest briefly, or settle in for the night. In this instance, we were heading along the trail that eventually leads to Kebnekaise, although our goal was considerably less ambitious.

After consulting the map, I had determined that we would head toward Ladtjojaure, a beautiful lake that lay approximately 6km out, figuring that a 12km roundtrip was the perfect activity to work up a hearty appetite for lunch.

Along the way, we found ample evidence of some of the permanent residents of the region, most notably moose. Thankfully our experience with the latter was limited to scat sightings, since these animals are among the most dangerous of all, especially the bulls, who are extremely territorial. At approximately 4km out, we took a smaller trail north and found ourselves in the midst of a large pit-trap grouping. Some of the 75 pits in our immediate vicinity dated back more than 4000 years, yet a number of them were still in use in the early part of the 20th century. Their design is simple, as is their function: dig a pit at least a meter deep; place sharpened stakes in the bottom, facing upward; cover the pit with branches and leaves; drive animals toward the pits; and dispatch them quickly once they’ve fallen in. Since the contrast is a bit difficult to discern in a photograph, Meghan kindly volunteered to be our “catch”–no need to worry, she survived the experience without any ill effects.

Once back to the main path, we quickly covered the rest of the way to Ladtjojaure, where there is actually a little restaurant serving coffee and snacks.

One can also take a boat across the lake at this point, thereby foreshortening the trek to Kebnekaise, but I could tell that I had some hungry hikers on my hands, so we turned around and headed back to Nikkaluokta, where Krister had made advance arrangements with the café staff to prepare one of northern Sweden’s most celebrated gustatorial contributions, renskav.

As is so often the case with food, attempts to describe the taste of this particular dish fall short of the experience itself, but imagine very thin slices of lean reindeer meat (typically cut from the shoulder or haunch), sautéed quickly in a bit of butter, and then sauced with just a splash of cream to thicken the juices from the meat. This is then served with a generous dollop of freshly mashed potatoes and the ubiquitous Swedish condiment, lingonberry preserves–an extremely simple looking meal, but one that creates fans of reindeer meat among even the most skeptical. Sarah was heard to exclaim on several occasions, “This is the best meal I’ve ever eaten.” Frankly, I’d have to agree with her, and judging from the universally clean plates on our table I think it’s fair to say that no one was disappointed.

The combination of a hike and such a rich meal, naturally left everyone a bit woozy, but things perked up considerably when the sun made an unexpected appearance. Suddenly the mountains that surround the valley in which we were standing, emerged from the clouds and the mist, and the results were breath taking. We were still in the wrong area to catch sight of Kebnekaise, but the other mountains in the range certainly were impressive in their own right.

On Sunday, we packed up the van and made our way back to Jokkmokk, but Krister had one more stop planned, this time in Jukkasjärvi, a small town that these days is distinguished by the Ice Hotel that is constructed annually and attracts visitors from all over the world, who pay very large sums for the experience of sleeping in this impressive building made completely from ice harvested from the local river. Naturally, the hotel is “down” for the season, but we were there to see something arguably of much greater significance, a small church at the far end of the village. This region of Sápmi was where the evangelical Lutheran priest, Lars Levi Laestadius held sway in the mid-19th century, bringing many Sámi into the fold of the church, where his predecessors had failed miserably in their own attempts to introduce Christianity. Laestadius’ success in large part can be credited to his full understanding of Sámi culture, in particular the pre-Christian belief system, from which he borrowed certain elements, incorporating them into what is now called “Laestadianism”, a fully recognized branch of the state Lutheran church. While not limited by any means to Sámi populations, it is within small Sámi communities like Jukkasjärvi where it remains most fervently practiced. As evidence of this, the little community church houses a remarkable triptych, depicting Laestadius in action on the side panels. On the left, you see red-haired Laestadius preaching to a Sámi group, while one man responds by smashing a keg of alcohol (far left); the right panel shows Laestadius again, surrounded by his congregants, one of whom has entered an ecstatic trance, a remnant from the previous belief system. These strikingly modern paintings (completed in the 1970s) provide a stark contrast with the rest of this modest chapel, but there is one other notable element in the interior, the organ.

The latter has acquired a new front panel surrounding the mid-sized pipes, one evincing the exceptional traditional handcraft skills of local artisans. The wood (primarily birch burl) has been carved with geometric designs typical to the region, and is further decorated with scarabs of reindeer horn that are engraved and inked. Most striking, however, is the sun in the center, not merely for its execution, but for its symbolic value: a similar sun was the central figure on the drum that the pre-Christian noai∂it (shamans) used in their rituals–yet more evidence of the continuing Laestadian incorporation of elements from the earlier belief system.

Before leaving the churchyard, Krister showed us the monument raised in the memory of Johan Thuri, a man rightfully credited with being the first Sámi author, whose book, Muitalus sámiid birra (A Book About Sámi Lives) came out in 1910, and remains one of the most important historical resources for those interested in Sámi culture. I have to admit to a particular fondness for this gentleman’s work, since the English language translation (Turi’s Book of Lapland) was certainly among the early inspirations for my own work in this part of the world. His stories are vivid and full of engaging details, providing a view of a world and a lifestyle now largely superseded by the trappings of modernity–highly recommended if you can find a copy!

Arriving back in Jokkmokk yesterday, in mid-afternoon, not surprisingly everyone headed directly for the showers, but I trust the rest of the group agrees with me that this trip provided an unprecedented experience on many levels, ranging from the challenge of an outhouse to unbelievable natural beauty.


Welcome to Sápmi

By Richard Jones-Bamman on June 10, 2010 2:47 AM
Mun boran marffi…*
Today (Wednesday, June 9) began with a striking personal reminder that learning a new language is not an easy task. Over the nearly 20 years I’ve been coming to this region, I’ve managed to get by quite well with virtually no knowledge of Sámi, since nearly everyone I’ve worked with also speaks Swedish or Norwegian, languages I understand with little difficulty. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that given the opportunity to study Sámi formally, it would be incumbent upon me to give it my best try. Consequently, when I heard that the school here in Jokkmokk was also offering a beginning course in North Sámi, I decided to jump in. After two hours of pure confusion, gradually a few concepts began to sink in, but I’m quickly discovering that this non-Indo-European language requires more than I bargained for. Who would have thought that one needed more than singular and plural cases? Sámi has three: singular, dual and plural (i.e., applied to three or more). And how about that locative case? You know, the one that applies different adjectival and verb forms according to one’s position relative to the thing/person described. I figure if I can learn to say more than “Hello”, “My name is…” and “Thanks” (my previous repertoire), I’ll have accomplished something. The gang, of course, finds this hilarious–Dr. J-B has to stay in and do his homework, while they’re out exploring the area.

In search of the Midnight Sun
On Monday evening, Krister decided it was high time we head up to the top of the hill behind Jokkmokk, with the hopes of seeing the Midnight Sun. It had been a relatively clear day, especially late in the afternoon, so there seemed to be a reasonable chance that our efforts would be rewarded. We piled into the van and drove up a rough track (“road” is far too generous), until we reached a point about 100 yards below the promontory, and hiked the rest of the way. Unfortunately some clouds had moved in, but the view was still well worth having made the trip. The entire valley lay before us, bathed in light that was certainly bright enough to read a newspaper without any problems. And while the sun wasn’t actually visible, its presence was easily discernible to the north (that’s right, the north) of us, as it reflected off the low clouds.

We’re heading further north over the weekend, into an area where the Midnight Sun is even more commonly sighted, so with any luck our quest will be fulfilled in the next few days.

Following the footsteps of an elder
Today also marked the first of several classes during which the students are to spend time with a local elder. In this instance, we were privileged to meet with Abmut-Ivar Kuoljok, a sturdy 82-year old reindeer herder, whose vast knowledge of this lifestyle is superseded perhaps only by his generous desire to share his life experiences with a younger generation. After a quick introduction, we divided up among several vehicles and began a journey into a very different reality, one in which the past and the present merge seamlessly. With Krister acting as our translator, we all discovered reindeer herding requires not only a great deal of physical fortitude and an intimate relationship with the environment, but also an ability to negotiate the modern market society that has developed a taste for reindeer products. Here you see Abmut-Ivar discussing the difference between types of lassos, and why one would choose to use one over the other.

Yet, moments later he was describing how helicopters are now used to aid in the process of rounding up the animals in the spring and the fall, in preparation for moving them to a different pasturage region.

The rest of the day was spent following Abmut-Ivar through the annual cycle that he, the members of his Sameby (herding collective) and the reindeer have repeated for time immemorial. This first stop in Grässvallen, is where the animals spend the winter in pasturage sheltered by the trees. Reindeer are rangifers, whose winter diet under normal circumstances consists almost entirely of lichen, which comprises most of the natural groundcover in these woods. The animals have evolved front hooves for digging through hard snow to reach this food source, yet if there is too much ice, nature provides an equally nutritious alternative, “hanging” lichen that grows on the conifers at this latitude.

As Abmut-Ivar explained, however, the increased logging activity in this region has led to a severe depletion in hanging lichen, which unfortunately can have disastrous results. This last winter, for example, an early, heavy snowfall was followed in quick succession by a warm period and then a long cold spell with lots of snow, creating a nearly impenetrable layer of ice and snow. With little hanging lichen to supplement their diets, the reindeer were in danger of starving, so the herders were forced to resort to feeding them commercial fodder. The problem with this is that their digestive systems are not adapted for such a sudden shift in food sources, and predictably a number of animals die within 24 hours, while others develop such a taste for the stuff that it can be difficult to wean them from it when weather conditions improve. If ever one needed proof of the impact of such a seemingly small change in the environment (fewer trees), here was a profound example, and one that could easily be avoided if conversations between the forest products industry and reindeer herders could be just a bit less polemical.

Our next stop was the huge corral system at Kuorpak, a relatively flat area, lying at the feet of the “cold mountains”, so termed because they always have snow.

This series of corrals is used to separate the Sameby’s massive herd into smaller herds representing individual family holdings. It’s an ingenuous system, one involving movable walls and gates that eventually brings a controllable, steady stream of reindeer into the center, a large round area with multiple, small corrals radiating outward, each with its own gate.

These smaller holding pens (referred to by the herders as their “offices”), allow each herding family the opportunity to further cull those animals that will be slaughtered for commercial purposes, primarily bulls, since one needs only so many in any herd, and they produce the most meat. In the past the animals would then have been led by foot down from these hills to the forest, using a network of frozen rivers as natural highways.

But once again, modernity has introduced changes with severe repercussions for those who follow this traditional livelihood. What were once streams and rivers are now reservoirs, generating massive amounts of electricity for all of northern Sweden–ten of these power stations can be found just in the Jokkmokk region. While this harnessing of nature’s energy potential is inarguably positive for the majority of the Swedish population, the impact on herding has been profound. What used to be an admittedly hard four-day trek through the woods with the reindeer is now accomplished with tractor-trailers, custom fitted to haul the animals down the road in just a few hours. Consequently, the last stage in the culling process at Kuorpak is a large ramp that makes it easier to load the reindeer into the two-story truck interiors.

As Abmul-Ivar explained this to us, he grew increasingly wistful, as evidenced by the stories he told of his past and memories of former herding practices. It’s hard to imagine the degree of change this wonderful old gentleman has seen in his lifetime, having grown up as a member of a trans-migratory family who lived in tents and turf huts as they followed the reindeer through their complex cycle. Perhaps the most telling example, however, came when he showed us a plastic neck band that younger herders are now attaching to their animals for easier identification purposes, each band having a discrete number corresponding to a registry maintained by the Sameby. With a slight shake of his head and a wan smile, Abmul-Ivar remarked that he and his contemporaries could easily distinguish their own reindeer among the thousands owned by the collective, merely by memorizing their individual features. And here we had the perfect example of what we’ve been calling “traditional knowledge” in our course…


* I eat hotdogs…

Finally, the Arctic Circle!

By Richard Jones-Bamman on June 7, 2010 5:55 AM

Those smiling faces in the photo above belong to seven intrepid travelers who are straddling the line that marks the Arctic Circle. We crossed that boundary late yesterday afternoon (Sunday, June 6) after a long, but eventful day that began several hundred miles away in Umeå, and concluded (finally) in Jokkmokk, the small town where we’ll be staying for the next 12 days, while the group takes part in a class on Indigenous Traditional Knowledge.

Once we had everything packed up in the van yesterday morning, we picked up Krister Stoor, who will be the instructor for the course here in Jokkmokk. While Krister’s presence necessitated a bit of repacking and resettling in the van, any possible discomfort was immediately assuaged by his humor and knowledge of the region, which he dispensed in equal shares all day long. The promise of fresh rhubarb/raspberry pie, which Krister’s wife, Karin, had sent along for the journey made him an even more welcome addition to the gang.

Our first stop brought the group face-to-face with evidence of the region’s earliest inhabitants, in the form of petroglyphs that have been dated to 2400 BCE.

Over the last decades, more than 300 of these rock carvings have been discovered just below a dam that marks the confluence of the Ume and Vindeln rivers. Since the dam’s construction, the area has been combed over by archaeologists, seeking any indication of early settlements, presumably by the forebears of the Sámi, who were clearly in the area before Indo-European peoples moved in from the south.

Among the images are those depicting people, boats and above all, moose, which were not only abundant throughout the region, but played a significant role in the belief system of those who made the carvings.

This is how to make coffee…

Continuing our journey on a northwesterly trajectory, we soon encountered the Vindeln River, which is still dangerously close to flood stage, thanks in large part to a very heavy snowfall in the lower elevations last winter, and exacerbated by equally heavy rainfall this spring. Many of the convenient places to stop along the roadside, have a cup of coffee and admire the surroundings were either submerged or at least too wet from recent flooding. Leave it to our Sámi guide, however, to know the perfect spot for a brief lunchtime picnic: Mårdseleforsen, one of three major rapids along the Vindeln. We packed up the necessary food and headed down the path to the river, which was moving along at a frightening pace. When the gang realized Krister was heading for the suspension bridge that crossed over the rapids, one could sense more than a little trepidation, but that quickly evolved into excitement as we watched some older folks accomplish the crossing successfully.

Once on the other side, we found a conveniently placed, sturdy picnic table (those Swedish tax monies at work), and Krister proceeded to build a fire in the fire pit that adjoined our space. Out came his Sámi knife, sharp enough to shave paper-thin slices from a chunk of pine to serve as kindling, and in what seemed like seconds the fire was blazing away.

While this undoubtedly delighted those who were feeling a bit chilled (the temp was hovering around 50F), the real purpose of this whole process was to brew up some real coffee, i.e., boiled in a coffeepot directly over an open flame.

I must admit to being an unrepentant coffee snob, disdaining to drink virtually any coffee I don’t make myself from beans I purchase directly from the roaster I used to work for, but Sámi coffee is the exception. It’s strong, thick and has a slightly smoky quality, thanks to the open fire, and frankly is usually made from whatever ground coffee is at hand. Apparently, I’m not alone in this judgment, however, as the coffee drinkers amongst us all had seconds, particularly since the slightly tart character of the rhubarb-raspberry pie proved to be the perfect gustatory counterpart to the bitter brew.

Once back in the car, having successfully renegotiated the suspension bridge, this time with a little caffeine incentive roaring through our systems, we settled in for another long cruise through endless miles of woods along small, smoothly paved roads. I should probably clarify that these are not the dense forests those of you New Englanders are familiar with. One marked difference is the preponderance of birch and willow, intermixed with spruce and fir. Moreover, the ground vegetation primarily comprises low bushes, many of which produce edible berries, including lingon and blueberries. Visually, then, these forests have a transparent quality, enhanced by the shimmering birch leaves that reflect even the slightest light. The further north one travels, the birch and willow virtually take over, with fewer conifers to contend with; the species also change, as is evident by the size of the trees–given the harshness of arctic and subarctic climate, not surprisingly the trees are stunted, some of them reaching only a few feet in height when fully matured. Add this to the myriad mires and sudden rocky outcroppings, and this whole region has an otherworldly character that is very hard to describe.

Of “Lappstads” and other interesting sites

As the day waned, Krister and I realized we’d best stop to do a bit of grocery shopping, especially given the fact that it was a Sunday, and the stores in Jokkmokk would undoubtedly close early. This happily coincided with our arrival in Arvidsjaur, a lovely spot in its own right, but even more so because of its place in Sámi history. Until well into the 19th century, all Swedes were required to attend church regularly, including those Sámi who fell under the control of the Swedish crown. Yet it was clearly impractical to expect people who migrated constantly to show up every Sunday morning, well scrubbed and contrite, so a compromise was struck. On three or four occasions each year, Sámi populations were expected to converge on specific towns, where they would spend several days attending to church-related matters, ranging from weddings and christenings to simple church services. But what to do with these potentially large crowds of people in towns that clearly didn’t have extra housing? The answer was simple: each affected town would set aside a specific space upon which the Sámi would erect simple, permanent huts and storage spaces, which would then serve as their accommodations whenever they came into the area for these specific church days.

Of course, this also played right into existing racist ideology when it came to Swedish-Sámi relations, for it clearly meant that the Sámi were segregated from the dominant Swedish population. What better way to reinforce the second-class status of the Sámi than to ensure that they wouldn’t mix with the Swedes, but would remain in their own special, enclosed area? For the Sámi, however, these “Lappstads” (Lapp towns) provided an unparalleled opportunity to meet up with old friends and generally have a very good time with one another, despite the watchful eyes of their more properly repentant Swedish neighbors.

Arvidsjaur was one of these locations, dating back at least 200 years, and today its Lappstad has been declared a UNESCO historical heritage location, which means it is still in use and meticulously maintained according to traditional restrictions. There is no electricity or running water in any of the huts, although there is a convenient bathroom built to resemble the traditional structures, on the edge of the plot. Krister walked us through the Lappstad, stopping to explain how the interiors are built to resemble a traditional Sámi tent, and demonstrating the proper way one moves within this space, being careful not to cross over the area behind the hearth, for fear of disturbing the spiritual atmosphere that attains to this spot. While people are obviously no longer forced to attend church, this Lappstad still sees a fair amount of use, since it continues to provide an ideal location for gathering people who may be spread apart by the vicissitudes of modern living. At the very least, families who own a hut in this location, congregate at least once per year during August for a large celebration of their Sámi heritage, and a reminder of their shared past in this particular region.

After Arvidsjaur, it was basically just more driving, now heading almost directly due north as we approached the Circle. By the time we finally arrived, the temp had dropped rather significantly to the low 40s, but that didn’t stop us from taking full advantage of the photo-op this moment provided.

As we settle into the daily routine here, I have to admit I’m not entirely sure how often I’ll be adding to this blog, but I’ll certainly make contributions whenever I feel there’s something worth sharing. In the meantime, please rest assured we’re all doing well and looking forward to the start of classes.


The Land of Orange Horses

By Richard Jones-Bamman on June 5, 2010 4:29 PM

After a bit of navigational difficulty on my part yesterday morning, we left Falun and made our way deeper into Dalarna, the folkloric heartland of Sweden. This is a region undoubtedly best known outside the country for the Dalahäst, the orange, wooden horses produced by the hundreds of thousands within a cottage industry dating back nearly a century.

These days, as we were informed by the lone worker not taking a coffee break while we were visiting one of the factories, most of those employed are retirees picking up a small addition to their pensions, but the carvers still do most of their work at home, as did their forebears, primarily local farmers who filled the long, cold winter months with this distinctive handwork.

No one is certain how this tradition began, but it was certainly well established by the first decade of the 20th century, and has gained momentum since. While the majority of the horses still come from one village, Nusnäs, over the years other communities have begun creating their own distinctive models. Moreover, the horses have been joined by pigs and roosters, and these too have begun to show up in different styles, representing individual villages throughout the area.

What makes this region so special to Swedes? Hard to say, actually. In many respects, the Dalarna and its people are markedly different than the rest of the nation. There are local dialects, for example, that are virtually unintelligible from one village to the next, let alone outside Dalarna. And the same can be said of the music, which tends to be extremely regional, right down to how one determines where the second beat in a typical 1-2-3 beat pattern falls–sometimes it’s a bit late in arriving, and in other locales, it’s decidedly ahead of where one would expect it to be. Yet Dalarna remains the place where Swedes direct tourists if they want to see the “real” Sweden. So who are we to argue with this?

Our journey took us up the eastern shore of Lake Siljan, the geographical and symbolic center of Dalarna. Along the way, we stopped in Tällberg at a small hemslöjd (handcraft) shop, that also happens to serve some of the best waffles in the country, and spring and summer are prime waffle season. Served up with a dollop of slightly sweetened whipped cream and a spoonful of hjortron (cloudberry) jam, these waffles are light but deceptively rich, as all who partook of this treat can surely attest. The other reason for stopping in Tällberg (should one actually need an excuse beyond eating waffles) is the spectacular view of the lake one has from this high point along the route.

Arriving at our stopping point in Håvre last night, we found yet another fine example of a “family hostel” awaiting us, and this time we have the entire place to ourselves.

In honor of our deep immersion in local culture these last couple of days, I elected to present the gang with a meal of simple, but typically Swedish foods: sill (pickled herring), freshly-baked flatbread (from a wood-fired oven in Rättvik), Leksands knäckebröd (hard bread), a variety of cheeses, pytt i panna (a type of hash made with diced potatoes and pork) and lingonberry sauce, and topped off with fresh strawberries and pepparkackor (gingersnaps). I’m delighted to say everyone gave the sill a try, although I’m not sure I’ve created any converts yet.

Today’s journey basically involved getting from Point A (Håvre) to Point B (Umeå)–in other words, a fairly long day in the van. Nevertheless, we did manage to squeeze in one more very typical Swedish experience known as fika, loosely translated as a coffee break, but one that involves taking the time to enjoy one’s surroundings and the company of others. We located a lovely little park along the river outside Örsköldsvik, where there were several small huts provided for just such a gathering.

This was particularly fortuitous because the temperature dropped rather suddenly as we drove north, which meant that sitting outdoors wasn’t quite as comfortable as it had been previously. Given the Swedes’ love of the outdoors, however, it’s not surprising that these huts exist in most public parks. After all, why should a bit of cold weather stop you from enjoying a bit of food and friendship?

Tomorrow we head for the Arctic Circle and Jokkmokk, the village where we’ll be staying for the next two weeks, learning more about Sámi culture.


“This house is older than our country!”

By Richard Jones-Bamman on June 3, 2010 3:43 PM

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this little adventure from my perspective is witnessing the reactions of my seven fellow-travelers as they encounter things that clearly impress or in some way challenge them. This is obviously a regular occurrence in such an unfamiliar environment, but there are moments of true revelation that stand out, such as Meghan’s wonderful realization yesterday that Gammel Gränöme, the manor house we were staying in (completed in 1730), predated her grasp of history from an American perspective. While we all understand such concepts intellectually, how often do we have the opportunity to be challenged like this with tangible evidence that our point of reference is merely one among many? After all, from the Swedish point of view, an 18th century house is hardly “old”, not in a culture that easily traces its origins back to the Viking era of the 9th and 10th centuries.

Even the woman who manages the hostel made it clear that as nice as this place was, we should really check out a pair of older houses (13th and 14th century, respectively) in the neighborhood! By the way, that’s our trusty Renault “Traffic” van, which seems to suit us very well. Everyone has a comfortable seat, a clear view, and all of the luggage fits in the back with room to spare.

In many ways, however, this hostel was really just one more reminder of the history that people live with here. We began with a short drive from Stockholm to Uppsala, seat of both the oldest cathedral (established 1164) and oldest university (a relative newcomer from 1246) in Sweden. After exploring the interior of the cathedral where we encountered the grave of Gustav Vasa, the king who first unified the various warring factions and created what we now think of as Sweden and Swedes, we took in the sights of this remarkable city. Not content with this dip into the past, however, we proceeded to “Old” Uppsala (Gamla Uppsala), where five Viking era burial mounds dominate the scene, providing evidence that long before the Christians arrived and built their big church, this region was under the sway of Odin, Thor and the other Norse gods.

The early church leaders, however, recognized the symbolic potential of this place and erected their first church right next to the burial mounds, and over the remains of a Viking gathering hall, where presumably large quantities of mead were consumed. In recognition of the latter, the restaurant that lies close by continues to serve this drink of fermented honey, but we wisely passed up this experience in favor of much more mature endeavors (see below.)

This region is also home to a surprising number of old iron foundries, most of them dating back to the 17th century, when iron ore was found in sufficient amounts to warrant importing skilled laborers from the Lowlands (Belgium and Holland), to manage and staff the smelters and smithing operations. Thus, in keeping with the general historical theme, we made a short stop at Gysingebruk, one of these sites that has largely been restored. The only elements missing are the actual forge and various mills that once worked year-round, producing iron goods, lumber and a variety of grain products. Today the grounds serve as a conference center, where attendees have the option of staying in one of the many well preserved workers cottages that line the grass lanes of the old mill site, such as the one depicted here: Note the ominous rainclouds overhead–our luck held, however, yielding yet another amazingly warm and mostly clear day.

Next stop, the home of Swedish artists, Carl and Karin Larsson, without a doubt the two individuals who exerted the most influence on Swedish design and decoration, largely through the publication of a series of books illustrated with Carl’s watercolor depictions of the Larsson home at Sundborn, and its residents. Even at this point, more than a century since the Larssons first moved in, the house and its furnishings exude modernity, but somehow manage to pay homage to the past at the same time. We had an excellent tour of the rooms that have been opened to the public (the Larsson family still owns the property), with a guide who turned out to be an expert on the couple’s use of visual symbolism in nearly everything they produced. There is really no way to capture the combination of boldness and whimsy that defines Sundborn with a photo, but I trust the following will at least give you an idea of the Larsson’s love of color and contrast: Every detail of the house, was carefully scrutinized by the couple, from the construction of additional rooms and studios to the textiles for everyday use. The enormity of the Larssons’ influence on contemporary Swedish design is incalculable, but one need go no further than IKEA and that company’s use of bright colors and clever designs to get an idea of Carl and Karin Larsson’s vision for an aesthetically pleasing environment.

We finished the day with a quick trip to the hostel in Falun, once home to the largest copper mining operation in the world, and the source of all that red paint that seems to grace the majority of Swedish homes. Tomorrow will find us digging deep into the folkloric heartland of Sweden, the region called Dalarna–among other things,home to those ubiquitous orange horses…


And so the adventure begins

By Richard Jones-Bamman on June 1, 2010 3:56 PM

We arrived safely in Stockholm yesterday afternoon (Monday, May 31) after a relatively easy two-stage flight that included a short stop in Iceland, just long enough to stretch our legs and clear the customs/immigration process for the entire European Union. With so many nations now participating in this economic collective travel throughout most of Europe is a snap, with porous borders and no need to show passports or papers.

While we had anticipated rather dreary weather, our raincoats packed for quick access, we were very pleasantly surprised to find Stockholm enjoying a mild, sunny day, with only a slight breeze to remind us that it’s still spring this far north. This not only made getting to our hostel an easy task, but provided extra encouragement to get out and explore, once we were successfully checked in, and explore we did, beginning with the section of the city known as “Gammel Stan” (Old Town). Stockholm lies on a series of islands, and Gammel Stan represents the least changed since the 17th century, with its labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets and old buildings housing antique shops, clothing boutiques and countless little businesses selling nearly everything imaginable. Of course, this is also one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, so it’s often jammed with people. We’re here just early enough, however, to have found the district easily navigable.

The first order of business, however, was food, and after a small amount of deliberation, the group determined to give “Swedish” pizza a try. While this differs from its American and Italian counterparts in several significant ways, perhaps most startling is the rather odd combinations of toppings available. A pizza with sliced bananas, pineapple, ham and curry, anyone? Our own Chris thought this was just the ticket, and powered through it in no time, saying several times how surprised he was that no one else in the group had ordered it, too.

Once properly refueled, we began or study of the district properly, wending our way up and down the streets, occasionally encountering lovely open squares with cafes arrayed along the perimeter. Most of these were offering outdoor serving, complete with blankets to stay warm as the temperature hovered in the low 60s. If this seems a bit extreme, keep in mind that sunshine is a precious commodity in this part of the world, where winters are not only long and cold, but dark as well. We’re currently on approximately the same latitude as Anchorage, just to give you a reference point.

Today, after treating ourselves to a proper Swedish breakfast (large), we headed to the Vasa Museum, which houses a remarkably well-preserved 17th century warship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. It remained on the bottom of the Stockholm harbor for more than three centuries before an enterprising Swedish maritime engineer located it and figured out a way to raise it successfully to the surface again. Thanks to the cold, brackish waters, most of the ship was intact, and today it certainly qualifies as the only one of its kind. One enters the museum not quite sure what to expect, only to be presented with an enormous wooden ship (65 meters long), seemingly suspended in space in a very large, dimly lighted room, ringed with different viewing mezzanines and platforms. I have no idea how many times I’ve visited this museum over the years–certainly enough to know what to anticipate–and it still takes my breath away every time I walk in and see the Vasa hovering as though freshly resurrected from its untimely passing.

Since this museum presents a very difficult act to follow, and given yet another fine, sunny day, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon simply exploring more of Stockholm on foot, strolling through residential and commercial districts, enjoying the sights and sounds of a foreign city. I won’t presume to list the highlights from a student perspective, but I think it’s safe to say that no one was disappointed.

We leave Stockholm tomorrow on a route that will take us north on a rather circuitous route, as we head for the Arctic Circle and Jokkmokk, the town that will be our home base for two weeks of study and exploration.