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
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.