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...