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Sámi peoples in a changing Arctic

Traditional Sami reindeer-skin tents (lappish yurts) in Troms region of Norway Traditional Sami reindeer-skin tents (lappish yurts) in Troms region of Norway V. Belov/Shutterstock
08 Jan
2015
As logging and climate change alter the Arctic, the indigenous Sámi peoples are open to a new world

‘People imagine the Sámi live as if they had been unaffected by technology, living in the tundra with little contact to the outside world, but that’s completely untrue,’ says Neil Kent, whose book, The Sámi Peoples of the North, provides a comprehensive social and culture history for the Sámi.

In fact, Kent told Geographical, the Sámi have adapted the latest technology to living in the Arctic, including using new techniques to process reindeer meat. The changes are not only technological. ‘Many of the Sámi people now have right and privileges as indigenous people they did not have many years ago,’ says Kent. There are improved rights to roam for reindeer herds. The logging industry, which destroys lichen essential for reindeer herding has also been restricted. But there are continuing tensions between the industry and herders, according to Kent.

There are around 160,000 Sámi spread across the Arctic regions in six countries. Most live in Sápmi, also known as Lapland, an area that covers northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Sámi living on Russia’s Kola Peninsula are among the poorest. A book was published by Norwegian Sámi about the capital of the Kola Peninsula called Shit Town. ‘It was not very much appreciated by the Sámi living there,’ says Kent. The Russian Sámi rely on Nordic largess to pay for travel to those countries, he adds, a situation that causes some resentment.

There are around 160,000 Sámi spread across the Arctic regions in six countries

‘Many Sámi people, particularly men, now marry people from China, Thailand or India,’ says Kent. It’s creating new meaning of what it is to be Sámi. ‘With a lot of Sámi women emigrating southwards,’ he says. The problem is common for men living in the Arctic. ‘It has also led to quite a thriving element of prostitution where Russian women needing cash ‘service the area’ and then go back to Murmansk and other northern cities.’

There’s also tension between environmental efforts in the Arctic and the Sámi. Kent points to efforts to reintroduce wolves to Arctic region – desirable for environmental reasons – but problematic for reindeer herders.

‘With global warming and territorial claims in the Arctic, the Sámi homeland is no longer an exotic place far away from the world,’ says Kent. ‘It’s the gateway to the high Arctic, whether it’s gas, oil or national security there’s increased activity to be considered.’ By coming together with other indigenous people in the UN, or even in cultural conferences, the Sámi can increase their clout, he adds.

Sámi political power is variable, with representatives in the Norwegian parliament but little political influence in Russia. The group’s international cultural and political alliances, Kent believes, will be vital if the Sámi are to secure a place in a changing Arctic.

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