On display at the 59th La Biennale di Venezia, as part of the exhibition “Il Latte dei Sogni – Milk of dreams”, are works by Britta Marakatt-Labba. The classical sculpture Brickhouse, by Simone Leigh, greets you as you enter the exhibition venue. But barely metres behind Brickhouse, hang Britta’s works. It feels like pausing fo a breath of fresh air. It is austere, unpretentious and strongly symbolic. Britta’s stylistic resistance art, embroidered one careful stitch at a time, is like slow-motion graffiti. People stop in their tracks. They absorb and are absorbed. Approaching the art, they examine the style of the work at close range. Moving a few steps back, they take it all in.
In Badje Sohppar, in the Municipality of Kiruna, Britta has been creating resistance art for more than 40 years. Only in recent years has she gained wider recognition in the art world. Her work Historjá, in the collection of the Arctic University of Norway, in Tromsø, is a 24-metre-long embroidered epic of Sámi history and beliefs. The artwork caused a sensation at the Documenta 14 exhibition, in Kassel, in 2017 and has been compared to the Bayeux Tapestry, another embroidered encyclopaedia. Historjá is also the title of an award-winning documentary about Britta, by Thomas Jackson. All of a sudden, it is apparent why the world’s most significant art show, has allowed her work to become part of the greater story.
The foundation of Sámi life
Britta Marakatt-Labba was not the only artist from Sápmi at the Biennale. The Nordic pavilion, which traditionally shows the works of artists from Finland, Norway and Sweden, is devoted this time entirely to Sápmi. Pauliina Feodoroff, Skolt Sámi from Ivalo, gave a performance called Matriarchy at the Biennale. It had to do with healing, both in relation to nature, and in the relation between Sámi and non-Sámi.
Máret Ánne Sara’s art takes its point of departure in her personal experience of how the Norwegian state forced her family to slaughter their reindeer herd. Máret Ánne asks the question: what happens when the laws of another culture are forced upon you and you must break the moral and ethical rules you live by and hold to be true?
For a Sámi, the forced slaughter of reindeer goes against all logic. Reindeer are the very foundation of Sámi life. But if this is questioned, what is left? The third artist in the Sámi Pavilion was Anders Sunna from Kieksiäsvaara who now lives in Jåhkåmåhkke (or Jokkmokk, if you will). Just as it is for Máret Ánne, his art is based on personal experience. It may not seem quite right to call Sunna a street artist, but there is something graffiti-like in his style.
A hymn to home
Lennart Pittja runs the award-winning eco-lodge Sápmi Nature Camp in the Laponia World Heritage in Swedish Lapland, on the grounds his sámi reindeer herding community Unna Tjerusj has inhabited for generations.
Outside of Krog Lokal in Jåhkåmåhkke, where we eat lunch one day, stands one of Sunna’s works. It is a reminder that the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No.169 was never ratified by the Swedish state. The symbolic value is always recurrent in the Sámi context. It is still a place where the struggle between origins and colonial power persists. Quite simply, the conflict of land-use issues, reindeer grazing lands versus raw materials, becomes increasingly clearer in the everyday lives of the Sámi people.
“Of course, the Biennale was important for me. But I believe it was equally important for the Nordic pavillion.”
"Imagine being able to speak all the world’s languages without saying a sound"
– Anders Sunna
The work Illegal Spirits of Sápmi, which Anders created in Venice in 2023, has been purchased by Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Since before the museum carries other work of Anders. I ask him if he is always so ‘angry’. He laughs and says:
“I am seldom angry. On the contrary, actually. Imagine being able to speak all the world’s languages without saying a sound. To reach people’s hearts first and then their consciousness. The anger you are carrying suddenly finds a way to emerge, but in a more creative form, stronger than iron. Art is that.”
The Sámi tradition is largely one of oral history. Sámi, as a written language, did not emerge until the 1950s. Early on, there was nothing written to fall back on; written historical accounts were nothing but interpretations about the Sámi but they were not by the Sámi. There have been exceptions, though almost always at the discretion of church or state. Naturally, this has impacted everyone’s chances for learning and understanding.
Even if you live here, in the middle of Sápmi, it’s quite possible that you know the names of more indigenous peoples of North America than you know the names of samebyar (reindeer husbandry associations) in your own region. In school you may never have been taught about forced relocation or assimilation, even if you are well aware that some of your classmates’ forbears had to go through all of that. And to complicate things even more, that there is a common Sámi story is never straightforward; instead, there is one story for every individual who tells it. This is complex, in every way that life is complex. Britta Marakatt-Labba says:
“It’s double, in some way. In Kiruna, when I went to the nomad school, I was just a ‘Lappdjävel’. Something undesirable. In Gothenburg, when I studied art and design at Konstindustriskolan, I was ‘the Sámi’. My origin was exotic and exciting.”
Exotic and exciting
And, for outsiders, it is sometimes difficult not to focus our attention on the exotic and exciting. In the colourful stories, the colours and designs of garments reveal a person’s origins. It is a place where simple artefacts, utility items such as knives, become incomparable works of art. How fascinating it is when everyday, practical items such as bootlaces are also part of a story.
The obviously colourful and the pride and beauty implicit in the Sámi story often take second place behind stories of struggle and resistance in today’s media stream. And it is also often difficult for an outsider to comprehend the struggle and anguish that are never very far away in the day-to-day life. Naturally, you have no special emotional attachment to the steak you pick up at your grocery store. But if you have marked the ear of a reindeer calf, and then followed the animal across the grazing lands for the rest of its life, things are different.
"We have all been young and occasionally lost, and young people have always wondered what they will be when they grow up"
To that, add the historical Christianisation and Swedification of a people whose identity was thought to be of little value. Then, add the outcomes of modern forestry practice, hydroelectric power development, urban development and climate change, and you will begin to understand the sense of vulnerability that these works of art embody, whether they be artefacts, songs or writings. The nationally and internationally award-winning film Sameblod, by Amanda Kernell, exposes this era of racial biology and cultural assault. We have all been young and occasionally lost, and young people have always wondered what they will be when they grow up. But in Kernell’s film this longing also becomes a longing to obliterate one’s identity, and a disdain for one’s origins and history.
Vocal music traditions
In the early 1900s a newly awakened Sámi identity began to emerge in the public sphere. As an example, the Sámi National Day is held on February 6th to commemorate the first Sámi political congress, which took place in Trondheim in Norway, in 1917.
Of course, the Sámi story is also its vocal music tradition – jojk. During the 1960s, when interest in their own culture blossomed, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää revived the jojk and brought it to the modern society. His first record, Joikuja, was released in 1968. The multifaceted artist Valkeapää, or Áillohas, as he is known, created music for the film Vägvisaren in 1987, performed at the 1994 Winter Olympics, in Lillehammer, and was awarded both the Nordic Council Literature Prize and the Prix Italia.
Among Sámi, Valkeapää’s Sámi eatnan duoddariid is considered a national jojk and has in some way become Sápmi’s unofficial national anthem. That the jojk now features on the modern Nordic music scene, and that Sámi rappers and other artists have introduced the jojk into popular culture is self-evident and appreciated. When artist Sofia Jannok, from Seidegavas, in the Luokta-Mavas sameby, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Luleå University of Technology, in 2021, she said in an interview with Swedish Radio that she wished her grandparents were still alive.
“I would have liked it if they had known that we could receive honorary doctorates. It would probably have been inconceivable for them.” But someone always has to be the first to break a trail.
Since 1606, the Jokkmokk’s market has been a beautiful festivity. This intersection between different cultural heritage soon became the natural meeting point for the whole of Sápmi, and later, the rest of the world.
Britta Marakatt-Labba began her career as an artist during the Alta uprising in Norway. It took many years to resolve the conflict; just as her embroideries take many years to create. In 1981, when Britta completed her studies at the University of Gothenburg School of Design and Crafts (HDK), she journeyed to Alta to join the protesters and was arrested. Of course, it could have been worse. The Norwegian government wanted to send in the military against the demonstrators, but the defence minister, Thorvald Stoltenberg, threatened to resign if that happened. One of Britta’s first works, Gárjat (The Crows), is from that time. In Sámi mythology the crow represents the authoritarian power, something that grabs things for itself. When the crows flew in over the demonstrators in Alta, they were transformed into policemen.
"It could be as simple as this: perhaps people who live with nature understand its value"
The protests had to do with grazing lands, the flooding of communities for hydropower projects, the migratory salmon, etcetera. The importance of biological diversity, as expressed in the Rio Convention, wasn’t acknowledged until several decades later. And more than 40 years later, at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, in 2023, world leaders spoke of the importance of including indigenous peoples in corporate decision-making. Simply daring to hurry a bit more slowly. One third of the world comprises areas that have traditionally been inhabited by indigenous peoples or local communities. The surprising thing here is that 91% of this land shows good or very good quality in terms of ecology and biology. It could be as simple as this: perhaps people who live with nature understand its value. Maybe we can all learn from this.
Our place on Earth
Ædean means ground or land in the old Sámi language. And the land is what it’s all about. Following the reindeer migration is the creation story of the indigenous Sámi people. This nomadic lifestyle is the foundation of the very existence of the reindeer herding culture, migrating between summer and winter grazing lands, but also of the land-use – the Sámi hunting grounds and fishing waters for subsistence.
Author Linnea Axelsson’s epic Ædnan won her the August Prize in 2018. A bit of world history captured in 762 pages of prose. Here, we follow two Sámi families through the eyes of three generations in a story that is almost incomprehensible; because subjects like skull measurements, closed borders and the flooding of ancestral lands are seldom easily digested. But Ædnan is also an interpreter for the landscape and the surrounding life: the lay of the land.
While the book Ædnan is a nearly 800-page-long epic, the sequel Magnificat, published in 2022, feels like a 150-page pamphlet. The story in Magnificat takes place in Paris. Even here, the story is about home, about our place on Earth. At the end of the book, everyday racism rears its ugly head once again when, at a simple dinner gathering, the principal character is described as belonging to: “a group of people who cling to a few local customs and had their reactionary ideas legitimised by the state”.
What is it worth?
According to the Swedish state, the Sámi are, per definition, reindeer herders. Legislation concerning reindeer herding is based on the question: are you a reindeer owner, or not? This has not only given rise to conflict between indigenous people and settlers, but also within the Sámi community itself. If you are Sámi but have no rights, then what is it worth?
When Ann-Helén Læstadius wrote the book Stöld it aroused powerful emotions. It is a strong book that takes up strong subject matter: dead reindeer, harassment and a patriarchal world. Book reviewer Gunilla Bodrej, of the Swedish daily paper Expressen, wrote that she was ashamed (for her own sake) while reading Stöld. In an earlier review of the French-Swedish TV series Midnattssol, Bodrej had concluded her text by expressing her doubt that: “a Sámi in Kiruna could be called a ‘Lappdjävel’ simply because he shows up late for work. Racism doesn’t look like that”. But everyday racism is like that, and in Stöld, this is obvious. The book was designated Book of the Year by Bonniers book clubs, is a bestseller in Europe and will be adapted for the screen by Netflix.
Geunja, a sámi eco lodge
The Sámi are the indigenous people of Scandinavia. In the highlands of Swedish Lapland, Mikael and Anki Vinka live the old way of life, as a homage to the people who have roamed this place for thousands of years.
Award-winning stories from Sápmi
In 2023 Ann-Helén Læstadius will release a new book, Straff, about the nomad-school system. If Stöld felt like a punch in the face, then the new book, Straff, will knock the wind out of you. The nomad schools were a form of institutionalised assimilation. Swedification was explicit policy. Sámi children were sent to faraway residential schools; sometimes as far as from a sameby in Härjedalen in southern Sápmi to Gällivare. Southern Sámi children could not speak the northern Sámi language and none of them could speak Swedish, so distrust flourished.
Finally: the book Herrarna satte oss hit (The masters put us here), by Elin Anna Labba, from Giron (Kiruna), is also well worth mentioning in this context. While, for example, Ædnan, Sameblod and Historja are reaching a wider audience, owing to their artistic merit, Elin Anna’s historical account is making an impact in a different way.
"A book about the forced relocation of the Sámi people is not easy to digest"
Elin Anna writes: “Our book is the sign that nobody posted, the chapter that never fit into the history textbooks”. A book about the forced relocation of the Sámi people is not easy to digest. And, although this has had such a profound effect on the lives of people today, surprisingly little is said about it. In an interview with the host of Swedish Television’s programme, Babel, Elin Anna elaborates on this:
“This [forced relocation], with so much racism and nationalism, is not a particularly pleasant chapter in the history of Sápmi. It happened concurrently with racial biology and language policy. What started it was the dissolution of the Nordic Union. When Norway became a country in its own right”.
The dissolution of the union in 1905, which brought about the establishment of a border between Norway and Sweden, made it impossible for the Sámi to move with their herds between the summer and winter lands as they had done for generations. An ‘imaginary’ border, drawn through nature, put a stop to freedom of movement for reindeer as well as the Sámi.
Elin Anna worked on the book for seven years. When asked what it was like to dig through her own family history in the archives of the State Institute for Racial Biology, and to do hundreds of interviews with people who had been forced to leave their homes and endure separation from their families, she replies:
“But oddly enough, it has been rather enjoyable, since we have discussed a lot of other things as well. We’ve talked about everyday life, relationships, parting with boyfriends and finding new ones… so much of it has been wonderful.”
One thing that makes the book so gripping is that, in the Swedish translation, many Sámi words have not been translated. Much of it can be understood in context; other parts may have to be googled. However, all of the jojks included in the book have been written only in Sámi.
Culture programme Babel’s host Jessika Gedin, at Swedish Television, summarizes it best when she says:
“Somehow, it’s up to me, as a reader, to understand; and not up to the Sámi to explain.”
A few facts about Sápmi
You might come across the Swedish word ‘sameby’, which literally means ‘Sámi village’. But there is no point looking for an actual village as such. A sameby is more of an association, in an economic and administrative sense, made up of a number of reindeer owners and reindeer herders within a certain geographical area (reindeer grazing land) where reindeer husbandry is carried out. So, a sameby is more an assembly of reindeer owners. The area of the sameby varies in size. There are 51 of these reindeer husbandry associations in Sweden.
In Sweden there are five different orthographies (written languages) in a Sámi context: Southern Sámi, Ume Sámi, Pite Sámi, Lule Sámi and Northern Sámi. Generally speaking, the Sámi languages have been written languages since the 1950s, even if Ume Sámi only got an approved orthography in the 21st century.
There is no uniform written language, because the languages themselves differ from each other. Between Southern Sámi and Northern Sámi the difference is comparable to the difference between Swedish and Icelandic, while the difference between Ume Sámi and Lule Sámi is perhaps more like between Swedish and Norwegian. The comparison has its limitations, but just as a way of explaining.
The Sámi National Day is celebrated on February 6, commemorating the first Sámi congress in Trondheim in 1917. It is a day when the Sámi flag is flown.
Astrid Båhl from Skibotn designed the flag, where the circle is a symbol of the sun and moon – red representing the sun, and blue the moon. The background colours also feature in the Sámi costume. The flag is inspired by the poem Päiven Pardne, Sons of the Sun, written by the poet and priest Anders Fjellner in Sorsele.