Sami: Indigenous People in Sweden and Beyond

Sami flag (picture courtesy of sweden.se)
Sami flag (photo from sweden.se)

I have to say that there were very few surprises in Sweden. Furnishings are both functional and creative, weather chilly and snowy, most people tall and blond, and political protests considered regular occurrences. But I did learn about one surprising component that overlaps with Sweden’s culture and history: an indigenous people known as Sami.

Sami memorabilia at the Stockholm Nordic Museum's Sami exhibit
Sami memorabilia at the Stockholm Nordic Museum’s Sami exhibit

Who are the Sami?

Sami are an indigenous people and ethnic minority from Sápmi, an area of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and an adjoining area of Russia. Outsiders have termed this area Lapland and, in the past, referred to the Sami people as Laps or Laplanders.

The reindeer remains an important symbol of this culture, which developed around nomadic reindeer herding. Only around a tenth of Sami still depend on the traditional livelihood today, partly due to conflicting government regulations regarding land and herding. Traditional crafts include carved wooden reindeer milking pots, round on the bottom to prevent being knocked over.

Reindeer tools and crafts at the Nordic Museum's Sami exhibit
Reindeer tools and crafts, including milking pot with handle

As with many other indigenous peoples, the Sami culture historically relied on a predominantly oral language and celebrates a close relationship with nature. The colors of their flag, in fact, which represents Sami throughout the international Sápmi region, symbolize the interconnectedness between the elements of nature.

And, unfortunately, as an ethnic minority group, the Sami were subjected to discrimination and dehumanization during darker times in history. Before the end of World War II, for example, Sami people were measured and examined as part of eugenics research. Even in later times, many families stopped speaking their native language at home and encouraged their children to assimilate with mainstream Swedish culture.

Poem in the Nordic Museum
Poem in the exhibit

The Nordic Museum in Stockholm has an interesting and, in my opinion, thoughtfully presented exhibit about Sami culture. Each section of the exhibit invites the visitor to reflect on the reciprocal exchange as well as controversy that occurs when cultures converge: Whose history? Whose land? Whose influence?

In addition, it includes voices, pictures and opinions of modern day Sami who identify with their sense of being Sami and Swedish in varying ways. One woman summarized her connection to each culture so: “Swedish is my nationality but Sami is my identity.”

Photos from Jokkmokk, Arctic Sweden (photo courtesy of sweden.se)
Sami folk costume from Jokkmokk, Arctic Sweden (photo from sweden.se)

Read more about the Sami on Sweden’s Official Site: https://sweden.se/society/sami-in-sweden/

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How to Get Through a Case of Stockholm Syndrome

Swedish fish in Stockholm

When this captivating city takes you hostage, there’s not much to do but identify with it and embrace its tastefully whimsical culture. Take a dose of each of the following to work through a traveler’s case of Stockholm Syndrome:

Meatballs for the People

  • Meatballs

Served with gravy, lingonberries and mashed potatoes, this is a tasty traditional dish. For a particularly fun experience, check out Meatballs for the People, a hip and cozy restaurant where you can choose from a varying selection of meats for your meatballs, such as moose or wild boar.

 

Fika to go at Arlanda Airport

  • Fika

In other words, a coffee break or the act of taking one. In Sweden this is a way of life, as you may have suspected if you’ve read the Millennium series. You can fika to take a break from work, to get together with friends, or even take your fika to go. Enough said.

 

Kungens Kurva Ikea

  • Compact living

There’s something so satisfying about practical and efficient design. Ikea’s impact and functional design in general can be seen inside every building in town. Visit the Nordic Museum to learn – among many other things – about the history of homes and interiors in Sweden, or take the free Ikea bus from the Central Station to shop at the largest Ikea in Sweden (second largest in the world).

 

ABBA: The Museum

  • ABBA

Or really any Swedish pop music (think The Cardigans or Ace of Bass). Listening to this upbeat fluff can pick up any mood. Stockholm is home to ABBA: The Museum, a cute and interactive experience involving history narrated by the 70s singers themselves, props and costumes (including men’s and women’s platform boots), and karaoke for hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” As it says at the museum’s entrance: “Walk in, dance out.”

 

Fermented Herring Festival

  • Fish

This is a city of islands so fish (not just in gummy candy form) can be eaten at any time of day. If you thought you’d never be interested in eating fish for breakfast, you’ll be surprised by how appetizing a freshly smoked salmon can be. The same even goes for pickled herring and, of course, seafood stew for lunch or dinner. Go fish!

 

hej!

  • Say “hej!”

Pronounced “hey,” there’s probably nothing weirder or more disconcertingly freeing for an English speaker than addressing a stranger this way. In Sweden, it’s not as informal as it sounds and can even be used to say good-bye (similar to greetings like ciao or aloha). So “hej!” away.

Get well soon!

 

P.S. Later this week I write about the Sami, an ethnic minority group in Sweden, originally nomadic reindeer herders.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Barcelona

View from Gaudí's Park Güell

It’s been a long time since my only other visit to Spain. Aboard the nonsmoking section of the transatlantic flight, I was psyched up with a Walkman loaded with a tediously composed mixed tape (featuring then-new Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me” and Matchbox 20’s “Push”) and at least a dozen rolls of film in my backpack.

Spain and I have changed a lot since my days as a high school freshman. It joined the EU, changing its currency from the peseta to the euro; and along the way I turned out to be an experienced but still enthusiastic traveler. On my first visit Barcelona had captivated me, defined as it was (and is) by the colorful architecture of Gaudí melting throughout the city.

And as many of Barcelona’s citizens – and apparently now outside political groups – fight to get a say on whether Catalan should separate from Spain (strangely reminiscent of the timing of our trip to Scotland two years ago not long before their vote), I was once again enchanted by the color spectrum of this unique place.

Inside La Sagrada Familia

Stained glass

Stained glass

Softly lit archway

Most overwhelming of all remains La Sagrada Familia, the church designed by Gaudí (relatively new by European standards), whose construction has continued to progress over the nineteen years between my visits but is still ongoing. The goal is to have it completed in 2026 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death.

Every element of La Sagrada Familia is deliberate, from the contrasting styles of its birth and death facades to the styles and shapes of its many turrets. But nothing is more arresting than its channeling of light and color inside. The pale interior is completely transformed through the stained glass windows in a way I’ve never experienced before – the colored light visits the space like a welcome guest itself and makes the human visitor feel somehow both astounded and at home. Conversely, the more decorative altar areas are bathed in unfiltered natural light. And sight is really the only sense to use here, as there are none of the typical church incense smells to distract from the visual effect.

La Boqueria

Fruits and vegetables

Spices

Farther away, the city never seems to tire of surrounding its residents and visitors with color. The Boqueria market was my second favorite place to soak in Barcelona’s cultural riches. A rainbow of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, nuts, spices, and sweets literally encircle the center of fish (except after the fisherman’s Sunday off when those stands are closed).

As you might imagine, the rest of the trip was filled once again with late night tapas and sangria, gritty subway rides, and sunny afternoons in the park. Each night it rained but cleared up by morning, and it’s refreshing to know that after all this time Barcelona still flourishes somewhere over the rainbow.