In Finland and the Scandinavian countries – all of whom have populations of indigineous Sami people – there have been steady incursions into traditional Sami habitats either by wind farms, the logging industry or tourism development. None of these nations have made any attempt to grant the Sami people land rights. In this respect they have a lot to learn from Australia. It’s only on the basis of established land rights that the Sami would have the power to protect their way of life and to determine the pace of change if it is to occur – and adequate compensation. As it stands, they are powerless and as such this is a situation which does not do much credit to these so-called ‘progressive nations’.
Departing Utsjoki, at the northern most point of Lapland, we made for a town called Ivalo about 200 kilometres south in a mini-bus. On the way, the scenery went from sparse hills where only small stunted birch trees could survive to pine forests hugging the edges of the winding road. Then there were the lakes. Looking out the bus window, I seemed to see more lakes than on the journey up to Utsjoki, many of them quite large; Anya commented in her typical pithy style: ‘that’s because on the way to Utsjoki you slept most of the way’.
Ivalo was a dull town.
That’s true of every town in Lapland, which have no old centres, no old buildings, but Ivalo was much bigger than the other towns we had stayed in and it seemed oppressively sterile.
Mind you, the apartment we had booked turned out to be a small, run down, prison-cell sized apartment right on the main road with a great view of traffic and trucks – as well as the noise, especially from the rumbling trucks and the whining two stroke motor bikes.
With the windows facing into the sun, none of which could be opened, it was hot and stuffy. The internet didn’t work and there were one power point.
Extremes in accommodation are an inevitable part of travelling especially when like us, you are on a budget and don’t book ahead. This apartment, reminiscent of the communist era apartments in Eastern Europe, formed a stark contrast indeed with the place we had booked in Utsjoki; that was also a surprise, but of the positive kind: a house with a large lounge/kitchen with table and chairs and sofas, a separate bedroom with cupboards and bed lamps, and large bathroom – and oh, also a sauna. And this place was cheaper than our apartment in Ivalo!
With an afternoon to kill – and going back to our apartment was an option to be absolutely avoided – we wandered through the backstreets and then through a forest reserve until we ran into ….a lake, another one. I was actually starting to get bit jaded with lakes. I’d seen so many of them. Large and small. Of every conceivable size and shape.
At one point, I saw a cow.
A lone cow on an area of land next to a wooden house near the lake’s edge. It hit me that this was the first cow I’d seen in two weeks and along with this came the realization that in the whole of Lapland, a large area by any standards, there was no organised agriculture of any kind.
Was the land too stony (then again that’s hasn’t been an obstacle for Australian farmers) or was the climate too severe?
A far more likely explanation was a combination of these factors together with the ubiquity of the lakes.
Finland is blessed with more lakes and more water per head of population than any other country in the world and most of those lakes – the 190, 000 of them = were south of Lapland, i.e., in the southern provinces, where most of Finland’s small population live, concentrated into modern cities with high rise apartment blocks.
Aesthetically attractive and great for tourism – Finland’s lakes also have a downside. The lakes mean that the availability of land for agriculture is a fraction of Finland’s total land area. Finland has a small population – 6 million – but given its actual useable land area, it’s not able to support a much larger population.
Furthermore, given that agriculture is not an option as a major export industry, it makes sense for Finland to concentrate on the high tech sector, which in turn also explains why its education system is one of the best in the world (the other Scandinavian nations and The Netherlands also invest heavily in education but it’s often Finland which tops the list).
Forming an opposite pole to Finland is The Netherlands; in theory, with a small land area than Finland but in reality, even with its heavy population density – one of the highest in the world – it has far more agricultural land at its disposal and far better land: it is one of the world’s biggest food exporters.
Our next bus trip is a part of a longer journey south into ‘Finland’ as opposed to ‘Lapland’. At this point everything is a matter of maps, guide book, booking the next lot of accommodation; of step for step moving further and further south until we end up back in Helsinki at some unknown point in the future.
Only one thing iscertain: where we are headed, where ever it is, there are going to be many more lakes. Lots and lots of them.
After a three hour ride in the local mini bus, we arrived at Utsjoki, the last town in the north of Lapland and separated from the Norwegian border by a bridge over a wide river.
We stayed in a kind of half-house, quite luxurious after our past lodgings.
We walked across the bridge over to Norway and returning to Finland were greeted by a sign in Norwegian – a language, which like the Scandinavian and Dutch languages belongs to the German linguistic grouping and can be understood, whereas Finnish is completely different and probably has its antecedents somewhere in Siberia.
Behind the Holiday Camp (as it calls itself) – where we are staying are walking trails ascending the steep hills. The landscape here is quite different to that further south in Lapland. It is sparse, rocky with thin soil and the climate of course is extreme. The only trees that survive are small birches, their leaves already turning yellow.
We walked out to a so-called ‘Wilerness Church’ today.
It’s a walk of 4.5 kilometres through forests and across marshland areas (boardwalks provided) and for most of the way over rocks large and small. In summers it’s a popular tourist attraction and I can imagine the trail being quite busy. Late August and there were relatively few people.
Given the rocky nature of the trail, it took us about an hour and half to reach it. Most people drive out to the trail head, but we walked from our accomodation out there, which added another hour to our journey.
The ‘Wilderness Church’ – a pine wood contruction – was built early in 20th century to provide spiritual sustenance to the indigineous Sami people who lived and fished and hunted in those areas then.
As if the Sami never had a religion of their own.
Like other indigineous people elsewhere in the world, their way of life was intmately involved – and dependent upon – nature. Hence their spiritual beliefs revolved around stories featuring animal deities and their shamans or noaidi provided them with a bridge between the human and the natural world.
A prayer drum was an important instrument used by the shaman to acces the spiritual existence and provide the basis for advice, warningsand prophesies.
The Sami shamanist religion came under attack during the 17th Century when Finland was a province of Sweden and the Swedish King – a Lutheran – regarded the Sami religion as a threat to Swedish power on the one hand and the work of Satan on the other.
The Sami were put under pressure to adopt Christianity; the shamans were imprisoned and in some cases executed. The Lutheran missionaries destroyed the prayer drums so that eventually, very few remained in existence.
The Wilderness Church must have involved a lot of work, probably provided by the Sami themselves. Near the church was a small house for the pastor. Even today, with an established walking trail, the church is in an isolated place.
Walking around its empty precincts, it was hard to imagine that once, it was full – of Sami souls desperate to be saved from themselves, to escape the paralysing feelings of inferiority imposed on them by the very same religion claiming to save their souls.
We visited the Sami Musuem this morning, before going on a long walk into a national park. The Sami Museum was certainly a big improvement on the Sami cultural centre, indeed, it was a very good display offering a good insight into the history of the Sami people. And as to be expected, it was essentially a tragic one, like the history of most if not all indigineous peoples everywhere. Moving from one display to the other, I found myself comparing the traditional life of the Sami with that of the Australian Aborigines.
Both people were hunters and gatherers occupying traditional demarcated areas on the basis of extended families/tribes. Whilst the Sami lived in an extremely cold part of the planet with long and freezing winters, the Aborigines lived in most cases in an area of the planet with long, hot and dry summers. Whilst the Sami wore clothing, most Aborigines were naked, their bodies decorated with clay based pigments.
The Sami hunted reindeer, fish and other forest animals; later they began to keep reindeer in large herds. The reindeer provided meat, the hides were used for making tents and clothes and the bones and antlers for making spears.
The Aborigines hunted kangaroos and later, began ‘kangaroo farming’ – by burning off the bush so that wit the first rains, new green grass grew which in turn encouraged the rapid proliferation of kangaroos, Indeed, the kangaroo came to dominate the Australian continent because of the Aborigines. The firing of the bush had other dramatic consequences, including the rise of forms of flora and fauna which adapted to fire.
In the case of both peoples, the worship of nature was central to their beliefs, along with the role of shamans, or seers, men who had insight into the spirit world beyond the realm of the living. And both indigineous people with their nature based religions were quickly demoralised and had their way of life and beliefs crushed by the civilsed and technogically developed Christians.
There was one difference between the destruction of Sami culture and Aborignal Australians: the Fins shared a similar language to the Sami. Both groups originated somewhere in Siberia. The signs in Lapland feature place names in both Sami and Fin and the similarities in the language are evident from these. The Finish language in turn, is nothing like the Germanic based languages of Scandinavia. Actually its like no other language in the world, besides Sami.
The day previous, I was wondering about why we didn’t actually see anyone around who could be identitified as a Sami (whereas in Australia, the indigineous people are generally easy to identify). At the musuem I read that 70% of the Sami were integrated with mainstream Finnish society; the 30% of original Sami people lived in remote areas, near lakes or in forests – of which there is no shortage in Finland.