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Ultimate North: Lapland

The sound track to a road trip is important, so I load up with CD's of yoik. Yoik is Sami chanting: it is minimal and repetitive, often simply one person singing a cappella in a cracking voice. Among my discs is a compilation of techno-yoik. It was only a matter of time, of course, before Finland produced people who had mastered yoik and listened to Moby. One band has cut a track called "Texas": techno-yoik with a rollicking cowboy rhythm. Listening to this song, here, in the blinding snow of the Arctic, I think I have finally discovered the true meaning of postmodernism.

What will I discover when I reach Inari?The Sami are represented in tourist brochures as an almost medieval people, but I suspect that they, and not just their music, have made a complex pact with global society.

Long known as Lapps—a name they don't like much—the Sami are the original settlers of Finland and much of Scandinavia. Unlike other Arctic peoples, such as the Inuit, the Sami are ethnically European, driven north over the centuries by various invading forces. Lapland is a region that precedes, and in some ways disdains, more recent political demarcation: parts of it are also in Sweden and Norway, and there is a small population of Sami in Russia.

The Sami have a tortured legal status, as indigenous people do in North America and, well, almost everywhere. The issue, as always, is land. Much of the land they inhabited for centuries was never legally owned, because the Sami were designated "nomadic," and so governments declared it public. This is a particular problem in Lapland, where reindeer herding is a cornerstone of the economy. (The animals are slaughtered for meat, their hides are tanned, and the antlers and bones are used to make both useful and decorative objects.) Reindeer have traditionally ignored the boundaries between Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia, and the Sami have followed their lead, but now countries are whittling away the herders' right to operate transnationally. At the same time, the region's trees are increasingly coveted by the paper industry, which threatens to make the land inhospitable to reindeer.

Inari is acknowledged as the epicenter of Sami culture in Finland. It is a nondescript town with a main street, a couple of hotels, and a clutch of tourist shops. It has a museum, however, called Siida, that unfolds the full intricacy of Sami life. I happen to be a museum junkie. Give me a good museum, and I'll generally prefer it to the reality it purports to represent. Siida is a very good museum. After a couple of wide-eyed hours wandering through the exhibits, I recognize that there is a great deal more happening in Inari than the town offers up to the casual observer.

Siida has made me determined to get out into the wild with the reindeer. One in five Sami still herds, and the museum goes into great detail regarding the complexities of the practice: an ear of each reindeer is notched, for instance, to indicate ownership, and these notches form a language; if you know how to read a reindeer's ear, you can trace the ancestry of its owner.


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