I saw “Kautokeino,” my destination in Northern Norway, on a movie poster in Alta. I asked if the movie was playing, but was told I had just missed the premier. What was it about, I asked? A revolt by the Saami a long time ago. Against who? They didn’t know.
It’s a 2-hour ride south of Alta along a meandering road that heads up from the gentle fjords and 10 meter high spruce over the mountains, and then down into the rolling tundra and valley of Gouvdaigaidnu (Kautokeino in Norwegian) – the “heart of Sapmi – the Saami homeland.” The next morning, it is light enough at breakfast to look down from the hilltop hotel over a sprawling village of about 3,000 people. We’re told that “90% of the people are Saami.” After telling someone thank you in Norwegian, I’m advised to learn the Saami phrase instead. I can take a hint.
During lunch hour and a quick walkabout, I discover a coop, bank, craft workshop, community centre, and a cafe that grinds beans and for excellent cappucino. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Whitehorse with its curious mix of harsh north and gentle south. I find an English book on the windowsill, nurse my coffee, and read about the troubled Saami history.
The Saami have lived as a distinct Indigenous people in this part of the world for more than 10,000 years with all that implies: territory and boundaries, system of governance, laws, religious beliefs and ceremonies, language, culture, self-sustaining economies – thanks in many ways to their brother, the reindeer. With time and southern encroachment, various foreign potentates tried to exert their will over the Saami, demanding taxes and increasingly exploiting the land and its peoples. Eventually, present-day Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia (Kola Peninsula) draw their own boundaries over Samiland. As a Mohawk, I read with increasing interest and understanding.
In 1852, Saami are fed up with traders plying a mixture of booze, religion and racism to exploit the Saami, driving many herders into poverty in yet another parallel to history in Canada. But the Saami rebel at Gouvdaigaidnu. The rebellion is put down, heads roll – literally, but the flame of Saami nation hood are rekindled.
They’ve never sold or surrendered their independence despite foreign wars that have seen the Swedes, Russians and Germans pass through as conquering armies, heading for the hills with their reindeer until such calamities pass. A few years ago, I heard of a Saami man who had lost a hand in a explosion. He was trying to stop Norway from damming a river. He had been accorded sanctuary and safe passage through Mohawk territories, passed along from nation to nation across Canada. I mentioned this story and find that this man was real, and I am introduced to his niece.
More on this later: Karasjok, the capital of Samiland.