It’s a 2-hour bus ride to Karasjok from Goudegaidnu. Karasjok wraps itself around a bridge within sight of Finland. We check into our rooms, then head into an underground restaurant. It is designed like a Navajo hogan, only underground. A log octagon with a central fireplace and benches along the walls. During and after supper, there is singing. A yoik is a Saami song that tells a story, marks an event, celebrates history. They are short, melodic, sweet. They are also filled with pride and are taught in Saami schools.
The mayor, a Member of the Saami Parliament, and the Secretary to the Saami Parliament are our hosts. The food is wonderful. The songs are inspiring (until we visitors are told to sing then things get painful). The night is filled with laughter and song.
Inside the entrance to the Parliament building the next morning, you find yourself aurrounded by curved walls that resemble a horn laying on its side; going from the narrow to a wider structure at the other end. The library just inside the entrance has a hundred lights creating an almost sparkling burst of light above. Glass faces south. All is pine and spruce. A walkway on another level is lined with a long row of in-built pine bookcases along the glass. On the other side of these south-facing glass walls is a tall structure that looks like the Saami lavvu. The lavvu resembles a native American teepee. These are the Chambers of the Saami Parliament.
Stories and symbolism are everywhere. During World War Two, the Germans invaded. They had an open door thanks to Quisling (that’s where the English term for a traitor comes from). When it was obvious they were losing, the Germans tried to round up the Saami to ship them south along with them, perhaps use them as a shield. But the Saami told the Germans to wait while they rounded up their reindeer. This disappeared into the mountains with their herds.
In their wake, the Germans “scorched earth” meant just that. Every structure, building, bridge, airfield, etc., was destroyed before the invading Russians. In Karasjok, Rune (another host) shows us the view of the town. “The church down there was the only building left standing in this entire area,” he explains. “So everything you see has been built since the war.” There is clearly a lot that is not said, given their sensibilities and our short visit.
Inside the Chambers, there is a huge painting that dominates the front wall behind the Speaker. Norway’s King Olaf stood here to open the Saami Parliament, acknowledging to the world and its nation-states that this is more than a gesture by well-meaning Norwegian politicians – this is a working Parliament. It is currently seeking a treaty among the four Nordic nations that straddle Samiland to outline such issues as cross-border rights, regulation of reindeer herding, the environment, and resource development among other issues.
There is history here. Pride too. But more, there is clear recognition and tangible advancement of Indigenous rights. The Saami, like so many other Indigenous peoples around the world, have been working hard to secure their right to teach their own children as they see fit. They are now building what will become Saami University. The Saami are also beginning to get southern politicians, business leaders and scientists to understand the lunacy of past policies and decisions that allowed almost unfettered, incoherent resource development to ruin local economies for short-term profit with long-term and devastating consequences; decimating fish stocks, ruining vast areas of forest, spoiling rivers and other natural resources. Significantly, those souther politicians, CEOs and scientists are beginning to listen.
In the past, they have adapted to ruinous environmental, social and military impacts. The Saami adapted, and survived. Now climate change is creating increasing pressure from those who see only new opportunities for profit. Worse, climate change is making it increasingly difficult for the basis and saving grace for the Saami – their reindeer herds – to survive for a host of reasons; deeper snow, thicker surface ice from big shifts in temperature, clear-cutting by loggers, contaiminated water supplies, invasive species of plants, insects, parasites and diseases, and so on. Yet, they are hopeful that scientists working closely with their herders, taking advantage of decades of the herders’ close relationship to the environment, the land and the reindeer, can help each other find ways to adapt and survive.
What impresses me, as my sister put it, is “implementation.” Fine words and good intentions are great, as Canadians know all too well. But the Saami seem to insist upon and get results, unlike Indians and Canadians. So the Saami and the Nordic states make progress with tangible, verifiable results.
In Canada, we see both federal and provincial governments make commitments, sign historic treaties and agreements, then fail miserably to honour those agreements. Worse, Canadians let their governments get away with this time after time. One can only surmise that Canadian governments cannot be trusted to keep their word. They have no honour.
Perhaps worse, Indigenous peoples in Canada are not aiming at verifiable results or processes that end with implementation. They seem more interested in processes than results, but perhaps only because this is all governments are prepared to allow.