Northern Lights in the Blood

Everything changes. Except Grandpa Nils. He lives on the plains as the Sámi people have lived for hundreds of years. “Do you want more?” asks my father in his broken Norwegian. “Does my little girl want another piece of meat?” He cuts up the cured reindeer meat into small pieces. He knows that I am not used to large, coarse chunks of meat. “You look just like your Mom,” he says. He roars with laughter. “She was the most beautiful girl in the whole Finnmark Mountain plain. Yes, she was!” Tears flow out of his eyes like an overflowing bathtub. My mother died 10 years ago.

My father is one of about 2,700 people who are part of the reindeer industry in Norway. Today he only has about 100 reindeer left of his herd. He knows every single animal and likes to point each one out as we pass by in the car. “That is your reindeer,” he says. “It is the white female reindeer’s kid.”

My father, Nils Johannes, or Nilláddjá—Grandfather Nils, as he is now known—has 11 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. He was born in 1929 into a reindeer-herding family in Karasjok, northern Norway, near the border with Finland, and has herded reindeer his entire life. He has never learned to speak Norwegian, except for a few words and expressions, but he understands a lot of Norwegian. In his glory days in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, he had 3,000 reindeer, which he moved between spring pastures on the coast and winter pastures in the mountains in Finnmark, the northernmost county of Norway. At the same time he had five daughters. One of us was born in a lavvo, the traditional Sámi portable tent, while the others were born at home in the village or in cabins at the summer home. One of my sisters died as an infant in an influenza epidemic.

When I visit him he always looks at a blurry, grey-toned photograph. It is a picture of a snow-covered mountain plain. On the horizon is a grey cloud. It looks like a small forest of Arctic birch trees. “These are my reindeer at Ravnastua. I had many,” Father says. And then, as always, I say, “Oh, I thought it was a forest.”

Break out the Sámi stuff

Back at home in my living room in Oslo, between black-and-white photographs and orchids, I have small carvings that tell the secrets of my background. Nilláddjá likes to carve practical things, including a portable box made of marrow bone for keeping a sewing kit. He thoughtfully inscribed my Sámi name, Ira, and preserved the inscription with ash. He is good with a knife and likes to show off his work. He has always been proud of where he comes from and who he is. This despite shifting political movements, where assimilation has been an important political tool in the Sámi settlements. Not everyone has managed, as my father has, to keep a strong and healthy back. He looks as if he were is held up by a string.

The famous Sámi musician Mari Boine had an international breakthrough in 1989 with the her record called Gula Gula. She mixed elements from Western music with the traditional Sámi singing called joik and shaman drums called runebom. In a hotel in Karasjok just a few miles from her hometown she talked about the shame of being Sámi: “We never spoke Sámi at home in Gámehisnjárga. I never heard joik at home. Whenever there was joiking on the radio, my parents turned it off. Joik was the work of the devil. It had to be eliminated. When I found my way back to joiking, my parents felt as if I had sold my soul to the devil. In that sense you could say that assimilation was successful. It made us keep ourselves suppressed.”

It’s been a long time since people felt proud of being Sámi. Norway started a Norwegianization policy in the 1800s. Historians believe that the state wanted to assimilate the Sámi people for security reasons. They needed “respectable” Norwegian speakers to protect the northern borders. So the non-Norwegian people in the northern areas had to be assimilated. The government declared to the outside world that Norwegianization was for the Sámi’s own good, and the policies continued until the 1960s. A law was established that limited land ownership to Norwegian speakers only. At the same time, the Sámi could not document ownership rights to the lands on which they had been wandering for many years. This practice was enforced until the 1930s, but from then until the laws were modified in 1965, they were not really enforced. Since the 1700s there were efforts to get the Sámi to give up their gods and their shaman rituals and replace them with Christianity. It was easier to give up these gods when the Sámi were constantly in conflict with Norwegians regarding use of the plains, rivers, and farmable land. The gods didn’t come to their rescue, but allowed the colonists to steal relics and sacred things. Even the traditional Sámi song form was equated with evil. Sámi religion and culture were being amputated.

“The Norwegianization policies took the intrinsic values, identity, skills and opportunities from the Sámi people,” says Sven-Roald Nystø, the former president of the Sámi parliament, Sámidiggi. “Sámi-ness was something that slowed development.” Nystø thinks that generations of Sámi people have been made second-class citizens in Norway.

My Aunt Marit is Norwegian and comes from Trønderlag in central Norway. She happily tells about her life, which broke with the typical pattern for a Norwegian girl. She met Samuel, Nilláddjá’s brother, and moved north with him, where she learned both Sámi language and the necessary skills for a nomadic wife. “People thought the Sámi were poor,” Marit says, “because they didn’t live in houses. But they didn’t think about the fact that a Sámi who lived in a lavvo was a reindeer herder with several thousand reindeer. Maybe he didn’t have a car or a house, but he had what he needed. And perhaps he was rich. People thought them dirty, but it isn’t true. Sure, you get dirty when you brand reindeer inside the fences all day. But it isn’t the same as being an unclean person.” She says all this in a dialect that changes between a singing southern Norwegian and a Sámi accent with some Sámi grammar.

Children Spread All Over

In the early 1970s, my mother became ill, and Nilláddjá’s daughters were spread out and stayed with people outside Finnmark County. My oldest sister got married and moved to southern Norway. The next two lived with relatives in the small town of Alta, about 100 miles from our home village of Karasjok. I moved in with a Norwegian family in southern Norway. “It was normal back then,” says my sister Ellen Brita. “We lived here and there and with various relatives.” She used to say, “We live where it suits us.” When she speaks she laughs, making her eyes look like thin lines.

In the middle of the 1970s my two middle sisters moved back to Karasjok. “Oh, I remember how happy I was to see Mom again!” Ellen Brita says. But a new era began: dormitory life. Norway built boarding schools for the nomadic Sámi. Ellen Brita and Anne Sara lived year round at the boarding school, while Nilláddjá and Mother drove the reindeer herds on the pastures. Nonetheless the girls were part of the spring drive of the herd and branding of the reindeer, and other important events. They started helping the family when they were small.
“It was exciting to be part of driving the reindeer from the mountains to the coast,” Ellen Brita says. “We would often walk through the night when the snow was hard. Then we slept all day long. We lived in a tent, even if it was often far below zero. Sometimes dangerous things would happen, like when it warmed up quickly and the ice broke and our sled fell into the freezing water.”

Ellen Brita has published several books on Sámi language and myths. She makes bone marrow soup and can prepare the pelts so that later they can be turned into Sámi footwear, skallings and bellings.  She joiks, often Nilláddjá’s melody. Or as she says, it isn’t his melody—the melody, or the joik, is Nilláddjá. Nilláddjá and Mom taught the girls all the things they would need to know as grown Sámi women.
The Shame

I lived with my Norwegian family and never went back. I went to Norwegian schools, several hundred miles from Nilláddjá, Mom, and my sisters. I never learned to speak Sámi, how to sew the traditional Sámi clothes, or how to get a herd dog to stop barking. Since I lived so far away, my visits were infrequent. But I remember being together with my biological family during the slaughtering and branding of reindeer in Stabbursnes, where they lived in a lavvo during the whole time when they branded and slaughtered.
“Look here. This is your mark,” my father said and showed me a piece of paper shaped like a leaf. “This is your mark. You are a lucky reindeer herder, because you already have lots of reindeer.” Then he would say a number. They started small, but every time I saw him the number was higher. All of us girls got animals with our own mark at our baptisms. “You should have been a reindeer herder,” said my father.
My mother, who was not more than five feet tall, could bring in a reindeer with a lasso. She grinned a little while she sat on the wriggling animal and stuck a knife in his neck. Then she skinned it. Later my sisters showed me how much fun they had sticking a knife in the intestines as they lay spread across the grass. Or sometimes they took me with them to sneak a smoke.

In the city I lived another life. I lived in a single-family home, took ballet dancing, and went to normal school. But the other children knew very well where I grew up and where I really came from. The other kids yelled, “How many reindeer to you have in the bank?” Or they imitated the accent of Norwegian-speaking Sámi. Or they joiked loudly near me. Everything that was Sámi was silly, dirty, or stupid. It was difficult to defend a culture I didn’t know. It wasn’t easy for the people who knew the culture to defend it. Or to be proud of their heritage.
My Aunt Marit told me that many did not admit to their mother tongue. “In Hammerfest, the town with Finnmark’s only hospital,” she said, “I met one of my nieces. I greeted her in Sámi, but she answered in Norwegian. I thought she didn’t recognise me, or didn’t hear me. But she only wanted to speak Norwegian.”

Drain the river

But in 1978 a new era began. I was 8 years old. The Norwegian Parliament agreed to expand the Alta-Kautokeino water system in an area that had traditionally been used by Sámi. A 150 MW installation and 100-yard-high dam was planned. The Sámi organizations were against this expansion. “Drain the river and let the Sámi people die,” was one refrain some Norwegians said jokingly.

The conflict was extensive. The Sámi organizations put up a lavvo-tent outside of the Norwegian Parliament and demanded that the project be stopped. The police tried to have them removed. I saw some of my relatives on TV, dressed in the Sámi traditional clothes, being carried away, screaming. Some went on a hunger strike. In 1981, the dam building started, and the conflict culminated with the demonstrators, both Sámi and Norwegian, chaining themselves together so that the construction machinery couldn’t be started. I remember my neighbor, a policeman, being summoned, and his dog was injured in the chaos. The Sámi lost this battle. The dam stands today like a wall in the Alta River, marking the Sámis’ difficult work to build themselves up as a nation.
“Even though we were greatly disappointed, it was clear that something positive was going to come from it,” says Ole Henrik Magga, professor at the Sámi University College. Magga is a leader at the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He was also the first president of the Sámi parliament. “At the time of the first hunger strike in 1979,” he says, “we had already been promised that new laws would come so that we could avoid future conflicts. For that reason the defeat wasn’t so painful, and why, in the aftermath, we felt that although we lost that battle, we won a larger victory.”

1989 was a year of great events. The International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which established the principle that Indigenous Peoples have the right to protect their culture and that states are required to protect both the peoples and their cultures. Norway ratified the convention the following year. It was also 1989 when the king opened the Sámi parliament in Karasjok, giving it an advisory function. The Sámi University College opened the same year in the Sámi village of Kautokeino. Peter Gabriel called Mari Boine, and she became internationally renown. That trend of acknowledgment received an even bigger boost in 2005, when the so-called Finnmark’s Law was ratified, giving residents of Finnmark County the right to make decisions about its land and waters.

“The Sámi people are experiencing that their culture is being appreciated,” says Risten Heatta, a political activist. “People are coming out of the closet as Sámi. Starting with work on the Finnmarks Law, people started to think, ‘Why shouldn’t we make decisions about our land?’”

The new generation of Sámi don’t care about old prejudices. They have the power of defining themselves. They are retaking their old names, as Risten Heatta has done. In Norwegian her name is Kirsten Hætta. The new Sámi self-assurance is sprouting roots all over. “In my own youth I was ashamed of my background,” says Lene Hansen to the Norwegian Dagbladet newspaper. She is the director of the Indigenous People’s annual festival called Riddu riddu in Kåfjord. “Today Sámi youth don’t know what you are talking about when you talk about shame.”

But the new feeling of victory brings responsibility. “We Sámi have a responsibility to indigenous people in other parts of the world,” says Mari Boine. “We have been lucky to have accomplished so much here. But it hasn’t come free. We have to remember that there won’t be change if people aren’t proud of who they are, and it is a recognition that one does not get from politicians. And we shouldn’t yearn for Western riches; we have enough of our own.”

The Reindeer herd has diminished

With the establishment of the Sámi parliament, Nilláddjá’s life also has changed. Over the past decade, the Sámi have evolved from traveling by reindeer-drawn sleds to snowmobiles and even some helicopters. The Norwegian government believed that Finnmark’s pastures are being exhausted. We saw pictures of reindeer pawing the ice, some lying in piles on the plateau, with their good-hearted seal eyes. Economic assistance was given to those who agreed to cull their herds and slaughter their reindeer. My Sister Ellen Brita decided to slaughter hers. I, after encouragement, also slaughtered my reindeer, which numbered around a hundred. So did Nilláddjá.
The Norwegian government got the Sámi to start fishing, hunting, and farming instead of just herding reindeer. They became more efficient and started to use snowmobiles. “This ruined the industry,” says a Norwegian journalist who has followed nomadic Sámi. But the mountains are in Nilláddjá’s blood. So are reindeer and snow and northern lights. The seasonal chores are part of him. He has a small group of reindeer left that he herds. My stock are part of this herd; a few that have been built up after the massive slaughters. Nilláddjá still says that I am born under a lucky star. When my sister’s baby Inga is born, named after me as is the Sámi tradition, Nilláddjá will immediately give her a reindeer of her own.


“Daddy is in the mountains checking the fences. He left last week. He will be back soon,” says my sister Ellen Brita when I call her to say that I am worried because my father isn’t answering the phone. “Oh,” she sighs, “What a pain! They used to go and say that they would come back when they are done. That could mean anything from one to three weeks. No one started searching for them.” My sister is right. Nilláddjá could easily go fishing for three weeks. He knows all the names of all the ranges of hills in the area, all the rivers. And he knows all the etymological meanings of place names in the region.

“This is Suvanvarre,” he would tell me. “It means the whistling mountain. It gets its name because Russian bandits, the tjuder, would came skiing over the mountains to steal. You could hear a whistling sound from their skis.”

And despite the fact that he retired many years ago, he still gets on his snowmobile to repair fences or tend to the reindeer. He has never worried about making accommodations. It is more likely I who haven’t been able to adjust to him. When I visit him, he tells me about my mother, how beautiful she was and how skilful she was. Even though she died more than 10 years ago, he has never found another woman. That is the tradition. Even though everything else has changed during the decades he has lived, that doesn’t mean he has changed. He still cuts the meat into small pieces for his girls, as if time stopped long before the Sámi parliament saw the light of day. It is as if the whole world were an expansive plateau with crowberries, bent Arctic birch trees, reindeer moss, and rivers teeming with trout.

Inga Ragnhild Holst is a journalist for the Norwegian newspaper DinSide ( She also runs a freelance company, Penn med pepper (The Spicy Pen) and has had her work published in a number of magazines and national newspapers in Europe and Latin America. She has also appeared on the national Norwegian television station and the national radio station.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: