Sofia Jannok and Sámi Solidarity

I’m honored to publish this guest post by my cousin Linsey, whose big heart shines through her writing. We met earlier this year through a DNA match, and I was able to share the suppressed history of our immigrant forebears in Swedish Lapland, whose suffering and resiliency gave rise to our own lives. I hope you’ll read to the end, and leave a comment. — Julie

Guest post written by Linsey Schad with photos by Jeff Schad Imagery

Earlier this summer I had the most amazing pleasure of seeing Sámi artist and musician Sofia Jannok speak and perform while she was here in Minnesota. To say that it was an incredible experience cuts it short. To say that it was eye-opening and emotionally charged is getting a little bit closer. To say that it was a crazy-intense-spiritual reawakening? Well, that hits the nail square on the head! It was absolutely inspiring to see a woman today so fully living her essence and purpose in the stewardship of her people, her land, its resources, and herself. She is a protector of our Mother Earth. We need more people like her.

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I went into the three days with Sofia wanting to connect more to my own Sámi roots and ancestry. The first event I attended was a panel discussion on Indigenous issues at Gustavus Adolphus College, where she was this year’s Artist in Residence. Going in, I was familiar with how the Sámi people have been treated throughout history, but as I listened and learned, I found myself increasingly aware of just how much injustice is actually taking place TODAY, and what the Sámi people are dealing with right now, as we speak, where our ancestors came from. My heart still hurts remembering Sofia say in tears that she just wants to live and to know her people will remain, not to have to raise her fist to fight, or even to have to take part in panels, but to just be allowed to live free the way she and her people know is right for them. She spoke not about the past but about vandalism, mistreatment, and many suicides that are occurring RIGHT NOW.

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Photo credit: Jeff Schad Imagery

 

“Everything is told as if we were not here. My mission, my purpose, my message as an artist is not to cry over lost times, lost land, and lost rights but getting everyone to get it: we are still here!” Sofia Jannok

The next two nights were absolutely magical seeing Sofia perform, first at Gustavus and then at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Words cannot describe the pure energy and emotion that comes through her music. It was more than music; it was a meditation, a prayer, and a healing balm for my soul. I can only hope that it was this powerful for others. Hearing it live was like hearing the Earth herself sing! Regardless of language, the feelings and energy that comes through are universal. I was also struck by the integrity Sofia displayed in choosing to share the concert at Gustavus with Lyz Jaakola, an Ojibwe-Anishinaabe musician, expressing the importance for the local Indigenous voice to be heard too. This was such an exemplary, selfless action, and all too rare in a world where no one wants to share the spotlight. She fully embodies what a role model today should be. How we all should be.

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After the magnitude of these events settled in and I began to write this blog post, I felt that just relaying my own experience was not enough. The seriousness of the Sámi peoples current issues hit me hard and I began researching. I reached out to Sofia with some questions and she kindly responded. The main question: how can those of us here who find out we have Sámi ancestry, actively give help to the Sámi people living today? Here is what I learned (naturally these are my personal reactions to information received from Sofia).

  • There is a HUGE lack of knowledge about the Sámi. The children are not taught about them, the universities don’t speak of them, and most of the population know very little about them. The dominant powers there have singled them out to be exploitatively erased because of a need for their resources and their land and because of this their story is seldom told. When there is no open knowledge about a culture it breeds racism. I have been shocked to see this blatant racism portrayed in contemporary fiction from the region and I can only imagine this representation is close to the truth. It’s sad to find such a dark side to Sweden, considering it’s supposed to be the most democratic nation in the world.
  • The Sámi people are not being honored respectfully and equally. Racism and systematic oppression set the stage for objectification and exoticification. As this happens a detrimental loop of exploitation begins and the sacred pieces of Sámi culture, their clothing, jewelry, music, buildings, and traditions have been hijacked and turned into commodities. They have been stolen for tourism or novelty and are used rather than revered. For centuries the Sámi have been made to be “tourist attractions” and Sofia explained that this is still very much reality today. True honoring of a culture comes not from a place of ego or economy but from genuine humanistic compassion. Instead of using their clothing or customs, we can learn their real story, who they are and ask them in what ways they’d like to be honored.
  • The politics and mining are destroying the land forever. Due to the rich resources Sápmi contains and the large amounts of money they translates into, the mining industry is allowed to continue expanding and destroying the beautiful native grazing lands forever. I was amazed to learn that the entire town of Kiruna is moving in order to accommodate the mines expansion there. This is an area the Sámi have all ready been forced to move away from for generations and the same company has two more mines planned in the near area. Another is planned for Laver and the Sámi community there is asking for help. Recently a wind power park opened up making the grazing land there inaccessible. Across the entire region these things are happening and this is all done despite protesting and without their permission. The dominant powers are methodically destroying their land for money and disallowing this ancient culture from continuing it’s way of life. In my reality, that constitutes a crime against humanity and a rape of our beautiful planet. This is everyone’s problem.
  • The Sámi people need to be able to share their point of view. Just like here in the US, the media is skewed in Sweden and fails to give appropriate voice to the region’s indigenous population. Sofia expressed that social media and music are ways for her to get the untold story out, completely uncensored. She shared some websites that are also working to operate from a true Sámi perspective:

www.samer.se
www.sr.se/sameradion
www.saminuorra.org
 www.sametinget.se

We can follow and support Sofia Jannok and her Árvas Foundation: www.sofiajannok.com facebook.com/sofiajannok
www.youtube.com/user/sofiajannok
www.instagram.com/sofiajannok
www.arvasfoundation.com

And follow amazing photography and stories from:
www.instagram.com/cjutsi
www.instagram.com/annamariafjellstrom

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So, how does this translate for us North Americans with Sàmi heritage ? I’m not exactly sure yet but there are many ways we can act, both collectively as a community and individually. Armed with knowledge, we can effectively shape how we honor, relate to, and relay the story of our ancestors while finding ways to lend support in protecting the land, way of life and culture. Maybe we can assist those who are finding ways to bring Sámi art and music here. Maybe we can search for new methods to get their stories out and told in a true way so they are no longer the only ones to carry it. We can follow and support Sámi people online and positively connect through direct interactions. We can work to help our planet Earth, the environment, the endangered Arctic region, and climate change in general. We can learn about and help our local Indigenous communities, remembering just how we came to occupy this land. We can teach our children to actively listen to others and with empathy.

If we REALLY put ourselves in another’s shoes, trying to understand them not from our own perspective but from THEIRS, only compassion and love can remain. All of these things will help.

What do you think?

— Linsey

If These Walls Could Talk

This bleak 13th century fortress is where one of my Sàmi ancestors was banished in the 1820s for “fighting.” What kind of fight? With whom? Why? The most important details are lost to history. What we know is that Swedish judge sentenced him to a year in prison with four additional months “for disrespect.”
When released, my ancestor changed his Sàmi surname to a Swedish one, helping to mitigate any negative effects on his future children and their offspring. It worked so well that countless descendants have never heard of him or his previous name, and have no idea of their Sàmi roots.
The Varberg fortress is now a museum and bed and breakfast.

Returning to My Roots

Erik Vilhelm Lindberg

The mysterious Erik

This blog has been quiet for a while as I worked on other projects, but it seems like a good time to share what I’ve learned on my roots adventure.

After having my DNA tested and helping to launch Pacific Sámi Searvi, I worked to gather all the information available about my family’s history from FamilyTreeDNA.com, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, geni.com, and other resources, including census records and newspaper archives.

Last April, I shared the fruits of this research with my parents on a visit, but they were not terribly interested. My mother is certain some of the names in my files are incorrect, and she is deeply suspicious of the internet, as well she should be. It is true that there are errors in the online trees, and now some of them are my fault (I am quick to correct them, of course, when brought to my attention).

On that visit to my parents, a cousin stopped in for coffee. I peppered her with questions, but she just laughed and suggested I call her brother. He in turn gave me the phone number of a 91-year old relative living in Oregon. Was I getting the run-around, I wondered. The notorious Scandinavian reserve runs strong in our family.

But “Auntie,” as she asked me to call her, was delighted to receive my call, and invited me over. She was anything but reserved, spry, bright as a tack, and so exuberant in her generosity that we stayed up past 11 pm going through photograph albums. What a treasure trove. I came home with audio (she was happy to be recorded), photographs of her photographs, and colorful stories about her childhood in North Dakota. Her mother Hilda was my grandfather’s little sister, and to my surprise, preceded him in immigrating from Sweden. An elder sister had arrived even earlier, followed by their father Erik and a brother John (the men returned to Sweden).

On the wall of her “plunder room,” Auntie has a large photograph of Erik, my great-grandfather, in an oval frame under not-entirely-transparent glass. I could not stop staring at it. Why did he return to Sweden? What inspired (or required) his daughters to emigrate? What about my grandfather? Continue reading

My Lucky Sámi?


Following is a book review by my friend Xavi, chair of the Sámi Siida of North America (SSNA), an artist, history buff, and all-around swell person. I met Xavi at the 2012 Siidastallan, the bi-annual gathering of Sámi-Americans. In addition to a love of all things Sámi and French, it seems Xavi and I both have Gold Rush relatives. As I have no family in Seattle, where I’ve lived since graduating college, I was surprised to learn recently of family ties not only to Seattle and the Sámi Reindeer Project, which continue with my distant DNA-cousin Lloyd’s reindeer in the Northwest Territories, but according to geni.com, to one of the “Three Lucky Swedes,” Jafet Lindeberg.

Jafet Lindberg reportedly founded Nome, struck gold, ran with masked vigilantes, and was portrayed by John Wayne in the movie The Spoilers. If geni.com can be trusted, he is related to “my” Lindbergs of Norbotten, who have Sámi ancestry, and it seems, boatloads of entrepreneurial pep.

Many thanks to Xavi for his review, and to the Solbakks for translating these valuable letters. I’ve ordered the book and can’t wait to read it.

1873 – 1962

Book Review

by John Edward Xavier

Sami Reindeer Herders in Alaska: Letters from America 1901-1937

A hundred and twenty years ago there began the American Reindeer Project in Alaska, probably the most heroic and yet profoundly human Sámi involvement in North American history. In the ever-growing body of work recounting that history, a valuable book has now been contributed by Sámi authors and editors Aage Solbakk and John Trygve Solbakk along with their Sámi publisher ČálliidLágádus. The Solbakks’ work comes to North America now in Sámi Reindeer Herders in Alaska, as a translation of the original 2009 Sámi language publication under the title Sámit balvalusas Alaskas. This welcome English language version, solidly translated by Kaijja Anttonen, opens new doors to yet another view of a landmark in Sámi North American history, the Reindeer Project.

Now, well over a hundred years later, there remains considerable interest in this entire era (1894-1930s), and so the Solbakks publish in that context as well as that of today’s increasingly active North American Sámi communities. Those communities and other North American audiences continue to be attracted to the many tales of reindeer herder families who became gold miners, many of whom moved to the Pacific Northwest where their descendants can be found today. That colorful era of 1894 to the 1930s has persisted as a topic revisited and reinterpreted by film-makers, novelists, and many researchers, who continue to use varied approaches, for which a couple of prominent examples come to mind.

Among those contemporary projects, there is the long-standing exhibit, “The Sámi Reindeer People of Alaska,” soon to re-open in Hibbing, Minnesota. This exhibit, the fruit of long-time Sámi-American activists Faith Fjeld and Nathan Muus, currently features exhibit booklet illustration and layout by Marlene Wisuri. Secondly, there are sources in social media, including a Facebook page “Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum.” The Sitka, Alaska museum and its Facebook page feature Jackson’s work with the Sámi. Further and earlier accounts of this fascinating topic derive from a group of credible sources such as Vorrren, Niemi, the Lomens, Sámi-American periodicals Arran and Báiki; andNorwegian American Studies  of the Norwegian American Historical Association (NAHA). This last group is referenced in the Solbakks’ work, in yet another vindication of Alf Isak Keskitalo’s landmark essay, “Research as an inter-ethnic activity,” (latest reprint in 1994, in Arctic Centre Reports), where he discussed the merits and implications of research as a starting or launching point for cross-cultural relations.

So, then, what have the Solbakks done that justifies yet another publication on the Sámi role in Alaska (and Canada)? The answer is simple: they have opened new doors by offering a fresh and close-up look at the Sámi experience through the letters of those Sámi reindeer herders (in English translation). This collection of letters is the first of its kind to see print in a book-length English-language collection with commentary. Those many letters, intensely personal and yet insightful, were written by the fully literate Sámi, and sent from North America over a three-decade span for publication in the Sámi-language newspaper Nuorttanaste, in Sápmi. This compilation by the Solbakks is in the long-standing tradition of America Letters from North American Nordic emigrants to the homelands of Europe. Given the long period of time covered in their book and the number of letters involved in their selections from the old files of Nuorttanaste, the Solbakks were obligated to pick and choose.

The Solbakks have picked and chosen well, including letters of prominent Sámi historical figures such as Samuel Balto and Johan S. Tornensis. In those chosen letters, and the many photographs, furthermore, the reader will also see many other names that echo over the centuries of Sámi history, including (alphabetically) Boyne, Eira, Gaup, Haetta, Klemetsen, Sara, and others.

The Solbakks have gone beyond a skeletal history of a succession of letters; they correctly felt moved to flesh out what could have been a mere compilation, truly skeletal in nature. The Solbakks applied professional and cultural skills and nonetheless did so in an accessible way. This work includes a substantial introduction; personal research in both Sápmi and North America for new material, especially photographs aplenty and personal interviews; commentaries on photos and topics to carry the narrative; recognition of Canadian aspects of this era; and a generous willingness to draw on letters by a cross-section of the families in question.

Indeed, the letters are the stars of the show here. This was how the Sámi kept in touch, in letters were penned by herders, wives, gold miners, businessmen, spiritually conflicted individuals, and storm victims. And indeed, the Sámi kept in touch, in what is the ever-fascinating “long reach” of this numerically small group, retaining contacts not only with the homelands through Nuorttanaste and personal letters but also with Sámi in the United States itself. The Solbakks thus confirm once more the connectivity of the Sámi, with relationships we know of from other sources as well.

As for one case of the long reach and connectivity of the Sámi, it has long been on the record that several of the first wave of Sámi had made enormous sums of money as gold miners (in the millions in today’s purchasing power, about a ratio of 100 to 1, where ten thousand dollars then=one million now). Counted as the most successful of those early gold miners was a Sámi herder who organized the first legal mining district in Nome: Johan S. Tornensis. Once he became wealthy, having removed in one year alone about $50,000 in gold, he and others similarly fixed traveled around both to the Sámi homelands and the United States itself.

One poignant letter in the Solbakks’ book involves the mass destruction of property in a great storm in the Unalakleet area in 1915, as recounted in a letter by Nils Persen Bals. Sámi icon Samuel Balto pours out a moving narrative of his historical, emotional, and spiritual experiences. Other letters include references to World War I and the Great Influenza that followed in 1919, as well as the expected keeping-in-touch mentions of births, weddings, deaths, dedication to hard work–and the waxing and waning of fortunes related to reindeer and gold. All of this recounting is through the letters, the stars of the show, carrying the historical narrative along. This book– in making available all of these narrative letters–once more illustrates the crucial role played by ethnic-based publisers, in this case ČálliidLágádus – ForfatternesForlag – Authors’Publisher.

Beyond the merit of any particular family stories and photographs, the Solbakks have offered up a work of considerable accomplishment in its perspective on history, a work that is approachable, and more than that. This book should be included in any personal or institutional library in the areas of Sámi or broader indigenous or emigrant studies, and would also supplement US, Canadian, and Alaskan history studies in general.  An improved next edition of Sami Reindeer Herders in Alaska would profit from inclusion of more legible maps, as well as the addition of brief bibliographic and index supplements. Nonetheless, this is a book that does what its authors set out to do, letting the letters be the stars of the show, and so it is a book destined for a solid position in Sámi and Sámi North American studies. This work is clearly appropriate for both personal and academic interests.

***

The Power of Joik

This video was posted today on Facebook, and despite my inability to understand the Swedish in it, the joik (at 2:40) knocked me out with its emotional power. This guy clearly has talent. He also has a cultural identity that should make the most hardcore essentialist reconsider what it means to be Sàmi. The comments below the post include:

Jon Henrik Fjällgren on Sweden’s Got Talent joiking his friend Daniel, who died four years ago.

Fjellgren, who is 26 years old, was told since his youth that he came from a small indigenous tribe in Columbia . . . he was adopted by a Sàmi family and has since grown up in Mittådalsfjällen. As a little boy he helped his father with the reindeer and as soon as he left school, he has worked actively as a reindeer herder.

In another version on Youtube, a poem is included:

Are you still walking with me, my dear friend,
Though I no longer see you?
Are you still here on earth,
As you are still in my heart?
I continue to lie here and brood,
It is desolately quiet around me.
Tears burst out and fall,
In memory of you.

An angel that was forgotten here,
Has now received his wings.
Where are you flying to now, my angel?
Where are you flying to now?

Are you flying through the pearly gates?
Or to the ends of the earth?
Are you flying beside me?
Or am I alone now?

Wherever are you now, my friend.
Wherever the road leads you.
Promise me you’ll wait there,
Until I meet you.

I hope you’re happy now.
As I was with you.
And the pain you have suffered,
I hope is forgotten.

Float freely, my dear friend.
You are free now.
And until we meet again,
Farewell, my angel.

The joik is a unique form of cultural expression for the Sàmi people in Sápmi. This type of song can be deeply personal or spiritual in nature, often dedicated to a human being, an animal, or a landscape as a personal signature. Improvisation is not unusual. Each joik is meant to reflect a person or place. The Sàmi verb for presenting a joik is a transitive verb, which is often interpreted as indicating that a joik is not a song about the person or place, but that the joiker is attempting to evoke or depict that person or place through song – one joiks their friend, not about their friend (similarly to how one doesn’t paint or depict about a flower, but depicts the flower itself). –Wikipedia

Celebrate Sámi Day

Celebrated every February 6 since 1993, Sámi National Day (Sámi Álbmotbeaivi) commemorates the first international, pan-Sámi organizational meeting held in Trondheim in 1917, considered the beginning of the Sámi rights movement.

It will be celebrated locally from 4 pm to 8 pm this coming Thursday at Pacific Lutheran University’s Scandinavian Cultural Center in Tacoma. (See link for directions.)

Sámi National Day (Sámi Álbmotbeaivi)
Thursday, February 6, 2014

Scandinavian Cultural Center, PLU, Tacoma

4 pm Opening and Anthem
4:30 pm Exhibit Tour
5 pm Concert by Risten Anine Gaup
6:15 pm Sámi Documentaries

The celebration will open with welcoming remarks and the singing of the Sámi national anthem, followed by a guided tour of the new Sámi exhibit and time for refreshments and socializing. The talented Sámi joiker Risten Anine Gaup (above) will perform around 5 p.m. Two short documentaries will be screened beginning around 6:15 pm, followed by a short discussion.

Props to PLU professor Troy Storfjell and the Scandinavian Cultural Center for arranging the celebration. I plan to be there and hope it is well-attended!

Here is a taste of Sámi music and art for those unable to attend. For many outside Scandinavia, their first time hearing joik, the long suppressed folk music of the Sami, was when Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943-2001) performed at the 1994 Lilyhammer Olympics. His friend the Sámi scholar Harald Gaski said “it is in the totality of his expression that you understand Nils-Aslak best.” Listen to his haunting joik from “The Sun, My Father” here as you contemplate the paintings below.

In describing Valkeapää’s poetry (the man was a creative force!), Gaski mentions parallels to Chief Seattle’s apocryphal but famous speech of 1854 in which he asks rhetorically: “How can you sell or buy the air? If we do not own its freshness and the glimmer in the water, how then can the White man buy it from us?”

It’s a question that haunts, given the continued ravaging of resources in the name of profit, in Sapmi and everywhere. But there is hope. The indigenous worldview or cosmology that prioritizes beauty, balance, and harmony over individualism, competition, and materialism never went away and still offers a future on this planet. I love the abstract tension in these two paintings by Valkeapää and the way they suggest both the power of nature and lightness in which the people and animals appear on the land.

Lihkku Sámi Álbmotbeivviin (Happy Sámi National Day!), wherever you find yourself.

Longish Thoughts on Sámi Shorts

Lloyd Binder’s reindeer. Photo from Canadian Reindeer.

When Stina Cowan of the Nordic Heritage Museum asked if I would introduce the Sámi short films at SIFF’s 2014 Nordic Lights Film Festival, I didn’t hesitate. Two years ago, it was a SIFF screening of the documentary Suddenly Sámi that seeded the formation of Pacific Sámi Searvi and my personal journey of discovery. Since that time, there have been significant events for Sámi culture in our region, including a large duodji exhibit bringing artifacts and lecturers from the Ajtte Museum, the first local celebration of Sámi Day at Tacoma’s PLU, the first Sámi Grand Marshal and Sámi flag in Ballard’s Syttende Mai parade, the first “official” Sámi-American participation in Astoria’s Scandinavian Festival, and the first English translation of Emilie Demant-Hatt’s “With the Lapps in the High Mountains,” by local author and translator Barbara Sjoholm. Searvi members also rallied on behalf of Idle No More and Gallok.

It was exciting enough to have four Sámi-related films at SIFF; I did not expect a personal connection. Imagine my surprise on learning that the reindeer in Tundra Cowboy are my DNA cousin Lloyd Binder’s. While I haven’t met him in person (FamilyTreeDNA linked us), he was kind enough to answer my questions when I contacted him online.

Both Lloyd and his reindeer are descendants of the Yukon Relief Expedition of 1898, which brought Sámi herders and reindeer from Sápmi through Seattle up to Alaska. His maternal grandfather Mikkel Pulk joined the expedition in its second year, and in the 1930s, Mikkel and his wife Anna were recruited by the Canadian government to teach herding to the Inuits. The Pulks remained as herders for over 30 years. Their daughter Ellen, married Lloyd’s father, Otto, an Inuvialuit from Coppermine, N.W.T., now known as Kugluktuk (Otto also owned a herd for several years in the 1940s). Lloyd earned an economics degree from the University of Calgary and served as director of economic development and tourism for the Inuvik region before turning to herding. It’s in his blood.

Like his employee Henrik Seva (the subject of Tundra Cowboy), Lloyd is a man of dry wit. When I asked how he keeps the reindeer from mixing with the indigenous caribou, he responded: “vigilance.”

It is possible that I am also related to Henrik, as he and my grandfather were both born in Pajala Municipality in northern Sweden. The Sámi gene pool is small, even though, like the offspring of the Yukon Relief Expedition, it is dispersed over vast distances.

On the morning of the screening, the sun painted the sky pink and gold, and I feared that few people would show up for a Saturday matinee. SIFF attracts devoted cinephiles, but in Seattle, a rain-free January weekend must be taken seriously. There was standing room only in the theater, however; the shorts had a large and very appreciative audience.

Marja Bål Nango in Halvt ditt og halvt datt (Half of This, Half of That)

Of the three student works by Sámi filmmaker Marja Bål Nango, Halvt ditt og halvt datt (Half of This, Half of That) initially concerned me for its apparent equivalency (using a split screen) of a Sami gakti with a Norwegian bunad, both of which Nango is shown putting on and taking off. I wanted to protest: they aren’t the same! (e.g., the gakti is everyday wear while the bunad is a costume, for special occasions). Nango no doubt intended to provoke that response, as she deftly segués to more complex issues of self-identity. With a stark white background and tight focus on their youthful faces, she interviews several peers about self-identity, and you can watch their emotions shift as they struggle for words. It is powerfully intimate. While it features Norwegian citizens, the film has universal scope; asking if language is essential to identity and what it means to be “half of this, half of that” or “part” anything. I found myself thinking several times of the exhibit about race at the Pacific Science Center. This short would make an excellent addition to it.

Scene from Juletrollet

Nango’s second film, Juletrollet (The Christmas Troll), depicts a Sàmi girl envious of her Norwegian playmate’s Christmas tree. The playmate is curious about Sàmi customs, but whether her questions are benign or condescending isn’t clear. Verging on melodrama, the story is redeemed by a final scene in which the friends perch outside in the dark, singing to the stars. Nango’s characters finds serenity in a holiday that promises more than it delivers.

Still from “Before She Came, After He Left”

My favorite of her three shorts, Før Hun Kom, Etter Han Dro (Before She Came and After He Left), was filmed in an impossibly beautiful fjord. The winter chill is palpable; noses drip, boots crunch. After the tragic death of a boyhood friend (who may have also been a lover), a young father is tormented by grief, and his fiance is confused and concerned. Inner landscapes are revealed in flashbacks and small gestures, and the visual lyricism carries multiple layers of meaning, like the work of Akiri Kurosawa. I hope it gets a wide audience. (Check out Nango’s most recent collaboration, Indestructible.)

Amazing flying machine from “Tundra Cowboy”

With a faster pace and frank documentary style, Tundra Cowboy saturates each of its 18 minutes; the story of Henrik Seva unfolds energetically and economically. The blood and guts of reindeer slaughter are candid without becoming grotesque, the wide pans of the reindeer are thrilling but stop short of cliché, and a convivial springtime calf-marking in Sweden provides nuanced and colorful contrast to Henrik’s monochromatic, solitary life on the tundra. The heart of this story is Henrik’s motivations, which are rooted in loss and quietly heartbreaking. One of my favorite moments is when the camera rests on Henrik’s face as he stops speaking, and then stays there, allowing the viewer to meet him in the still space he treasures. A thoroughly enjoyable, multi-dimensional film. (The 18-minute short is available to rent or buy here.)

After the screening, several audience members approached with questions about the Sàmi, the shorts, and the searvi. As there was no time for a Q&A session (the theater needed to be cleared for the next film), I promised to write this post and include links as well notes from my phone conversation with Tundra Cowboy’s producer and director, Marc Winkler. If I am able to chat with Marja Bål Nango, I’ll post again.

Marc is a Canadian journalist for CBC who lives in Yellowknife, N.W.T. with his wife and two daughters. Tundra Cowboy is his first documentary. Prior to meeting Henrik Seva in Inuvik in 2002, he had never heard of the Sàmi.

Left to right: Cinematographer Luke Eberl, Henrik Seva, Director Marc Winkler

What inspired you to make the movie?

My fascination with living in isolation like that, and knowing Henrik. He seemed like such a grounded person and I thought it might have something to do with having so much time for his thoughts. I wanted to talk to him about that. Although he uses a lot of technology, his pace, his everyday life is very different.

Do you think his groundedness is due to that?

Slightly. He does have a lot of time to mull over things, and time to explore his relationship with his reindeer. That is what he loves, caring for reindeer; I found that connection fascinating. He sings to the reindeer — and there are all these Sami traditions (connected to herding). The fact that he would travel all the way to Canada to maintain that connection . . . that says something! His grandfather, a herder, is his hero. He found a way to recreate his grandfather’s connection to reindeer.

Doesn’t he get lonely?

Sometimes he wants to see people and he does go to the town every 10 days for “R & R.” He was recently married, since the filming. He’s not a hermit!

How was it to film there?

It was really cold, minus 40 outside, with huge winds all the time. The camera batteries kept freezing. But it was beautiful! The tundra is a magical place and so peaceful. Henrik was patient with us, although he was busy herding. We were glad he took so much time.

Did he joik for you?

Yes, it was a very important thing for him to do. He was pretty shy about it, but he gave us the little example in the movie. For me it illustrates the beautiful connection he has with the reindeer. It is a love song, and it has the practical benefit of making the reindeer used to his voice.

What was left on the cutting room floor that you wish you could have included?

So much! The film was as long as an hour, and I got it down to 18 minutes. I wanted it to be subtle and focused. There are so many other elements that I tried to puzzle in there, such as the way colonization affected the Sami culture. Like the residential schools here (in Canada), there were government schools in northern Sweden. Henrik was sent to one, and he was punished for speaking Sami. He was not allowed to eat the food he was accustomed to. Reindeer herders were looked own on. He underwent ten years of assimilation, and it was a struggle for him; he felt divided over who he was and whether his culture was worthy or not. It is such a worthwhile project to explore . . . but that is another movie.

Also, the whole land and environment issues in Northern Sweden, the forestry and mining projects that are pushing herding into smaller and smaller places. If things keep going like this, it will not be a viable livelihood. In the 1920’s, the government was going to take away their rights to hunt, fish, and herd. Henrik’s grandfather made a deal with the king that they would herd but not fish and hunt. Others could fish and hunt, but not herd. So not all Sami are treated equally.

What are you working on now?

I just had a new daughter so I’m taking a break right now, but some any ideas have come up from doing this. Many different ideas, but nothing solid yet.

Marc and I talked a while longer about the Sàmi and the environmental issues that threaten reindeer herding — forestry, mining, and mineral extraction. I hope his success with this first documentary inspires many more.