By Marie Roué, ethnologist, director of research at the CNRS / Museum of natural history, Paris. A specialist of Arctic peoples, she has been studying the Sami since 1969.
The Sami live on a territory they call Sapmi (Lapland) that covers 4 different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Despite the borders and different legislations in each of these countries, the Sami have retained a strong sense of unity in respect to both language and culture.
The first traces of life that archeologists have found in the area are those of Sami ancestors – traces of a camp near the sea on the Norwegian island of Sørøya, dated between 11,000 and 8,000 B.C.
There’s also archeological proof that some groups of Sami hunters and fishermen ventured inland Swedish Lapland: wild reindeers and elks were already hunted. The climate was much warmer then than it is now, with milder winters, and wetter summers.
Colonization and Christianization began to spread in the 17th century: attempts in convincing the Sami to give up their traditional shamanist religion were conducted the hard way. Shamans were even burned along with their drums. Some of the ancestral beliefs are still alive today though, even if they’re difficult to spot, having blended in with other religions and cultures.
How many of them are there now?
The Sami population is difficult to estimate as criteria differ from one country to another. Anyone who declares themself Sami, speaks Sami, or has at least a father, mother, or grandparents who speak Sami – can be declared Sami.
Estimates, henceforth, account for approximately 70,000 Sami, 2,000 of whom live in Russia, 6,000 in Finland, 40,000 in Norway, and 20,000 in Sweden.
Reindeer farmers: a myth or reality?
Originally, the Sami were hunters-fishermen-gatherers. Farming only began in the 17th century, essentially because of the Scandinavian colonization, which made wild animal populations fall.
Nowadays reindeer farmers are a minority: in Sweden, for example, 2,000 of them make a living off farming, i.e. around 10% of the Sami. As for the others, many have moved south towards the larger cities to find more “standard” jobs, while others went back to traditional fishing despite fierce competition with the fishing industry.
Life is hard for the farmers. The exploitation of their country’s mining wealth and the spread of forest industries are a threat to lichen pastures, essential to reindeers nine months a year.
The Sami have kept defending their political and territorial rights, which are being gradually recognized.
They have a parliament in Sweden and in Norway. In Sweden the parliament’s range of action was originally very narrow: it was limited to the domain of culture and could only get involved on economic issues. Reindeer farming was under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture, and hence, of the state of Sweden.
The role of the Sami parliament today is increasingly socio-economic, handling farming and government relations in critical periods that require help from the state.
Important issues such as that of prey animals also fall under its jurisdiction: wolves, eagles, lynx, wolverines, etc. are all protected species that happen to feed on reindeers. The question here is to define whether Sami land can or cannot serve as food-supply for all the wildlife Sweden and the rest of the world wishes to preserve, considering that would be at the expense of reindeer farmers.
The Sami people, very attached to their lifestyle and culture
The Sami show quite a remarkable attachment to their culture. They have this relation to the landscape, the country, the lifestyle they keep perpetuating despite material and economic hardship. They’re aware that if they give up, their line of descent will break off and their children or grandchildren will not be able to resume farming activities. So they keep going, for their own sake but also for the sake of transmission.
And their sense of humor remains untouched when it comes to comment the complexity of their situation. One of my friends from the Swedish highlands once told me with a chuckle: “Since there isn’t much to do this summer, I’m going on holiday to work as a road-mender in Norway because it makes more money than in Sweden, and with that money, I’ll be able to farm again when the season returns.”
They’re confident in their ability to adapt, even to climate change, but questions remain: “Our lifestyle has always been based on nomadism: when there are no resources left here, we move further. But when there’ll be an airport in one place, a city in another, and protected forests all around, where will we be going then?”
The Sami stand at the crossroads of major contemporary issues: how to remain traditional while becoming modern, how to remain oneself without folklorizing? They’re developing strategies to answer all these questions, and do appear as quite a model in the courage they show taking up all these challenges implied by modernity.
Read a description of Sami languages.
By Salesian Father Joseph Pulinthanath, Director of the film Yarwng (Roots), made in Kokborok language, in the Indian state of Tripura.
Kokborok language, like its speakers, seems to be critically poised at some crossroads of history. Strewn about the length of breadth of this hallowed land of erstwhile kings and kingdoms are numerous signs of resurgence and decadence.
Caught in the middle, between two worlds – one dead, the other powerless to be born, is a tongue, crisis-ridden yet buoyant: Kokborok, the mother-tongue of the ‘borok’ people of Tripura in Northeast India.
Vicissitudes of history have relegated the language and its speakers to the fringes of society, although it is still used by over 800 000 speakers. Today’s efforts at rejuvenation of the tribe and its language are characterized by muddled policies and half-hearted attempts.
The revival of Kokborok
Recent efforts at revitalizing Kokborok have been phenomenal. In fact, the sheer pace with which Kokborok reinvented itself in the past 20 years is amazing.
There was a time not long ago, when Kokborok was spoken in hushed tones in Agartala. This was because enmeshed in socio-political factors Kokborok got absurdly equated with lack of education, status and breeding.
But that was all a long time ago! The scenario has substantially changed today. The sotto voce asides of yesteryears have now been replaced by confident assertions. Today one frequently gets to hear Kokborok in public places and occasions even in the towns of Tripura. The increased level of confidence and ease with one’s tongue is reflected in all public spheres of life. There are numerous Kokborok festivals, Kokborok songs, films, theatre, workshops, websites, seminars and Kokborok-related activities in the state. There is even a state-sponsored ‘Kokborok Day’ celebrated annually in the state. It is, of course, another matter that with Kokborok itself seldom featuring in it, the annual event is quickly beginning to feel like a memorial function ‘about’ Kokborok.
The decline of Jadu Kolija
These laudable efforts and their achievements should encourage and not prevent the community from seriously engaging Kokborok’s own timeless ‘art’ called Jadu Kolija. Jadu Kolija literally means ‘heart of the beloved’ or ‘from the heart for the beloved’. It embraces not only love songs but all traditional form of singing/chanting.
Today, Jadu Kolija is seldom heard and indulged in. It is a pity that native speakers have bypassed this fount of wealth in their pursuit of the new brave world. This is a submission that efforts at resurgence of Kokborok, which are anyway few and far between, must not shy away from seriously engaging the ‘vital founts’ of its culture like Jadu Kolija, if they are to impact the community in a lasting manner. Sidestepping these ‘founts’ will, in the course of time, render these already feeble attempts, altogether futile or merely cosmetic at best.
I have always felt that the extraordinary richness of Kokborok language is best found in this traditional art form of the tribal community. The profound meaning of its arresting lyrics and their haunting tunes continue to enchant even today. In a manner seldom understood by non-Kokborok speakers this enigmatic music tradition held absolute sway over the entire life-cycle of the person and the community. Jadu Kolija enveloped all significant moments and events of the life-cycle. It was theatre, music and morality all rolled into one.
Still, no progress without Jadu Kolija
The thought that ‘Kokborok’ language might be ‘endangered’ is a disquieting one for me. For the past 17 years my ears have fed on the enigmatic sounds of this language. With each passing year, my ears tell me that the best of Kokborok is yet to come.
Jadu Kolija is an irresistible mixture of the rational and the emotional – the head and the heart. The stunning imageries and resonant metaphors found in Jadu Kolija can uplift not only a language but a people. The lyrics of Jadu Kolija with their untranslatable meanings, moods and innuendo can continue to be the life-giving veins of the Kokborok culture. It has the ability to ensure that the Kokborok-speaking community stays rooted on the earth and yet has its eyes fixed on the stars. Effort to restore and revitalize Kokborok without according Jadu Kolija even scant attention has a ring of absurdity about it.
To ensure the future of kokborok culture and language, ways must be devised to restore Jadu Kolija to the community. A people that have for decades been deluded by unvoiced agendas of vested interest groups should easily realize the need there is for passion to replace intellectual gimmicks. Until Kokborok speakers are seized by a passion to return to the best fount of their language, Jadu Kolija, the famed resilience of the Kokborok tribe would continue to lack depth and character. In the resurgence of Jadu Kolija lies the secret to preservation of Kokborok.