Saami, Part 3 of 3
While in Tromsø I’ve been fortunate enough to meet two artists with Saami roots. Hans Ragnar-Mathisen was born in 1945 and trained at the National College of Art and Design and the National Art Academy , and paints with watercolors that veer from delicate somewhat abstract landscapes to his most famous works, maps that reinforce the identity of his people. His cartography of Sami language, SÁBMI (the territory of the Saami) published in 1975, ignores national boundaries from northwestern Norway to the Kola Peninsula of Russia in order to highlight the nomadic territories over which the reindeer herders have traditionally roamed. It’s a region that coheres through the shared Uralic languages and culture of the Sami as much as geography.
I have the feeling that the Saami are less hindered today in their movements by national borders than by the increasing presence of mines, roads, and tracks for motorized recreation in the winter, all of which hamper or outright break herding patterns. The Sami are among the least legally protected indigenous peoples in the world, according to the Saami human rights attorney Mattias Åhren, who spoke during the Contested Landscapes–Lost Ecologies conference I’ve been attending. Åhren also made the point that the title of the marine ecology conference of which our event is a part, Arctic Frontiers, is a bit ironic. To the Saami, the Arctic is not a frontier to be explored, but a homeland.
The other artist I met with is Aslaug Juliussen, who was born in 1953, educated along more contemporary lines, and is one of Norway’s most honored artists. She spent 25 years herding reindeer with her former husband, and now creates sculptures and installations from the the parts of reindeer not used by the meat industry: hooves, antlers, fur, bones. She laughs when we talk in her studio about how her work is received. “Outsiders think I’m an ambassador for the Saami culture–but the Saami don’t think I am, because I don’t use reindeer in the traditional ways!” Instead, she uses reindeer to tell new stories about contemporary life.
The Saami have occupied about 150,000 square miles in the north for more than 5,000 years, fishing and reindeer herding being their primary resource basis. Today perhaps 2,500 still practice herding, and most Saami are urbanised. Their homelands are threatened by logging, mining, radioactive waste leakage, and simply the expanding population from the south that moves every northward as temperatures rise in the Arctic. Although Ragnar-Mathisen and Juliussen work in very different ways, their concerns are not so very far apart.