Kautokeino, Norway — The Lapps, a stalwart people inhabiting the northern reaches of Scandinavia for nearly 9,000 years, are battling cultural extinction. Well into this century their culture remained safely intact by virtue of the fact that outsiders reckoned their habitat as bleak and forbidding. That view was turned around when a surge of hydroelectric projects in the 1960s and 1970s brought to the area sleek, black roads. The roads sliced through the untamed region, luring young Lapps out and nature-loving tourists in.
Language, traditions, and long-accepted yet unofficial land rights essential to Lapp livelihoods began to dwindle. And Lapps, known as Sami among themselves, suddenly found their culture in jeopardy.
In 1973 Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish members of the Nordic Council sought to stave the breakdown by establishing the Nordic Sami Institute. Based in Kautokeino, Norway, the institute has effectively pressed for Lapp cultural survival, including political rights to land and self-determination.
Kautokeino, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is the center of Lapland. The town sits in the Alta River valley, surrounded by long, low naked hills. It is a place of climatic contrasts, where summer nights are sunstruck and balmy while midwinter days are endlessly dark and mercilessly cold. Of the 3,000 people who live here, 90 percent are Lapps.
In the world beyond Kautokeino, Lapps are popularly thought of as roaming reindeer herders who live off the land and wear brightly colored, elfinlike clothes. In truth, only one-tenth of the entire 36,000 Lapp population keeps reindeer -- and they depend as much on grocery stores and gas stations as they do on the moss-strewn moors that feed their animals. Most of the others are fishers or farmers. But it is the herders who are the keepers of traditions that reach back to the days when Lapp ancestors first came here, probably from Asia and perhaps as early as 7000 BC.
Even as late as a half century ago, the Lapp culture was steeped in many of the early ways. During this time, Berit Siri was born on an icy May day into a traditional Lapp family. Following the tradition of reindeer herding, the family had its home base 12 miles south of Kautokeino. Five days after Berit's birth, her mother bundled the baby in warm furry skins and tucked her into a wooden sled stacked with supplies and powered by a pair of reindeer. Then the new mother, along with her husband and extended family, donned skis and began the annual month-long trek northward, leading their animals over hill and dale to summer coastal pasture.
They traveled by night, when the cold air kept the ground firm and the moon lit up the snow. Until dawn, they moved to keep warm. And during the stretch of full daylight that comes with each spring, they hoisted their lavvo -- a tent of thin twisted birch trunks and reindeer skins. Inside the shelter they built a fire, melted snow for tea, chewed dried reindeer meat, and rested.
When the caravan reached the Barents Sea, the reindeer swam over to graze on Arnoy Island and a couple of the men accompanied them by boat. The rest of the family settled into a rustic cabin on the mainland. Everyone stayed coastside through the summer, until reindeer-breeding season had passed and warm weather began to fade. In September, they began the arduous task of rounding up and counting their animals, sometimes butchering a portion of the herd in the natural refrigeration of late September snow.
By October, they were journeying back south, and one month later they were in the Kautokeino region again. There, throughout the dark winter months, the women stitched boots, coats, and hats while the men hauled firewood and kept track of the herds, which roamed freely over hidden pastures -- nosing through the snow to nibble moss. In February, the animals were corralled again, and everyone participated in the major annual slaughter.
Years later, Berit married a reindeer herder based in Kautokeino, and her life today is both an echo and a contrast to that of her childhood. The livelihood is basically the same, for it centers around reindeer and includes seasonal migrations and tent living. Yet there are changes, born of Lapland's intensified contact with the modern ``outside'' world. You can read the changes by stepping into the Siri shed where reindeer antlers sprawl atop a case of empty Coca-Cola bottles; a pair of nylon Nike shoes sit beside the curled toes of homemade reindeer hide boots; a heap of tent canvas slumps beneath reindeer skins that hang from the rafters; and a Japanese snowmobile jams up against an old wooden sled.
Nowadays most Lapps use snowmobiles to round up their herds as well as to lead them to and from summer pasture. Berit contends that using the vehicle for migrations is pointless ``because the reindeer go slower than the machine.'' Her family is among the last to travel with sled and skis. Yet, come roundup time, even the Siris resort to snowmobiles. Because reindeer are individually owned but collectively grazed in the open terrain, roundup is a momentous search-and-sort process made infinitely easier with the snowmobile. Many herders also use field radios and some even hire helicoptors for the job. Moreover, butchering is now usually done in large government-owned slaughter houses, like the one in Kautokeino where Lapps bring their animals by foot, ski, snowmobile, or truck.
Even with modern herding equipment, herders remain guardians of the past: They speak Lapp and are intimately familiar with the natural world; they chant ditties known as joiks and keep the spirit world alive with haunting tales; they still live in tepee-like tents during migration; and many, including Berit, continue to wear the traditional red stocking caps, moccasins with curled toes, and elaborately embroidered coats that make them stand out in a snowscape like autumn leaves against a pale sky.
When I ask Berit how many reindeer she and her husband have, she laughs good-naturedly, wags her finger at my nose, and proclaims that it is not a proper thing to ask. Pose the same question to other reindeer herders and they are likely to ignore or evade the query, or try to match your lack of etiquette by retorting, ``And how much money do you have in the bank?'' So it is with these people whose fortunes, large or small, consist of four-legged creatures on the loose. The best avoidance answer I ever encountered came from a herder named Jussa: ``I've got two,'' he quipped mischievously, ``one in the smokehouse and one in the freezer.''
Twice a year, during the September and February slaughterings, the animals are converted into dollars. Today's breeders are often richer than fishermen or farmers, and can easily earn some $20,000 a year -- as much as industrial workers in the south. Such prosperity is evident in the Siris' two-story clapboard house. The large picture window in the living room overlooks other comfortable frame houses owned by Lapps. The floor is simulated hardwood, the sofa and chairs are brown vinyl. A 24-inch color television stands in one corner. Pouring a cup of coffee with one hand and taking a piece of dried reindeer meat with the other, Berit announces, ``Big houses, electricity, cars, a road north -- we had nothing like that before. When I was young, we didn't need cars or money. The only important thing was to have more reindeer.''
Unlike her two daughters and one son, Berit never went to school. ``I wanted to,'' says this savvy woman who sits on the regional Reindeer Breeders Council, ``but my father needed me to help with the reindeer because there was so much more work involved in those days.'' So reading was learned catch-as-catch-can, while reindeer farming was learned deeply and thoroughly through the daily rigors of survival.
Berit has passed her know-how on to her children. Her son is a herder. Her younger daughter, Inger Anne, works at the bank in Kautokeino, and her older daughter, Ellen, teaches in Kautokeino. The courses Ellen teaches are evidence of the Lapp struggle to retain their culture -- a Sami language class and a class in reindeer history and law.
The Nordic Sami Institute has been chief instigator of such classes. Says institute director Aslak Sara, a Lapp who grew up in a reindeer-herding family, ``Of course, you cannot put Sami culture in a bottle and preserve it, but there are some principles to be held to.'' Mr. Sara, a pragmatic intellectual who represents the Lapps in the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, suggests that reindeer herders provide a balancing force that helps protect Lapp language and lifeways from being overrun by the modern world: ``To be a good reindeer farmer you have to use tradition,'' he points out, explaining that Lapp tradition is carried in a unique language system that reveals the intimate connection between the environment, humankind, and animals. ``This connection to the land,'' concludes Sara, who is dressed in a tie and gray suit coat, ``is the essence of our culture -- not the kinds of houses we live in or the clothes we wear.''
What strikes one about Berit Siri, who is as likely to appear in a nylon windbreaker as in a traditional flowered shawl, is her capacity to draw from contrasting cultures. She is secure in both the industrial and natural worlds -- as able to flip on her dishwasher, weave her way through supermarket aisles, and sort through world issues she views on television as she is to read the stars, cure a hide, and gather a meal from nature's storehouse. The breadth of her life challenges the idea that entering the modern world requires sacrificing traditional values, insights, and know-how.