Fallout, Modern Inroads : Lapps Struggle to Maintain Their Culture

Times Staff Writer

Outside the community center, in the Arctic summer sun, stood an array of vehicles that included pickup trucks, Volvo station wagons and an Audi with the antlers of a reindeer on the back seat.

Inside, a group of Lapp villagers had met to talk about the invisible peril that descended on them and their reindeer herds just over a year ago: radiation from the April, 1986, nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, in the Soviet Union.

The grazing lands had been so contaminated by radioactive cesium that virtually all of the 2,000 or so reindeer the community took to market last year could not be sold. This year, the animals will be taken in earlier, before they can consume great quantities of contaminated grasses from the summer grazing lands, in the hope that perhaps half can be sold.

'Still Very Afraid'

"We must stay optimistic, but we are still very afraid," said Stig Martin Persson, the reindeer breeder who served as chairman of the community center meeting.

The fear is well-founded. Except for those in the immediate area of Chernobyl, no group has been hit harder by the reactor disaster than the Lapps, the tough, resilient people of the European Arctic whose centuries-old culture has managed to survive despite the intrusions of the 20th Century.

In the days just after the disaster, heavy rains deposited strong concentrations of radioactive material on the fragile grazing lands, sowing the seeds of cultural and economic catastrophe for the Lapps (who refer to themselves as Saami in their Finno-Ugric language).

Few doubt that the loss of the reindeer herds would destroy the Lapp culture, just as surely as the end of the buffalo signaled the end of the North American Plains Indians over a century ago. The reindeer's significance is underscored by the fact that nearly a quarter of the words in the Lapps' language relate in some way to the reindeer.

'Irradiated' Reindeer

"Instead of being hunted to near extinction, like the buffalo, the reindeer has been irradiated," Jorgen Bolin, legal adviser to the Swedish National Saami Union, told a recent visitor. "There's a lot of concern the result might be the same."

Just how long the radioactivity will remain is uncertain, but most experts believe it will be many years. Government assistance in providing hay and food pellets to keep herds from feeding on radioactive lichen in the winter grazing areas has reportedly eased conditions, but only slightly.

"The level of cesium 137 (in reindeer meat) will be from 10% to 25% lower than last year," according to Prof. Gustav Ahman, a reindeer specialist at Sweden's University of Agricultural Sciences, "but it's going to be a problem for several years still." The permissible level of radioactive substances in meat varies from country to country.

The rains that carried the Chernobyl fallout fell mainly on Norway and Sweden, where roughly 85% of the Lapp population live. Last year, the Lapps received government subsidies to avoid economic collapse, and they will receive more in the years ahead. The Swedish government has already paid out the equivalent of nearly $60,000 to each Saami household engaged in herding, while Norwegian officials estimate that the disaster has cost the government $25 million so far in compensation.

For many of the recipients, the subsidies represent their total annual family incomes for last year.

Keystone of Culture

But subsidies alone are not considered likely to sustain a people who look on reindeer breeding not just as an economic necessity but as a keystone of their culture.

Many were deeply upset that some of the contaminated meat bought by the Swedish government was resold as food for mink, marten and other animals valued for their fur, not their meat.

"It is a very special but very difficult way of life," a reindeer breeder named Per-Stafan Labba said. "You cannot do it just to feed to other animals."

The impact of Chernobyl has also jarred the Lapps' sense of freedom, which once, long ago, seemed almost infinite.

"No one asked, no one explained," Labba said. "It just happened. Suddenly you realize your life is no longer your own."

Dealing with the impositions of modern life is something the Lapps have managed effectively since the 13th Century, when the first Norse and Swedish trappers ventured north into the hostile cold in search of mink and marten, for their fur. It has been a struggle ever since.

Migrants from Central Asia

The Lapps are believed to have come from Central Asia, and to have brought with them a language and heritage different from that of the Scandinavians and most Europeans. They settled in the Arctic reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and what is now the Soviet Union, in a loosely defined area still known as Lapland. The Byzantine chronicler Prokopios marveled at the ingenious method of winter travel on skis, most likely a Saami invention.

Much like the Indians of the American West, the Lapps were gradually hemmed in by political frontiers and pushed northward, first by trappers, then by settlers and the development that followed. Mining, timber and electric power interests brought highways and rail lines and more people to the grazing lands of Europe's last great wilderness.

In the past century, the region's population increased from 6,000 to more than a million, a development that has left the Lapps outnumbered by roughly 30 to 1 in their homeland. In the process, many of the winter grazing areas along the more thickly settled coastlines have disappeared.

More recently, tourism has become a draw, and television has become a window to the world outside.

Ammarnas, a village of 300 residents nestled in the mountains that separate Sweden and Norway, in many ways typifies the change.

Direct-Dial Telephones

Ammarnas, founded in the 1820s, was here for more than a century before the first road was put through to it in 1939. Until then, its sole link to the outside world was a narrow trail, treacherous in many places. Today Ammarnas has two hotels, helicopter service and international, direct-dial telephones.

In Finland and northern Russia, ethnic similarities led to considerable assimilation of the Lapps, but the story was different in Scandinavia, where nearly 90% of all Lapps live today. Norwegians viewed the Lapps as part of a larger Finnish threat in their strategically vulnerable northern areas, and for many years the Norwegians subsidized non-Lapp settlement and outlawed the teaching of the Lapp language in schools. In time, this attitude was eased.

In Sweden, successive governments attempted to protect the Lapps by limiting the expansion of cultivation, but when pressures increased the limits were relaxed. At present, the law protects Lapp rights to the land but reserves to the central government the authority to build roads and hydro-electric power stations "in the national interest."

Despite the clash of interests, there has been remarkably little violence. Today the relationship between Lapps and the Swedish and Norwegian people is characterized by low-grade tension, with Lapps resentful at being pushed around on what they feel is their own land and Scandinavians grumbling about what they regard as preferential treatment for a minority.

Nomadic Way of Life

Over the years, the Lapps have in many ways adjusted, but they have doggedly maintained their traditional nomadic way of life. Communities that once drove their herds on foot, covering distances of hundreds of miles between the coastal winter feeding areas and the mountainous summer pastures, now use an assortment of mechanized equipment, including motorcycles and helicopters.

Several communities, whose traditional routes have been blocked by reservoirs, roads and towns, now move thousands of head of reindeer by truck.

Meanwhile, the traditional pattern of the Lapp communities has been for the most part undisturbed. These groups range in size from 10 to 200 people, and they still take collective responsibility for their herds, though the animals are owned individually. The rhythm of wintering in the milder coastal regions and then moving the herds to higher pastureland for the summer is unchanged, even if the method of moving the animals has changed radically.

The autumn roundups still take place, as herdsmen lasso and brand reindeer in much the same way cattle are dealt with in America.

Also, the Lapps have retained their old summer and winter living areas, but conventional Nordic houses have in most cases replaced the tepee-like shelters of old.

Last of a Breed

The number of Lapps devoted exclusively to reindeer herding has declined over the past 80 years, to about 10% of the population. Those who keep it up are revered not as the last of a breed but as custodians of the culture.

Thousands have left the land to work in the iron ore mines around Kiruna, or at white collar jobs in town, but invariably they come home for long periods. Bolin, the legal adviser, cited a community of 35 that counts 127 other people who are not permanent but are regarded as part of the community.

"It's difficult to know whether reindeer herding is more important for the 3,000 Saami who do it full time (in Sweden) or the 14,000 who don't," Bolin said.

Labba, for example, teaches school and uses a personal computer in his modern, three-bedroom house in the Arctic town of Jokkmokk to translate documents into Saami. But he also owns reindeer and considers himself a herder. He chose teaching deliberately so he could devote his summers to reindeer.

His brother, a technician with the Swedish national television network, and his sister, who works with a photographic firm in the town of Kalix, come home for holidays.

'A Way of Living'

"Reindeer herding is something you learn as a baby," Labba said. "It is a way of living, not just work. It makes you feel who you really are."

For much of the last four centuries, the reindeer has been the economic and cultural focus for the Lapps. On the hoof, it is a beast of burden, a provider of transportation, a source of milk, butter and cheese. Its meat, dried, smoked or salted, is a staple food, and its hide is an important element of clothing, floor and tent covering. Its bones have been made into cooking utensils, weapons and ornaments.

In recent decades, the Honda motorbike, the Suzuki pickup and the snowmobile have replaced the reindeer as a favored form of transportation, and most Lapps prefer Levis and heated homes to leather trousers and tents. Still, the reindeer continues to be the largest single source of income; much of its meat is sold abroad as a delicacy.

In the United States, the Lapps managed to overcome the problem of marketing the meat of an animal closely associated with the delivery of Christmas presents. They built up a small but potentially lucrative market. But this was snuffed out by Chernobyl.

The antlers, ground to a powder, are still popular in South Korea, where the powder is considered to be an aphrodisiac.

Lapp Self-Awareness

The trauma of Chernobyl came in the midst of a resurgence of Lapp self-awareness, led mainly by young, educated men and women pressing for greater rights and equal status.

In Finland, the Lapps were granted their own parliament in 1973, though its role is consultative. In Norway, they recently acquired a similar standing. In Sweden, they are calling for increased educational facilities in the Lapp language, and they have regenerated handicrafts that were on the verge of extinction. Everywhere distinctive music and literature have been revived.

The Chernobyl disaster has helped focus attention on the Lapp culture, but at a terrible price.

"If we could have had one tenth of the publicity of the past year without Chernobyl, we'd have had no problems at all," Bolin said.

Some fear the publicity may have come too late.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World