from Sirdolaččat: the Deportation of the Northern Sámi
by Elin Anna Labba
introduced and translated by Fiona Graham
Since time immemorial the Sámi people have lived in northern Fenno-Scandinavia and the far north of western Russia, in Arctic lands known to them as Sápmi. Once, the only boundaries of any consequence were natural ones – until the national borders separating Norway/Denmark from Sweden/Finland were drawn in 1751. Yet an addendum to the border treaty, the Lapp Codicil, recognised the Sámi as a distinct people with the right to pursue activities including hunting, fishing and reindeer herding in the lands where they had traditionally lived.
But all this changed with Norwegian independence in 1905. The migration of Sámi reindeer herders between their winter pastures in Sweden, and the Norwegian coast, where they summered, became a bone of contention between the two countries. The issue was ‘resolved’ to the satisfaction of Norway and Sweden through the Reindeer Grazing Convention of 1919, which limited the numbers of reindeer permitted to cross the border.
Indirectly, the agreement also sealed the fate of numerous Sámi people who were obliged to leave their summer homes on Norway’s Atlantic seaboard and trek across country to a region of the Swedish county of Norrbotten where they had no family ties and no claim to land. This forced displacement was known in the Northern Sámi language as the Bággojohtin, and the first people to be deported called themselves the sirdolaččat, the displaced.
This went on throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. Links with the traditional lands of the Northern Sámi were severed, as were ties with extended family. The forced displacement also undermined and partially destroyed the culture of a nomadic people speaking a Finno-Ugric language that was entirely different from the Northern Germanic languages around it.
A century on, Elin Anna Labba’s poetic history Herrarna satte oss hit (literally ‘the masters put us here’) brings the stories of individual sirdolaččat vividly to life. One such person is Guhturomma Ánne Márjá (known in Swedish as Anna Maria Omma), exiled for ever from her summer home on the Norwegian island of Senja (Sážžá in Northern Sámi). In giving Ánne Márjá and many others back their voices, Elin Anna Labba has truly written her own family back into existence, as she movingly expresses it, and with them an entire people.
from Herrarna satte oss hit
01 Bures eatnehat
The path snakes up through dry bogs, disappearing, then reappearing. After a while it leads into sparse woodland where the birches grow crooked. This is an old path, my body can sense it. I bear off at an angle towards an opening further on, tramping over marshland, over the fallen, rotten trunks of birch trees. I know the land is returning to its original state; what I am searching for is now hardly visible.
I walk from the site of one goahti to another. The first lies at the top of a rise, with a view out over the sea below. It is so old that only the fireplace remains. A patch of tall grass and a few overgrown stones. Others are marked by soft rings of subsided peat. I have been here before and I know where I’m going. I walk through an old reindeer enclosure, passing a cold spring whose waters are as clear as ever.
Never have I been in so silent a place. I can hear no wind, even though I know it is blowing. It is a long time since the goahtis stood here and children played between them. It is a long time since anyone sat outside weaving, lit the fire in the árra, cut the sharp-bladed sedge used to line shoes.
The old ones spoke of how they used to greet the land when they came here, the mountains, the dwelling places and the paths, but I dare not. Where exactly do I belong? What is my home? I have discussed this with other grandchildren of deportees. What part of our new Sámi settlements can we call ours? I feel at home on the periphery of this land, in places where I know nobody else longs to be, says one person. I don’t feel really attached to the place where I live, says another. I can’t say I’m unhappy here, but I lack a deep connection.
As the Finno-Sámi poet Áillohaš said, we carry our homes in our hearts. Can you do that if you were forced to leave?
Do I have the right to mourn for a place that has never been mine?
Over a hundred years have passed since the first people were deported. That was when members of our family drove their reindeer over the strait to the mainland for the last time. The place where they lived has stood empty since. It is a place that whispers to those of us who know, who come here from time to time. But to most it means nothing. There is no awareness of those who lived here.
That is Sámi history. Tiny shifts in vegetation, a slightly raised patch of earth, goahtis razed to the ground. Our story is the plaque never erected, the chapter left out of the history books. Yet for some years now there have been court cases between the Sámi communities further north and the Norwegian state. The Sámi communities are fighting for the right to the old reindeer pastures they were forced to leave behind. In Vapsten, in Swedish Västerbotten, families whose ancestors were established there before the relocations have sued the descendants of incomers. So there they are in court, fighting each other, prisoners of a history Sweden forced upon them.
I lie down in the brushwood. It is only natural that the land should reclaim these places, but I am mourning for the story that is being obliterated at the same time. It is slipping out of my hands, and that is why I am here. My váre, my father’s father, and his siblings, lived here. And their parents, Risten and Gárena Jovnna. This was their home. I wanted to start by writing about them, but got nowhere. All I could find was a black-and-white photo in a Helsinki archive, a picture of a mother with three young children. One of these children is váre, aged ten. The gákti he wears is ragged, and I know why nobody has mended it. The family is still in Gárasavvon (Karesuando), their winter home, in the middle of summer, when they should have been on the coast. They have been given a room in the district courthouse so they can stay with their gravely ill, bedridden isá. If the date given is correct, the picture was taken just after their father had passed away. ‘Paralysis following a stroke’, the church register recorded as the cause of death. Risten, newly widowed, has so few reindeer that she can barely scrape a living. Then the whole extended family is forced to relocate, and she puts her children in the ráidu. In 1923 they arrive in the mountains of Jåhkåmåhkke (Jokkmokk).
The time after that is a vacuum. They never wanted to talk about it. Now I know that my family is not the only one like this; Sápmi, where I grew up, is full of individuals who have bound their wounds with silence.
So this will be a book about those I can write about, those whose tape-recorded accounts are preserved in archives and who were willing to tell their stories. Those with pictures, letters, poems and documents. I am thankful for the briefest of anecdotes, and for what they have shared. In their history we can glimpse ours. Word by word, I write my own family back into existence.
Over the years I have interviewed many individuals, both those who experienced the deportations first-hand, and their children and grandchildren. I have also been given permission to use interviews recorded by others, all with elderly people long gone. This is a text based on a chorus of narrators: brief anecdotes, joiks, fragmentary memories. I have spliced and interwoven them: sometimes the colours are vibrant, sometimes the weave is half-full of holes and silence. Oral narratives have faded away over time. I have had to accept that the form of this text is necessarily like all Sámi history, like a woven vuoddaga severed by an axe. The threads have not even been torn apart; they simply come to an end, and the pattern is difficult to resume.
Along the way, those I myself have interviewed have also begun to disappear, one by one. Each time it feels like losing a little of myself. Who are we to ask henceforth? I have heard so many tales of forced displacement that belong to other narrators. Not least the story of those displaced in their turn when the northern Sámi families moved onto their lands. I hope more people will tell their stories while there’s still time. For many of them, recounting the tale is a way to heal. In the language I love best, to remember and to tell a story are almost the same word. Muitit means to remember, while to tell or recount is muitalit. We remember those whose story we retell.
Giitos eatnat. Thank you, muore, váre, áhkku, áddjá – my own, and others’. This is the web I weave for you. This is the joik I sing for you.
In the realm of the sea
SÁŽŽÁ, SEPTEMBER 1919
Guhturomma Ánne Márjá/Anna Maria Omma
Ánne Márjá remembers. She remembers how the cuckoo called while they were on their way down to the sea. She heard it here and there along the way. It was as if it were following her. It didn’t show itself; all it did was sing a greeting, a summoning, again and again. Each time it took her by surprise.
‘The cuckoo calls whenever the fancy takes it,’ she thought. She looked around; it sounded so close, but never appeared. When they reached the goahti at Várddaváraš it fell silent, and she forgot it awhile.
She remembers those summer sounds. The birds and the grunting, gangly reindeer calves. Autumn has a different tone, uneasier.
Ánne Márjá puts clothing into the bag and tightens the drawstring. Deftly she fits the more delicate china cups into her gohppogisá, while the medicine bottles go into the sack of flour. She and Guhtur have checked all the boxes they are going to pack. They have mended what needed mending, greased the leather straps and replaced those that were worn out. She knows just what she wants where, her hands think for themselves. The load mustn’t exceed twenty kilos if the reindeer is to be able to carry it. She needs no scales. Her arms know.
Gathering up the dry twigs that cover the floor of the goahti, she puts them on the fire outside. She paces back and forth with short, swift, bandy-legged steps. Ánne Márjá is like a ptarmigan, so the others say; her legs are as short and her movements as abrupt. She just can’t walk slowly. The boaššu at the back of the goahti is nearly empty. There is a slightly musty scent of earth when the dry brushwood is gone. Breathing in the odour, she looks about her. Now all that’s left are a few pots and pans, stacked upside down, and other things they usually leave behind. She picks up some twigs she dropped; she never goes empty-handed. Everything is to be left clean for their return next summer. This is not a goahti for the unseen ones, the little folk.
The low mountains framing the valley are still quite bare. There’s scarcely a patch of snow, though they’re already in September. In a normal year, the mountain tops bear powdery shawls of new snow, but now they’re all still in summer’s garb. Ánne Márjá’s face grows warm. She hears the children at the stones outside the goahti. She sees the red bobble on her son’s hat, bright in the midst of the brush, like an unripe cloudberry. She has sewn bells onto little Ánne’s and Heandarat’s belts, so she can hear them tinkling if the children should wander off.
She pulls the lop-sided door to.
Guhtur and Ánne Márjá’s goahti is near to the others in the siida. The other family groups live spread out over kilometres of low mountains around Várddaváraš. There are a few lonely mountain birches among the goahtis. The forest that grew here when Ánne Márjá was little has been cut down for timber. The valley is dotted with patches of bog in autumn colours, with dried out cloudberry plants. Sedge that is starting to turn yellow, blueberry plants, lady’s mantle, wavy hairgrass.
They live on the threshold of the mountains, and if they climb the rounded slopes they can see the mainland on the other side of the fjord. They can see the sea too; the open sea is no more than ten-odd kilometres away. Ánne Márjá thinks of these lands as sea and mountains in one, as if married to each other. Closing her eyes, she feels them within her. ‘The sea encircles the mountains and meets the next arm of the sea. We’re surrounded by mountain peaks and sea. I’ve run about everywhere in these mountains. I know them well.’
They call her Sážžá. She is so wide that they seldom think of her as an island. This is the land of their summers, the realm of the sea. Senja, as the Norwegians call her. Ánne Márjá is so familiar with the path that she knows which parts are driest to walk on, and which foot corresponds to which tussock. In Sweden, her people are classed as Swedish citizens, and they have been christened by Swedish parsons. The forested land around Kangos lies on the Swedish side of the border. Ánne Márjá spends all her winters there, but feels no longing for the place. It’s on the coast, on the Norwegian side of the border, that her anxieties disappear. Drawn to its summer slopes, Ánne Márjá is like the she-reindeer in spring, when they raise their heads and face into the wind from the coast. Guhtur selected the birch trees for their goahti. They asked the place to let them sleep in peace. It is Sážžá that readies Ánne Márjá for the coming winter. Only here does she feel she has time to spare.
When they arrived, Ánne Márjá and the other women borrowed a Singer sewing machine down in Rášmorvuovdi and made new gáktis. They tied cattle hides together in the lake and left them till the hair loosened. She has made summer shoes, firmly stitched to withstand the marshy paths, and woven new vuoddagat for the children. She makes fine leg bindings, she’s known for her skill. Once they have rounded up the reindeer from around the lake, she puts on freshly laundered clothes for the occasion. She has milked the most experienced female reindeer, a few jets from each. ‘We made cheese, and eidde churned butter. That’s what we lived on.’ It’s hard when it’s fresh, butter made from reindeer milk, and white as snow. It melts like marrow in your mouth.
The cheese, the butter, everything they have: she’s packed it all now. The summer passes so quickly. The ráidus are set to migrate from the summer pasture on the island over the border to Sweden. Ánne Márjá puts worn dovgosat on the back of the reindeer gelding. The hide protects him against the weight of the pack, and she places it hair side down to prevent the pack from slipping off. Standing on the left side of the gelding, she tries to put his harness on without moving her upper body or taking overly long steps. She mustn’t frighten him with quick movements. Singing a joik will calm him down.
Ánne Márjá lifts Ánne onto the gelding she is going to lead herself; she knows he is the right one to carry the child. She sits the little girl down in an oblong case with rounded corners. It has a raised border, a hand’s breadth, no more; but that is enough to support the two-year-old, who cannot really keep her balance otherwise. Heandarat is big enough to sit on the reindeer’s back, holding on tightly to the two parts of the spagát sticking up in front of him. She ties him on. He is braced on either side by cushions stuffed with reindeer hair. Whenever his legs start to feel numb, he dismounts and walks alongside the ráidu for a while, a pole in one hand.
Ánne Márjá was twenty-two when she became a mother: four years ago already. Just think, over four years since she last migrated with the reindeer – she, who’d always been with the herd. She is tormented with longing when Elle takes her bag to go off foraging and she hears her sister’s high-spirited joik. Ánne Márjá used to fly like a seabird over these valleys. Sometimes they’d sit on a stone by the sea and joik about boys they’d met and places they were fond of, or about the mountains. The maids from Ávkolat had fine, steady voices. When it is hard to move on, she thinks of the time when she was like a wild reindeer. ‘Guarding the meadows was really a task for farmhands and maids, but I was like a wild thing. I was always out there. I tried going to school, but time was too short. I never did aught but follow the reindeer, never. A joy, that’s what it was.’
Nowadays she seldom leaves the valley. Sometimes she fetches fish from the fisherfolk down on the fjord. The last time she visited the farms in Rášmorvuovdi, they gave her a syrup cake so fresh she had to wipe her knife before putting it back in her belt. ‘They’re good people, they always have coffee and food. Oh, it’s such a pleasure to drop in on them; take a milk bottle down and they’ll refill it for you. We’ve lived next to each other all our lives.’
Now then, that’s all they usually say. They never make a big thing out of goodbyes; after all, they’ll see each other again next spring. Making too much fuss over goodbyes bodes ill.
The ráidu makes its way down over a number of half-dried-out bogs, following the brook to the ford. Ánne Márjá takes in the trees as she passes: roots, burr knots, birch bark. She gives thanks to the trail, the slopes, the pastureland, the beck, which has quietened down now. It is difficult to wade across the torrent in spring, but now it’s easy enough to cross without getting the seam of her gákti wet. One of the channels is dry, its pebbles worn smooth and round as cobblestones. Gripping the reins, she steers the ráidu up the steep bank. The reindeer’s packs slide round, then they’re straightened. They catch up with the older people and the children, who had gone on ahead. The first leaves have been caught by the wind and blown onto the trail.
The first leg of the journey is not very long. They’re only going as far as Gibostad, the Norwegian name for the farms around Čoalbmi. When Ánne Márjá was a child there were only one or two houses here, but with each year that passes, new ploughed fields appear next to the fjord. Their old fireplaces await them on a ridge at some distance from the nearest farm. She greets the site where they are to put up their goahti. It is in autumn apparel now; the last time they met was in early summer. The foragers come out to the cloudberry bog along with the reindeer herds.
Ánne Márjá meets people she knows who have travelled a long way to fetch their reindeer for slaughter. The farm folk have come to trade goods for meat, hides and blood. The autumn reindeer slaughter is the high point of the year here. She registers her own reindeer. She knows them inside out, their antlers and their markings. Guhtur takes care of those that are to be slaughtered and sold. ‘Reindeer bulls are like horses,’ says her cousin Johánas, laughing. She checks whether any are missing; nobody wants to leave reindeer behind on the island. You can’t be sure they’ll still be there by next summer. There are far too many shotguns among the permanent island-dwellers. Now their beasts will encounter the bare mountains of the borders, and then the forests of their winter pastures.
Elle and three boys cross the strait in a rowing-boat to join the reindeer herd on the other side. The channel is so narrow that you can see the details of the houses on the mainland and the church where Lálle Jákos’s son was buried. They wait for slack water, the time – barely an hour long – when the sea pauses between ebb and flow tide. The older reindeer dip their muzzles in the water. It is uncanny to see them sense the tide and lie down to wait. At slack water, they have the breathing space they need to cross the strait. In spring the reindeer are reluctant to cross, but it is easier now. The herd swims over, covering the fjord like a quilt, and races uphill on reaching the mainland. The farmer on the other side has erected barbed wire to keep them out, but it looks as if they’re getting through anyway.
Ánne Márjá lights her pipe and inhales. The families are to take the boat to Finnsnes, then a horse-drawn conveyance will carry them out to the reindeer herd. There are other travellers on the broad wooden jetty, people in dark, drab clothes and hats. The older children help carry out sacks, giissáid and spagát. All the saddles and packing cases borne by the reindeer are to be carried across by boat now. As ever, their own place is outside, on deck. They find places to sit down, their arms full of puppies and children.
From the sea they can see the reindeer trail and the mountains it follows. There is Noaddevárri, there are the slopes around Várddaváraš where the goahtis stand. Vuoi, these lands. The realm of the sea. The salt water. Ánne Márjá sweeps her woollen shawl about her, keeping Ánne warm in her arms. The women’s white lace caps are bright in the sun. Ipmil sivdit, she thinks, may they fare well, until they see the realm of the sea next spring.
Only later does it occur to her that she might have said goodbye more affectionately. She should have spent longer with her friends in Rášmorvuovdi. Thanked them for the coffee, the coalfish, and the bottles of milk they’d shared. For their conversations, their stories and the time they’d spent together as children. And if they had known, they would have given away their belongings or sold them. She ought to have given thanks to each little path, and to the cliffs of Juobmovári. She would have visited her father’s grave.
Only later does Ánne Márjá realise that the cuckoo sang more than was its wont.
‘The year they sent us away, that was the year the cuckoo cried.’
Herrarna satte oss hit
Rights: Catherine Mörk, Norstedts Agency.
We are grateful to Norstedts Agency for permission to publish this translated extract from Herrarna satte oss hit.
Herrarna satte oss hit was awarded the 2020 August Prize (non-fiction), and in 2021 it was voted the year's best book on Swedish history by readers of Svensk Historia magazine. Read a review of the book in SBR 2020:1-2.
Elin Anna Labba is a journalist and former editor of Nuorat magazine. She now works at Tjállegoahte, the Sápmi Writers’ Centre in Jokkmokk, Norrbotten.
Fiona Graham is a literary translator, editor and reviewer.