I am waiting to board a flight in the departure lounge at Stockholm airport, where I have tried to no avail to get the right pronunciation of Hemavan, the town I am bound to. With a small group of colleagues, I board the tiny twin-engine aircraft that will take us to this place with an impossible name in the far north of Sweden. It’s in the heart of Lapland or rather – as we have been told by our guests – in the heart of Sápmi, a Scandinavian region that stretches over Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
The people living in the Sápmi region are semi-nomadic: they live off the land as reindeer herders, and are universally know as laps. In reality, this is a derogative term stemmed from the word lap, meaning “rag”, which was often used to describe the inhabitants of this region as beggars. The right word to indicate the indigenous people of the area is Sámi, which has recently obtained official recognition by the United Nations.
When we arrive at Hemavan, Johán is waiting for us at the airport: nothing more than a strip of tarmac as a runway, and a red shack as a terminal. We get on a minivan to be driven to the Hemavans Högfjällshotell. The red building reminds me of some hotels in the Alps: outdated and dusty. My bedroom is minimal, with a single bed, a chair and a bathroom with no shelf for my toothbrush and toothpaste. In no time I change into a thermal sweater and trekking shoes and go back to the minivan with my colleagues.
We are going to an extremely isolated place, where we will meet the Sámi people in their camp, together with Johán. Our guide is a member of the Sámi Parliament, which represents 80,000 people living as semi-nomads. During the coldest months, they live in the huts scattered among the mountain forests, whereas during the summer they move to the tents to follow the reindeer. It’s the beginning of June but the temperature is barely above zero, so it’s difficult to imagine what life can be like during the coldest months.
We drive through an extreme landscape, while Johán talks about an important battle: for ages the Sámi have fought over this land with the landowners that where doing anything in their power to prevent the herders and their reindeer to graze the lands. There was a lawsuit and the Supreme Court recognized the Sámi exclusive grazing rights in the area. It was a milestone for a population that has been abused and oppressed for ages: their land has been confiscated several times over the years, and the Sámi minority has been victim of genocide.
Besides an officially recognized language and a parliament, they have their own flag: we spot it as soon as we arrive at the camp. When the bus pulls over between two firs, Johán gets off and lead us to a clearing where we are left speechless by the view. The mountains are still covered in snow under a pale grey sky that never gets any darker this time of year. Among their colorful tents, the Sámi are waiting for us: women, children and men are all wearing their blue, yellow, red and green dresses. An elderly man welcomes us and describes the flag with its yellow circle on a blue background, standing for the sun and the sky.
We walk into the lavvu, the biggest tent, where we sit on reindeer rugs on the ground, around a stove where a pot is boiling. They whisper the name of the camp, as if it were a secret, and explain how their lives revolve around reindeer: the Sámi tirelessly follow the herds day after day, up to the mountains tops and through the forests.
In the meantime, we are served a drink: it is as dark as coffee but tastes different from everything I have even drunk. It is strong and bitter, and is made by boiling wild herbs. We are also offered a slice of rhubarb cake, and then it is time to leave. The tent is dimly lit, so when we walk out it takes some time to get used to the light. It is overcast, but for some reason the light is dazzling – maybe it is the effect of the extreme latitude.
We walk along a stream, following a narrow path that would be impossible to detect by an outsider. We struggle to keep up with our nimble guides: they glide on rocks and roots, picking up a couple of leaves of sorrel here, some blueberry flowers there, and some more angelica, whose stems are boiled and candied. We reach another clearing, where we finally see them: the reindeer are in front of us. They are imposing, with their heavy antlers, but also a bit gloomy, with their big, tearful eyes. Our presence doesn’t seem to scare them, and the Sámi suggests that we get closer. We take some photos, and even manage to stroke these huge animals: their antlers are covered in soft, short fur.
Johán explains that reindeer meat is rich in vitamins, minerals and Omega 3. The herds live in the purest of environments, feeding on grass, lichen and fir bark. Their meat can be eaten raw, cured or smoked, but the most traditional recipe is the suovas: it is obtained by salting the cuts and then smoking them on an open fire in a tent. Suovas is subsequently cut into thin slices and served with wild mushrooms or berries.
When we go back to the lavvu, a rich meal is waiting for us. We are offered suovas, which we eat like the Sámi herders on their migrations. The paper-thin slices have been dried and smell like wood smoke: they are served with unleavened bread that has been previously warmed on the stove. There’s also a gravy made with cloudberries: they look like raspberries but are yellowish and grow exclusively in the subarctic tundra climate.
We realize that it’s time to leave: we don’t gather it from the sky, which is still that weird shade of white-grey, but we notice that the temperature has dropped. The reindeer rugs and the wood fire keep us warm, but the cold draughts find their way through the openings of the lavvu. Our Sámi friends find a way to keep our hearts warm by singing a joik: in part pagan prayer, in part song. Legend has it that the Sámi have learnt the art of the joik singing from the fairies and the elves living in the arctic forests. And if I look out the tent, through the makeshift doors, I think I might just see fairies and elves gliding among the reindeer.