"Reindeer breeding is the heart of Sami culture"

Arvid Jåma

Retired Sami reindeer breeder

Arvid Jåma may be retired, but the 69-year-old has not stopped working. This Southern Sami tirelessly fights for the survival of his culture and for Sami self-determination. His family is one of the last in the region to pursue traditional reindeer breeding. However, this heritage is threatened by a wind farm project.

When Arvid Jåma tells of the struggle that his family has been involved in for five years, his face shows how exhausting these efforts have been. In his eyes though, there still shines the burning passion that keeps giving him the strength to not give up. This is because of the 69-year-old's conviction that his culture is worth fighting for. His grandchildren should also have the opportunity to know what it feels like to be Sami.

Since the 16th century, Arvid's family line has pursued reindeer breeding in Central Western Norway. It is the traditional vocation of the Sami, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. Originally, the Sami lived nomadically in an area that they call Sápmi, which extends across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Western Russia. The drawing-up of state borders forced peoples to become sedentary, giving rise to sijtes, breeder families' hereditary reindeer grazing lands.

In the rhythm of nature

Up until the 1960s, the Sami experienced massive state and social oppression and discrimination, which severely damaged their original culture. As part of forced assimilation, Sami children, for instance, were not allowed to speak their native language at school. Consequently, even Arvid can barely speak Sami. Nevertheless, his Sami identity lives on in reindeer breeding, of which he knows every detail. "It is the heart of Sami culture," states the retired breeder. It is a lifestyle. Even though it has undergone considerable modernisation over the course of time, many elements remain traditional, as they are defined by the wild animals' natural rhythm. To this day, the herds still wander according to the seasons. After the calves are born in spring, the whole family gathers each summer to lend a hand: "We spend three weeks living in lavvus on the terrain, marking and herding the young. It is the nicest time of the year."

However, Arvid's family has had to fear for its own existence since 2013. At Storheia, the sijte's most important winter grazing land, a wind farm is to be built, as part of Norway's largest on-shore wind plant. This comes as a shock to the Jåmas, one of the last Southern Sami families living off reindeer breeding. For this construction, the family would have to give up the terrain – and thus their entire livelihood. Losing the land would force them to reduce the size of their herd: "With fewer animals though, a family can no longer earn a living."

The heart must be allowed to keep beating

For Arvid and his family, letting their tradition and culture be taken away is out of the question. They were consulted pro forma by the project managers – without effect. "We can say something, but they do something else regardless," Arvid discovered. Thus, when construction began, he organised protests – which remained small, like the Southern Sami community itself. Finally, Arvid is even taking the matter to court. He is a pensioner and no longer dependent on the breeding himself. The herd has now been taken over by his son Tom, whose two cousins Leif and John also earn their living from this traditional vocation.

Determined to fight

This is about more than work though: it is about identity. Arvid's children's and nephews' generation has a reinvigorated interest in its origins is proud to be Sami. John's daughter Maja teaches the Southern Sami language and is an activist, committed to the preservation of her culture. As children, they grew up still surrounded by reindeer breeding. Arvid wants to retain the possibility for his grandchildren to do this as well. "It is not easy to be a reindeer breeder in Norway," Arvid knows. Nevertheless, the young ones would be interested in it. The uncertainty about the future of the grazing land makes it hard for young Sami to maintain their wish to pursue this tradition, but they are determined to fight for it – because their children also deserve a Sami culture that is alive.

Thus, the Sami's fight goes into the next round. The STP supports the Sami in defending their rights, and has enabled Leif and Maja Kristine Jåma to travel to Switzerland. This is because the wind farm project's investors include the large bank Credit Suisse and the Bern-based energy company BKW. Together with the Sami delegation, the STP is calling on these Swiss companies to respect the rights of the Sami and to negotiate a mutually agreed solution with them on an equal footing.

"Being a reindeer herder is the biggest part of my identity as a Sami. We have to keep fighting for our culture, even though the odds are against us."

Maja Kristine Jåma in the online magazine Vice (2017)

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