‘Our bodies know the pain’: Why Norway’s reindeer herders want Gaza peace

Having long endured threats to their own existence, the Indigenous Sami community is protesting Israel’s war on Gaza.

Maja Kristine Jama with her reindeer herd in Norway [Courtesy of Maja Kristine Jama]By Shafi MusaddiquePublished On 24 Feb 202424 Feb 2024

Fosen Peninsula, Norway – A herd of reindeer running through thick, white snow sounds a bit like thunder.

It is a spectacle that has been replayed for at least the past 10,000 years on eastern Norway’s Fosen Peninsula and one that Maja Kristine Jama, who comes from a family of reindeer herders, is deeply familiar with.

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Like most Sami reindeer herders, Jama knows every inch of this terrain without any need for a map.

Instead of going to kindergarten like most other children in Norway, she was raised living outdoors alongside the migrating reindeer. Reindeer husbandry in Norway is a sustainable activity that is carried out in accordance with the traditional practices of Sami culture. Reindeer also play an important role in the Arctic’s ecosystem and have long been a symbol of the region

“Reindeer herding defines me,” Jama says. “We are so connected to nature, we have respect for it. We say that you don’t live off the land, you live within it. But we see our lands being destroyed.”

Europe’s oldest and last remaining Indigenous people are under grave threat as a result of borders, land seizures, construction projects dedicated to the extraction of natural resources and systematic discrimination.

Yet, that creeping sense of suffocation has made the Sami reach out to another set of Indigenous people nearly 4,000km (2,500 miles) away, whose fight for survival they identify with: the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

Their own struggle for Indigenous rights and self-determination has turned the Sami into vocal advocates for the Palestinian cause.

“There is an instant urge to stand up for people who are being displaced from their homes,” Ella Marie Haetta Isaksen, a Sami activist and artist widely known for her singing, tells Al Jazeera.

‘We say you don’t live off the land, you live within it,’ reindeer herder Maja Kristine Jama says [Courtesy of Norske Samers Riksforbund/Anne Henriette Nilut]

Isaksen had just finished taking part in several months of demonstrations in Oslo for the rights of her own people when Israel launched its war on Gaza in October.

As the death toll mounted, anger about Gaza quickly spread through Norway generally and the Sami community in particular. Scores of Norwegians posted images of themselves holding “Stop bombing Palestine” placards on social media while mass demonstrations called for an immediate ceasefire after Nordic countries, with the exception of Norway, abstained from a United Nations General Assembly ceasefire vote on October 27.

For the Sami, it was a pivotal moment of two causes tangling into one. The community launched a series of regular protests in Oslo against the war in Gaza, and those rallies continue to take place.

In front of the Norwegian Parliament on a cold October day, surrounded by hundreds of Palestinian and Sami flags, Isaksen held a mic and performed the “joik”, a traditional Sami song performed without instruments. Her lilting sounds brought the noisy demonstrators to a standstill, carrying a prayer that she hoped would somehow reach the besieged children of Gaza.

“I’m physically so far away from them, but I just want to grab them, hold them and take them out of this nightmare,” Isaksen says.

“Without trying to compare situations, Indigenous peoples all over the world have stood up for the Palestinian people because our bodies know the pain of being displaced from our homes and forced out of our own lands,” Isaksen says.

Ella Marie Isaksen at Sami demonstrations in Oslo in October 2023 [Courtesy of Rasmus Berg]

A long struggle

For more than 9,000 years, the Sami lived a free, nomadic existence spanning modern-day Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. That began to change in the ninth century when outsiders from Southern Scandinavia encroached into Sapmi, the name given to the broad, untamed lands of the Sami. Christian invaders established a church in the 13th century in Finnmark in northern Sapmi territory in what is now northern Norway.

Sweden’s break from Denmark, which had also ruled Norway, in 1542 launched an era of land disputes, conflict and coercion of the Sami that lingers today. A Swedish census that has been preserved from 1591 notes how one Sami community, moving across borders that hadn’t existed for their ancestors, simultaneously paid taxes to Sweden, Denmark and Russia.

The creation of Europe’s longest unbroken border in 1751 – between Norway and Sweden – was particularly disastrous for the Sami, restricting them permanently within one country, splitting families apart and forcing their reindeer away from migratory routes.

As has been the case for the Palestinians, the imposition of such borders has had a direct impact on the Sami’s fragile existence, says Aslat Holmberg, president of the Sami Council, a nongovernmental organisation promoting the rights of the Sami people across the Nordics and western Russia. He comes from an area on the border between Finland and Norway.

“I don’t like to divide the Sami with borders, but we are people now living in four countries,” Holmberg says.

Although Sami groups maintain a bond, they believe the borders imposed on them were one of many colonial acts that tore them apart. A ban on speaking their own language under forced assimilation policies, which officially ended in the 1960s in Norway, almost erased their cultural ties. Holmberg warns that Sami languages are now “endangered”.

A Sami woman on a Sami farm in Solheim, Troms og Finnmark in Norway [File: Jorge Castellanos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

He isn’t exaggerating.

There are no historical records showing population figures for the Sami through history. Today, however, they are estimated at 80,000. About half that number live in Norway, where just three Sami languages remain in use. There are only 20 remaining speakers of one of them – the Ume language used in Sweden and Norway.

In all, there are nine surviving Sami languages, which are related to languages such as Estonian and Finnish.

Preservation of these languages is fraught with difficulties. In Finland, 80 percent of Sami youth live outside traditional Sami territory, where there is no legal obligation to offer their language services in government and the judicial system. By comparison, Swedish language services in legal and government administration are mandatory in Finland.

Dying languages and disruptions from borders are not the only problems faced by the Sami. Climate change and land seizures for the extraction of natural resources also threaten livelihoods.

Small-scale gold mining and forestry, both legal and illegal, are common. The mining of nickel and iron ore, which is considered part of the European Union’s mission for self-sufficiency, have restricted reindeer from roaming and have destroyed their feeding grounds.

According to Amnesty International, mining companies are now showing interest in digging up Sami territory in Finland to feed the ever-rising demand for mobile phone batteries.

“We live in a settler colonial society,” Holmberg says. “The Sami know how it is to be marginalised and lose our lands. The levels of violence are different in Palestine, but a lot of the underlying mindset is similar. The US and Europe have shown they are not able to fully acknowledge their own colonial history.”

Holmberg delivers a stark warning that sounds eerily similar to the voices heard in Palestine.

“We are at the edge now. Any more push, and we collapse.”

Wind turbines stretch across what used to be reindeer pastures of the Sami in Norway [File: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP]

‘Greenwashing colonialism’

Construction of Europe’s biggest wind farm in the Fosen Peninsula began in 2016. A total of 151 wind turbines and 131km (81 miles) of new roads and power cables are now spread across the winter pastures for local reindeer herders and were placed there without the consent of local Sami.

Five years later, Norway’s Supreme Court ruled that the green energy construction had been illegal and violated the Sami’s human rights. But it did not issue any instructions about what should be done next.

So the Fosen wind farm, which is co-owned by a state-funded Norwegian energy firm, a Swiss company and the German city of Munich, remains operational on Sami land to this day.

A compensation deal between Fosen Vind, a subsidiary of the Norwegian state utility Statkraft, which operates 80 of the wind turbines at Fosen, and the southern Fosen Sami was agreed in December. But wind farms owned by foreign companies have yet to compensate the remaining Sami.

There is an irony at play for the Fosen Sami here. “Green” energy projects for globalised communities have been prioritised and built at the expense of the very people living sustainably – a process described as “greenwashing colonialism” by Sami activists.

“Many talk about the material impact of the landscape destroyed for grazing with the pastures now gone for reindeer,” Jama says. “But any proof of Sami history in the area is hidden now and needs a well-trained eye to see it.”

She adds that living in “constant fight mode, in stress or fear of our future” has taken a toll on the mental health of many Sami.

The past year has seen the Sami staging sit-ins inside the Norwegian Parliament and blockading the offices of Statkraft, an event that was attended by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Ida Helene Benonisen is carried away from a protest at a government building by Norwegian police [Courtesy of Rasmus Berg]

Throwing off a shadow of shame

Sami resistance is in the throes of a revival, particularly among people in their 20s and 30s born or living in urbanised communities and now embracing their Sami roots, which their grandparents were made to feel shame for, they say.

“There’s a wave of people wanting to reconnect with the culture of our grandparents, who themselves wanted to hide it,” says Ida Helene Benonisen, a Sami poet and activist who herself scuffled with police at the October protests in Oslo.

Official assimilation of the Sami ended in the 1960s in Norway. But the stigma of having Sami roots left families back then feeling “ashamed”, including her own family, she says. Historical “Norwegianisation” still haunts Sami families today.

‘There’s a wave of people wanting to reconnect with the culture of our grandparents,’ Ida Helene Benonisen says [Courtesy of Rasmus Berg]

While navigating past traumas is difficult, Benonisen takes pride in her roots, showcasing her Sami identity on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.

Like Isaksen and other activists in their 20s and 30s, she uses social media to educate outsiders about greenwashing and also shares stories from Gaza as part of “a movement of people standing against colonialism”.

“It felt natural for Sami to speak for Palestine, especially since the genocide started,” says Benonisen, co-founder of a slam poetry venue in Oslo with Asha Abdullahi, a Norwegian Muslim.

“Social media is giving people a platform to connect with a decolonised point of view. The history we are too often told is the story of the oppressors.”

Source: Al Jazeera