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Living with the Saami: Melissa Lantto shares her experience
Monday, Jan. 14, 2013

By Jennifer Kotila
Staff Writer

Five years ago, Melissa Lantto of French Lake discovered she had Saami heritage when her mother, Vicki, took a DNA test. She has since found out that she also has Saami ancestry on her father, Chris’ side of the family.

The Saami people are the indigenous people of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia and were traditionally hunter/gatherers before Europeans moved north into their territory.

Being curious about her ancestry, Lantto began to study Saami identity more in college at St. Catherine University.

After graduating, she wanted to learn more about her ancestry. In the fall of 2011, she became a nanny in Kautokeino, Norway, a village where Saami culture is still alive, and the language is still spoken.

The Saami people call their region Sapmi, but most people throughout the world know it as Lapland.

Lantto noted that Saami people do not like the name Lapland, because it is the name given to the region by European people who colonized Saami territory.

As Europeans moved into Saami territory, they forced the Saami people farther north. Eventually, the Saami were being forced to assimilate, much like the Native Americans in the US, she explained.

Today, many Saami people are still reindeer herders, and there are laws in Norway and Finland that regulate what they can and cannot do.

Although Lantto shared a little bit of this history during a presentation to the Cokato Finnish-American Historical Society last Monday, she mostly focused on her time spent learning Saami culture and language.

Learning Saami

When she first arrived in Kautokeino, Lantto only knew English. The day she arrived, she attended her first Saami language class.

Lantto took the Saami language course because the family to which she was to be a nanny required it, and also because she wanted to learn her ancestral language.

“As you can see, I’m not so bad at speaking the language,” Lantto said after introducing herself in Saami. “But I’m not perfect, either.”

She recalled being interviewed for a national TV program, and accidently saying the wrong thing.

She was asked if she liked living in Kautokeino, and replied, “Of course, I have many Saami buyers,” which did not sound so good.

Rather, she meant to say she had many Saami friends. Fortunately, the TV program was not live, and the station was able to edit part of the interview.

During her first session of the class, Lantto remembers thinking, “What am I doing here?”

She was sure the teachers thought she was a lost cause, and “the students for sure thought I was a lost cause,” she said.

Only Saami was spoken in the language course, and the students learned the language by going on many field trips to the tundra and doing what Saami people do.

For instance, her first day in the class, students learned to build a fire.

They also went fishing, which Lantto said is nothing like ice fishing in the US, where people use fishhouses.

In Kautokeino, when people go fishing, they simply clear the snow from a patch of ice and drill a hole.

“We learned the language by doing; it was really fun,” Lantto said.

“When learning a language, you have to be humble,” Lantto said, noting people have to expect to make mistakes, just like toddlers do when they are learning to speak.

“In the beginning, you can’t talk about all the things you might want to – like politics,” Lantto said, noting one has to learn simple language first.

Although Saami is not an easy language to learn, she noted it can be done if one sets their mind to it.

Herding reindeer

The family Lantto was staying with in Kautokeino were reindeer herders, and she was able to be a reindeer helper in Norway and Finland.

She noted that it was a privilege to be able to help, since the herding is typically only done by the families who own the reindeer herd.

In Norway, the reindeer are smaller and more tame than the reindeer in Finland, which are “really big and wild,” Lantto said.

This difference is attributed to reindeer in Norway being corralled more often than in Finland, she added.

One would expect the corral to be loud with people shouting and the reindeer grunting while working with them, Lantto noted.

“But it is surprisingly peaceful and calm in the corral,” she said, adding that you mostly heard the crunch of snow and an occasion reindeer bell.

While herding on the tundra, Saami people still use a lavvu, which is similar to a teepee, Lantto said.

A lavvu is the traditional housing Saami used before they began to build houses, she added.

Young reindeer calves’ ears are marked while in the corral in May each year so herders know which reindeer belong to them.

Lantto noted this may sound cruel, but “they are not aggressive at all; they respect the animals so much.”

Since the reindeer are the herders’ livelihood, herders do not want to harm them in any way.

Each herder is its own business, and they take care of butchering their own meat.

The government regulates how many reindeer must be butchered each year, Lantto said.

The reindeer travel a wide range, following specific routes to the coast in the spring, coming back to their herders’ territory in the fall.

Some of the specifics about reindeer herding, Lantto admitted she did not know because she was not told, and didn’t feel she could ask.

“My father found out the hard way that asking a reindeer herder how many reindeer they had was like asking how much money they had in the bank,” Lantto said, noting it is not something they freely share.

She noted that it is necessary to bundle up whenever one is outside, since Sapmi is within the Arctic Circle.

For instance, on a recent outing, Lantto was wearing a hat and boots made of reindeer fur, a pair of long underwear, and two pairs of snowpants in order to keep out the cold.

Saami culture

“Sapmi is so spread out – it’s like the boonies of the boonies,” Lantto said.

Since she did not have a car to get from place to place, the best way for her to meet people her age was attending Saami festivals.

Attending festivals or political conferences gave Lantto a chance to learn more about her heritage, which is one of the reasons she has decided to stay in Norway, although she is not sure for how long.

“You can’t do much here (in the US) to learn about Saami ancestry,” Lantto said. “That’s what’s kept me there – it’s exciting for me.”

Although different from food here, Lantto has gotten used to many of the traditional foods eaten in Sapmi.

For instance, cloudberries are very popular among the Saami, but Lantto did not like them at first.

“But they love them, so I kept trying them, and they grow on you,” she said.

One of the traditional ways to eat cloudberries is with reindeer tongue, which Lantto said was “to die for – it’s really, really good.”

Another favorite snack for Lantto is bread topped with brown cheese, and cloudberries, she noted.

Other popular foods are fish and lingonberries, Lantto said.

Living so close to the Finnish border in Norway, Lantto noted that people from Finland come to Norway to buy brown cheese, and those from Norway go to Finland “to buy everything else.”

Food is cheaper in Finland, but Norway’s brown cheese is better, Lantto said.

Coffee is very important to the Saami people, who usually drink a couple of quarts per day, Lantto said.

People in Norway will go to Finland to buy their coffee because it is stronger.

All women in Saami culture know how to make handicrafts, Lantto noted.

“The more you can do with your hands, then, a husband [is sure] to be coming for you,” Lantto said.

In school, Saami people do not have traditional art classes, but work on handicrafts. “It’s impressive there if you can make something with your hands,” Lantto added.

Other differences with Saami schools are the field trips taken for berry picking, and the shape of the schools, which resemble a reindeer corral.

When asked about the dating protocol in Sapmi, Lantto said, “If I could figure out dating over there, I could solve all the world’s problems.”

For instance, if a boy and girl go to the grocery store together, they better be getting married, she added.

People are never seen holding hands in public, and will date for three to four months before anybody else knows.

Wedding rituals for the Saami are similar to those in the US, with cake, good food, and fun. However, Saami people invite not only their immediate family and friends to weddings, but also distant cousins, Lantto said.

Weddings can draw 1,000 to 2,000 people, “and everybody brings gifts,” Lantto said.

The bride wears a gakti, which is the clothing traditionally worn by Saami people, along with numerous brooches and rings.

Since living in Sapmi, Lantto has made her own gakti, which she wears to Saami festivals.

If the groom is Saami, they also wear traditional Saami dress, but if not, they dress in the national uniform.

It is not unusual for Saami men and women to marry someone who is not Saami, Lantto noted.

As far as religious practices among the Saami, many of the older generation still attend church. However, the younger generation believes more in traditional Saami spirituality.

Saami schools have religious classes, but students learn about all religions.

“But I can’t make a blanket statement about all Saami and their religious beliefs,” Lantto said.

Prejudice against the Saami

“Because they are an indigenous group, the Saami are not always welcome,” Lantto said.

At this time, Lantto is living about four hours north of Kautokeino teaching English to second- through fourth-graders in Tana bru.

The school she is working at is only for students who are Saami, and teachers also have to be Saami.

Unlike Kautokeino, Tana bru is not populated with only Saami people, and Lantto has witnessed the prejudice people have against the Saami.

When she first arrived in Tana bru, a grocery store clerk was very friendly to her when he only knew she spoke English. However, once he saw her speak Saami and dress in her gakti, “he turned cold, just like that,” Lantto said, snapping her fingers. The clerk no longer asked her if she wanted a receipt or a bag for her groceries.

Just recently, a girl in southern Norway was out on the town with some friends, and people tried to light her jacket on fire.

“Racism is very much alive over there, but it’s worse in the south,” Lantto said.

Lantto’s blog

Since living among the Saami, Lantto has kept a blog, “Retracing Roots,” to document her experiences.

She also makes interesting insights into Saami people, and the parallels they have with other indigenous peoples throughout the world.

For those who wish to follow along as she continues her adventure, a link to the blog can be found on the Enterprise Dispatch homepage, www.dasselcokato.com.

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