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Arctic ancestral survivalism: on extreme weather Sami wisdom

The Sami people are one of the oldest semi-nomadic indigenous groups in the world. Traditionally herding reindeer in the Arctic regions of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula (the region is known as Sapmi), they learned to work with the rhythms of nature in order to survive the harsh climate.

“Nature is everything for us because we think we belong to Mother Earth,” explains Sami writer/artist/teacher Gunnel Heligfjell, “It is not as with Western European thinking that the earth belongs to us, to the human beings. We think that we belong to the earth like the animals and the plants and everything.”

Following the reindeer migrations, they built transportable homes called lavvu from wood and fabric (similar to Native American tipis, but less vertical to sustain high winds). They also have more permanent homes called goahti made from fabric, peat moss or timber and curved poles.

The reindeer are used for food and materials: clothing, shoes, tents, tools, toys, and handicraft. They even play a role in one of the Sami creation myths.

Gunnel Heligfjell is an artist/writer who teaches the Sami language to school children (recognized as an official Swedish minority language in 2000). While she lives in a more conventional home in Vilhelmina, Sweden most of the year, she still spends time in a goahti or lavvu during summer or hunting trips. She believes in this traditional self-reliance and knows how to build traditional shelters and still cures reindeer meat (from her husband’s herd) and makes shoes, bags and fabrics from the skins.