Reporter’s notebook: Sami cash in without selling out

Sami towns are profiting from tourism while retaining their traditional culture.


KARASJOK, NORWAY — Sami in two communities in Scandinavia have found a way to safeguard their culture and still make money from tourists.

While Sami traditions are exploited for profit in parts of the European Arctic, residents of Inari, Finland and Karasjok, Norway think they’ve found a compromise between cash and culture.

All it takes is determination and money, says Tarmo Jomppanen, director of the Sami museum in Inari.

“You have to work hard to keep people involved from start to finish,” he said.

Begun as a modest open-air exhibit in the 1960s, the elegant new $9-million museum was bankrolled by the Finnish government and the European Union. It doubles as an information centre for the Finnish park service.

Since debuting in 1998, the revamped museum has attracted 46,000 visitors a year. The parking lot is full of tourist buses every day of the summer.

“Without this, all tourists and visitors would see would be some reindeer,” Jomppanen said. “But you have to be very careful about what you offer.”

Sami directed the museum’s development. Called Siida, or village, it features a modernistic main building as well as an open-air section with Sami displays such as turf houses, animal traps and food caches.

Several information-packed permanent exhibits provide an overview of Sami life and history.

One exhibit presents the geological, biological, cultural and economic history of the Sami region since glacial times. The display consists of photos and texts in Sami, Finnish, English and German.

Another exhibit is organized around wall-sized murals showing the Sami lands in each season. These lead towards the room’s centre, guiding visitors through the activities Sami practiced each season and explaining the knowledge Sami used to survive.

The Siida also includes a theatre, a library, a craft shop and a restaurant serving local cuisine.

Craft-making is a $3-million industry for Sami. All crafts on sale at the museum are marked by the label “Sami duodji,” meaning they were made by actual Sami.

The road that runs by the Siida museum leads to Karasjok, Norway, 250 kilometres to the north across the tundra. Karasjok is another centre of Sami life, and offers its own packaged version of Sami culture for tourists: the Sápmi theme park.

The park consists of the Stálubákti Spirit Rock Theatre, a recreated Sami village, an underground turf restaurant, two hotels and a handicraft shop.

At the restaurant, called Storgammen, diners sit communally on benches covered with reindeer skins. The tables are made of logs. An open fire keeps a coffee pot warm. The background music is strictly “joik,” the traditional Sami song, and the menu sticks to reindeer, salmon and berries, prepared in various ways.

At the theatre, the multimedia presentation includes a disembodied Sami man speaking from a simulated fire.

It’s not like being out on the land in a Sami tent, listening to old stories. But for tourists with limited time and few local contacts, it’s a way to experience Sami culture — a place where to see Sami life the way Sami want them to see it.

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