"Frost: Life and Culture of the Sami Reindeer People of Norway"

By Muir, Diana | New Criterion, April 2006 | Go to article overview
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"Frost: Life and Culture of the Sami Reindeer People of Norway"


Muir, Diana, New Criterion


"Frost: Life and Culture of the Sami Reindeer People of Norway" National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. October 19, 2005-April 23, 2006

"Frost: Life and Culture of the Sami Reindeer People of Norway," on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., is a display of striking photography and startling scholarship. This exhibit comes as Sami (Saami) activists are asserting their right to political autonomy and filing legal claims to large tracts of territory based on indigeneity. The Smithsonian archeologist Noel Broadbent is "helping the Sami people assert their unique identity" with a digging program called "Search for a Past:' His efforts are concretized by a helpful wall map of a purported thirteenth-century "Sami homeland ... called Sampi or Samiland, which once occupied most of Norway, Sweden, and Finland" and which some Sami activists would like to reclaim.

The photos capture a timeless landscape of reindeer husbandry. In one, a lasso catches the sunlight against a gray sky in the instant before it drops around the neck of a reindeer calf; in another, a herd of reindeer is dramatically backlit against a brilliant patch of orange sunset, dwarfed by a sea of white snow and white cloud.

But it is the explanatory panels that stun, authoritatively informing viewers that Sami (you and I grew up calling them "Lapps" and referring to their territory as "Lapland") "are the indigenous people who live in northern [Scandinavia]. ... Mitochondrial DNA identifies the Sami as an early European population, their ancestors migrating to the Nordic region at the end of the last Ice Age almost 10,000 years ago."

"The) ... perfected the use of skis ... and domesticated reindeer which they raised for meat and milk."

After viewing a map of the Sami "homeland" we are informed that "Scandinavian and Finnish settlers pushed the Sami northward into the area known today as Lapland." We are meant to understand the Sami as indigenous people unjustly pushed out by "settlers," like the Amerindians or Australian aborigines.

Consider what is actually known.

Scandinavia was repopulated soon after the glaciers melted back about 10,000 years ago, probably by people moving north from the glacial refuge in Iberia. Later, two new groups entered the region. One was expanding from the Black Sea/Caspian region and spoke an Indo-European language. The other came from somewhere near the Urals, speaking a language in the Uralic family. Both arriving groups had technological advantages that enabled them to dominate and replace the cultures and languages of the hunting-and-gathering peoples then occupying Scandinavia.

We date the arrival of agriculture in Scandinavia to 3800 BCE and the Boat Axe culture, an expanding group descended from the Indo-Europeans who first entered Europe around 7000 BCE. We know that their invasion of Scandinavia was not peaceful because of the number of children, women, and men found by archeologists with their skulls bashed in by axes. The Boat Axe conquerors are assumed to have absorbed the pre-existing population, and continuities in the archeological record make clear that they are in some sense ancestors of the Norse.

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