11 October 2012

Skolt's Honor

It's not that often that you're hostess catches, guts and cooks your dinner over an open flame, but that's just what happened at our homestay in Sevettijärvi.  Natalia, who did most of this with her handful of a 10 month old daughter balanced on her hip, was tickled with the catch.  "I didn't actually expect to get a fish!" she laughed, struggling to remove her hook from the beautiful lake trout's mouth.  Ice-fishing is second nature to her, but this was her very first big non-icy catch.  "I have to show my sisters!"  she giggled shooting off a picture text on her phone.  Her older sister, who is a member of Sámi parliament and the preeminent Skolt Sámi rock musician ceded the title of "family rock star" for the day.  Her younger sister asked her to save the skin.  "She wants it for her handicrafts - to make a purse, probably," Natalia explained.  "Skolt Sámi use every part of the fish."
Skolt Sámi are the indigenous people of the area at which Finland, Norway and Russia meet.  There are around 1250 ethnic Skolts in the world today.  About 700 live in Finland and 315 of them reside right here in Sevettijärvi, a village just south of the northernmost border between Norway and Finland.  We stayed on Natalia's family reindeer farm in Sevettijärvi for two nights and couldn't have been given better insight into Skolt Sámi culture.  Natalia's knack for storytelling was keen, her laughter infectious.  She told us about meeting her husband at Sevetin Baari, the local bar.  "I was the only single girl for 100 kilometers!"  And about being the only female in her elementary school class, "I've seen it all."  She spoke of her grandfather, a reindeer herder, who was famous for tea that could wake the dead, and her grandmother, who was tiny but fierce.
"Skolt Sámi are short, but she was the shortest," Natalia said of her grandmother who stood only one meter tall, but commandeered big dogs and reindeer like a general.  "If she wasn't good with humans, she was excellent with animals."  Grandma had seven children, one of which was birthed during a routine reindeer feeding in the dead of winter.  Out in the snowy woods, Domna tied her skirt together at the bottom and skied home.  Stricken with dementia at the end of her nearly 100 year long life (by the family's best guess), grandma began to show some vulnerability.  "Take me home," she'd plead, referring to Petsamo on what is referred to locally as "the lost arm" of Finland.
51 Skolt Sámi families were forced to resettle here after their home was signed over to Russia at the end of the 1940s.  She'd pull her grandmother around on a sled attached to the back of a snowmobile.  Up and over and down and back they'd loop to her house, which Domna no longer recognized.  "Here you are! Home!"  Natalia would cheerfully announce and grandma would thank her for returning her to the lost arm. 
Sevettijärvi has only been accessible by car since 1970.  Before then, Skolts got around by snowmobile, reindeer, skis and boat.  "Mostly, we just stayed here," a teacher at the local school told us with humorous bluntness.  The new road brought ease of access and it also brought Toini, Natalia's mother, who met and married a Skolt Sámi man and had two daughters and one on the way when he died of cancer.   Not Sámi herself, she still chose to remain in Sevettijärvi, raising her daughters with a deep sense of their Sámi identity and eventually becoming principle of the local Skolt school.  For income, she turned her home into a campsite and travelers inn with the help of the local women's community.  "The cabin you're sleeping in was built by five grandmothers," Natalia laughed, but also said with pride.  Sámi women are strong - and (honorary Skolt) Toini, and the women she's raised are some of the strongest.
While we were there, a new barbecue house was being delivered.  Our freshly caught dinner was prepared in the older, bigger one, an octagonal log building with a fire pit with chimney at the center.  Groups come here throughout the high season, from April until September.  Snowmobilers that make too much noise, hikers that routinely get lost, bachelor parties that trash the place.  Tourism is a tricky thing and it's an ongoing struggle to gauge how much is worth it or not.  The Skolt Sámi depend a lot on tourism.  Aside from reindeer herding, it is their livelihood.  But this is also a people who are very in tune with nature, who want to continue to strike the right balance with their animals and their environment.  More than anything, the people here want to make sure their culture and traditions don't die out.
Of course, this has the most to do with future generations.  We were invited to visit the local school and meet the students, numbering only 9 at the moment.  When Natalia was in school, there were 100.  There is a gap in school aged children right now.  The district covers such a long area that two children actually live 100 kilometers apart from one another.  "Must make birthday parties difficult," Merlin quipped.  We were sung a traditional Skolt song and then Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in Skolt Sámi, Swedish and Finnish.  When we left, we were presented a Skolt Sámi language text book, signed by all the children.  It is the first book of its kind, published only two years ago and worked on by one of the teachers at the school.  Until 1977, Finnish law forbade the teaching of Sámi language in school.
Across from the school is The Church of St. Tryphon of Pechenga and its cemetery, which the teachers implored as to go visit.  "There is a very special moss."  The Orthodox cemetery is the only spot in Sevettijärvi that has always been fenced off.  So, the beautiful white moss has been protected from nibbling reindeer for decades.  It has been growing and flourishing.  Skolt Sámi is an endangered language.  Only around 400 of the 1250 ethnic Skolts in the world can speak Skolt Sámi, most of whom live in Sevettijärvi.  So, what happens here is important.  This is the spot where it can grow and flourish.  Natalia hopes that there will be a generational shift, a renewed appreciation in language as part of Skolt tradition.
For her part, Natalia is working on a children's book in the language.  One doesn't currently exist for her daughter or that age range.  It is about a bird who overhears her parents talking every night about flying back home to a home that is lost.  "And all the bird can think is this is our home."
Our dinner trout, with flesh as pink as salmon, was caught in an undisclosed location.  There is an unspoken Skolt Sámi law that if you have a building on a lake, that body of water is 'yours.'  But, still, you don't want everyone knowing that your lake is stocked with big, beautiful trout.  "It is a well kept secret," Natalia told us. 


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