Researchers’ Blog



Arctic Encounters is about the relationship between images of the Arctic and Arctic practices, so Britt and Simone decided to take the reindeer by the antlers and travel to the Jokkmokk annual Sami market and Winter Conference . This year’s conference theme was Eco-mobilities in the Arctic, and the theme of the Market was Reindeer. What more typical issues in Arctic tourism could we hope for? Jokkmokk is central in Sàpmi, both geographically, socially and politically. The Swedish Sami parliament has its seat in Jokkmokk, it is a centre for Sami artists and has the leading college for Sami arts and crafts, as well as hosting the annual Sami winter market, this year for the 409th time.

A few days before our journey began, we heard that the Sami Council had prepared a complaint to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination against the Swedish state for granting mining concessions in reindeer herding areas. Mattias Åhrén, nominated to be UN special reporter for Indigenous People made it clear that this was no isolated case, but part of a wider struggle.

So we were alerted to the conflicts in the region, but within our first day in Jokkmokk it became clear that this would be just one of several issues that marked the Jokkmokk events. Jokkmokk is not far from Kiruna, whose railway crosses several reindeer herding routes, and it is even closer to Gällivare, which calls itself the ‘mining capital of Europe’. All along the Lule river, the state-owned energy company Vatenfall operates a series of hydro-electric dams, but in contrast to Norway and France, for example, Swedish law has no requirements for Vatenfall to pay rates or local taxes for its use of river resources, and has no tax on exploration. This region is no stranger to industrial development, but the current Sweden open-house for mining shifts the goalposts firmly in favour of mineral extraction (see Minerallag (1991:45)).

In the neighbouring room to the winter conference was an exhibition about a protest action held in August 2013 to blockade the road to Gàllok, where Jokkmokk district council had narrowly voted to award an exploratory mining concession to a subsidiary of the British-owned Beowulf mining. With artists’ interventions and a documentary film, the exhibition brought the conflict very much to life, and illustrated precisely the contradiction between ideas of a pristine wilderness and the reality of an inhabited land. Protesters had bought shares in Beowulf mining and attended the AGM, filming the CEO, Clive Sinclair Poulton, declaring that ‘one of the big questions I get is “what are the local people going to go ahead and say about this project?” and I show them this picture:

What local people

and say, “What local people?”’.

In response, a group founded a website called What local people making their presence felt. At the exhibition, activists described the blockade, and showed a documentary film.

Over the next few days at Jokkmokk, we were to understand that the conflict between mining and reindeer herding has begun to split the population both locally and, increasingly, nationally. On Tuesday, Stefan Andersson, a local politician, Sami and member of the Senterparti, announced that he would stand down at the next elections because the conflict over the mining concessions had been so intense that he no longer had time for his family, and he criticised people who had accused him of being in the pockets of the mining companies, and who claimed that all Sami were against the mines. Several political party leaders were due to attend the event, but the Leader of ‘Sverigedemokraterne’ (a party referred to by one of the protesters as Swedens neo-nazi party) left very quickly after facing protesters at the market – his attention-seeking proposal that all Sami (not only those currently with reindeer herds) should have the right to herd reindeer was not well received.

Jokkmokk is not merely a market, although it is an extraordinary showcase for Sami arts (‘duoddji’) and local products. It also includes a wide range of fringe events, including talks, demonstrations, exhibitions, political debates, fashions shows and more. The highlight of each market day is the ‘renrajd’, a procession through the town of a reindeer-caravan. Led by Per Kuhmunen and his family, several reindeer pulling sleds were led along the high street and up to the stage in the main square. Hemmed in by camera-wielding tourists on all sides, they made slow progress into the square, where the MD commented on their stylish ‘kofter’ or Sami traditional clothes. As they stood on the stage, a strong echo of the World Exhibitions was hard to ignore, as the Sami were presented as an object of fascination. While many of the tourists who come to Jokkmokk are Sami from across Sàpmi, who come to see and be seen, visitors from Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany and the UK were also to be heard.

Renrajd Jokkmokk 2014

Friday’s Renrajd took on an altogether different slant, as activists against the mine took to the street dressed in black kofter, and with white faces, in the colours of death, to demonstrate what the effects of an expansion mining could be on reindeer herding in the region. Clearly pitting the environment and Sami continuity against capitalist exploitation, this deathly apparition was an intervention that has the potential to scale up the question of Sami rights in Sweden. Just as in Alta in Norway a generation ago, journalist Arne Muller believes the blockades in Gàllok have already changed the political landscape across Sweden

Tourism is sometimes seen as an exemption from the ordinary, as a peculiar activity unrelated to normal life. Here at the 409th Sami Winter Festival, it is clear that tourism can open the door to a wide range of encounters. Travelling to Arctic Jokkmokk in the expectation of seeing traditional Sami life, a tourist might be surprised to find that idealised life under threat from a liberal resource-exploitation policy in Stockholm, and to be met by a new kind of alliance between indigenous people and environmental activists.


Latest Tweet...