Thinking from the north

BLOG: Climate Confessions

pencil sketch of Sápmi house in Norwegian Lapland
'Houses in Norwegian Sápmi (Lapland)' - from Louis Apol's sketchbook during his expedition to Nova Zembla (1880)

I just returned from a train trip up north with my partner and two-year-old daughter. Specifically, to Kiruna and Abisko in Sweden. Partly, I wanted to meet one of Europe’s peripheries and, in so doing, better understand its centres. Most of all, I hoped to engage with the Sami, the EU’s only recognised indigenous group. I was sorely disappointed.

— by Timothy Stacey

Up there, one gets the feeling that the world’s distant continents converge. There is no clear west or east. Both Canada and Russia feel close. Indigenous groups of the north share many common features. But more haunting is another kind of convergence that has long been underway: the spread of Western industry and aspirations. The erasure of otherness. Sami lifeways were conspicuous by their absence.

Ongoing colonisation

The ongoing process of colonisation in Europe’s far north is palpable. And all of us are implicated. LKAB, the Swedish state-owned company in control of Europe’s largest iron ore mine in Kiruna, claims to have just discovered the continent’s largest deposit of rare earth minerals. Essential as these minerals are to the green transition, the find is heralded as ending dependence on dictatorships. But digging up the metals means further threatening Sami lifeways. Many Sami still make a living from reindeer herding. The infrastructure required for mining already infringes on their migration routes. And the mining itself causes earthquakes. Already in 2004, it was decided that the whole of Kiruna’s city centre must be relocated.

When similar conflicts arise in British Columbia, where I used to live, one sees widespread, intersectional mobilisation. In activist circles, it is hard to avoid discussion of the Site C dam, the Kinder Morgan pipeline, or the logging of Fairy Creek. By contrast, despite the UN calling on Sweden to scrap the mine, in my time up north, it was only discussed if I raised it [1].

white snow lanscape with sun, blue sky, and veil clouds
Snow landscape at Abisko National Park, Sweden (Timothy Stacey)

Admittedly, I was there with my family – not on a research trip. But I am an ethnographer of cultural transitions, and my partner is an anthropologist-cum-regenerative farmer. We both get meaning from immersing ourselves in wicked problems and playing with possibilities for living otherwise. We had embarked on our trip with academic, activist, and artistic literature on the Sami and with eyes and ears open.

Sami lifeways are most frequently discussed in the past tense

A misbegotten journey

Our first stop was in snowy Stockholm. Perusing an anarchist café, the shelves were dominated by leaflets on sexuality and gender rights. I saw one leaflet on climate change, and it did not mention the Sami. Scanning the many stickers on street signs, I was similarly disappointed.

We then travelled to Kiruna, where the snow makes it hard to decipher between road and pavement. I raised the question of Sami protests with a former employee of the mine: “They complain any time anything with mining comes up. But they’re not actually from here. And this whole town is only here because of the mine.” For this one interlocutor, at least, it was not the mine infringing on Sami territory but the migratory Sami who are threatening the existence of a fixed people and place that remains synonymous with mining. There was no hostility in his voice. But why should there be? Resistance, if it existed, seemed lost under the snow.

Mother and toddler looking at a circle of wooden Sami statues in the snow
Daughter and partner of Timothy Stacey in Jukksjärvi (Timothy Stacey)

Desperate for some kind of encounter that our two-year-old could countenance in the freezing temperatures, we decided to visit a Sami-run museum and reindeer farm. She would have the chance to feed reindeer, and we would explore Sami culture, albeit in packaged form. I got talking to one of the owners about what being Sami meant to her and about her struggle. She assured me I was asking the right questions. Said that was more than most. But still, I felt increasingly ashamed of my fleeting engagement. I came and disappeared as quickly as the winter sun.

Finally, we arrived in Abisko National Park, 200 km into the Arctic Circle: a landscape shrouded in whiteness. There, Sami lifeways are most frequently discussed in the past tense. The park is dotted with archaeological field sites, from examples of Sami huts to a former sacrifice site. Fellow guests’ conversations were centred on dogsledding and spotting the northern lights. Disillusioned, I became fixated on a concrete tunnel. The park authority commissioned one contemporary Sami artist to paint the tunnel and another to design a sound installation. I visited every day, lost in questions. The biggest among them: what was I even doing there?

Self-loathing in Abisko

Clearly, I was part of the problem. I had valorised Sami people and their territories as a last bulwark against the interminable spread of capitalist modernisation. Just like the northern landscape, I had romanticised Sami people and culture, hoping to find in it clues as to how to change myself and the world around me. Meanwhile, I was living a life fueled by the materials dug out from under our feet.  

And what about the miners that I’d villainised? Their only crime was to do the digging. Soon, more troubling questions reared. Were my idealistic forays into alternative lifeways really just “holidays for the mind” that better adjusted me to the reality of my fast-paced, technology-driven life? Did I, in fact, have any desire to live the lives stolen from the Sami? Or even my own approximation of it? If not, what exactly was I seeking to learn?

If we in the centres of European culture are to achieve transformation, it won’t be by adopting the myths and rituals of the elsewhere and other...we must search for internal sources of transformation

  • Pedestrian tunnel painted by Sami artist depicting a Norwegian lanscape with reindeerh
  • Mural of a reindeer calf painted by a Sami artist in a Norwegian pedstrian tunnel
  • pedestrian tunnel in the snow, on the inside a mural is visible
Pedestrian tunnel with Sami artwork at Abisko National Park (Timothy Stacey)

Lessons to take home

As I sat asking these critical questions, I realised I had at least achieved one aim of my trip: my encounters in this open space had triggered an intense questioning of myself and, through me, Europe’s centres. The ongoing, everyday erasure of indigenous culture and rights required to continue mining is something in which we all participate, even if it feels less intense from thousands of kilometres away. It is what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil: the participation in evil acts not out of evil intentions but out of a failure to empathise with those we are hurting [2]. The question is, how do we ignite empathy and inspire other ways of living?

In this regard, my ill-conceived search for Sami culture brought home to me on a personal level a point that I have long been labouring intellectually: if we in the centres of European culture are to achieve transformation, it won’t be by adopting the myths and rituals of the elsewhere and other. To think so is to reproduce my romanticised journey. It is to hold faith in salvation at the expense of the hard work of remaking the cultures in which we are immersed. Instead, those of us who, as a matter of justice, most badly need to change must search for internal sources of transformation. We need to identify the discourses, images, and stories that dominate our societies and creatively reweave them for our troubled times. Other cultures can serve as inspiration but not as a blueprint. Back home. Back to work.

[1] This point is further substantiated in Kuhn, Gabriel. “Preface.” In Liberating Sápmi: Indigenous Resistance in Europe’s Far North, edited by Gabriel Kuhn. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2020.

[2] Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, N.Y: Penguin Group, 2016.

Climate Confessions is a monthly blog series in which Timothy Stacey reveals the “religious repertoires” associated with sustainability in various sectors. From the myths of great floods that dominate in Dutch politics to the rituals of reconnecting with other humans and the other-than-human found among activists, each month, Tim invites you into the repertoires that lurk beneath the surface, shaping sustainability in an otherwise secular world. For more formal reflections, see Tim’s peer-reviewed research: To discuss how repertoires might transform your practice, get in touch