Never ask a Sami person how many reindeer they have.
“You can ask,” said visiting Sami student Sarah Omma.
“But you don’t get an answer.”
It’s like asking someone how much money they have in the bank.
“It’s a tradition not to say,” said Omma.
“It has always been so, with my grandparents and my parents.”
“Plus you don’t really know how many you reindeer you have,” said Sami student Aslak Antti Paltto.
“It’s ‘cause you have to hide how many reindeer you have from the government,” added Sami student Anto Siri.
Whatever the reason, it’s best not to ask.
Omma, Paltto, Siri and seven other Sami journalism students are in Whitehorse for two weeks to learn about First Nations culture in the territory.
From Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, these students attend Sami University College in Kautokeino, Norway.
“The North-to-North program gave them a scholarship to do this trip,” said University of the Arctic co-ordinator and instructor Amanda Graham.
And after two weeks in the Yukon, they will travel to Nicaragua for two additional weeks to learn about its indigenous culture.
“We gave them a briefing on Canada’s indigenous cultures, land claims and the larger context of how it all fits together,” said Graham.
“And we learned a lot from having them here and listening to their comments.”
The Sami people are treated like the First Nations are treated here, said Omma.
“The government has been taking our lands, our language, our culture and our religion.”
“Our people have been discriminated (against) a long time,” added Sami student John Anders Sikko.
In Finland, Paltto’s generation is the first to be taught the Sami language in school.
“Five years before me there was nothing,” he said.
“And my brother, who is five years younger, is learning triple the amount I did.”
The students agreed that Norway is the most advanced, when it comes to recognizing Sami peoples and their rights.
“Where I come from in Norway I can speak Sami to almost anyone,” said Sikko.
But in Sweden only the elders speak Sami, there are not many youth who speak it, said Omma.
Their parents’ generation was placed in residential schools.
“But it was not as bad for our parents as it was for our grandparents,” said Sikko.
“Our parents started to wakeup, somehow.”
“They stood up and spoke our language — and the culture we have, we have to hold onto,” said Omma.
There is a new law in the northern Scandinavia, the Finmark Law, which is supposed to recognize Sami rights to their traditional lands. And the Sami parliament should decide how to allocate these lands.
“But they don’t have any power,” said Omma.
“In Sweden and Finland they do nothing; it just looks good for Sweden.”
Now, in court, the Sami are losing the right to use their traditional lands, which have been sold to private owners.
And the government limits the number of reindeer in a given region, due to food supply, added Paltto.
“Ten years ago we could have as many as 13,000 reindeer in our area, and now we can only have 7,500.”
But the Sami have always lived on these lands and rely on them to sustain their reindeer herds.
“And now they want the Sami to pay for their traditional land,” said Omma.
In Finland and Sweden the Sami have to prove to the courts that they own or use the lands, but coming from a largely oral tradition, this is often difficult.
“It’s hard to prove when we haven’t written about it, or left any big houses on it,” said Omma.
“We move around a lot, following the reindeer.”
Although most of the students grew up in modern homes with TVs and Nintendos, Sami traditions run strong and most of the families still herd reindeer.
“It’s a 50-50 mix,” said Paltto. “My family is still reindeer herders, but now we have snowmobiles and in the summer ATVs — we don’t walk anymore.”
“But if the snowmachine breaks, we still have to ski like before,” said Omma.
“We still know lots about nature and follow the reindeer all year.
“In the summer we live up in the mountains with the reindeer and in the winter we go down to the forest with them.”
Eating dried reindeer meat and moving from tiny cabin to tiny cabin, Omma and her family live without running water or electricity while following the herd.
Sometimes they stay in kotas, or permanent wood-slab teepees and sometimes they put up lavvus, which are more like traditional, portable teepees.
“In the summers, in the mountains, we fish and relax; the calves are born and we mark their ears with a small knife,” said Omma.
Each family has its own distinct ear-cut markings to identify its herd.
“We have the worldwide championship for reindeer racing in Norway,” said Sikko.
“While Finland has the reindeer cup,” added Paltto.
Tourists visiting northern Scandinavia can enjoy reindeer rides guided by Sami people in traditional garb.
“In Finland they’re exploiting our culture,” said Sikko.
“They sell our culture and even sell small Sami dolls.”
The snowmobile tours and the dog mushing is a big problem too, because they disturb the reindeer, said Omma.
Although studying journalism, several of the students plan to continue herding reindeer after earning their degree.
“I want to work with reindeer and write freelance,” said Omma.
While in the territory, the journalism students spent several days at Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon.
“We want to do some TV, radio and newspaper work and take these stories and send them home, so our people can hear about the indigenous people here,” she said.
“I think it’s worse here for the (First Nations) people because of the residential schools,” said Sikko.
“They’re where we were 30 or 40 years ago.
“We want to write about this place and use it to bring examples home.”
The land-claim settlements sound good, he said.
“But it’s hard to say if Canada is really giving them much land — it’s hard to say if it’s much better.”
However, to have self-government, like some of Canada’s First Nations, is still a dream for the Sami, said Paltto.
“It will be tens of years before we even get anything like this on paper.”
The Sami students are a very political bunch. Paltto is head of the Finnish/Sami Youth Organization and Omma is involved with a similar organization in Sweden.
“I think we all want to work politically,” said Omma.
“I want to change the world and how it works.
“You can do it politically or by being a journalist, but you can’t do both.”
When the students started the two-year journalism program, one of their teachers told them they’d have to choose.
“‘You can be politicians or journalists,’ our teacher said, ‘You have to go inside yourself and figure out what you are,’” said Omma.
The students visited the Carcross/Tagish First Nations on Wednesday to discuss justice, law making and language.
To get in touch with them, contact Amanda Graham at 668-8773.