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Mis-Stepping With the Samis of Arctic Sweden

08/24/2013 11:25 EDT | Updated 10/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Eight of us from Toronto were huddled around a fire inside a Lavu, a giant teepee that served as our dinner tent. We were in Arctic Sweden "reindeer trekking" with a group of young Sami men.

The Sami are the indigenous people of the very north of Scandinavia. For centuries, they've fished and herded reindeer. But they're now getting into adventure tourism, and the chance to learn about their lives and ways is what got us to sign on for a five-day trek using Samis as our guides and reindeer as our packhorses.

That morning, the sight of hundreds of reindeer grazing on the scrappy grass stitched to the rolling mountain-side was both odd and awe-inspiring. I asked a Sami elder who was with us how he could tell which reindeer were his. He patiently explained the sophisticated system of earmarks by which Sami herders brand young reindeer for life, making reindeer-rustling almost non-existent. Then I asked him how many reindeer he owned. He looked at me oddly, though he clearly understood English. So I repeated my question.

At that moment, a younger Sami came over, asked me in a loud voice how I was doing and quickly took me aside. Safely away from the elder, he explained that asking a Sami how many reindeer he owns is like us asking a stranger how much money they have in the bank. Oh.

After dinner in the Lavu, I had to overcome a second cultural mis-step.

The Sami guides were recounting how, like indigenous people in many countries, and certainly in the northern ones, they had been ruthlessly exploited by the White majority. Just as in Canada, their land, language and culture had been taken away in order to assimilate them into the dominant culture. Our guides told painful stories about having to fight to share in the mineral rights to their indigenous territories which they felt they'd been tricked out of by the Swedish government.

But it was hard to empathize with them, hard to view them as victims.

Really?

Yes, for the strangest and most unconscious of reasons.

For while these Samis were all strapping young men, their skin was not 'dark'. Indeed, they had white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. What's more, they all spoke perfect English -- with upper-class British accents. Not a group you'd associate with society's downtrodden.

So I asked them if a Swede living in Stockholm could tell they're Sami, because I sure couldn't. The three of them looked at each other and laughed. Of course everyone knows they're Sami.

How?

By their accents.