Hunters and gatherers in the 21st century

Column by George Sibley

Economy – August 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR A CHANGE, I’m not writing from the Upper Gunnison. My partner Maryo — in celebration of one of those decadal birthdays — wanted to go to Finland partly for nostalgic reasons (she and her family spent a year there when she was one decade old), and we both decided it might be interesting to go there and to the rest of those northern countries because they seemed to come closest to exemplifying an idea that is totally oxymoronic to America: Intelligent Industrial Democracy.

So this is a report in transit. I’m writing from an overnight ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm, after a week in Finland. An eleven-story ferry, an instant temporary city that feels as big as Gunnison, floating off between cities. We’ll have a couple of days in Stockholm, then a train to Oslo for a day, then a train over the mountains to Bergen where we’ll stay a few days. Then on to Iceland for about five days — then home to Colorado. So what can you hope to learn about anything, traveling like that? Not much of depth probably. But if you’re being an unabashed tourist, and come from a tourist economy yourself, you want to try to lift the corner of the curtain to see how they are addressing the cultural contradictions associated with trying to market your own life.

And despite the touristy hustle of Helsinki and this instant city we’re traveling on now, what’s most in my mind is what we saw and learned the last three days, up above the Arctic Circle in what was called Lapland when I was in school, but is now Sapmi, home of the Sami people, formerly known as Lapps. It is a beautiful “empty” region this time of year, with daylight around the clock — a rolling landscape with piney forests giving way to scrub birch, bare dark rock poking up through a very thin skin of life, and even some mountains. It is easy, though, for a Gunnisonite to imagine what it must be like there in the winter when there is no sun at all for months.

But the most interesting thing there is the Sami people. Their Sapmi homeland extends across Norway, Sweden, Finland and into Russia above the Arctic Circle. It used to be larger, extending southward into all those countries, but expanding European peoples with more intensive and aggressive cultures pushed them northward into places too raw and cold for agriculture — places fit only for the hunter-gatherer life, following herds of reindeer and schools of fish around in difficult lands and waters.

There in the cold lands, they persisted as hunter-gatherers only a few hundred kilometers from increasingly developed modern industrial societies. But like many of the hunter-gatherer societies that populated our prehistoric past, the Sami succeeded too well at what they did and started crowding each other. Big as the boreal forests and arctic tundra are, the space needs of hunter-gatherer peoples in rigorous climes are huge; so the clan groups of hunters were forced to begin a subtle transition into herding — as they found it increasingly necessary to protect the herds they lived off of from other groups of hunters.

WE HAVE FLATTERED OURSELVES into thinking of the transition to agriculture and domestication of animals (herding) as a step forward for the species, the “ascent of man” that Jacob Bronowski wrote about. But most modern anthropologists have a less exalted view of it. They suggest that the transition to agriculture and herding was made necessary by the relative population explosion as the earth warmed up after the last glacial episode. People had to start protecting their food resources from other groups of people: planting seeds in easily protected places near water resources (like the Anasazi in the San Juan basin), or, like the Sami, placing guards around the reindeer and getting the reindeer used to people and dogs. These were defensive measures that cost the people a lot of the old freedom of the hunter-gatherer life.

But for the Sami, this was happening in a much more conscious environment than had been the case for the hundreds of primal groups in the deepest history of us all. Eventually the situation came to the point where the groups of hunters crowding each other had a choice: either to start fighting for turf, the way the Anasazi did in the pre-Chaco San Juan basin, or to work out some new system. Maybe it wasn’t quite like we used to say in the Sixties — “The whole world is watching!” — but a lot of anthropologists and government people and others were watching, and had advice for the Sami, some of it good experiential advice.

WHAT THE SAMI DID, late in the 19th century, was work out a new system. The clan groups organized into cooperatives, each co-op with its own herd, and they began to run fences — serious fences, wood slat fences eight feet tall — through the forests and tundra to keep the herds separated, and they also started to pay attention to the breeding and health of the reindeer. Although they still maintain some of their traditional ways, going nomadic in the summer to follow their herd, basically they are transitioning into reindeer ranching.

The reindeer still pretty much have the run of the land (up to the fences — we encountered them plodding down the highway centerlines — but the animals are now considered “semi-domesticated.” The Sami’s current operations are somewhat comparable to the cattle business in the West’s postbellum open-range period.

And many of the Sami also work in the tourism industry, today — due to a growing global nostalgia for the remaining “unspoiled” regions and cultures of the world. There is something either highly ironic or very good about this, or both, I guess — depending on how it all works out.

When one considers that the human species has been evolving for three or four million years, with 99.9 percent of that time spent in the hunter-gatherer mode, wandering around looking for low-hanging fruit, and that humans have only embraced the work alternatives made necessary by their post-glacial population explosion in the last 30,000 years — when one considers all this — what is happening with the Sami is actually pretty important.

We “advanced industrial societies” aren’t necessarily “more highly evolved” in any real sense; we are just farther out on a variety of limbs in trying to develop new systems for dealing with too many people. The Sami afford an opportunity to watch what happens when “primitive” peoples like we once were move into a transition we have not really finished successfully.

So, we are watching. The world’s anthropologists and agriculturalists and other scientific groups are observing in an educated and disciplined way, and we global tourists are looking on in a less educated and disciplined way. But the Sami themselves are participating in this in what seems like a pretty sophisticated and disciplined way.

Like the indigenous peoples in the United States, the Sami learned in the 20th century how to, as it were, milk the cultural environment in which they found themselves. In their own countries, as was true for indigenous peoples in the U.S., the Sami found themselves basically targeted for full assimilation, which is to say cultural eradication — more innocently than maliciously: How could anyone not want to be part of the great urban-industrial experiment?

So when, for example, the Norwegian government planned two huge hydropower dams that would have flooded Sami lands, the Sami learned how to play the media, with protests in Oslo, hunger strikes, and other events that got the attention of the world. The dams eventually went in, but the Sami got a lot more control over the rest of their homeland, and money was suddenly available for their efforts to protect and preserve their way of life (albeit modified by snowmobiles and other cherry-picked products of the industrial society).

A lot of that newfound money went into the development of a tourism industry — but it is a strangely sophisticated tourism industry, where we tourists find ourselves being asked to watch ourselves watching the Sami watch themselves being watched by the world.

THERE’S A BEAUTIFUl new museum in Rovaniemi, Finland’s gateway to Sapmi, called the Arktikum; it combines exhibits about traditional Sami life with exhibits about the Arctic region in general, and the scientific studies going on in those regions. Among other things, you can learn a lot about global climate change there.

There is also a fairly extensive exhibit about the ongoing studies of tourism in Sapmi that are being conducted by the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi. The social scientists there — many of them Sami now — are asking questions in a disciplined way about things that we mainly grouse about in bars and coffee shops in Central Colorado: How do you develop “intelligent tourism” that doesn’t end up devouring what is worth seeing about a local culture and its environment? How do you market the soul of your place without killing it? Those “primitive people” in old Lapland are working on such questions in a reflective and sophisticated way that we could probably learn from.

George Sibley usually writes from the somewhat less arctic locale of Gunnison.