With its ten million citizens, Sweden is the largest of the Nordic countries, and its roots are richly diverse. It is famed, of course, for the Viking era, and evidence of that legendary history abounds. There are burial mounds and enigmatic runes seemingly everywhere, while remnants of ancient ports and walled cities tell tales of glories past. But that is not the only memorable culture here: the indigenous Sami people of Sweden’s rural north boast their own traditions established through centuries of reindeer herding and nomadic living. Contemporary Sweden is known for its embrace of the arts, its sleek design style, and its peaceable nature—the nation hasn’t been at war since 1815.
Perhaps the greatest unifying factor for all Swedes is their embrace of their nation’s bountiful natural resources. With year-round options, outdoor pursuits are a national obsession. When the land is emerald green, Swedes are out hiking, sailing, canoeing, and cycling, often into the wee hours of the Midnight Sun. When the vistas are white with snow, families strap on skis and skates to take advantage of the crystalline beauty. The bounty finds its way to the table, from locally sourced vegetables and dairy, to seafood from the coastline (and, naturally, reindeer meat). No wonder then that Sweden so often ranks among the happiest countries on earth.
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Stockholm and Sweden
Witness the natural and man-made beauty of Sweden with travel expert Rudy Maxa.Produced by Small World Productions
Intersection: Sodermalm, Stockholm
Hear Swedish locals from the Sodermalm district describe the country’s streamlined fashion scene.
Produced by Shern Sharma
©2014 The New York Times
Travelogue: Scandinavia 1967
See the bustling cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen, where familiar icons stand out against a 1960s back-drop.Produced by David Conover & Paul Villanova
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Learn about the evolving roles of Scandinavia’s Sami women
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POST-TRIP EXTENSIONStockholm, Sweden
DAYS IN SWEDEN
- Enjoy a city tour of Stockholm including the famed Stadshuset (City Hall)
- Visit Kungliga Slottet, Stockholm's Royal Palace
- Elect to join an optional Vasa Museum & Skansen tour
- Explore the city with free time for your own discoveries in historic Stockholm
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The evolving roles of Scandinavia’s Sami women
by Pamela Schweppe, for Grand Circle
As they are assimilated into modern society, the Sami are becoming more involved in world politics.
In the language of the Sami people, the word gaba means “capable and independent woman.” For the northernmost indigenous population of Europe, hardy self-reliance and the ability to thrive in an inconsiderate environment are germane to the Sami identity. Consciously living off nature is simply an environmental and economic necessity.
The Sami, who number around 75,000, make their homes in the remote areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia. Fishing and fur trapping are vital to the economy, as is their most distinctive livelihood: reindeer herding. But this long-cherished practice—and much of the culture that surrounds it—is slowly being phased out by assimilation and modernization.
With global connectedness slowly replacing collective family units (known as siida), and with small-scale reindeer herding becoming less viable economically in the modern age, fewer and fewer Sami engage in this traditional practice. Currently, approximately 10% of Sami are active herders. As elements of their indigenous language, culture, and history are lost, gender roles and norms slowly disappear as well.
A woman’s dissipating domain
For centuries, women’s domain as primary caretakers was imparting indigenous cultural knowledge, in addition to crafting warm fur clothing so crucial for surviving Scandinavian winters. The post-World War II policy of rationalization put pressure on the Sami to adopt mainstream Norwegian culture, which marginalized many indigenous practices. In addition, the increasing availability of consumer goods has nearly erased the need for hand-sewn fur clothing, creating an empty space where women once made significant contributions.
Today, many young, educated Sami women are leaving their close-knit rural communities to live and work in urban areas. To counteract this trend, Sami leaders are taking measures to increase the desirability of rural work, including job placement assistance, entrepreneurial training, and small business financing. However, larger and more ambitious reforms, such as Norway’s “High North” policy, still focus predominantly on traditionally male-dominated industries such as construction and mining, providing fewer outlets for traditionally female career paths.
Older generations of Sami looked to a number of female deities for comfort and guidance. Mattarahkko, the primeval mother, and her three daughters—Sarahkka, Juksahkka, and Uksahkka—once helped women through different stages of their lives. In this spirit, Sami women have organized a group called Sarahkka to bring their plight to the national stage. It’s indicative of a growing trend of political activism to protect and preserve Sami culture.
The rise of Sami feminism
A burgeoning feminist movement was sparked in the 1970s in an attempt to equalize the rights shared by male and female reindeer herders. The World Council for Indigenous People (WCIP), founded in 1975 in part by Sami people, has also helped bring an international perspective to the plight of the Sami. Additionally, the Norwegian Council for Cultural Affairs has established programs to preserve and celebrate Sami culture.
The identity of Sami women still exists at a crossroads. No longer required to maintain traditional reindeer-herding practices, they are tasked with finding more modern means of contributing. Existing outside the boundaries of what you’ve known for centuries, however, is never an easy transition. Half of the Sami people now live in urban areas such as Oslo, Norway (you can visit this scenic city during our Norwegian Coastal Voyage & Lapland Small Ship Cruise Tour). As they are assimilated into modern society, the Sami are becoming more involved in world politics. With greater access to resources and media, previously out of reach because of geographic constraints, they are better poised to assume more power and control over their representation—and therefore their identities.
The Lappekodicillen Peace Treaty of 1751 established legal boundaries for sustainable reindeer herding, granting exclusive rights in many areas to the Sami. Though they are no longer reliant on this practice to survive, their “capable and independent” spirit will surely guide them as they create a space for themselves in the 21st century.