With the Lapps in the High Mountains

While traveling in Scandinavia to research The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, Seattle writer Barbara Sjoholm came across a little-known and long-forgotten book, With the Lapps in the High Mountains. This early text about the nomad reindeer herders tells of the year that Emilie Demant Hatt, a Danish painter, spent among the Sámi of northern Sweden in 1907-1908. Sjoholm, a translator as well as writer, fell in love with the book and knew that other English readers would as well. Sjoholm graciously offered Orion these excerpts from With the Lapps in the High Mountains, which hasn’t yet been published in book form. The introduction below is excerpted from a longer piece in the Spring 2008 issue of The Antioch Review and is used with the permission of the editors (www.review.antioch.edu). For more information, go to www.barbarasjoholm.com.

A Danish Lapp-Lady

Introduction by Barbara Sjoholm

In the summer of 1908, a small, easily-overlooked item appeared in a newspaper in Tromsø, Norway, under the title, “A Danish Lapp-Lady.” A Miss Demant was to be found not far from town in Tromsdalen, a valley that served as a summer home for the Sámi nomads who’d come with their reindeer from Sweden. “She has spent a whole year with a Lapp family, has dressed herself in Lappish costume, and lives in the family’s tent. Together with the Lapps she has wandered over the mountains from Torneträsk Lake in Sweden to Tromsdalen. She is doing well and has only praise for the Lapps.”

Emilie Demant (later Demant Hatt) had indeed been living the nomad life for about a year. The thirty-five-year-old artist from Copenhagen had originally visited Lapland in 1904, one of many tourists who’d taken advantage of the newly opened railway line that cut through the mountains of Sweden to deliver iron ore to the port of Narvik in Norway. On the train Demant Hatt happened to meet Johan Turi, a Sámi wolf-hunter who dreamed of writing a book someday about his people. Demant Hatt was so intrigued by Turi and the indigenous people she encountered that she resolved to return and live with them if she could, to speak their language and to learn their customs.

The Sámi, an indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, number about 150,000, with the majority now living on the Finnmark Plateau in Norway. Many “sea” Sámi––that is, coastal Sámi who fished more than herded reindeer––were assimilated into the larger population along the coasts of Norway; and thousands emigrated to North America as well, often hiding their Sámi identity as they did so. Since the 1970s, the Sámi in the three Nordic countries have become an increasingly visible and organized minority, with parliaments in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, schools, cultural centers, and radio and TV news programs. Their name for themselves has been Sámi for at least six thousand years; they refer to their ancestral homeland as Sápmi. Until the last few decades, however, they were known as Lapps and also referred to themselves in that manner when writing and speaking to a larger public. Emilie Demant Hatt was consistent with her era in her use of “Lapp” and “Lappish,” and I have kept to that usage in my translations. Here, in the introduction, I use Sámi, which is both noun and adjective, and refers both to the people and their language.

Emilie Demant Hatt eventually made the Sámi a large part of her life’s work as a translator, editor, writer, and artist. Her first project was to study the Sámi language back in Denmark, at the University of Copenhagen, with the philologist Vilhelm Thomsen. She eventually was to work with Johan Turi on his narrative, as editor and translator. Muittalus Sámiid birra / A Book about the Lapps, was published in an innovative bilingual edition of Sámi/Danish in 1910 and was an immediate sensation in Denmark. It was also translated to Swedish, German, and eventually into English as Turi’s Book of Lapland (published by Jonathan Cape in 1931). It made Johan Turi famous for a while, and today it’s considered a core text in Sámi studies.

Demant Hatt then went on to write her own book about her nomad year, With the Lapps in the High Mountains, from which the excerpts below are taken. First published in 1913 and never before translated into English, With the Lapps is part travelogue, part ethnography; it is also a work of literary value, full of event, anecdote, and striking descriptions of a landscape that few in her native Denmark had ever experienced. With this book, Demant Hatt proved that she was far more than just a Danish Lapp-Lady, an eccentric woman traveler with a taste for roughing it.

Although Demant Hatt was, like most women of the time, not academically trained, she was a highly skilled observer of people and a writer and artist attuned to natural beauty in the landscape. There had been and were to be many other anthropologists visiting the Lapp camps, but Demant Hatt was the first and for a long time the only woman to have lived with the Sámi so closely. Almost twenty years before Margaret Mead visited Samoa to focus on the lives of girls and women, Demant Hatt wrote in depth about the Sámi children and women––in part because the men were away herding the reindeer and she stayed behind in the tent, sewing, cooking, and listening. Demant Hatt, a great animal lover, also recorded many observations and anecdotes about the dogs and reindeer around her. Contemporary Sámi scholars have relied on Demant Hatt’s books for fresh, lively, and accurate details about how life was lived in Lapland in the early part of the twentieth century, when the Sámi were still making annual migrations with their reindeer herds.

Emilie Demant Hatt
Excerpted from With the Lapps in the High Mountains (1913)
Translated from the Danish by Barbara Sjoholm

Up in an open space in the woods the ear-marking of the reindeer continued for another hour. Then both people and reindeer rested a good while, before the swimming across the river began. It was the first time that the small calves would test the cold water, which flowed down from snow and ice, and the current was strong. A boat rowed the whole time out by the mouth of the river, where it flowed into Lake Torneträsk, in order to be ready to save the calves taken by the current. Such a shouting, leaping, and racing — all to get all the animals across. The calves were afraid of the water and ran away, their mothers after them, and after them a Lapp or a dog, until they were captured and chased into the water. Reindeer cows and calves ran around looking for each other, but finally every one of them was out in the river. The river was white froth from the movement of thousands of animals swimming; like a living carpet the many gray-brown backs glided under a forest of antlers over to the other side. As quickly as the reindeer came up on land, they shook themselves and a halo of water droplets flew off the soaking wet fur.

Now, in great haste we got in the boats, with the dogs after us, the object being to cross quickly and to round up the herd before they took flight. The marking continued the rest of the day on a very large wet bog up under the mountains. The men and boys marked the calves; the girls and dogs kept the animals together. Each girl had her post at the edge of the herd.

While rain now poured from the sky, we ran, soaked through, between unstable tussocks, between knee-high willows, over rocks and holes, often in water up to our knees. It’s no easy thing to keep several thousand semi-wild animals together in a relatively small area. The girls directed the dogs with the musical command words that the Lapps use in reindeer herding. The dogs streaked out in every direction, but if one did something wrong or sowed confusion in the herd, it was called back with a yell that could wake the dead. When you’ve heard the Lapps work with the herd, you can well understand why they often have such weak hoarse voices in ordinary speech. It’s because they use them to their full capacity in reindeer herding, when the dogs are commanded and called back. The voice has to cut through a long distance and an unbelievable roaring. (Perhaps they also save their voices half unconsciously for the times when they truly need them). In addition, those who work with reindeer must be lightning quick in thought and action. Even if the herd is in flight, they must seize the moment and let the lasso fly if they’ve glimpsed an animal to be captured. The rope is cast and then coiled up, ready for the next throw. They also need to keep a sharp eye on the dogs, and scout out particular reindeer in the swarming confusion. A bad or untrained dog can cause a great disturbance in his mistaken zeal, charging into the middle of the herd, which then spreads out like chaff in the wind. Angry words rain down upon the dog; he slinks off in shame, followed by the fiercest curses and furious looks. When there’s time, he also gets a beating if he’s done something truly wrong. However the Lapps have a rule that you shouldn’t strike and scold at the same time, only one thing at a time. That’s because you need to be careful not to insult the dog. If an otherwise competent dog feels affronted by someone who, in his opinion, has treated him too roughly, it can happen that the dog suddenly sits down and looks at things without budging, however much his owner commands. Only kind words and friendliness can soften him up then, so he’ll take up his work again, though a sit-down strike can last as long as a whole day. Some dogs are lazy and can only be bothered to jump in a pinch; others are all excitement, with shining eyes, and each muscle tensely following the movements of the reindeer. Sometimes one animal breaks away from the herd. That reindeer has a panting dog at its heels, a dog that keeps up until he sees his chance, and cuts in front of the reindeer and forces it back. Often the reindeer itself abandons its flight and returns to the herd. More or less serious quarrels occur between the reindeer and the dogs.

I saw such a small clash between Benno and a large male reindeer. Benno belonged to our neighbor’s tent; he was blind in one eye, deaf as a post, stump-tailed, toothless and very old, but was he a dog! And although he had only one eye, he had that one; he didn’t need to hear. Benno knew his work and needed no commands. He was on the go from morning until night, even though it was hard on the old legs. He chose his post at a spot high enough that he could oversee the section of the herd that lay within his ability to reach. He worked on his own without a master, and the reindeer had respect for him (reindeer recognize the dogs and have varying degrees of respect for them depending on how skillful they are). But, once, things went awry for Benno. A large bull reindeer had broken out of the circle and Benno had brought it back, but in his zeal to serve he kept barking and nipping at it until they returned to the herd. At that the reindeer grew insulted and whipped around, got the dog under him, and thrashed his old body, so you could hear the blows. Proudly the bull returned to the herd. Benno didn’t make a sound, but limped quietly over to his place. A little while later he was at work again and probably had forgotten the ignominious scene. In his younger days Benno wasn’t for sale for love or money; such a dog outweighs the work of several people.

When the marking was finished, the herd rested and grazed; afterwards they migrated toward the Norwegian border, followed by the herders and dogs, who would guard the herd this summer over in Norway.

ONE DAY NILSA CAME RUNNING, flung the door opened and cried, Ællo boatta, čana bœdnagid gidda! “The herd is coming, tie up the dogs!”

The whole camp sprang to life. You heard the tent doors continuously flapping open, falling back against the tent as the children and adults hurried off. In the neighbor tent they were sitting and eating, but when they heard the call, everyone ran out and away. The oldest of the children, a seven-year-old boy, snatched up his lasso and said, “Food is good, but the herd is better,” after which he shot like an arrow through the forest.

It was only a lesser separation of the herd, which was being gathered in an open field in the forest for a couple of hours; still, the usual tasks would be carried out: milking, castrating, and butchering.

The corral itself lay almost a mile away. For several days the women went up in vain with their milk buckets. The herders hadn’t succeeded in getting the reindeer to come down to it, but finally, for some days in a row, the herd came into the corral.

We started off from the tents at seven in the morning, but when we got up there, we couldn’t hear either people or reindeer. A camp fire was started in the thin edge of the forest where the leaves were already gold with frost, even though we were in the middle of August. We passed the time in coffee drinking and merriment. Then we heard from afar dogs baying loudly and the hollow thunder that always heralds the coming of the large herd.

Everyone jumped up and began to scan the mountains in the direction of the sound. Up there the herd looked like turbulent gray dots. It came nearer quickly and at furious speed the living mass rushed down over the mountain side like a hailstorm. The women practically sparkled with delight and excitement. Everyone hurried to take up a guard position, so the reindeer had to go through a funnel of people and were chased into the corral through a relatively narrow opening. It was closed off quickly with chopped-down birch trees, which lay ready. Everyone slipped in; only the dogs were kept out. They stood for a while with tongues hanging out, trembling with eagerness and strain after their hasty downward rush.

The reindeer inside the corral galloped at full speed with their little white tails in the air and their heads thrown back. They ran round and round like horses in a circus — counterclockwise, as is their habit. Gradually, they grew much quieter.

Now the lassoes whistled; an alddo (reindeer cow) was caught, the noose was loosened and placed like a halter around her head. If the alddo is particularly wild and unruly, she’s tied to a tree or tree stump. If she’s tamer and used to being milked, the husband stands holding her with his lasso while the wife milks. Men and boys creep around to sneak up on the animals, and the women are ready with the nappe (milking cup).

The sun shone, the high snowfield glittered, and the golden leaves made a splendid background for the colorful lives in the corral, where everything was in movement. The Lapps were in their true element here. This was pure entertainment for them and working hard the happiest kind of play. There was milking and ear-marking; calves were slaughtered and bulls castrated. But in spite of all the grappling with the half-wild animals, not a single coarse or hard word could be heard, and there was no sign of violence. These were tasks they’d mastered and they were carried out deftly and powerfully, without unnecessary flailing about.

Many of the small dark three- or four-month-old calves had to lose their lives. August and September is the right time to take the skin for fine furs. The Lapps, like other people, show their prosperity by wearing beautiful clothes; such a single-colored dark fur garment of borgge-nakke (freshly killed skin) is quite elegant. The poor don’t have enough calves to be able to pick and choose between colors; they must take light and dark together, whatever they have, and that naturally makes the fur less attractive.

At the end of the afternoon the reindeer were released from the corral. They took immediately to the mountains, except for the alddos who had lost their calves; they ran looking and calling inside and outside the corral. Sometimes they stopped, listened intently and looked to every side; then they began running again grunting and searching. In that manner they grieve for three days, the Lapps say, and they stay at the site where they last saw their calves. After that they seek out the rest of the herd.

The slaughtered calves are flayed and their guts removed, both of which take place outside the corral. All the meat and other parts of the reindeer are wrapped in fresh birch twigs and loaded on draft reindeer that had just been rounded up. The women wrapped the dried jerky in scarves and, for the same purpose, brought out the čalmas holding fresh reindeer milk and carried it on their backs. The pack train set off homewards. A Lapp had taken a young bull on a lead to slaughter him at home by the tent. The bull was untamed and in a complete rage; it took both skill and strength to tow the wild animal forward between the trees and rocky outcroppings for a whole mile. The path of the Lapp and the bull was very irregular; ultimately they disappeared far ahead of us. The reindeer pack train stepped sedately behind, with people and dogs. Now came the reaction to an exhausting day; everyone was rather silent and tired. Little by little it grew dark and the stars came out. It was late when we finally glimpsed the glowing tents far below. Inside sat those who’d stayed home, longing for news of the herd and for fresh reindeer meat.

Christmas in Lapland, 1907
Emilie Demant Hatt
Translated from the Danish by Barbara Sjoholm

Christmas Eve dawned with a temperature of minus forty (Celsius). Inside the tent we couldn’t see each other for a fog of frost and the tent was white with frost on the inner walls, in spite of the huge fire. When the thermometer sinks to such a low temperature this fog appears — hot steam from the fire mixes with the ice-cold air coming down from the smoke hole above and pouring under the bottom edge of the tent.

Outside the sky was completely clear, quite unearthly clear in the half-light of the middle of the day. I went out into all that silent white and followed a single ski track that turned north, away from the tents. After an hour’s time, the tents, the forest, and all sound from there was gone. Everything was white, white––not cold chalk white, but glittering, like pale hyacinths. The colors of the air sank over the earth. In the west, Tavanjünje Mountain climbed sheer and solitary; the steep slope in the north lay in lilac and shadow, while the south side sparkled faintly like mother-of-pearl.

The ski track ended in a little scrub-covered rise in the terrain; ah yes, it was here that the children had their grouse snares. Fortunately no grouse were trapped. If a white bird had been flapping in the snow I would have let it go with a clear conscience.

I went farther through the stillness. It seemed almost uncomfortable, hearing the skis gliding over the snow, and I stopped. All sound ended immediately. Only in my head did the blood whistle with a faint crackle. Then from far off came the sound of a reindeer bell. The herd was going up around Tavanjünje. Immediately I believed, in my Christmas mood, that it was the sound of a church bell, which wouldn’t have been a good thing. The Lapps say that he who hears a church bell in the wilderness will die the same year.

No, the sound of holiness doesn’t reach into the wilderness, where the underground beings live. The church and its believers leave us alone here. And just as I stood there, I heard a weak but clear half-humming song deep under the snow. I listened for a long time and the silence made it possible for me to make out plainly where the sound came from. There must have been a reasonable explanation — probably a spring hadn’t frozen far below. I stuck my ski pole to the bottom; it was completely dry when it came up, but the sound stilled at the same moment and I continued on after having waited a little.

When I returned to the spot, I heard the faint singing again. Afterwards I told Sara about it and she said, “You’ve heard the underground beings, the Uldas. That’s unusual during the winter.”

Now the forest with the tents became visible again. The smoke lay in long curves throughout the trees like the finest elven web. The sound of axes rang out everywhere; all were busy chopping wood, which needed to last over both holidays in great cold. Soon the stack would be high enough and everything ready. The twilight had already set in, even though it was only a little past one.

However, the abundant wood cutting was the only thing that indicated a major holiday approaching. The children were given repeated admonitions not to make noise or run around the tent: no loud voices or wild play. You need to be very careful and quiet when “the evil one” is out and is looking for sinners, as a big holiday approaches, particularly ruotta œked, Christmas Eve.

Turi and Inga chopped wood and I joined in to keep warm. It was so cold that every little downy hair on your face stood up like a quill and if you blinked, your lashes froze together in a split second. The evening by the fire could feel long; you had to sit there idle for many hours. The holiday and cold brought all activity to a halt.

Where there was enough wood, the white pieces of birch were arranged in a nice-looking pile. The twigs were placed in the same way so that no branch stuck out, and the camp cleared of tree litter. It was Turi who gave orders and himself helped out. Before he went inside, he set up a very long birch branch next to the trees where wood was chopped. Later I realized the branch was for Stallo, who could tie up his caravan here, when he went inside on Christmas Eve, after his custom, to see whether all was in order in the manner it should be. He’s thirsty after his travels and drinks water; that’s why the kettle needs to be full the night before Christmas. If it’s not, he sucks out the brains of the youngest child in the tent with an iron pipe (it’s usually the task of the children to fetch water).

As the day darkened the camp fell into deep silence, as if all sound had frozen away. The chopping of the ax had ceased. No human voices, no dogs barking. The only living thing was a thick, spark-filled smoke that billowed out the smoke holes from the large fires in the tents.

When Nikki came home in the afternoon from the herd, he brought with him a dead reindeer that he’d found just after a wolf had killed it.

“The navdde (the wolf) wanted to have himself a ruotta-males (Christmas dinner),” said Inga, but she was shushed by Sara. It was better not to speak of dangerous things at the most dangerous time of the year. Old gray-legs had been particularly evil that day; many in the community had to provide reindeer for his Christmas meal. Little Oula, a nine-year-old neighbor boy with overflowing spirits had been especially loud during the day’s play, hooting and shouting, so that Sara had often scolded him. Now he was the subject of her harsh reproaches. The dead reindeer proved how dangerous it was to make noise so close to the holiday. The boy took on a skeptical attitude and accepted his talking-to with equanimity. But Sara was in a bad mood; one of her best reindeer cows now lay bloody and torn apart.

Nikki pulled it behind the boaššo, where all the butchering took place; a little later he came in with the steaming entrails in a large bowl. Afterwards, against all usual custom, he dragged the dead reindeer inside the tent to skin it and cut it into pieces. Outdoors everything would have frozen between his fingers.

The Christmas tent wasn’t cozy. First: there was the dense, clammy fog of frost and frost fog, which almost prevented any feeling of being indoors; Nikki, with his bloody work; the dead reindeer, whose large, dulled eyes created such a dismal mood; and Sara, silent and cross, she who was always good-humored. The children weren’t to be seen; they were probably in another tent, where the mood was livelier. They only returned home in the evening.

The food kettle was hung over the fire, but it didn’t lift our spirits to see that Nikki had filled it with meat from the reindeer killed by the wolf. This sort of meat is quite bad, in part because the actual bite of the wolf has a sharp taste, the Lapps maintain. Additionally, this reindeer was skinny, and lean reindeer meat is never a delicacy.

I asked Sara’s permission to bring inside a small spruce tree and to set it on the hearth and light it with the Christmas candles I’d gotten in one of my packages. The children were quite excited about the idea but Sara sternly rebuffed our pleas: “People shouldn’t have those sorts of amusements on Christmas Eve.”

We had to be satisfied with the Christmas lights provided by the fire, the moon, and the stars. It was so cold that many particles of ice in the air were visible, as a rainbow-colored ring around everything that shone. Such a large, colored ring was around the moon, the large stars, and around some of the flames in the fire. I planted a candle in the snow on a little spruce outside the tent. It stood there with its halo, burning fine and quiet in the large forest, but it was so cold I couldn’t hold out long enough to see it melt down.

In this paralyzing cold and the endless dark, it was like standing apart from earth, exposed to the icy rays of the universe, surrounded by a dead nothingness that spread its horror over a poor night-black globe, where here and there a small clump of skin-clad people gathered around a fire in the deep snow.

But even though it was Christmas Eve and far below freezing, the herders had to go out to the herd if they didn’t want to risk being without reindeer the next day, the way the wolves were hunting. Nikki had been out during the day. Now it was Inga’s turn to take the night watch. She got up, snatching her fur-lined leather gloves, called to the dog and as she went out she tied her cap under the chin. All of these things were preparations for the long night.

It was cold for the two who left, but it was no warmer or more comfortable for those who sat at home.

Shortly before the meal was served, Turi disappeared to his sister’s tent, where they probably weren’t having “wolf meat,” for supper on Christmas Eve. We gathered, meanwhile, around the food and served ourselves from the dishes there, but the meal was passed in deep silence and when we were finished, everyone took off their gloves and began to straighten the bedding.

Sara, who was occupied with something at the hearth, suddenly exclaimed, “No, I’ve never seen anything like it before — long icicles hanging down off the wood burning on the fireplace!” It was a hot steam pouring out of the new wood that had momentarily frozen.

Christmas night was a cold one to get through; in spite of the fur-lined boots and dry hay, your feet felt like blocks of ice. The water kettle was solidly frozen and made creaking noises; the trees outside groaned with the cold. Little Nilsa walked in his sleep and sat down by the door, but Sara woke and got the boy tucked under the covers again.

“I thought it was the Christmas-Stallo who’d come into the tent, when I saw you sitting over there by the door,” said Sara in the morning, when she told us about it.

I couldn’t sleep well with my face under the covers, and so I used to wrap my head in a woolen shawl. It was quite uncomfortable to wake in the morning with this garment covered in ice over my face; the shawl always froze stiff from my breath, so it had to be pried apart. If you pulled the mosquito netting around you, for warmth’s sake, you lay there in a small snow-house in the morning. Inside everything was white with thick frost crystals. The dogs too were white with frost; their breath frozen. Our little puppy had now grown up to such an extent that he decided on his own where he wanted to sleep, and he’d chosen a spot under my chin. There he lay with his head near my face so that my breath could keep him warm. Often when the temperature dropped, I was awakened by the puppy sticking his ice-cold little snout completely against my nose under the shawl. Even after the puppy grew up to be large and strong, he kept his spot.

It was eight in the morning when Inga and her dog Rill came home, chalk white with frost and snow and with long icicles in their hair. No one wished her “Merry Christmas.” No one said anything at all. The mountain folk aren’t troubled by sentimentality; no one uttered a word about it having been a difficult Christmas night for the young girl. She knocked the snow and frost off her clothes at the door, hung up her gloves, and sat down silently to wait for morning coffee, while Rill lay down in front of the fire, zealously picking the lumps of ice from his coat and licking his exhausted legs.