Today’s slide show: Sami Handicraft

A student exhibit of duodji at Jokkmokk College.

Handicraft, or duodji, as it’s called in Sami, isn’t about gluing popsicle sticks together or putting glitter on Christmas tree balls. Since time immemorial, the Sami, those tireless recyclers and refurbishers of what nature provides in the far north, have been artists of utility. The fishers, hunters, and reindeer nomads may not have had much, but what they had was often artfully made. Even a simple milking bowl could have a handle of inlaid reindeer antler in a decorated pattern.

Although duodjars,or those who make these crafts, live all over Samiland, Jokkmokk is unquestionably one of the main centers of duodji. Not only are there courses in traditional crafts at the college, the town itself draws artisans to live there year-round. It’s perhaps a little like Kyoto in its preservation—almost worship—of traditional arts. Although you’ll see knives, cups, dolls, antler key chains, and so on stamped “Made in Lapland” in souvenir shops all over northern Scandinavia, many of those objects are mass-produced in China. True duodji bears a mark of provenance and costs more every year.

At Jokkmokk’s winter market, duodji is often gorgeously displayed out of reach in glass cases in exhibit rooms or on tables in rooms at the college, where the makers wear traditional dress and chat easily with tourists who carefully handle silver spoons, wooden cups, small butter boxes, and—prize possession—knives with incised antler sheaths that can easily cost $1,000.

Friday was far busier than Thursday—and colder too. I headed first to Jokkmokk Tenn, a metal workshop with a long history. Leif Őhlund learned his craft there and now works with five others making jewelry and small objects of pewter, silver, and gold.

Like many Sami, Leif didn’t grow up speaking the language, nor does he own reindeer. For these Sami, the majority, the creation of handsome objects using traditional methods and patternsconfirms identity and helps connect them to the past. While not all Sami are artisans, most still use and wear duodji. It’s a powerful link to their culture, something to be proud of. “When I was growing up,” Leif told me, “You didn’t always want to say you were Sami. That’s different now.”

Throughout the bitterly cold day I wandered from school to school, where many people were displaying their wares. Not only was it warmer inside, but the quality of work was better than at the outside stalls. There was an exhibition of student work in the college, and work by local duodji masters was everywhere. Ellen Kitok Andersson, known for taking traditional basketry to a level of perfection, stood beside a table of her tightly woven baskets in the museum and patiently answered questions. (“Yes, those are birch roots.”) Lars Pirak, a well-known painter born in the 1930s, sat quietly in a room hung with his paintings of reindeer. The Sami are not grandstanders.

In the end, however, the stunning level of perfection began almost to overwhelm me. Once, utility and art had been merged; these simple objects—the butter box, the milking bowl, the cup—were beautiful in part because they were used in daily life. Now they’re meant to be put on a shelf and admired. I realized I couldn’t afford even a cup made by a Sami artisan, nor did I want something I couldn’t use. I went back to the roaring life of the street stalls and bought a wooden bowl I’d had my eye on, made by an elderly man, who said, rather plaintively, when I asked, “No, I’m just Swedish. But with Sami in the family long ago.”

In the evening I returned to Ájtte to hear a joikconcert. Joiking (sometimes rendered as “yoiking” in English) is as old as time among the Sami, though missionaries once tried to stamp it out, claiming that it was the devil’s voice. Like the Sami language, joiking was on the verge of extinction when a new generation embraced it. Now Sami stars like Mari Boine and Wimme travel the world giving concerts. Sometimes joikers have a backup band or drummer providing a steady beat; the purists let their voices do everything. Joiking comes from a deep place in the soul, like Andalusia’s cante jondo; it’s a mixture of vocalization and words, and usually the words are simple. A typical joik might run:

I tended the reindeer
On the slopes
Lolo lula lo
Lulo lo lo lu
(with a lot more of the lula-lo-los)

Some joiks are more melodic, some are like scat singing, notes strung together over a line of humming, growling vocalization. Each performer tonight, two men and a woman, had his or her own style. Typical subjects for a joik are landscape, weather, courtship, journeys, or animals, especially reindeer. Although some people find both the style and subjects repetitious (my landlady Evy said, “They’re always joiking to their reindeer!”), joiks are highly individual when you really listen. In the past, a joik sung once about a person or a landscape would identify that man or mountain forever. Like duodji, joiking provides a cultural connection for many Sami, a voice from the past into the future.

There was a full moon when I came out of the museum, and it was shockingly cold. I walked fast to keep warm and looked at the metallic stars. I couldn’t helping joiking a little to myself:

The full moon
In winter
Lolo lulu lo lo lo
Winter in Samiland
(pause for teeth chattering)
Lula lu lu … lo!