These days, it is a rare thing to step off a plane and feel an overwhelming sense of genuinely having arrived. Landing at an airport is a somewhat monochrome experience wherever in the world you go; a hurried routine of scrambling to get your carry-on, waiting to disembark, squeezing through the exit, collecting your luggage, standing in line for taxis or tickets for some sort of airport express train or coach to take you away from the endless car-parks, conference hotels and car rentals that bedevil the lands around so many airports. It takes at least an hour before you feel that you’ve actually gotten to the place you were heading for.
Not so much with Alta, the northernmost city in Norway. Maybe it is the vast emptiness beyond the city lights you see on your way in, maybe it is the knowledge that you are at the very edge of mainland Europe, or maybe it is simply the fact that when you step off the plane at 2:30 pm in early November the dusk is already giving way to total darkness – whatever the reason, when exiting the plane and stepping off onto the runway, you cannot help but feel that you have arrived in a different corner of the world. Then you start to feel the cold, and hurry inside.
This may to a certain extent give the impression that northern Norway is primarily cold, dark and empty, which in turn begs the question why on earth we would go there. As the astute follower will have observed, we have through our work on human rights taken an interest in indigenous people’s rights, with a particular focus on the human rights transgressions committed against the Sámi, Norway’s own indigenous population. Taking a trip to the Sámi heartland seemed like the natural thing to do. There is also very active local CISV chapter here, who we wanted to visit and run an activity for. Add the opportunity to see some northern lights (which, needless to say, had absolutely no deciding influence on our decision to go whatsoever) and the trip was a no-brainer, even if it meant spending all of our travel budget in one go.
Into the Sami heartland
For us southerners arriving in winter – up here, everyone from south of the arctic circle are considered ‘southerners’ – it is difficult to imagine why so many people would choose this cold, dark, seemingly barren landscape as their habitat. Yet this is where the Sámi people have made their home for millennia, fishing in the fjords and rivers and keeping reindeer herds on the vast, frozen plains. Besides, reindeer hides are incredibly apt at keeping you warm when temperature creeps below -30 degrees Celsius, often with some strong winds thrown in for good measure.
We got to experience some of the gusty, inhospitable weather when travelling inland across the plains to visit Kautokeino. With under 3,000 inhabitants it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis, but it is still regarded as the biggest Sámi community in Norway. As such, it is a vibrant centre for Sami culture, boasting a number of institutions and establishments promoting Sámi handcraft, media and education, with a Sami University College located at the centre. The impetus for this particular road trip, however, was the headquarters of Gáldu, an international research and policy institute working on indigenous people’s rights. We even got the chance to speak with its director, Laila Susanna Vars. Although she’s working on indigenous rights, she is very clear on the fact that “indigenous rights” is not something special and unique that is afforded to only indigenous peoples.
- We’re talking about basic human rights, she says. The right to have an identity, the right to have a childhood, the right to have a home, the right to have a family. To have the exact same rights as other people, nothing more, nothing less.
Rights that, as we have touched upon earlier, have been denied the Sámi for a long time. Laila also sees a lot of similarities between the Sámi history and the plights of indigenous people elsewhere.
- When I talk to indigenous people from Canada, it’s like listening to my mother telling the exact same stories. When I meet Maori people, I hear about how their right to do traditional fishing was taken away from them, just like with us.
She's very encouraged by what she sees as a "growing global indigenous unity" - a recent example of which is how indigenous peoples from all over the world have joined in the protest against the Dakota pipeline at Standing Rock. In fact, pressure from the Sámi community and Sámi institutions managed to get DNB, the largest bank in Norway, to divest completely from the Dakota Access project.
You can learn more about Laila’s work and the human rights situation for the Sami and indigenous peoples in our educational videos we release next year. Laila, however leaves us with a clear message:
- Get educated! Learn about your rights and the rights of others – if not, it is going to be very difficult to influence governments, businesses and others to create any change.
At the end of the world
Having come all the way up here, it would be silly indeed not make the trip to North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe. (It was given its name in 1553 by an Englishman called Steven Borough, who was evidently not particularly imaginative when it came to naming things). Although it is an incredibly popular tourist destination, it can hardly be said to be accessible: it’s almost a four hour drive from Alta, and it has only been accessible by road for 15 years or so, after an underwater tunnel was built to connect it to the mainland. For us southerners, the road was long, narrow, steep and slippery, but we got there and back with only two near-death experiences (what’s life without them, eh?)
The cape itself is a 300-meter steep cliff dropping directly into the ocean, dramatically exposed to the arctic winds and waves. Despite being shrouded in the kind of impenetrable fog you see in horror films, there was still a majestic sense of serenity in standing at the very edge of the continent, gazing into a vast nothingness knowing that only sea, ice, and possibly White Walkers lie beyond.
Which is a good a place as any to end this blogpost at. Oh, and we did see Northern Lights.