Lapland - The Reindeer ParliamentKarasjok was a very cold, bleak place. It was nothingness nowhere-ville in northern Norway / Finland and it made me feel instantaneously lonely. Every place I ended up in somehow felt colder than the last place I had just left. But being inland away from the coast, Karasjok really was brutally colder.
This was a town where in the depths of winter you could expect to go outside into skin-cracking temperatures of minus thirty degrees Celsius. Officially, Karasjok’s record low temperature was minus 51.4 degrees Celsius, which made me shiver just thinking about it. They weren’t too concerned about carbon dioxide emissions up here in this part of the world. Not many people bleated about global warming. It was something to look forward to.
Tall red slalom poles lined the main roads for when the heavy snows suffocated the town and obscured the markings. Most of the buildings seemed to be made from wood. I found somewhere to stay on the outskirts of the town. It was a camping park with some huts and a long redundant ice cream stand outside the reception area. There was no one around so I left my bags and set off to explore.
Nothing seemed to open until the afternoon in downtown Karasjok, as if the town spent most of the morning in sleepy hibernation. There were many things I expected to encounter in such a no-man’s land town - colourless nothingness, elk, reindeer and an InterSport. They even had an internet café, which at £18 an hour made Norwegian beer look cut-price.
But a parliament representing thousands of people wasn’t too high on the list of things I thought I might see. Yet this was what I stumbled across on my way back into town. It was the wonderfully named Sami Diggi, the central parliament for Norway’s Sami people.
Lapland, known mainly as being home to Santa Claus and reindeer, is really the home to the Sami people. They have spread themselves far and wide across the more remote, northerly regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and also Russia. Around half of them live within the boundaries of Norway, a quarter in Sweden, an eighth in Finland and a couple of thousand in Russia. Norway looks after its 40,000 Sami people relatively well, which is probably reasonable enough since the Sami have only really just been given back their own land.
The parliament building was basically an extravagant giant wooden wigwam, more rustic and rural than high and mighty. I walked straight in and no one questioned me. Inside it was like a high-tech library - all smart wood furnishings, flat screen computers and televisions transmitting live parliamentary debates.
The Diggi parliament was no less lavish than the Scottish parliament, and it had all been funded by the Norwegian parliament, the equally splendid sounding Storting. In fact, the Diggi and the Storting sounded like characters out of a childrens’ storybook rather than representative parliaments.
Each extra day in Norway necessitated me sprinkling another few hundred kronas on top of the country’s mountain of vast oil wealth. But somehow it made me feel slightly more contented knowing that it would eventually make its way through to something as unusual as the Diggi.
Along a winding wooden corridor a surprisingly large chamber opened up before me. People were giving speeches, the same ones which were appearing on the live television feeds outside. It was like a mini European parliament. Not all of the Sami speak the same language so translators were required. I felt like proposing a motion to get me out Norway more quickly, or tabling a question on whether they would be able to refund my substantial travelling expenses.
Land ownership was obviously a fundamentally important issue for the Sami people, especially as various minerals are starting to be discovered on parts of their land. 3,000 Sami people lived in Karasjok which was where the bus deposited me. Today only around one in five of the Sami are involved in reindeer herding.
Apart from their meat, the reindeer skins are also used for clothing. Reindeer have fur which is two layered. Their nostrils are specially adapted for breathing cold air while their hooves harden for the ice of winter and soften for the muddier terrain of summer. They were first domesticated thousands of years ago, even before horses were. The Sami have always lived with little regard for international borders.
Inside the parliament they were all wearing traditional dress, which was a tremendously colourful sight for an outsider like me. Big, furry boots were common. There were plenty of tassels and jingles dangling from vividly bright costumes, while each tribe could be distinguished by the colour and shape of their headwear. It was peculiar to see traditionally, but cheerfully, dressed people walking around outside the chamber carrying laptop computers and with mobile phones attached to their ears.
One member of parliament hovering near the entrance was a bright twenty-one year old student. Her name was Astrid and, in between speeches, she had a little time to fill me in a little on the parliament.
‘We only meet four times in one year and one session lasts for four days.’ she explained.
‘So I am lucky that the parliament is in operation while I am in Karasjok?’ I said.
‘Yes. We have forty-seven women MP’s. There are more women than men in parliament. Most of the speeches have to be short and to the point. We are quite consensual. I think it is very different for you in the UK, no?’
‘Yes, our politics is very adversarial, lots of shouting and arguing.’
Astrid told me that the parliament had only recently been built. There were also plans to build a golf course. Then she excused herself to dash off and finish the preparations for her own speech with her assistant.
The chamber of the Diggi was pretty full. It was rather predictable that everyone would be in attendance to discuss something of critical importance and burning topicality…the Reindeer Herding Act….seriously!
I made an unfortunately over noisy entrance as I tried to steal a pathetic march into the chamber behind the drinks trolley. The drinks trolley supervisor, presumably another full-time employee of the Diggi, abruptly halted, while my sight was being drawn elsewhere to the arena of coloured costumes. A clinking collision of water glasses ensued and I only just about managed to belatedly swerve around him, offering a profusion of apologies in some sort of made up, improvised Scandinavian lingo as I did so, before desperately finding a seat to indiscreetly install myself in.
This had to be the world’s most colourful parliament, I thought to myself. There were many young faces as well. Did the MP’s here hold constituency surgeries for reindeer, I also wondered. The woman next to me, whose papers I had unwittingly sat on in my efforts not to draw attention to myself after my pirouette around the drinks trolley, got up to speak. I was hoping there was not some sort of circular, take-it-in-turns speaking order, by which convention I would be next.
I looked up and noticed the viewing gallery area which was probably where I was supposed to sit, instead of amongst the MP’s themselves. A bit like wandering into the House of Commons and just perching yourself on the end of the government benches. No one slouched or drifted off to sleep here though. It was all earnest concentration and respectful acknowledgement of opposing points of view.
Seeing a young, new parliament in action got me thinking about autonomy and some of the interesting issues it raises. Firstly, the money that can be sucked up by having to build a fancy, new, lavish parliament. Think of the obscene escalation in the cost of the Scottish parliament or the talking shop in Wales. When autonomy is granted to a group of people with a common identity does it keep them happy, or does it inevitably lead to stronger demands for more money and more independence? Whichever way you look at it, it doesn’t always come cheap.
In fact, it had been worth turning up at the Diggi just to enjoy the diversity of costume dresses. Some of the men strode around purposefully in black leather trousers which were often garnished with outrageously loud leather belts. Some of them had green hats, which rather unfortunately made them look no different to Santa’s elves. Somehow, it’s difficult to take a politician seriously as he or she wags a finger of disapproval to make an important point when they are dressed like Little Red Riding Hood or the Court Jester.
Nonetheless, there was something refreshingly surreal about the whole thing. Sometimes, I was half-tempted to shout out ‘Here, Here!’ or give a round of applause to the Minister of Reindeer as he outlined next year’s reindeer herding policy proposals.
‘What do the Right Honourable Members propose to do about the price of ice cream in Norway?’ I nearly exclaimed. I could have stood up and tabled a motion questioning the whereabouts of Santa Claus, or enquiring about how many elves made up the defence force and whether they had a vote on the war in Iraq.
Quite a few members (and their assistants) spent a lot of time poring over their laptop computers. Maybe they were all sat there secretly surfing the internet and selling reindeer on eBay. Maybe the ones with headphones on, instead of listening to yet another translated speech on reindeer herding, were actually listening to gangsta rap music instead.
Before long, as more thoughts like that ran away with my mind, I suddenly realised I had just spent the best part of an entire day observing proceedings in a language I did not understand one syllable of. I don’t think I shall ever see anything anywhere quite like it again. Long live the Diggi.
It was predictably dark and cold outside when I left and made my way back to the camping park where I finally found someone available to take my money. She was a pretty young girl with an American accent and she seemed to be in charge. Her name was Celia. I refused to believe she was Sami until I heard her conversing with her father.
‘We can be quite busy in summer, but as it goes down to minus forty in winter I usually spend it surfing in San Diego.’
The thought of a San Diego beach gave me a nice warm feeling for all of two seconds. Celia’s park had a small hut where a deliciously inviting fire had just been stoked inside. Here, I warmed myself up and was joined by an assortment of disdainfully unpretentious characters around the cosiness of the fire as the evening wore on.
There was a red-faced, weathered looking Irishman who was well stocked with beer. He offered some around as he started to cook some bacon on the fire. He was a sheep shearer in a local animal slaughter factory out of town, which was by all accounts one of the main sources of employment in the area.
‘I get up at 6am. It’s a fecking stupid hour of the day. And I cycle to the factory some twenty minutes away. This morning I had a fecking puncture. Fecking cold walk it was, I tell you.’
He went on to reveal that he had just spent the entire day shearing 273 sheep, which was a typical day’s work for someone with his specialist skills. I never quite got around to asking the question: Why?
There were also four young Swedish guys who had just arrived in Karasjok. They had naively condemned themselves to spending three months here, of all places, to earn some money. There was perhaps a touch of symbolic irony that young Swedish men were now coming to Norway for work opportunities, rather than the other way around as it had been for many years previously.
At first, they were quite pleased to find someone else who would also be working in the same factory as them. But they looked very taken aback when the Irish guy began to explain the details of what they would actually be spending their time doing: slaughtering animals. He chuckled and cackled to himself.
Also present around the fire was a shadowy Russian sounding man who had mumbled something about once working for the secret services. He offered me a beer and it turned out he was Lithuanian and also knew a thing or too about slaughtering animals.
The Irishman told me he had to go to Finland to do all his shopping because it was so much cheaper. Buying food and beer, that was what he did on his one day a week off. The Friday night pub karaoke in Karasjok sounded quite a hoot as well.
‘It’s like going back in time thirty years.’ he mused. ‘There’s the off-chance of hearing some music from within the last ten years, but not too often.’
Apparently, the sensible late night revellers, depending on how cold or inebriated they were, crossed the border into Finland after 1am when Norwegian alcohol prices went up even higher. I didn’t think they could go much higher than they already were.
‘Not for nothing,’ announced the Irish sheep shearer with a final signature chuckle on his way to bed, ‘do they call Karasjok “Kara Shock”’!