In the northern most reaches of Europe, where spring is only just beginning to lure the buds from the trees and the daylight shines long into the night – a climate movement is growing among a new generation of Sami Youth leaders. The Sami are the native peoples of northern Scandinavia, and like many indigenous communities they have found themselves on the front line of the climate crisis. Deeply dependent on the snows, rivers and forests that sustain their reindeer and their way of life – the Sami youth are growing up in a time where preserving their culture is harder and harder. Yet, the sustainable grazing and forestry techniques that they have employed for countless generations, is precisely the type of knowledge needed to thrive without abusing natural resources.

The annual Saminorra Youth Conference was this year focused on the theme of “Our World”, a theme which to them is intricately linked to climate change. Like many societies who live closely with the land that sustains them, the Sami world is transforming rapidly. The predictable weather that governs their reindeer migrations are becoming more and more irregular, and frozen rivers become more dangerous to cross with this unpredictability.
In this photograph, the Sami Youth have formed the image of Mattarahkka, the Earth Mother that gives life to all. There is a deep respect for the land that continues to resound among the Sami youth, for they know that the Sami – and all of us – owe our lives to the warm grace of this gentle planet. Even in the harsh climate of the Artic Circle there is a movement growing to return respect to our relationship with this beautiful planet that has been so kind to us.

I was invited to attend the annual Saminorra Youth Conference because the Sami youth want their voices to be heard. They risk losing the beautiful details of their culture: the colorful clothing that makes a room glow, the melodious songs that flow like water, and the endless carving of reindeer antlers. As the “progress” invades the territorial land of the Sami, their culture changes. Many can no longer follow traditional migrations, as dams have flooded the rivers their reindeer used to swim across. Highways and train-tracks dissect their territories like a calculating surgeon, drawing impassible lines. It is not practical to cross a 4 lane highway with 2,500 reindeer, as it only breeds anger among those who cannot get their cars through the living herd. One youth joked to me “They say ‘Why do your reindeer have to walk where our roads are?’ but the Sami reply, ‘Why did you put your roads where our reindeer walk? The reindeer were here first’”.

When we think about the losses imposed by “development” and climate change, we often think in terms of biodiversity and natural resources loss. But the staggering diversity we have as a species, exists in our incredible array of cultures. As recently as 300 years ago, almost every region had its own way of dress, its own language, its own customs and its own culture suited perfectly to their climate. When we talk about the losses of climate change- we also risk losing the stories, the songs, the designs, and the very languages of our own past.
In the small town of Ammarnas, which many call “the end of the road”, a small community huddles in the valleys of two converging rivers. The sturdy wooden houses brace against the winds and the cold, and everyone knows each other. This is the traditional winter grounds for the Sami and their reindeer.

In the center of the little town, there is a mysterious mound – the famous Potato Hill (well, as famous as a potato hill can be). This peculiar hill’s steep sides are touched by the sun almost all day, allowing for vast harvests of potatoes. The entire town comes and works this rich land, as they have for generations, and even after a long winter there are still potatoes in the basement. I had the pleasure of eating some of these potatoes, only a few hundred meters from where they were grown.

It was a late dinner, probably because with the long light hours one easily loses track of time, and afternoon drifts into evening without the blink of an eye. The meal was rather typical for this family from Ammarnas but for me it was momentous in its sustainability: The potatoes came from the Potato hill next-door, the reindeer meat was from the family’s herd, the sauce was made of Chanterelle mushrooms gathered from the mountains I could see out my window, and the lingon berries were picked the summer before and made into a sweet preserve. Every piece of this exquisite meal was harvested from the very land upon which I sat. There were no tankers from El Salvador involved and no robots spraying pestiticides into greenhouses. Yet this was not an act of protest, not even an act of an environmentalist – it was just tradition, and it was delicious!

The image you see dug into the snow of the (famous) Potato Hill, is the traditional representation of the Forest Spirit that protects the forest and its gifts. As the trees in that area are harvested, the moss goes too – and the reindeer walk different paths. As mines come in the berries are dug up with the uranium, the roads pave over the mushrooms. Each culture is like a recipe, a mixture of pieces of past that combine into the most delicious and creative ways. As we start removing ingredients, we start to forget the recipes.
Many of the details of a culture and the stories that sustain it, are in fact the stories of sustainability- tricks that help the potatoes to grow and unwritten laws that keep the fish populations safe. This knowledge that has grown with the land has in many places been forsaken by the bright lights of progress. Yet, it still is alive in places like the glowing snows of the Artic and in it is alive in the stories our elders tell us. As we look forward towards an endless future, we see so far that we are looking into our own past.