Is “Sámi Blood” thicker than water?
Christine Foster Meloni
Elle-Marja, a 14-year-old Sámi girl who becomes painfully aware of the discrimination directed at her people, is the protagonist of Sámi Blood. Unable to accept the degrading treatment, she reaches the breaking point and flees to Uppsala in southern Sweden to try to forget her origins and immerse herself in Swedish society.
The film is written and directed by Amanda Kernell, a Swede with Sámi ancestry on her father’s side. The setting is the Scandinavian Far North in the 1930s.
In the opening scene, Elle-Marja (played by Maj-Doris Rimpi) is seen as an older woman, a well-dressed, seemingly typical ethnic Swede. She has been informed of the death of her favorite sister and is reluctantly preparing herself to leave with her son and granddaughter for the land she abandoned so many years earlier.
When she arrives, she is visibly distraught. She becomes completely uncommunicative. She greets no one and pretends not to understand the Sámi language. After attending the funeral, she refuses to attend the family gathering. Her son and granddaughter, however, are eager to go because they are curious about this indigenous, reindeer-herding community unknown to them.
The film then flashes back to the childhood of Elle-Marja (now played by Lene Cecilia Sparrok), who is sent, along with her sister Njenna (played by her real-life sister, Mia Erika Sparrok), to a boarding school for Sámi children. The primary lesson she learns there is that the Sámi people are inferior.
In fact, there are “scientists” at the school gathering data to prove their inferiority. They humiliate the children by measuring their heads and taking photos of them in the nude.
Elle-Marja is a bright, inquisitive student, and she seems to be encouraged in her studies by her teacher. But when she expresses her desire to continue her studies at a regular Swedish school, she is told that her brain is different and further education is out of the question. Moreover, she would probably die if she left her people. She has no choice. She must remain forever with her community.
This strong-willed girl, however, cannot accept this fate. She convinces her unwilling mother to give up a valuable silver belt so that she can finance her studies. She goes south where she is able to hide her roots and to create a new life, immersed in the mainstream culture. She remains there until her sister’s death turns her world upside down.
The film flashes forward again. Instead of going to the family gathering, Christina (Elle-Marja has given up her Sámi name) goes back inside the church where her sister’s casket remains. She knocks the top off of it and looks directly at her sister’s face. “Forgive me,” she sobs.
What does she want forgiven? Does she feel regret at abandoning her family and culture? Does she feel guilt? Is she thankful that she left and created a better life for herself? Did she actually live a better life? Is she sorry that she never returned to save her sister? What are her true emotions?
The film ends with these questions hanging in the air. The viewer may be initially irritated that the screenwriter leaves out the entire chunk of Elle-Marja’s life from the time she left her community until she returns for the funeral. How did she live during these years? Was she well integrated into Swedish society or did she feel herself an outsider?
Perhaps the questions would have remained even if Elle-Marja/Christina’s entire life had been revealed. The mystery and the ambiguity add to the haunting nature of the film.
The acting is excellent, particularly that of Lene Cecilia Sparrok, a South Sámi actor from Namsskogan, Norway. She attended a Sámi boarding school in Snåsa (Nord-Trøndelag County) and is currently learning the ropes in her family’s reindeer business.
The pace of the film is fittingly slow, giving viewers the time to absorb the emotions of the individuals and to experience the incredible beauty of the natural world—the mountains, rivers, and lakes of the Far North.
The film invites reflection on the historic mistreatment of an indigenous people. Americans will readily see similarities to the treatment of the Native American children in North America.
The situation for the Sámi in Scandinavia has definitely improved since the 1930s. There still remain, however, threats to their culture.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.