Book review: With the Lapps

with the lapps

Doug Warne
KKNW Scandinavian Hour

Scandinavians in their home countries seem to have little background about the Sámi, or Lapps as they have been called. We Scandinavians here in the U.S. have even less.

A recent book translated by Barbara Sjoholm and published by the University of Wisconsin Press may do a great deal to cure that absence of knowledge. The book is With the Lapps in the High Mountains, written by Emilie Demant Hatt in 1913. It is a classic travel account, vividly depicting the Sámi life in Lapland in the early 20th century.

Demant Hatt tells a story of her nine-month stay with a Sámi family in northern Sweden in 1907-08 and her participation in a dramatic reindeer migration over snow-packed mountains to Norway with them. Her writing, journal-like and informal, includes observances of cooking, herding, child rearing, religion, and other customs.

The actual book is short, only 153 pages, but is amplified by copious footnotes and almost a third more pages in introductory remarks about Demant Hatt, how she came to write the book, and the advantages and disadvantages she had. There are also a number of photographs included showing individuals, clothing, activities, and gear.

After her writing career, Demant Hatt went on to become a well-known artist in Copenhagen in the 1930s. That artistic bent shows clearly as she describes the colors and textures of her life with the Sámi.

Published in a time when political questions surrounded the issue of the nomadic Sámi in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, there is surprisingly little political comment in the book. The material is simple and straightforward, telling of life among one family of Sámi reindeer herders. The book mentions food and meals, clothing, and the sewing of all kinds of bedding and clothing made from reindeer hides, and explains the customs of camp.

I had been introduced to joiks, or Sámi songs, but was interested to learn from Demant Hatt that joiks were often given personally to individuals and when sung at camp, even without naming the person, everyone knew whom the song was about. Some Sámi had been given two or three personal joiks.

Although a difficult undertaking, living with the Sámi in the high mountains was an experience Emilie Demant Hatt relished, and she shares that attitude with her readers. We are well served to have this book in English.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.