A unique cultural experience in northern Norway
In Alta, Norway, a new restaurant and Sami cultural experience opened in the middle of the pandemic. It’s the best thing that could have happened.
“Greet us and the reindeer, enjoy the fire and listen to the yoik and the legends we have to tell,” entice the owners of Sami Siida.
Outside the city center of Alta, Elén and Nils Henrik have found the key to success. Together, the Utsi and Sara families run a Sami siida, a settlement, with a Sami museum and cultural events combined with Sami food experiences and a lavvo pub.
In 2020, they refurbished the premises for nearly NOK 13 million during the pandemic. And while the past year has been challenging for most industries, the arrow has only pointed upward for Sami Siida in Alta. Last fall, I had the pleasure of visiting there to experience it for myself.
“We have to brush away some soot,” says Elén, who is wearing her kofte, a traditional Sami costume. “It’s just like we do inside the lavvo,” she laughs, as she wishes us a warm welcome.
Once inside the blue room of the new, modern restaurant, it feels peaceful and cozy.
Sami Siida’s story began in the Bossekop district of Alta in the late 1990s. The Sami got many questions from tourists about the Sami culture and traditions. As a result, they decided to start a permanent place in Alta where one can get to know the Sami: see the reindeer, learn to throw a lasso, and hear about the life of the reindeer-herding Sami—not only as it was—but also as it is today.
A siida is a settlement run by reindeer-herders, often a family. The new Sami Siida establishment was started by Berit Anne Eira and her husband, Johan Eira, with Kristine Nina Sara and Nils Henrik Sara (Berit Anne’s brother), and Arnt Harald Wang. Berit Anne is now a widow, and her daughter, Elén Solbritt Utsi, runs the place, while her husband, Nils Jørgen, is out with the reindeer that will soon be herded for the autumn slaughter.
Just a few miles away, early in the day, we walked in an area where you find blueberries, watercress, and lingonberries. Mullet are swimming in the waters, and rock carvings thousands of years old spread out over a large area and are easily accessible from nature trails.
The rock carvings outside the Alta Museum have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and are located on a path that is open all year round. Alta is the only municipality in Norway and one of very few places in the world that has more than one world heritage site.
Here in the carvings, hunting situations with reindeer and fish have been depicted over several thousands of years, showing life with wild reindeer. The most recent carvings are from about 2,000 years ago, and the oldest are about 7,000 years old. This remarkable area is only a five-minute drive from the Sami camp.
In September, the museum took over a property with a private garden that is home to a large stone with petroglyphs several thousand years old, about 600 to 700 petroglyphs in total—an impressive sight to behold.
Lavvo can be used for so many things, but with the renovation of the large lavvo cabin, we find ourselves inside a restaurant. All materials are in dark natural colors, and the lamps are reminiscent of glass floats that were previously used on fishing nets.
Elén talks about the Sami “verdde” (guest friend), a form of friendship where you exchange goods and gifts with each other. Traditionally, nomadic reindeer-herding Sami exchanged gifts with sea Sami or the area’s permanent residents.
“For example, we can exchange reindeer meat for mutton,” she says, but today, there has been a big group there, and Elén has the help of one of her verdde in the kitchen.
Looking back in history, the Norwegianization process strove to assimilate Indigenous people of Norway. It became a stigma to be a Sami, and many no longer wanted to be associated with them and distanced themselves from these customs. But today, some municipalities keep the verdde tradition alive through friendly interactions, while the gift exchange tradition has all but disappeared.
The multitalented Sami artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, who was the first Sami to receive the Nordic Council Literature Prize, expressed the identity problem:
“If I did not know
that I am I and belong to a people
I did not know
that you are you
that the world has many peoples.”
(from Gávnos, a resource booklet for teachers)
Yes, the tradition was about to disappear, but here it is maintained. The life of the reindeer-herding Sami is governed by the migration of reindeer.
Inside an enclosure are three tents. Two are traditional, a goahti and a lavvu. The third is a lavvo cabin, which is also a museum, where you can learn about the family history through generations. We find the pulk, the sled, in which Elén lay as a child, and the fine clothes of white reindeer skin that once belonged to her father. Outside are sleds that are still in use.
You can stay here with a reindeer-herding family and experience the year’s most beautiful adventure, the spring migration, when they move with the herd from winter to summer grazing. In the autumn, you can experience the reindeer slaughter, which is not for those who think meat comes only from the store. Reindeer cows give birth to calves that are earmarked or branded in the summertime. Later, the slaughtered reindeer will be brought down to the Sami camp to bring a taste of life on the plateau to the tables of the guests.
A taste of reindeer
Leather and bark Sami shoes hang over a modern open fireplace in the restaurant. The minimalist interior contrasts with the colorful garments, the ribbons and belts, and traditional crafts that are time-consuming and must be done correctly.
At the table, we are served jaskeábiluossa, an appetizer with Pacific salmon. After that, we get the main course, Sami beef or Cáhppon bohccobiergu, a traditional dish of sliced reindeer meat with lingonberries and bacon.
Reindeer are the core of Sami life and not just for food.
“We use everything on the animal,” says Elén. “The skin of the reindeers’ legs become warm garments on our legs, and the skin on the reindeer’s back is used on our own backs.”
The reindeer’s horns become duodji, Sami handicrafts, such as horn buttons, knife handles, and utilitarian applied art (atnuduodji) or handicrafts (dáidaduodji), which are sold in the souvenir shop.
The most charming Sami applied art can be found in the restroom: a toilet roll holder made of reindeer antlers.
As we arrived, a group of people were on their way out, all dressed in the finest, most elaborate kofter, the Sami costumes. They were confirmands, family, and guests. Earlier in the day, the road up to the Northern Lights Cathedral was filled with kofte-clad women with large brooches.
Earlier, when we stopped by the cathedral, we were immediately thrown out by the pastor, because the church was only open to confirmands and—there was no mercy for us. But at the restaurant, we got to admire the Sami kofter up close.
Elén noticed a nice blue kofter that she thought was unusual.
“It’s from Lyngen,” says a man and tells us of his wife having sewn it.
He turns out to be a confirmand’s proud father, Remy Sommervik. His wife, Monica Sommervik, attended a kofte sewing course in 2017. This was mentioned in the newspaper Ságat, and now the whole family was wearing their finest Sami costumes.
Confirmand Catalina Victoria Sommervik poses for a picture with her two older sisters. The day has taken a turn in which the traditions of the past and the present are intertwined. The bunad is “in.” The kofte is “in.”
Maze cake, mázegáhkku, becomes a sweet finish to our day. “Maze” is also the title of a song made famous by Sami singers Mari Boine og Liu Sola. The yoik is about the fight against development of the Alta-Kautokeino waterway 40 years ago. A new film called La Elva Leve is being filmed nearby and will be released in 2023.
Elén also offers up her own yoik, the one given to her at birth. No one raises an eyebrow when her voice sounds throughout in the restaurant.
“Your first yoik is short and becomes longer as the years go by. You can hear if it describes a bear or hare,” she says.
We find that she is more hare than bear, for she is a very energetic woman, truly a busy bee.
And the adventure at Sami Siida does not end there. There are plans to transform one of the large lavvos into a bar and to build new lavvos with even more spectacular views. There are even plans for the more exclusive experience of Sami glamping.
As their website says, Sami Siida is “your gate to Sapmi.” To learn more about this unique cultural experience visit:
Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.