A Shift of Focus

Eva (she/her), Denison University, was one of three DIS Slow Travelers who set off from Stockholm to the town of Kiruna in northern Sweden in fall 2022. Though she initially thought this journey would simply be focused on the beautiful landscapes of the Swedish Lapland, Eva found that Slow Travel allowed her to get to know the people and cultures of this small community much more than she expected – and her conversations with them led Eva to reframe much of what she thought she knew going into her adventure.

As a trip approaches, I often envision myself in that new location, predicting what I will see and feel. I had a clear image of myself in Kiruna that I had dreamt of before my slow travel trip. Before the departure, I imagined myself standing in a pile of dry snow, looking up at a dancing sky of lights next to Ange and Gabby (my travel partners). While I knew that our trip would be focused on slow and mindful movement throughout Sweden, underneath, I fully expected our journey to be completely nature-centered. I come from a very environmentally focused family, and at school, I study nature. I wanted to see the physical world at such a high latitude. What would it smell like? What would the mountains look like? What would the wildlife be? And, my biggest question: what would the northern lights look like? 

We began our trip on an overnight train ride up Sweden, straight into the Arctic Circle. The train felt as if it was tied to a thread, and I was being led further and further into the wilderness by some unknown force. If I were to have landed on a plane, I may have felt like I was visiting on a whim, but instead, I felt like I was slowly emerging into something new. That night I dreamt that it was the northern lights at the other end of that string, trying to bring me closer to its heart. 

The morning we arrived in Kiruna, my senses were overwhelmed by the terrain. Besides the gray smokestacks coming out of the mining area, there was bright white in all directions. I was eager to walk in this winter wonderland, so I set off with my camera as soon as we had our room. As I took photographs of a famous pointy red church in a backdrop of white, a hearse pulled into the lot, followed by a small line of cars. I took a step out of the way and into the trees, feeling startled because I had forgotten that it was a real church and not just a picturesque spot. Quickly, I was snapped back into the reality that I was in a town with real people going about their lives. People use this sacred spot to celebrate new life and honor death, and then there are those who see it as a red building in a place where you see the northern lights. I needed that reminder.

Slow traveling focuses on a connection to the community that you are in. During this trip, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to stay with a local Sámi guide named Ylva. Instantly, I was captivated by her wealth of knowledge. Not by lists of facts, but instead by the emotion in her voice as she told stories. Stories of her family, her home, her reindeer, and her culture. The Sámi people are spread out along Sápmi, covering the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. In Stockholm, I learned that the Sámi were reindeer herders that lived in a way that was deeply connected to their land. I thought, “Wow, that’s so cool! I love nature too!” However, it was not until our dinner with Ylva that I started to understand what Sápmi meant to the Sámi people.

By law, the Sámi herders own reindeer, but I could see that they belonged to each other, as their lives were deeply intertwined. The reindeer seemed to be a spiritual symbol that represented life and death. When the calves are born (often in May), the Sámi herders come together to mark ownership of the new life, often introducing their children to the tradition. When reindeer are slaughtered, there is a high level of respect and thankfulness toward the life that will feed the family for the year. When we first entered Ylva’s house, she offered us Souvas, strips of smoked and dried reindeer meat, as a snack and later we had a flavorsome reindeer dinner. I had many questions — and emotions — after she shared that the food we had just eaten was her reindeer that she had slaughtered earlier that year. Ylva heard our questions and shared with us, “When I am carrying fresh meat to my shed, I feel like a millionaire.” That sentence was enough to help me understand how beautiful their relationship is with the reindeer. 

For centuries the reindeer herders’ lives have depended on the reindeer, and now more than ever, the reindeer depend on their owners. Increased mining in Sápmi has threatened reindeer’s grazing and migration patterns. In the news, you can see Sámi speaking out on behalf of their land, trying to protect their traditional lifestyle. On our second morning, while we were sitting in the Nikkaluokta church, Ylva explained to us how they use music to connect themselves to the earth. She began to sing joik, a cultural expression for the Sámi people. Joiks aren’t just songs about a subject, instead, a joik is meant to conjure the spirit of the subject itself, be it a person, animal, or even nature itself. My heart leaped when I realized what she was singing. Without any words, she was able to transform her voice into the wind. Not just the sound of the wind, but the features and personality of the wind. Emotion overtook my body as I began to realize how the mining must feel like a direct wound to their hearts, as they are one with the earth that is being damaged.

My introduction to the Sámi culture made me feel fearful of the change happening to Sápmi, and it made me wish that I had the power to stop the mining companies from misusing the land. However, the rest of my trip taught me something else. Things were not so simple. There was no singularly evil force implementing the land changes — it was much more nuanced than that — the mine is also an integral part of the Kiruna community. Most of our hospitable acquaintances in the town had a connection to the mine, as their livelihood depended on the work. A mineralogist for the mine offered us a ride home with his mother, and he was doing amazing work for Sweden. The musher who took us dog sledding worked as a mine welder to continue her life dedicated to the dogs. This trip helped me understand that there is more to each situation than a news headline can say. The Sámi people love the earth, but in a way that words cannot describe, and mining is an environmentally destructive thing that also provides security and livelihood to the people and communities that live near.

Wait, what about the northern lights? Well, I never actually saw them in Kiruna. I began my trip eager to be under the force of the northern lights, but my focus shifted. I was deeply moved by the people that I met, and I became fascinated by life in the Arctic, not just the landscape. Slow traveling allows you to create meaningful moments, where you are awed at what you learn, rather than following a checklist on what you already know.

Learn more about Slow Travel and Exploring Sweden:

>> Slow Travel Scenes from Arctic Sweden
>> Silent Forest Sounds
>> Essential and Accessible Places to Visit in Sweden

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