Participant Observation of the Human Landscape

26 December, 2011

This week on the reading rest I have an essay, Et ensomt folk i Norden, at least 73 years old, by the Danish artist Emilie Demant. It was published in the liberal Danish newspaper Politiken (Dec 13 1938). I start by putting a translation into an endnote [1].

Emilie Demant

When humans manipulate the natural landscape e.g. to benefit economically from it, this primary landscape becomes a secondary, human, landscape. More or less, but always a little, a landscape civilised or marked by culture. Norwegian glaciers are a case in point and we are reminded of this not least this year when the settlement on Lendbreen between Lom and Skjåk in Breheimen National Park melted out of the ice. It was excavated with the utmost care and caution by the global warming slowly laying bare the fragile wooden objects used in the camp. It also revealed sticks planted in long lines on the glacier frightening and thus directing the reindeer into a timely death by the hunter’s bowshot. These lines, rather than the settlement, are the signs of the human landscape. Since Lendbreen proves that this tradition, living periodically on the ice, goes back 1700 years, Norwegian success exploring the Arctic and Antarctic doesn’t come as a surprise. Many of the finds from Lendbreen and Lomseggen (–arkeologisk-sensasjon-/Funn-fra-Lendbreen/ ) are intriguing because they are objects, such as a bow, clothes, a horse shoe or a spade, that one would not without reason refrain from bringing back from the mountain. Instead they indicate that there were more valuable things to carry, i.e., fur, antlers, meat and so on. Landbreen was a zone of exploitation hunting wild reindeer during the summer. Exploiting inland Scandinavia was of paramount importance already during the Iron Age.

The High Mountains, Emilie Demant 1904

Emilie Demant tells us about the last of these mobile exploiters of inland Scandinavia as she experienced them, suppressed and colonized, in the beginning of the 20th century. She sees them as remnants of the past and indeed as a people or a race, shaped by constants such as genetics (race), character and language. Still today many may agree with her, but it would seem to be more fruitful to understand the Sámi, as well as Scandinavians and Finns and Russians and others, as broadly speaking cultural phenomena. Be this as it may, the great value of her text is her non-colonial perspective. Instead of that, hers is participant observation. She understands the Sámi, who are Lapps to her, on the basis of sharing their daily life, which to the modern reader is the result of a historical process.

As it happens, she is one in an almost unknown row of observers who did not subscribe to the colonial perspective developing from the middle of the 19th century and onwards. Mostly these observers were women and it was probably a woman who most consciously brought the method into academic anthropology after the Second World War. Eventually participant observation helped deconstructing colonialism.

Form Emilie Demant's sketchbook. 'Det er ikke morsomt Vivaikajärvi d. 1. Augt. 07. Det er ikke morsomt - 'It is no fun', refers to the head moulding seen in the sketch.

Certainly there were many more participant observers than I know about, but nevertheless this analytical sub-culture could have started with Georg August Wallin, from Åland, who managed to pose as a Muslim and understand the Muslims as indeed ordinary people like Finns and Swedes already in 1845 when Edward Lane was well into Orientalism. The vicar’s wife on Runö, a island in the Baltic, who did not share her husband’s colonial look at the islanders in the early 20th century went a step further because she did not pose as anything. She simply had a look at daily life.

The artist Emilie Demant’s understanding of the Sámi c. 1905-7 (1938) brought an anthropological perspective to the observations and finally Laura Bohannon’s participant observation of the Tiv in Nigeria (1950s) became a model of the post-war anthropological study [2].

In some ways their points of view are dated, but their perspective is not: subsistance, material and narrative culture, isolation and interaction shaped the people they observed and luckily the observers too. Identities are never constant, ethnicity and race, moreover, are the sad results of inadequate ‘covering’ historical analyses.

[1] In 1983 the Museum in Skive published Emilie Demant Hatt – blade til en biografi ISBN 87-88126-01-3. In this publication the essay from Politiken was reprinted. My translation was done in a hurry, but the essay is interesting because it is genuinely favourable to the Sámi. I will improve the translation little by little.

A Lonely People in the North
Lappland! Mountains and empty snow expansions, the dark season, northern lights and midnight sun. There is shiver and lure in each of the words. In Lappland too Sweden has its huge iron mines. The railway, Gällivara-Kiruna-Narvik, brings abroad the iron ore, and travellers from abroad up into Lappland. The wastelands and the strange people are now accessible to groups of tourists. One can understand the many foreigners who travel there. It is astonishing that here in Scandinavia in our day and age one may still meet a people dressed in hides and pursuing reindeer nomadism, a people that speaks a language far from our own, lives in sunken huts or in movable tents. There is much to see for those who come from our commonplace civilization.

On the surface the life of the Lapps is splendid enough – indeed scenic and dazzeling – but nevertheless, their subsistence is not exactly a Sunday treat. The Lapps are a small people leading an ineffable hard daily life in harsh surroundings where no one else can or will. I speak here of those Lapps who are still nomads. With them I lived more than a year as one of their own. I was met with much mistrust. ‘Why do you want to live with us? Our life is so hard at the peasants wouldn’t even send their dogs with us’.

One must be Lapp to understand that it is more than a presumption that their way of living is troublesome and full of difficulties – indeed dangers. Bethink that the whole of the nomad’s estate is a flock of reindeer a herd of racing deer grazing large areas in wayless terrain. They are animals with the nature of a migrating bird, changing their abodes with the seasons. It is a deer, which never entres a byre. They accept no contiguity. Only a few are tamed – the draught animals. Taming a young strong male reindeer is laborious task probably resembling that of the cowboy breaking in a horse. But the Lapp doesn’t ride the reindeer, he’s is a tug-of-war with the reindeer. When the lasso sweeps down over the reindeer, that is about to be disciplined the fight strats. The lasso is several fathoms long, but the animal darts off and stretch the rope, then keeping a steady grip, following the reindeer and steadily shortening the rope is what matters. The captured reindeer thinks it is fighting for its life as if the wolf had it in its claws. Its eyes are wild and the thong hangs out. Man and reindeer falls down, they struggle in the snow above and below each other. The Lapp has lost his hat long ago and his long hair sticks to his sweaty face, and the hair of the reindeer flies around in torn off tufts. Both the Lapp and the reindeer groan, but they don’t scold each other, neither of them can afford it.

At long last  they are standing up in front of each other trembling after the furious fight watching each other’s slightest movement. Then the reindeer tries once again to escape, but the lasso is still in its place – and by the lasso the Lapp is fastened. There’s no way out – no way what so ever. The reideer id tired. The Lapp can draw the animal behind him even though it still capers. Naturally, a reindeer isn’t broken in after this fight alone, but the worst wildness has gone. And when it has been hitched after tame reindeer a few times you can come so close to it that you can train it to the packsaddle.

A move is always decided by the reindeer – either an area is grazed off or ice and snow prevents the animals from finding food.

Then the camp is moved to a new area where conditions are supposed to be better. The day we move there’s lots to do. Some go out to gather the herd and catch the draught reindeer. While that goes on the women are in a hurry packing up everything and sharpening the burdens. When the snow is not to be trusted we move with the draught reindeer. Everything must be prepared when the animals arrive because they cannot be kept waiting. The strength of the reindeer is very limited and they must eat and rest at certain hours that must not be passed. If a reindeer is overexerted to the point of exhaustion it dies in a few days. It is very harsh during a move with starved and overexerted animals to hitch off a fallen reindeer and leave it. It may be a beloved tame draught reindeer who cannot go any longer. It get up and staggers along after the others. The owner clenches his teeth – the two will never see each other again.

But when people and animals are cheerful and strong, then moving is an enjoyable experience, although a certain anxiety is preent in everybody – they know what’s at stake. The grown ups have enough to take care of – children and dogs get in the way. The dogs understand and keep away. The children don’t. They seldom see the reindeer and the presence of the herd exaggerates their activities. The bigger children walk around carefully marking the features of the animals and note who in the family they belong to, and with a lasso they try to catch the most domesticated. But they are stopped in their eagerness. Whatever you say, to the reindeer the lasso is an unpleasant experience and it cerates anxiety in the herd. The small children practice their best calling out to the dogs: ‘ci gouv huh!’. The dogs, however, do not listen to small children’s command words. But the grown-ups do. The children are hushed with a strong reprimand. The Lapps on the whole cannot stand unnecessary noise and commotion around themselves – perhaps this is due to the fear in the past of being spotted by robber bands.

Now everything is ready for moving, the last thing to do is loosening the tent canvass. It slides stiffly, rigid and sooty, down from the support of the ‘kåta’ and is swiftly folded in along its traditional folds. The tent rods are gathered in two bundles and placed, one on each side of the last draught reindeer, dragging along on the ground. It is always the same reindeer that carries the bars and it takes large turns around any obstacle while looking behind to see that everything is in order.

Off goes the ‘raid’, the long line of draught reindeer that carry everything the nomad owns, his personal estate, his house and small children. The last rods from the floor are placed on the abandoned hearth. When they have burnt out there is only a small round spot left of the Lapp’s home.

The moving is rapidly, ‘ the Lapp knows that darkness and mischief may soon come’. And he doesn’t want to be the last, ‘on him the evil falls.’

Such a moving in the early autumn brands itself for ever on the memory. We wandered to Paradise on top of the earth in the desolated high mountains. Beneath us a fire of colours. Down in the woods the trees stood like gold in blood. The sun followed us low fire red above the blue mountains at the horiziont.

The Lapps dress up when they move like this. The long rows of humans and reindeer are glooming in red. The large sky and the wide space tunes the colours to the purest harmony. And then there is the silence – a silence that stands as invisible columns into the sky. Lapps and reindeer walks soundlessly, we can hardly hear the steady creaking from the tendon in the reindeer’s legs. We are all silent. It may happen that one of the women slowly sings a verse from a psalm. The she holds her tongue. And the ‘raids’ are winding upwards in smooth lines. The sun has gone down but we walk in a sea of fire clouds. Then comes darkness. The fire clouds have die away and the stars appear, at the horizont the northern light starts to flash. So much beauty is almost impossible for a mortal to grasp. It is no wonder that the Lapps are deeply religious – they live so close to the heavenly sky. Their daily life nonetheless is hard enough.

There are no halcyon days for the reindeer’s herdsman – or a lapp dog. If the reindeer are nervous, catch the scent of wolves or storm advancing, the reindeer are like flying birds. The herdsmen and the dogs must run miles before they manage to gather and calm the animals. And the harder the weather, the harder the herding. The summer is short and not to be trusted. I have experienced frost and abundant snowfall in July. And even if the summer may be mild, the rest of the year is a battle with weather and terrain, fog, storms, snow and ice, darkness and biting frost.

The richest Lapp is he who toils the most. Feeble persons and the elderly just cannot look after the reindeer. Only young and swift legs can travel the dangerous tarrain. If the grassing is bad then the herdsmen and the dogs need to be unbelievably swift and diligent to keep the animals off the lands of other Lapps and away from the peasants’ small scattered haystacks. Even though such a trifle of hay looks rather unkempt, there is still enough for the peasants to demand indemnification from the Lapps.

Yet it must be admitted that reindeer husbandry can deteriorate in vast areas. When this goes on for several years, the Lapps are always accused of laziness. If the case was thoroughly investigated it would probably become apparent that there were other reasons for the distress. The people of the mountains are suppressed and harassed from all sides by laws and decrees. One deprives them of their lands but still thinks that they can sustain the nomadism and make the desolated mountains profitable. Their capacity to exploit the mountains it the reason why they are not totally squeezed to death as reindeer nomads. But one makes the people poor and poverty may weaken its character – even ours. One reproaches them of their drunkenness and because the trade with tourists. But is it so strange that Lapps without means, who have no reindeer to look after, tries to earn some cash from selling trifles to the tourists? And that a Lapp get drunk when on a summers day he is in the vicinity of a village, is hardly something to blame him for. At home he never drinks.

The people of the mountains are much criticized. Naturally they like others are no angels. Envy flowers by them as well as us. The quest for the limited grassing areas is too harsh and that is why their internal relations are often tense. Neighbour will grass off each other’s districts. And a Lapp who comes with many animals and finds the grassing spoiled by another man’s herd will see his reindeer die and in a short while he may sink down to live by a lake doing some miserable fishing or get a small allowance.

This is often the tragic backdrop for every small Lapp community visited by tourists.

The nomads are a hard-pressed people. In prehistory they travelled freely all over the northern part of Scandinavia. But they were always taxed. In the Middle Ages tax collectors went to Lapland to obtain the high-priced hides for the elegant furs of the Herrenvolk. And their old legends tell about brutal gangs of robber plundering and killing both Lapps and reindeer – ruoššacuddi they are called in the legends. And about the man-eating Scandinavian Stalo there are innumerable stories. Later the Lapps got rid of the robbers, but then came the regulations of the borders and in later days the disastrous restrictions of their freedom, their lands and their herds. Add to this that still today the Lapp is despised – and he knows it – and what’s more he feels he is treated unjustly. There is more status in being a common miner – organized and living in a sedentary community – than in being a ‘free son of the mountains’. Is it to be wondered at that the young Lapps seek employment in the mines when they no longer have reindeer, that is, no future in their own field. Bur who knows the nomads? Nobody! The Lapps live in great isolation. Hey are an outstanding race and neither peasants nor Herrenvolk want any real collaboration with them. Even of the mountain people dress and speak like those surrounding them, even if they adapt to their daily life, they will never be admitted among the settled. And the Lapps know. Their self esteem they can only live out among their own in the wild and among the reindeer. But when they come down from the high mountains into heavy air and meet the heftier people, they crumble, become insecure and lowly. He who approaches a unknown door and knocks doesn’t have the same confidence as he who shouts ‘Come in!’.

To the peasant there is a feeling of security in being a freeholder, to have a home of his own even if it is poor. It increases the feeling of being superior to have a ‘castle’, a place where you rule and feel protected. The Lapp has no castle, he is barely allowed to build a house like the others. When he takes down his tent and pack it for the moving, then he is homeless. He lives nowhere. He appears and disappears we know not where. In the eyes of the peasants he belongs to the layabouts.

When I lived with them, I became myself so much of a Lapp that I felt this inferiority in relation to the settled, although we only visited poor peasants. When we stood there after a trek with our bundles and many dogs out in the weather for some reason seeking accommodation on the farm, then there was not much self-esteem left. Yet, we were most often welcome since in our bundles we had excellent foodstuff for preparing a feast – a meal of meat and fat with a strong soup is a rarity among the peasant who mostly survive on sour milk, bread and a little fish.

The Lapps become isolated also because among them they speak a language others don’t understand. This always creates mistrust and a feeling of something mystic. Until lately, moreover, the Lapps were accused of sorcery. Old people will remember this even if today’s youth on both sides are laughing at old superstition. It’s important too that we do not befriend those to whom we do injustice. In their dealings with the Lapps, the peasants are always right. That’s the law.

The Lapps are like game, which prefers to hide, but when they venture to come forward they attract attention. Then they draw fire. Their critics give them hell.

Although the nomads’ life is tedious and difficult, they have their pleasures too. The young are young with few worries. The greatest happiness are the reindeer. ‘Renlykke’, Reindeer luck is a word with a deep meaning among the Lapps. They collect reindeer as we collect money. And their living fortune is their perpetual joy and they take a greater aesthetical pleasure in their animals than we take in looking at our savings book. The sight of a large reindeer herd on the move is a religious revelation so stupefying that we are silenced by it. It is also difficult for a Lapp to slaughter reindeer for the market. ‘Meat production’ is disagreeable to the nomad’s mind. In old times one would rather hunger a little than slaughter enough for the household. The Lapps love their animals more than peasants their cattle. They sing for the reindeer: ‘Silk breast, silk breast you rush like a sunbeam’. The Lapp’s way of singing, the jojk, is something completely different from what we understanding by song. A child got a vuoleh – a few words and a simple tune to go with them. That song escorted the whole life. If somebody wanted to speak about a person then one didn’t need to say the name singing the tune was enough for everybody to know who it was. You would jojk about everything: there were songs of slander, love songs, songs to the wolf, to the snow: ‘white snow – star flake’. The young man could jojk to his girlfriend: ‘living gold, living gold!’. In the old days the herdsmen would jojk in the night when they sat by each other while the reindeer rested. They taught each other melodies and collected new ones. And older Lapps at home in the tent (kota) often sang in the night.

Then the Lapps grew silent, old Christianity was merciless to ‘the pagan jojk’. The priests took the song from the mountain people, with which they expressed all movements in their souls. Now they sing what they have learnt in school.

In spite of everything that has changed the Lapps are nevertheless a remnant of prehistory – a lonely people in the North.
— *–

 [2] Georg August Wallin’s time in Egypt, where is view upon Arabs and Egyptians was formed, has been described by Sofia Häggman in her book Alldeles Hemlikt, Helsingfors 2011::411ff. Charlotta Hillerdal has touched upon the vicar’s wife, Adeleide Schantz, in People in Between, Uppsala 2009:185ff, and Laura Bohannon, has described her study of the Tiv in several books and articles. Her essay Sheakespeare in the Bush can be found at


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