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Poem / Dwelling


Like smoky spirals, two cultures weave together in a SAPIENS contest-winning poem by an anthropologist who worked with Sámi reindeer herders in the Arctic Circle.
Sámi reindeer herders

Deep in the Arctic Circle, in the far north of Scandinavia, people belonging to the Sámi ethnic group herd reindeer. Nowadays only a minority of Sámi people still follow this way of life, which is becoming increasingly hard due to government policies and anthropogenic climate change.

As part of a project called Reindeer Husbandry in a Globalizing North, a young Sámi interpreter and I spent the summer months of 2016 driving around Norway’s northernmost county, formerly known as Finnmark: home to the majority of the nation’s reindeer herders. Our fieldwork aimed to understand how the changing Arctic environment will affect reindeer husbandry, how the herders are adapting to these changes, and how people in these increasingly marginalized communities work together. The events recounted in this poem occurred after an interview on an August evening.

Yoik - Listen


Pressed along the lip of the lávvu, our bodies were rocks around a fire pit. [1] A tent constructed around a tripod of forked poles. The structure is used, among other things, as a temporary dwelling or a place to smoke meat.
Tarpaulin crinkled under our shuffling. Smoke overhead curled
into the pinnacle of this conical tent, tonguing a hunk of reindeer leg
hung from the forked poles, freshly slaughtered for a herder’s birthday.

The herders of this siida passed a knife, its bearer standing to carve [2] A community of reindeer-herding households working together, traditionally based around kinship and tied to customary rights to land. Membership of a siida can be seasonal: People might belong to different groups during different times of the year as they follow their herds.
chunks of meat and sear them in the fire’s lick. Though the daylight beyond
our tent wouldn’t melt during this Arctic summer, in our cocoon they drank for the darkness,
tossing back moonshine and cranberry until safe enough to hand me, an intruder, the knife.

Sapling birch hissed steam, its freshness dampening the flames. To reignite it,
said the youngest man, picture a love as you blow on the logs.
I hunched, cheek to floor, and sighed. The fire roared back. Who is she,
the herders teased, making these embers growl like a wolverine? Whose spirit had I conjured,

my breath sounding out a silent yoik: [3] yoik (or joik): Sámi song, called luohti or juoiggus in the Northern Sámi language.
a song of lyric and yodel, chant and trance, yearning for places and people,
not merely stoking memories but calling them from elsewhere: enchantment,
akin to a spell, kindling that which you love, and potent when sung onto flame.

This was my yoik: an ex whose cancer spread as spring destroys a snowscape;
a pal whose alcoholic heart would soon halt, becoming tranquil as the fjords;
a divorcée whose incandescence was fire enough to never need warmth again.
These basins of attraction summon me back, echoing through the latitudes,
evoking a home I left, expecting to build elsewhere but lost along the way.

Gwynfryn Thomas

Gwynfryn Thomas is an anthropologist working in the nonprofit sector in London. He is also a columnist, with Djuke Veldhuis, for SAPIENS. His poems have appeared in Haque, Pomegranate, SAPIENS, and Vocal Solo. Follow him on Twitter @matthewgthomas.


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