She writes with her heart in Sápmi

The Inuits of Greenland and the Sami of Finland, Norway and Sweden are the Indigenous people of the Nordic Countries. On the occasion of the International Day of the World´s Indigenous People, on 9 August, UNRIC chose to interview two indigenous individuals who have recently attracted attention for different reasons. Here, we speak to Sami writer Ann-Helén Laestadius.

Read also: Greenland: the unexpected Netflix-star.

There is a special rock in Nedre Soppero by the Lainio-river in Kiruna, Sweden. Ann-Helén Laestadius recounts how she uses to stand there and look over the waterfalls. And that is where they came to her; Agnes, Maja and all the other characters in her books. Ann-Helén Laestadius, 50, is a journalist and former member of the Swedish government´s reading campaign committee. She is also an award-winning Sami writer, whose works have been translated into around 20 foreign languages.

”I often write about Sami identity, on the right to identify yourself and the strength you find in Sami society.  I have a strong sense of what is right and wrong, and I am driven towards injustice and getting justice done. And often that doesn’t work out and writing literature is then a good outlet for me. That is where I can let my frustrations loose and put a finger on what is unacceptable.”

The Sami’s historical homeland is called Sápmi and covers areas of today’s Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The area within those states, however, is not well defined due to lacking historical sources.

Book of the year 2021

‘SMS från Soppero’, a novel for teenagers, published 15 years ago, was Ann-Helén Laestadius’ debut. After a handful of beloved teenage novels, her first novel for adults ‘Stolen’ was published last year. It was voted book of the year 2021 in Sweden. In 2023 the follow-up novel ‘Punishment’ is scheduled.  Ann-Helén Laestadius returns to her roots in Kiruna and Norrbotten in her books, but she wants to show the world that the Sami are more than reindeer herders and people who speak the Sami language.

”There was much more prejudice when I published my first books. I think people know more now, so when I look into the future it is in a more positive light. But there is a lot that people don’t know. When ‘Stolen’ was published many people got in touch and were totally shocked by the daily racism and hatred of Samis that exists.”

Segregated schools for nomads

A map where the northern parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia are marked as the Sapmi area.
The Sápmi area, the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Photo: Rogper, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

It is difficult to estimate the population of Sápmi, the Sami´s historical heartland. The Sami information centre estimates the number to be around 80,000. Of that figure, 50 to 60,000 live in Norway, 20 to 40,000 in Sweden and there are around 8,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia. The Sami are one of the world’s indigenous peoples, a population who has lived in the same area for several thousand years. No one knows where they originally came from.

Sami history at times comes across as dark. When mandatory schooling was introduced in the middle of the 19th century, specific nomadic schools were created for the children of reindeer herders. Many consider the outcome a sort of devastating segregation. Ann-Helén Laestadius is one of them.

“People must be aware of the dark history to understand why things are the way they are today. There was and indeed is a certain vision of the Sami. It is based on the fact that the state only considered the reindeer herders as Sami. Children were forced to attend nomadic schools and thus families were separated. In addition, the reindeer herders were forcibly removed from their land. Much of this is explained by the fact that the Sami were considered inferior human beings.”

A need to talk about the darkness

Today the Sami are recognised as indigenous peoples and a national minority in Sweden. This recognition gives the Sami rights, but they are not always complied with. The Sami must fight on several levels: to stop the mining and forestry activities that threaten the pasture of their reindeers, as well as to struggle to get education for their children in Sami. This is exhausting.

Laestadius in traditional Sami clothing standing against a wall
Ann-Helén Laestadius often wears the traditional Sami clothing when appearing in public. It makes her feel nice and safe. Photo: Ahlanderagency/Thron Ullberg.

“I am not an activist, I am a writer hoping to arouse emotions in others. In my opinion, it is important to talk about the darkness, the silence in Sápmi is dangerous. We would have been able to save many lives had we been more open, had we talked about mental health issues and been courageous enough to ask each other for help.”

Culture is incredibly important and more efficient in spreading knowledge and improving the situation of the Sami than any politician in the Sami parliament or a publication or brochure, Ann-Helén Laestadius says. Her own writing journey started with a diary when she was around six years old. She wrote long narratives on her own typewriter in middle- and high school. Later she studied to be a journalist and has written for, among others, Svenska Dagbladet and Aftonbladet.

“When my first book was published in 2007 I had to spend a lot of time explaining what constitutes a Sami during school talks. There was a lot of prejudice and expectations that the Sami were people with reindeers who spoke Sami. Today, I think there is much more knowledge and I think it is due to culture in general.”

Strong roots

Ann-Helén Laestadius says her home is in Nedre Soppero and Silkimuotka, but also in Kiruna where she grew up with a Sami mother and a father from Tornedalen in Northern Finland. As a child she didn´t learn the Sami language. She has mixed feelings on this, but she attended language courses as she grew older and she now understands quite a lot of Sami but doesn´t consider her level good enough to speak. She has lived in Solna north of Stockholm for over 20 years with her husband and son. She describes her roots as ”very strong”, primal, and turns to them for the energy to feel happy, write books and manage to continue to live in the south.

”The places travel with me, in my heart. But for the books to be written, I have to go home and stand on my rock along the Lainio-river. That is when the characters and stories come to me. It is important for me to emphasise that what matters is my nucleus, what I have carried with me since childhood.”

She writes her yoik

Ann-Helén´s surname, Laestadius, is derived from her kinship to the brother of Lars Levi Laestadius, a well-known priest, botanist, writer and founder of the Laestadianism in the early 1800s.

”Yes, it is a bit strange to have these two sides,” says Ann-Helén Laestadius. ”On the one side the Sami, an on  the other a preacher helping researchers of races to get hold of Sami skulls. I am not a laestadianist myself and I find it hard to sympathize with this kind of a religious cult. One day I will surely write about it.”

Ann-Helén Laestadius says that her literary work is her yoik, her Sámi folk song, her way to narrate and transmit her heritage and history. She likes to practice a circular narrative, something that is very present in the Sami culture, in the yoik.

When she is interviewed or appears in public as an author, she often dresses in the traditional Sami garb, Gakti.

”It is because I feel comfortable and secure in my garb. There is no message in it, it is just me, it is who I am.”

View over lake with trees and mountains.
Panorama over Treriksröset, the place where Norway, Sweden and Finland meet. This picture looking west over lake Kolttajärvi. Photo: Eldrichr/

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is celebrated annually on 9 August. This year the focus is on the role of indigenous women in the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge. 

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