If you tried to find Sápmi on a map, you wouldn't. I suppose that fact summarizes a lot of the trouble I run into when trying to explain my journeys to the Arctic Circle and my dissertation research to curious friends. You see, there is power in names and in language, and when an aggressive, dominant culture expands into the territory of indigenous lands, one of the easiest ways to posture that dominance (aside from the oft-used method of brutal genocide) is to rename the valleys, rivers, and mountains; to call the land by new words making those who lived there before feel foreign in their own home. If I told you that Sápmi was the indigenous name for Lapland, you still might not know how to locate it on an atlas, but perhaps you would imagine reindeer, and snow, and you might even feel a sense of mystery or magic around the place. Most people discover the Sámi people by learning first of Lapland. For me, it was the other way around.
I became interested in Sámi culture a few years ago when I was researching (my favorite pastime as a PhD student) different divination methods around the world. I had a hunch that, somehow, cultural attitudes toward divination were directly related to cultural attitudes toward environmental sustainability. And, unlike most people who have occasional curiosities about obscure concepts only to let them go and get back to real life, I decided to write a dissertation about this hunch.
Divination is generally defined as “the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means”. As someone who spent the last decade of my life studying astrology (both as a practitioner and as a scholar) I have always wondered, what’s the point? If we can’t tell the future, then why do we incessantly seek answers in the stars, or a deck of tarot cards, or a casting of sticks or stones? If we can tell the future, what good does this knowledge provide? These questions have burned in my heart and soul for years and despite college degrees, professional expertise, personal experience, and deeply spiritual instinct, I still have no idea. But it has become clear to me that the future is actually not what matters. Divination, though a practice that appears to seek answers about the future, is an entirely present-moment endeavor. And, although it is a mysterious practice that we can’t understand from a scientific methodological mindset, it is by no means supernatural. Quite the opposite actually, divination is one of the most natural ways that humans engage with the more-than-human world and, more importantly, with the divine.
I’ve personally practiced divination methods like astrology, tarot, runes, the i-ching. I’ve researched from afar the African system of Ifá, Tibetan Mo, Malagasy Sikidy, and Peruvian bone throwing. I’ve been amazed at the fact that nearly every culture in the world has some indigenous form of divination and that they all utilize basic materials from the natural environment. The connection between divination and ecology is real, even if I’m only just beginning to understand the nature of that connection and what it means for us today.
Despite all of my divinatory explorations it wasn’t until a trip to Iceland sparked particular interest in arctic culture that I discovered the Sámi drum. Seeing an image of the drum for the first time was like recalling a vision from a dream and when I learned of its historical use as a divination method, you could say I fell in love. But it’s obscurity seemed insurmountable for my research project and I did my best to avoid admitting that I was in fact going to write a dissertation about a divinatory method that was no longer in practice, that had a sordid history of suffering and loss, that was a huge part of the cultural heritage of an indigenous community with whom I had no obvious ancestral ties and who happened to inhabit one of the most remote (and cold!) corners of our globe.
Fast-forward six months and I find myself stepping off a bus in Jokkmokk, Sweden, a few miles north of the Arctic Circle to visit the Sámi Winter Market and hopefully to ‘divine’ a way forward with my dissertation. My desire to visit Sápmi, rather than just to read the countless essays and books written by foreign scholars, historians, and priests about the Sámi and their drums, was fueled by an awareness of the subtle power plays at work when outsiders study and make assumptions about indigenous cultures. I didn’t want to be an armchair anthropologist. But I am also not really an anthropologist at all. I am a historian, a philosopher, a student of world religions and mythology, and I am also a diviner.
As with any culture the Sámi people are diverse and unique; there is no one way to be a Sámi. What would conservative Sámi think of an American woman asking questions about one of the more controversial aspects of their cultural heritage? Would anyone talk to me? How was I supposed to get the information I needed to write a document that required verifiable research and accurate descriptions of cultural phenomena while remaining open to the perspectives of the individual Sámi I would meet? A theory starts with an answer. A divination starts with a question. I knew I would have to divine my way through this process by listening to the messages in the natural world, by observing trees and rocks and northern lights, by waiting for the right moment to ask a question, and most importantly, by trusting in the people who provided the answers.
I am currently preparing for my third trip to Sápmi. My first two trips provided me with a lay of the land, some wonderful connections, and countless life-changing experiences. As I learned after years of divinatory practice that the future is not always what we are seeking answers about, but that more often than not we are seeking relief, connection, and validation in the present, I have discovered during my trips to Sápmi that the past does not define us either. The Sámi drum is a relic, one that many contemporary Sámi regard with cautionary respect, but as an artifact of Sámi history it represents a moment in time when everything changed. Personally, I feel great concern about the future. I was blessed with a Sun-Jupiter conjunction at birth (which means I am predisposed toward optimism and faith) but I feel fear about the state of humanity and the global climate in the twenty-first century. If ever there was a time where it felt like everything could change, it’s now.
In my continued research of the Sámi people, their history, and their beautiful drums, I am careful to listen more than I talk and to learn more than I think; but at some point a bit of conviction is needed. My conviction is this: the world has a lot to learn from the Sámi people about ecological sustainability, about cultural heritage, and about perseverance in the face of calamitous change. Indigenous cultures are sometimes hesitant to speak loudly or share their views; an understandable side-effect of generations of oppression and discrimination. But I’m committed to patiently sitting in a lavvu with a cup of coffee and waiting for the answers to come, to questions that I haven’t really asked. That’s when you know you’re in the presence of a really gifted diviner; when they know what you are seeking before you do.