A handful of miles north of the Arctic Circle, nestled in the heart of Sweden’s northernmost province of Lappland, lies the small village of Jokkmokk. Normally a quiet and isolated community, every first weekend of February the population explodes as thousands descend upon the village for the annual Jokkmokk Market —a tradition dating back more than 400 years. The Jokkmokk Market is a beacon of traditional Sami culture, filled with music, trade, and various hands on activities that celebrate the rich history and heritage of the Sami people. The Sami are the indigenous people of Sápmi, a region that spans across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Although most famous for their mastery of reindeer husbandry as a means of livelihood, the Sami people have a complex history and rich collection of customs as the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. While many Sami have integrated into the mainstream societies of their countries of residence, the Jokkmokk Market provides a valuable opportunity to view a preserved and vibrant picture of their fascinating and unique past.
As a student currently attending Umeå University in Sweden, I was lucky enough to be afforded a rare chance to witness this extraordinary cultural festival firsthand. My university organized a day trip for the many international students who were just as excited as I was for this once in a lifetime experience. Our journey began when approximately one hundred of us left Umeå on several buses at four in the morning, poised to arrive at Jokkmokk just in time for breakfast at nine. The bus ride was smooth, black, and seemingly very fast. Like any successful student, I have long mastered sleeping while seated upright and spent most of the traveling time peacefully unconscious.
The buses decided upon a short scenic break as we crossed the Arctic Circle, a latitude famous for documenting the southernmost threshold of the northern hemisphere which experiences polar days and polar nights—time spans of twenty-four hours of daylight and darkness, respectively. The threshold was designated by several large signs and a conventional tourist rest stop. Many students, myself included, jumped at the chance to get their picture taken next to a sign to document the ruggedness and otherworldliness of their journey. People prepared for their photographs by stripping off clothes in defiance of God or nature, a feat less impressive in light of the mild -4° Celsius temperature (~25° Fahrenheit). As we re turned to the bus and continued on the last leg of our adventure, a herd of reindeer wandering through the roadside forest outside the bus window elicited squeals and wide eyes from students eager to explore this foreign arctic world. We pulled into the village shortly after, where we would navigate traffic full of other buses, cars, and snowmobiles all eagerly finding their way towards the Jokkmokk Market.
Our experience started with a much appreciated free breakfast buffet at a local elementary school. Dreams of pancake mountains and maple syrup waterfalls quickly dissipated as I discovered the food to be of a more traditional Swedish persuasion. The buffet was a smörgåsbord supplied with thick rectangular knäckebröd and large amounts of sliced meats, cheeses, red and yellow jams and marmalades, caviar, yogurts, oatmeal, fruit, and an assortment of milks, juices, coffees, and teas. While somewhat unconventional by American standards, it proved very delicious in its own right. With some positive encouragement and shameless lying, I was even able to convince many of my international peers to experiment with Kalles Kaviar —to disastrous results.
Following the meal, students broke off into small groups and began to work their way through a labyrinth of canopies and tents endlessly stocked with fascinating and exotic goods. While a large amount of the merchants were Sami, many Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian traders had also made the journey for a chance to sell their wares. A wide spectrum of food was for sale, ranging from the very popular reindeer and elk meats, prepared as patties, jerky, or thick raw slabs, to baked goods and sweets in the forms of homemade breads, chocolate balls, and cookies. Furs, boots, shoes, and clothes were also abundantly available for purchase. For myself I bought a hand stitched woolen hat embroidered with a blue and yellow cross pattern and a pair of hand stitched gray gloves embroidered with a green, blue, yellow, and red pattern that represents the colors of the official Sami flag.
The narrow makeshift roads of the market overflowed with a diverse selection of old, young, international, and local patrons, making the navigation from merchant to merchant a sluggish process. Sleds were dragged and pushed to transport goods and small children. Reindeer were paraded through the crowd by Sami dressed in traditional garb and very open to friendly conversation or questions. The reindeer seemed another favorite photograph opportunity for many students to seize, taking pictures beside the surprisingly short and calm Christmas animals while rustling their fur or tickling their antlers. Small campfires were tucked away in between many of the tents where marshmallows for roasting and non-alcoholic glögg for drinking were very generously provided free of charge. After much shopping and exploration, eventually my student group found itself at the small frozen local lake just outside of town which provided a stage for the afternoon’s activities.
The main activities of the day included reindeer races, helicopter tours of the region’s natural beauty, and recreational dogsled rides. For a fee of 100 kronor— about 16 U.S. dollars—I received a brief taste of dog sledding alongside an international peer. Ten specially bred sled dogs lined up in harnessed pairs and dragged us along the ground at great velocities. At the back of our sled, a relic of wood and iron, a burly Swedish musher belted out orders from beneath his beard to help guide the dogs along a designated path. Sledding along the sinuous trail proved treacherous, quickly sliding back and forth on the slippery snow, particularly for me, having only the petite South Korean girl sitting in front of me to squeeze onto for support. Although lasting only a couple minutes, the exhilaration of the fast-paced frozen romp will remain with me for forever.
After participating, thanking and hugging our dogs, and taking several selfies with them, our day wound down as we returned to town for afternoon fika. A concept most international students have learned to love dearly, fika is a small break during the day in which you socialize with your peers while drinking coffee or tea and normally consuming some sort of sweet dessert. This fika was no different. We gorged upon pooled resources of taffy, cakes, and various other candies purchased during the day at the market.
As fika drew to a close, we returned to our buses and prepared for the journey home, again engulfed in the darkness of the north. Some students swapped anecdotes from their experiences while others slept, exhausted by such an overwhelming amount of activities and excitement. My thoughts retraced the enduring highlights of the day: the celebration of culture, the fostering of community, and the appreciation of the past. The Jokkmokk Market demonstrates that acceptance of a mainstream lifestyle does not demand deviation from tradition and, as such, it asserted itself as an incredibly educational and entertaining opportunity for insight into the history of the Sami people.
Durand, Mathilde. (2014, January 21). Suède 2014 [Photo Album]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.
“Jokkmokk’s Winter Market.” accessed February 20, 2014. http://www.jokkmokksmarknad.se/home/.