Last winter Chris and I visited one of my dream locations–Tromsø, Norway. Chris previously traveled to Scandinavian cities above the Arctic Circle for work, but this was my first time experiencing a place so northern! My main goals for this trip included experiencing Sami culture (the indigenous people in this region), see the Northern Lights, and wander the beautiful island of Tromsøya. It truly is an absolutely breathtaking place to visit and so unique to any location I’ve traveled. I couldn’t wait to see (and let’s be real, taste) all the recommendations made by our Norwegian friends here in Hungary. I am so thankful to be a part of such a diverse and friendly international community.
My motto for the trip was proclaiming “Queen in the North” whenever I conquered a particular snow drift, hike, found brown cheese at the market (called Brunost) or honestly whenever I felt like yelling out loud about whatever thing I was giving me joy at the moment (coffee, reindeer, frozen lakes, etc).
Located 350 kilometres (217 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is chilly during the winter; in December, when we visited, the temperature averages just below freezing during the day. I was nervous about keeping warm during all of our outdoor adventures while also staying on budget. My solution was to visit the thrift store in our small town and buy all the legwarmers, wool socks, and bulky sweaters I could find. I even lucked out with the best thrift store find ever–heavy duty wool military legwarmers for less than $1! I also was able to borrow a pair of badass winter boots from a friend (thanks Meryl!).
We also decided to stay at the Clarion Edge Hotel in the city center, which I recommend. The space was nice and included breakfast and free coffee throughout the day. For us, the extra cost of hotel vs. apartment was worth it for the Clarion breakfast offered each day. With the worst combination of food allergies between us–I don’t eat meat and Chris avoids dairy and eggs–breakfast can be a challenge. Hotel Scandinavian breakfast each day is where.its.at. For me, the combination of Vaffler (heart-shaped waffles), strawberry jam, and Brunost is the best way to start your day.
Where are we?
One of the largest cities in Northern Norway, Tromsø (or Romsa, in Northern Sami) is the third largest urban area north of the Arctic Circle. A majority of the city is located on the island of Tromsøya and is surrounded by mountains, fjords, and beautiful water. This gives the illusion of isolation even though around 80,000 people live here.
This area has been inhabited since the end of the Ice Age. Norse and Sami people were some of the first groups to live here. I read about the Sami people in my first Political Science course–and this course was also the reason I majored in Political Science–at the College of Charleston (shout out to Political Ecology with Dr. Watson). My introduction to the struggle of Indigenous groups against forced assimilation and increasing development truly changed my course of study, my research, and inspired me to become a better advocate.
I’m going to take a little time to talk about the Sami people and their culture:
Sami people live in a region named Sapmí, which extends from the Russian Kola Pennisula to Norway; one of the oldest group of people to inhabit this area (roughly 3,500 years), today Sami people live across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Like many Indigenous people, the Sami are closely connected to their environment: up until the 1600s, most lived as fishermen, gatherers, and hunters, and, probably most famously, reindeer herders across the area. Dominant cultures in Scandinavia have historically used discriminatory and abusive practices against the Sami in an effort to end their way of life and forcibly take land for the country’s economic benefit.
The Sami have never been a single community, resided in a exclusive region, or spoken the same language (there are nine different ones) which has made their forced assimilation by a number of governments easier to implement. Originally semi-nomadic, they moved in groups to different settlements as they hunted, fished, and herded reindeer.
Nordic kingdoms in the 18th century began forcefully seizing Sapmí land due to the area’s natural resources and strategic harbors. This, coupled with a Christian movement at the same time, resulted in a brutal infringement of Sami culture, land, and way of life. From 1850-forward, Sami people were forced to “Norwegianize” –learn the language and ways of Norwegian people while sacrificing their own.
This push to Norwegianize the Sami people stemmed from a nationalistic movement in the country. Many people (including the government) saw the Sami people as “other” and a barrier to a modern Norway. The forced assimilation of Sami people was needed, it was argued, because this group of people were “backward” and in need of “civilizing”. This “civilizing” even included forced sterilization in 1934 and as more economic development thrived in the north, a preference for Norwegian language caused further damage to Sami culture.
This preference was institutionalized from 1900-1940, when the effort to eradicate Sami way of life was at its height. Sami people were dislocated in the 1920s when the government required both a Norwegian name and knowledge of the language in order to buy or lease lands for agriculture. The 1913 Native Act Land gave the best land to Norwegian settlers, further displacing the Sami.
This forced assimilation greatly affected the culture of the Sami. As generations of Sami children were taken to missionary schools and laws implemented to deny Sami rights, their language, culture, and way of life is still struggling to recover. In 1990 they were officially recognized as an Indigenous People in Norway, a distinction which also included special protection and rights. The 1970’s saw a revitilization of Sami culture in Tromsø and there is currently a Sami kindergarten, language classes in schools, and university signs include Sami translations as well.
While now a protected indigenous group, the Sami still experience discrimination following years of cultural assimilation. Environmental threats are also an enormous concern as mining, oil exploration, and tourism threaten their way of life.
Climate change has particularly affected Sami reindeer herders near Tromsø. Temperature increases and a warmer climate has decreased snow cover and made winter grazing more difficult to move the reindeer effectively. While reindeer herding may not be the most profitable economically, it is important to remember the cultural and environmental values of the practice. Currently, 10% of Sami are connected to reindeer herding and this practice is legally reserved only for Sami people in Norway.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. Due to its location and landscape, this region is incredibly sensitive to many aspects of climate change. Rapid warming has severely affected plants and animals, which has drastic effects on the local ecosystem. A loss of sea ice due to increasing atmospheric and oceanic temperatures has altered the nutrients in the water, the thickness of ice, and ecosystem structures.
I highly, highly recommend visiting Tromsø. The city and area are beautiful and it is one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen in person. The city is also a great “home base” for a number of Arctic day trips and activities; we were able to visit a Sami reindeer camp and also see the Northern Lights, but there are a ton of options available!
Pictures here do not do ANY kind of justice to the breathtaking views on the island.
Main Walking Street & Square:
Telegrafbukta (Southern Beach):
Prestvannet (Báhpajávri in Northern Sami):
Tromsø Sami / Arctic Reindeer:
Restaurants & Pubs:
Raketten Bar & Pølse:
Agenturet Øl og Vinbar:
Currently: Reading: Girl, Woman, Other (Bernardine Evaristo) Watching: Never Have I Ever (Netflix) Listening: The New Abnormal (The Strokes)