Cover Image: The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow

The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow

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Meticulously researched, vividly descriptive and beautifully written, The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow: The Forced Displacement of the Northern Sámi by Elin Anna Labba (translated by Fiona Graham) is a powerful read.

The award-winning author, whose grandparents were among the sirdolaččat (“the displaced”) paints an intimate portrait of the Bággojohtin,-the forced displacement of the Indigenous Sámi community between 1919 to the 1930s. The author states that approximately three hundred people were displaced during this period and the displacements continued even until the 1950s in Sweden as people were moved from one herding community to another.

Traditionally, the Sámi reindeer herding community divided their time between the Norwegian coast in the summers and then migrated inland to their winter pastures in Sweden. The Reindeer Grazing Conventions of 1919 signed between Sweden and Norway restricted the number of reindeer crossing the border, which marked the beginning of the displacement of the community for whom reindeer herding was their way of life. The Norwegian government wanted the land for agriculture and more importantly, wanted a country for Norwegian citizens and they viewed the Sámi as “a red rag to the Norwegian state” whom they believed didn’t belong despite having lived there for generations.

Considered a “burden on the country” and “a race on its way to extinction”, the community not only lost their land and homes, many were continuously displaced for years on end, forcibly separated from their extended families and those they left behind and their herd and made to settle on land where they had to struggle for their livelihood and were subjected to discrimination and humiliating “racial- biology examinations”. Children were stripped of their names, language and heritage, and sent to boarding schools where the main goal was assimilation. With the Lapp Bailiffs appointed to oversee the deportations, the Sami had no say in the matter, their appeals falling on deaf ears. Though financial incentives were offered, they were barely enough to sustain families who lost loved ones and large numbers of their herds en route to their appointed destinations. Those unwilling to move were coerced, fined, forcibly removed and threatened with slaughter of their herd if they did not comply.

The author not only shares her experiences from her travels to the land that was once home to her ancestors but also explores her own connection to the same and how a history of displacement and loss impacts the generations that follow. The author draws from several sources - through personal accounts from families and their descendants, pictures, joiks (traditional songs) and poetry as well as archival documents, and newspaper articles, in giving a voice to her people and sharing their history with readers across the globe. This is an insightful, emotional and heart-wrenching book that sends a strong message, emphasizing how important it is to preserve and share the stories of those who came before us and have been ignored and deliberately erased from history books, so that they are not forgotten.

Many thanks to the University of Minnesota Press for the digital review copy via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.

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The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow gave me deep insight into the Sami people's history, which is unsettling to read. When the Northern countries of Sweden and Norway wanted firm boundary lines, the Sami were no longer allowed to cross country borders to take their reindeer herds to their traditional winter and summer lands. The reindeer herds caused damage to the farmer's crops.

The Sami were considered to be inferior in culture and as humans. The name Lapps came from a slur referring to their poverty. The governments instituted policies that limited where the Sami could live and how many reindeer they could own. Families were forced to move without regard to community and family connections, regardless if the new land was familiar or useful to reindeer herding, uncaring if these policies impoverished the Sami whose wealth was their herds.

Elin Anna Labba uses interviews, documents, photographs and the stories of specific people and families in her heart breaking history. It is an all too familiar story of indigenous people at the mercy of governmental powers who devalue their way of life, view them as lesser humans, instituting laws that amount to the destruction of a people and their culture. Most of the Sami endeavored to follow the laws, their appeals rejected. Pregnant women and small children were unspared, forced to walk to their assigned locations. They were measured, photographed naked, to prove their inferiority. Assimilation was forced with bans on speaking their language while they were also banned from moving into houses. No one defended their rights.

The time after that is a vacuum. They never wanted to talk about it. Now I know that my family is not the only one like this; the Sapmi where I grew up is full of people who have bound their wounds with silence.
from The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow by Elin Anna Labba

This is a deeply personal book for Labba who had family members displaced by these laws. "We remember those whose story we retell," Labba writes. "This is the joik I sing for you."

Thanks to the publisher for a free book.

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Haunting, and heartwarming, The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow spoke to me in a way that no other book has. Relaying such stories of grief, and endurance, and relocation, it resonated with my own family history of struggle in a way that surprised me, and helped lay to rest some of the grief I didn't know I had carried through my own generations.
To see another's pain, and to know how deep that wound must have went, and to not shy away from its impact, is a gift that Elin Anna Labba has given to her people. That she has, in some way, also given to us and our own stories of heartbreak and resilience.
That their stories are not lost to a world that did not think they deserved a voice in the first place is a powerful tribute, and one to be proud of.
What a gift. What a memoriam. I salute the beauty and dedication that was brought to their stories, and that brought their stories to us.

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What a powerful book! This describes the forced relocation many northern Sámi had to undertake in the beginning of the 1920s. The reindeer herding people lived with the seasons, in different parts of Scandinavia, parts that are now Norway, Sweden and Finland. For Norway it was not desirable anymore to have this seasonal migration going on, so they prohibited the people from entering Norway and relocated them to parts of Sweden, with force and a low amount of money to help them. The promised area was often already populated or an obviously less nice area to live. The authorities said the reindeer damage the landscape too much, that more space was needed for agriculture. But from stories and documents it is clear they found the Northern Sámi not fitting in their idea of a modern Norway. In Sweden it also wasn't easy for the Sámi. Reading all this, you realise that these people really had no place to go where they were welcome and valued. Ofcourse you see this pattern with many indigenous people all over the world. And most of it is hushed up, erased from history books.

That's why this book is a gem. It's filled with personal stories, wonderful photography, poems and joiks (Sámi traditional "songs", often addressed to nature). It's wonderfully written and captivating until the end.

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First, FYI that the Kindle version of the download was terribly formatted so as to be almost unreadable. I switched to the NetGalley app in order to read it - hopefully the Kindle formatting issues are resolved.

I know almost nothing about the Sami peoples from Northern Scandinavia. I knew there had been forced displacements, but only a vague high-level idea of it. This book explores the history of the authors family and many others, and is told through archive images and documents as well as numerous interviews and collected stories and letters. It gives the history of forced displacements in the 1920s through the stories of individuals who lived through it and experienced it, and the recollections of their descendants. An important addition to First Nations history and literature available in English, for all of us to learn more about the history, politics, and current struggles.

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In the year 1919, Sweden and Norway agreed on a reindeer grazing convention that proposed to limit the number of reindeer allowed to cross the border. This convention also insidiously determined the number of people to be displaced from their homes on the Atlantic seaboard. The Sámi people represented an Indigenous group inhabiting large northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and of the Kola Peninsula in Russia from time immemorial. Their existence was governed by the Lapp Codicil which acknowledged the Sámi as a separate people with rights over the land and the right to fish, hunt, and herd reindeer.

The Swedish-Norwegian convention commenced a brutal forced displacement of the people who had nurtured a precocious bond with their land and nature, a bond that made them indistinguishable from their environment. This forced displacement, termed Bággojohtin or Sirdolaččat, in Sámi terms, resulted in a heart-rending migration of entire families with disastrous and intended consequences.

Elin Anna Labba (or in Northern Sami: Joná Gusttu Elin Ánná), a Sámi author and journalist and multiple prize-winning authors describes in a poignant and plangent manner, the forced migration of the Sámi in The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow. Based on interviews conducted with people having experienced the perils of forced deportation and drawing on records maintained by the ‘Lapp Bailiffs’ (designated authorities possessing the wanton power – but no accountability – to decide and determine the locations to which families should be deported), Anna Labba weaves together a mournful jeremiad of helplessness and injustice.

Forced to abandon their goahtis (hut or tent of three types of covering: fabric, peat moss or timber) and haul all their meagre belongings over distances making up hundreds of miles, the Sámi lose people and reindeer on the way to both the vagaries of nature and the exertions on the body. Those who manage to reach their allocated designations face scorn and ostracism from the more ‘modern’ inhabitants occupying the new land. The Sámi children are mocked at school, called names, and accused of bringing lice into the classroom.

Sámi people forced to migrate to Norway were at the receiving end of what professor of cultural studies Ivar Björklund, terms, Social Darwinism. Viewed as archaic and medieval, “they were regarded as people who had nothing to do with us, as foreign nationals with a culture that was dying out. It was thought to be just a question of time until they disappeared anyway. Quite simply they correspond to all the ideas about ‘the other,’ people who are different from us, who we want to distance ourselves from.”

The Sámi people have been passing down from generation to generation, the chanting song that has survived the test of time. Popularly known as ‘joiking,’ some of the oldest joiks we know today were recorded by priests and missionaries in the 1700s and 1800s. But as one of the Sámi migrants Inggá Biette experienced, there was barely any joiking at all since the migration. In the haunting words of Anna Labba, “Its as if the words catch in his throat or the wind cannot carry them. He’ll joik only when he meets someone from back home or when there’s no one to hear.”

The Sámi are also humiliatingly subjected repeated ‘racial biology’ examinations prior, and subsequent to their forced relocation. They are photographed from the front and in profile. “Naked, serious faced and with their mouths closed.” Protesting Sámi are either fined outrageous sums of money which can only be produced by either selling or slaughtering reindeers or as Biito Biera experienced firsthand, issued dire threats of being forcibly herded south by other reindeer herders. The expenses to be incurred in conducting this heinous threat would need to be borne by Biito Biera, the individual threated to be displaced!

A Sámi says that the downy birch does not break in two; it merely bends. One bears one’s hurt alone for breaking down does not make life more easy or expedient. The grieving person’s tears should fall unseen on her shawl. This resilient philosophy forms the cornerstone of the word – birget -surviving and coping. “Each year the reindeer must survive the winter: that is what matters, not people’s feelings.”

The tears of Ándom Ovllá and Ristiinná, Gusttu Bierar and Marja', Márggu Ántte Jouná, Nilsa and Gustu Inggá, and a thousand others were silently spilling their stories on weathered and worn-out shawls. However, such stories should not be allowed to die. They cannot be ignored as forgotten relics of a neglected history. Anna Labba does a monumental job in bringing to the attention of an oblivious world, a tapestry of precious shawls that joik in their own beautiful and inimitable manner, the treacheries, teachings, and tales of life.

(The Rocks Will Echo Our Sorrow: The Forced Displacement of The Northern Sami is published by University of Minnesota Press, and will be available on sale beginning 2nd April, 2024)

Thank You, Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy!

#TheRocksWillEchoOurSorrow #NetGalley

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This is an untold part of Scandinavian history.
The Sami people are native to Scandinavia and have for centuries led a nomadic lifestyle. Reindeers migrate and the Sami with them. From 1920 onwards the Sami people have been forced to relocate, to leave their land, lifestyle, and often part of their families behind. Legal documents ordering people to relocate were written in Norwegian and Swedish, later translated to Finnish, which is a language that many of the Sami spoke, but we need to remember that many have never been to school. In other words, they had no clue of what was going on and had no real possibility to fight back. They have received compensation from The Lapp Authority - 300-500 Swedish kronor but was that enough, has everyone received it?
Then for decades these people and their descendands were silent. However, recently there have been court cases between Sami reindeer herding communities and the Norwegian state in which the Sami are fighting for the right to the old reindeer pastures. In Sweden families whose ancestors were established there before the relocations have sued the descendants of incomers. Is that fair?

The book touches on important subject but does not go deep enough. Where does this resentment towards the Sami people come from? There are documents, photographs of the Sami from the past, and letters included in this book, which adds a stronger and more personal note. The author gives the voice to the Sami people, it´s their story told by them. Unfortunately, this is not giving the reader the whole picture. The could be more analysis and more context as to why the forced relocations have happened and what are the social consequences today. All the important questions and matters seem to be only vaguely signaled, but not explained.

This is a fragment that is a bit confusing:
"Certain words crop out again and again in documents and quotations (...). Incapable. Disorderly. Primitive. A people in need of assistance, for their own good. (...) There are new regulations prohibiting Sami people from moving into houses or modernizing their goahtis too much. Allow them too much comfort, and they might be tempted to abandon their nomadic way of life. There are bans on speaking their own language. Nomad schools. Assimilation."
So the author says somewhere at the beginning of the book that as nationalism is developing and as Sweden and Norway wanted to be countries for the Swedish and the Norwegians, they wanted to have a homogenous society there was no place for nomads who had a different lifestyle, culture and language. So it only seems logical to assimilate them, to make them stay in one place and teach them another language, different culture etc. Instead, no one wanted them but at the same time forbid them from assimilation. The authorities said don´t be a nomad but be? That approach seems to be confusing.

Anyway, this story is certainly interesting, but it yet requires a more in-depth approach.

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A powerful and moving account of a topic not well known to American readers. I really enjoyed it and we will be ordering this title for our Indigenous Peoples Spotlight Collection. Thanks for the opportunity to read this.

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