I’d gone from a balmy +30 degree Celsius at my home in Nairobi, Kenya to -20 in northern Sweden. My feet, covered only in thick socks, were warming beside a roaring fire. Later on I’d go to grab my boots to put them back on and find they were frozen to the thick reindeer pelts I was sitting on.
I could see my breath inside the lavvu, the traditional tepee of the Sami people, as it climbed, together with the fire’s smoke, to escape into the frigid air through a small hole in the roof.
The fire hissed and popped and I was mesmerized. I was north of the Arctic Circle and had just finished feeding a small group of reindeer their favourite treat- fresh lichen.
Now I was sitting beside my host Anna, a traditional Sami reindeer herder, as she vividly described her culture including how much discrimination the Sami have suffered and continue to suffer.
I was in northern Sweden for the Jokkmokk market, a market that’s been held for 400+ years to celebrate Sami culture. The Sami are one of the world’s oldest nomadic cultures.
As I listened with rapt attention (which is saying a lot given the temperature) Anna unfolded her people’s story of discrimination and triumph, and described various generations of her people from the lost generation to the forgotten generation, and now her generation, the fighting generation.
As she so warmly welcomed our small group into her world I’d later reflect on lessons I learned about how to learn from watching her, a natural and supremely gifted educator, in action. Her stories made me wonder, among other things, about power and privilege.
Based on my time with Anna and on something that happened then, here’s some simple advice of what to do when you’re in the presence of people who’ve experienced generations of discrimination and oppression*:
- Listen: simply be quiet and listen.
- Be curious; have an open mind and be curious.
- Be attentive; pay attention to what’s being said, what’s not being said and how it’s being said.
- Seek; seek out more learning. For example ask questions if you feel it’s the right time and place.
Conversely here is my number one suggestion for what not do:
- Speak over / speak instead: don’t interrupt, don’t speak over, don’t hog the stage, and don’t take up too much space or time especially on a topic that the person you’re listening to knows more than you. Essentially don’t mansplain (even if you’re a women).
I say this because there was a very uncomfortable situation during our time with Anna. Let me explain. Sami follow Shamanic beliefs. It just so happened that one person, who was not Sami, had been studying Shamanism. This person took it upon herself to talk a lot about her beliefs. She took up a lot of time and space.
I alternated between being acutely uncomfortable with a person who wasn’t Sami, a person who was there to learn about Sami culture, hog the floor so to speak with watching Anna handle the situation with grace. It felt to me like Ms. Chatty was perpetuating the oppression of Sami people.
Later on, after traditional Sami sacred singing (called Joiking) and with our bellies full of homemade everything reindeer – tongue, mince, sausage, pickled slabs and reindeer rib stew, Anna’s husband drove my partner and I into the frigid night, back to our car.
A traditional reindeer herder who can recognize 300 individual reindeer marks,** he hadn’t said much during the evening. During our drive back I asked him whether he’d like his young children to carry on the tradition and become reindeer herders themselves. He seemed wistful and said he wasn’t sure. He loved his traditions but it was a hard way to make a living he said.
I thought to myself, if only people could listen more, stories like this and Anna’s could fill our imagination and our world with the way things could be. Lots to learn there. I’m still and always will be learning.
Want to learn more? I’m thrilled to announce that Anna will be speaking at our March 22nd, monthly Learning and Development Roundtable. More info here (including how to join in online or in person).
* All people have experienced discrimination (e.g. based on gender, race, age ability etc.), some definitely more than others. These suggestions are based on if you’re in the presence of people who’ve experienced more discrimination than you.
** Sami individuals have their own unique marks to tell their reindeer apart. Anna has her own mark, as does her husband and their two young children.