This contamination poses serious threats not only to the health and economic well-being of Sami people, but to their political strength and to a Sami cultural identity bound by material and symbolic connections between humans and reindeer. The Sami case makes painfully clear that in trying to assess the effects of a major nuclear accident like Chernobyl, we are confronted not only with technical problems of measuring radioactivity levels, charting fallout patterns, and assessing risk factors, but also with the need to understand the interrelated global, national, regional and local community contexts - much too briefly suggested here.
Even those Sami least affected by the fallout itself are affected by changing relations between a Sami minority and Scandinavian welfare state bureaucracies, by tensions and misunderstandings between Sami groups with very different experiences of radioactivity, by long-term threats to a Sami reindeer economy increasingly dependent on an outside market. It is only on the basis of a many-leveled understanding of complex threats to Sami people in the aftermath of Chernobyl that we can begin to consider practical attempts to counter both immediate and long-term dangers.
While direct contact with contaminated air last spring was not seen as posing immediate dangers to human health, the concentration of radioactivity in plants and animals that feed on them posed serious problems of widespread contamination of food - milk, sheep and cows, fish, wild game, berries and especially reindeer. Lichen, the main reindeer grazing food, is a biologically remarkable "radioactive sponge.
The absorption of the major Chernobyl pollutant, cesium with a half-life of 30 years , by the slow-growing northern lichen has meant serious long-term contamination of many northern Scandinavian pasturelands and of the deer grazing them. In some areas, deer are many times more radioactive than is considered safe for domestic consumption or is legally allowable for market sale.
Scientists express a cautious hope that in the most contaminated areas of central Sweden and Norway radioactivity levels will drop to "safe" levels in 20 to 30 years. A bequerel is a new unit of radioactive measurement, representing one nuclear disintegration per second. These differences are important, but they appear less striking in comparison to contamination levels in the hardest hit areas of central Sweden and Norway.
Contamination levels gradually decrease to the north. Reindeer pastures in Finland were affected only very slightly by Chernobyl fallout and there are no restrictions on the sale of Finnish deer. There is little scientific agreement about potential long-term dangers to Sami health drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated foods. There is already some - much debated - evidence of increased incidence of leukemia and stomach cancer among Sami as a result of eating radioactive deer meat, contaminated in the s from atmospheric nuclear testing in the Soviet Union.
Analysts stress, however, the extreme difficulty of isolating dietary risk factors from other "lifestyle risks," especially in a population as small as the Sami's generally estimated to be between 70, and , The crucial point here is that there is neither any agreed-upon "safe" level of radioactive exposure nor any consensus on potential health dangers.
The uncertainty of "risk assessments" on the basis of partial and conflicting information has beset Sami from the first harrowing weeks last summer when news of extensive Chernobyl contamination first appeared. Sami homes were inundated with a flood of contamination of pastures and reindeer, and various scientific and government guidelines for responding to the disaster. There were newspaper articles, television and radio programs with widely varying information about "safe" levels of radioactive consumption, usually scaled down for pregnant women and children.
Some families kept three separate food compartments in their freezer sheds - relatively uncontaminated reindeer meat bought from outside for the children, moderately contaminated meat for the middle-aged, and the most radioactive deer for the old people. Bequerel became a household word, though there was much misinformation about what radioactivity is and how it spreads. People feared seeing radioactive surveillance helicopters landing near their homes, in places where children may have just been playing.
Rumors spread about unimaginably high bequerel levels requiring the immediate slaughter of whole herds; others predicted the birth of genetic monstrosities during the coming spring's calving period. Some pregnant women sought abortions; others agonized over the future of their children. I began to think of our deer and who would be affected by their loss - not just my man and my children, but our old parents and other relatives dependent on people in the reindeer work. Then the Sami doing handicrafts and those in the reindeer administration and the teachers at the Sami school and the people at the Sami cultural center.
The webs of people I knew just got wider and more tangled, and my heart grew heavier and heavier. Herders' immediate, most easily articulated fears centered on simple economic survival in a business with no market for its products. In early August, the Swedish and Norwegian governments promised to compensate herders for deer they could not sell legally. At this time there were a few mass slaughters of deer which were piled in mounds and pushed by tractors into large pits by those who feared that state compensation would be only a temporary measure.
However, both Swedish and Norwegian governments continued to promise that compensation programs would be maintained for as long as it took for herding to return to "normal" and counseled herders to go back to work and continue to slaughter deer "as usual. In practice, this meant that slaughtered deer, normally staple food on the tables of Sami families or luxury food on northern European tables, now were bought by the state.
Meat was dyed blue to mark it unfit for human consumption and sold as fodder for fox and mink in northern fur-breeding farms, or simply buried in large pits - essentially nuclear waste disposal sites - in uninhabited areas. Sami herders began to face the everyday difficulties of going about "work as usual" in a transformed world, in order to maintain their herds for an uncertain future.
The situation of Scandinavia's native Sami minority is in certain important respects very different from that of many indigenous peoples, whose physical survival is threatened by the neglect or outright hostility of national governments.
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No Sami family in the modern Scandinavian welfare state fear starvation as a result of Chernobyl contamination of its herds. But present threats to Sami culture are serious and far-reaching, even if sometimes difficult to apprehend and untangle. People in the most contaminated areas express feelings of profound dislocation, a sense that "things have split apart" in the aftermath of Chernobyl in ways that go far beyond the immediate sense of economic threats. We know that the work of our hands just ends in animals being thrown into the ground.
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But the only ways we know how to handle the deer are the careful ways our fathers taught us and that we hope to teach our children. So we pretend and we hope. What else can we do 7 This is the life I know. It seems sometimes that things have become strange and make-believe. You see with your eyes the same mountains and lakes, the same herds, but you know there is something dangerous, something invisible, that can harm your children, that you can't see or touch or smell. Your hands keep doing the work, but your head worries about the future. Nora-Marie Bransfjell, a teacher at the South Sami school in Snasa, wonders how the inner lives of children are fragmented by fears of contamination in the environment and worries about an uncertain future.
When the children returned to school in September, they spoke only of "bequerels". They asked each other, "Did you eat fish from the lakes before you knew?
Did you walk in the rain last spring? My father bought it in the north, so it has only bequerels. A nine-year-old girl replied.
You know it's real, but far away. You can't see it, and you try not to think of it coming to you and your family. This is not just a matter of economic, but of who we are, how we live, how we are connected to our deer and each other.
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Now we must buy everything. Thread, material, food, shoes are now all different things, when they used to be parts of one thing. She speaks of the central importance to South Sami culture of traditions surrounding niestti, the taking of provisions from one's own herd. Our men care for the deer and know them. When deer are slaughtered, it is done with respect. We women know how to care for the meat, to use every bit, the blood, the head, even the feet in soup. We know how to make thread from sinew and how to prepare the skin and furs for clothing and shoes.
The work of our hands puts food on our tables and clothing on our backs. We give our food to our guests and send dried meat to our children when they are away in school. Even if there comes a time when we can eat the deer again, it may be too late to pass the knowledge of how to take and use niestti on to our children. No food from the new world. No potato, tomato, strawberries.
Almost everyone eats onions. Your harvest goes to those in charge. And forget being in charge of anything like the boiling water person - where do they think they will find the time to create the infrastructure? The water sources will be valuable and defended. Without standard tools.
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Or materials. Forget plastics, and most glass and metals. Or this multi-step process, if you do land in AD get down to al-Andalus, learn Arabic, stock up on citrus, get on a boat heading east, and look for Avicenna , because he may well be a time-traveller too. Searching, always searching, for that one ring. Ash from Evil Dead also made a robot hand with medieval tools. If you can do that, then yeah, gunpowder should be trivial.
I would appear as an alien god to them. The question made it to kottke. I sent this question to the always wise Prof. Cowen after reading a chapter about the middle ages in a History book. I realized that everything I know is just useless outside my era. Perhaps someone smarter than me should write a book about this, but some commenters are already pointing to some existing books. Overally, it is an interesting exercise to realize how helpless we would be in spite of our superior knowledge and intelectual skills. It is interesting to see how the comments in kottke.
This is just about the most awesome comment thread ever.