Her Culture Was Suppressed for Centuries. Now It Powers Her Best Seller.
Two days after Christmas, Ann-Helén Laestadius found herself being gently pummeled by reindeer.
Taking advantage of the bluish glow that passes for daylight in Sweden’s far north at that time of year, she had left her parents’ cozy kitchen and driven to the corral where her cousin keeps his herd during winter. She was there for a photo shoot, but first, she had to help feed the animals, extracting half-frozen tufts of lichen from a mesh sack as the reindeer jostled her impatiently. Even after a close brush with the pointy end of an antler, she looked on them indulgently.
“For the Sámi,” Laestadius said, referring to the Indigenous group of which she is a member, “Reindeer are not just animals. They are life.”
That lesson is at the heart of her novel, “Stolen,” which comes out in English from Scribner on Jan. 31. It explains why the book’s Sámi characters perceive the killing of their reindeer as a crime not against their property, but against their people as a whole. And thanks to the book’s success, it is also a lesson that Sweden, whose colonization of the Sámi has been long and oppressive, may slowly be learning.
An Indigenous people, the Sámi, who number around 80,000, inhabit a vast territory that stretches across the Arctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. For centuries, their language and culture have been forcibly suppressed by national governments that also stripped their land rights and developed industries that threatened the habitats on which their livelihoods and culture depend.
To this day, the Sámi are engaged in legal and political struggles to protect their lands from mineral and timber extraction, and their herding routes from energy projects. And although the Nordic countries are widely perceived, both abroad and at home, as progressive and egalitarian, many of the Sámi who live within their borders say they remain targets of discrimination, racism and — through their reindeer — violence.
A case in point: After the Swedish Supreme Court in 2020 granted the Sámi the exclusive right to manage hunting and fishing rights in the area of Girjas Samby, near the Norwegian border, reindeer killings (which had long plagued the community), increased markedly. It was an expression, many Sámi believe, of anger among local Swedes who resented losing their hunting rights to a people they had long denigrated. “They kill our reindeer,” Laestadius said, “because they can’t kill us.”
Born to a Sámi mother and a father who is Tornedalian, another of Sweden’s ethnic minorities, Laestadius, 51, grew up outside Kiruna, a mining city 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Early in life, she began internalizing shame about her identity, she said. Her mother spoke Sámi with her parents and neighbors, but would switch to Swedish whenever she went into the city.
“It made me automatically start to think something is wrong,” Laestadius said of her mother’s code-switching. “We are something wrong.”
That sense grew stronger once she started school, she said, and faced bullying and rejection from the non-Sámi children. “I started to realize that I should be quiet about who I am.”
In her twenties, Laestadius moved to Stockholm where she worked as a crime reporter for several Swedish newspapers. But gradually, as both a journalist and then an author of young adult books, she began looking back at the world in which she had grown up. Her first book, published in 2007, was about a 13-year-old girl secretly studying the Sámi language.
“Stolen,” her first adult novel, also begins with a young Sámi girl. Elsa is 9 years old when she witnesses the malicious killing of her reindeer calf. As she grows up, the trauma of that moment, coupled with other brutalities — ostracizing at school, a friend’s suicide, a police force unable or unwilling to investigate the ongoing reindeer killings — transmutes into rage.
Laestadius carried around the idea for a novel for seven years, she said, but kept herself from writing it out of concern that she didn’t have the right to tell reindeer herders’ stories since she herself did not come from a herding family. But after two of her young cousins — brothers — killed themselves, she felt she could no longer avoid writing about the impact of imposed inferiority, she said.
“Suicide is something that every Sámi family has been through,” Laestadius said. “I wanted people to know; this is what happens when you treat people like this, when they get so much hatred.”
As she began talking to herders for research, her sense of urgency grew.
“Everybody told the same story,” she said. “I could feel their sorrow and their desperation.”
When a young herder gave her copies of a hundred reports of reindeer killings that had been filed with the police without any arrests being made, Laestadius had had enough: “I wrote this book with a lot of anger.”
She also wrote it with sensitivity and insight for the subtleties of Sámi life. From the pride that Elsa takes in her gákti — the traditional, ribbon-trimmed Sámi dress — to the embarrassing way that tourists gush over her, “Stolen” illuminates a culture that many in Sweden have long ignored or reviled. Sámi words dot the text — an intentional strategy for overcoming the shame that prevented her own mother from teaching her the language. “It is my sorrow that I don’t speak Sámi,” Laestadius said. “So it became even more important for me to have it in my books.”
Although “Stolen” is fiction, some Sámi have found it a welcome depiction of their reality — including the reindeer killings that many Sámi organizations are fighting to have classified as hate crimes. “Ann-Helén depicts nuances in the culture that I’m not sure non-Sámi would pick up on,” said Åsa Larsson Blind, vice president of the Sámi Council, an NGO that works to protect Sámi rights. “It’s quite an extraordinary talent that she can write a story about something that is quite specific to a small culture, but that is interesting to a wider audience.”
“Stolen” won Sweden’s reader-voted Book of the Year Prize in 2021, and is being adapted into a film for Netflix.
Laestadius is now part of a large community of Sámi artists, musicians and writers whose work contains political messages. “Within Sámi culture, artists have always been activists,” says Larsson. “It’s natural for them to express strong political statements through art, and it can be more powerful too, because people tend to be more open to art.”
In recent years, a number of Sámi artists, musicians, and writers have gained new attention and acclaim for their work within Nordic countries. Director Amanda Kernell’s film, “Sámi Blood,” took the top prize at the 2017 Gothenburg Film Festival. Mats Jonsson’s “When We Were Sámi,” which tracks the author’s attempt to reconcile his recently discovered Sámi ancestry with his Swedish identity, became, in 2021, the first graphic novel ever nominated for the August Prize, a prestigious literary award. Artist Maret Anne Sara’s moving piece of protest art, Pile O’Sápmi, crowns the entrance to Norway’s recently inaugurated National Museum in Oslo. The Nordic Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale was devoted entirely to Sámi artists.
In the eastern city of Umea, Krister Stoor, a professor of language studies who teaches “Stolen” as part of his university curriculum, has seen a major transformation in the local literary festival. “This year, there are so many Sámi authors,” he said. “Ten years ago you would have had a hard time finding one.”
Although the Church of Sweden has apologized for its role in repression against the Sámi — including by overseeing boarding schools that forcibly assimilated Sámi children — the Swedish government has not.
It is uncertain whether the recent outpouring of cultural energy and interest are affecting Swedish attitudes and policy, but there are signs of change. In December, the Swedish government agreed to return for burial the remains of 18 Sámi whose bodies had been used in the early 20th century in now-discredited race-based research, and it has promised to facilitate the repatriation of Sámi artifacts currently held in Swedish museums.
At least among some sectors of Swedish society, there is growing awareness of Sweden’s responsibility for the treatment of the Sámi. In a glowing review of “Stolen” for the newspaper Expressen, Gunilla Brodrej, a culture editor, expressed shame for once dismissing as unrealistic a television series that depicted the racism the Sámi face.
“In school, I, and even my children, learn that we Swedes have arranged everything in a very good way for the Sámi,” she said in an interview. “But when you read a book like this you realize that it’s a much darker story than we ever learned.”
Laestadius too has seen some impact. Local newspapers are covering the reindeer killings more frequently, and there are signs that authorities may be paying more attention to the cases. “Usually they never come,” she said of the police, with a wry grin. “But last summer when a reindeer was killed in a little village, they sent a helicopter.”
She is still angry, however, and she still has more to reveal. In February, her latest novel will come out in Sweden. It depicts the brutal conditions at the boarding schools Sámi children were sent to, and is based on her mother’s experience.
As the noontime sun began to set, Laestadius posed for a few more pictures in the snow-clad village where her “Stolen” is set.
“Now we have the opportunity and the power to tell our story,” she said. “It is ours to tell.”