Arctic’s indigenous head home after a historic climate agreement

PARIS — The Sami people believe that nature is only a borrowed commodity, and that it should be passed on to the next generation in the same state as it was received.

As the world warms due to greenhouse gas emissions, these 80,000 or so indigenous Arctic dwellers, who are dependent on fishing, hunting, reindeer herding and agriculture for survival, see changes in weather conditions in the High North disrupting their lives — and their right to pass along the world unchanged.

A group of Sami activists travelled to Paris earlier this month, clamoring to make their voices heard at the international climate summit known as COP21. And now they are heading home to a future that feels as fragile and uncertain as ever.

There, the Sami joined forces with activists from developing countries, indigenous peoples and small island states, the people most vulnerable to climate change. Together, they have been pushing world to reach a historic agreement.

Though 195 countries did agree to limit overall global warming to “well under 2 degrees Celsius,” the Sami and other threatened groups felt shut out of much of the conversation.

“We are here because we need to put pressure on these people and make it clear that we are still here, and we demand what is rightfully ours,” said 24-year-old Sami activist Sarakka, one of the Sami who traveled to Paris for the conference. “But, at the same time, it is a fact that we are separate from COP21, and cannot be part of their agreements if they do not include us,” she said.

Now, as they return home to the Arctic, the Sami know the hard work is just beginning for the world to live up to the commitments made at COP21, and ultimately to save the Sami’s  way of life.

Norwegian photographer Camilla Andersen, who has been documenting the lives of Sami people for nearly two years, spent time with the Sami who journeyed to Paris as a GroundTruth climate change reporting fellow. These are some of the images she captured.


Sarakka, 24, is a Sami from Norway. She joined a protest in Paris to include the rights of indigenous people, including the Sami. “In Paris I have met indigenous people from all around the globe who are crying out, shattered, and struggling for their lives. We are the first ones to go if the climate crisis keeps rising,” Sarakka says.


The Sami intended to drive a bus from Sweden to Paris until security tightened after the terror attacks on November 13. After the incident, some Sami were too afraid to travel to France, choosing instead to march in the climate protests in England. But others were still determined to attend the Paris talks.


Sarakka prepares for a day at the climate talks in Paris. Sarakka and her Sami friends took pride in wearing their traditional dress, called gákti, to represent their heritage in France. Sarakka’s father is from Finnmark, the ancestral Sami lands in the northern part of the country, but she grew up in her mother’s native Oslo. Now she lives in northern Sweden, working as an actress in Sami political theater.


Sami youths rally at a demonstration to support the inclusion of indigenous rights in the Paris climate agreement. The Sami were afraid of further violence after last month’s attacks in Paris, and they were concerned when the marches they’d planned on attending were cancelled after France declared a state of emergency. “It was difficult. But we are happy with what we’ve achieved,” says Max, center. “We’re really quite numerous and well represented here.”


Juvva, 26, brushes his teeth in the kitchen as he prepares for a long day in Paris. The Sami gákti, or traditional costume, which can be worn both for ceremonies and while herding reindeer. Men and women wear different colors, patterns, and accessories.


While in Paris, four Sami activists stayed in one bedroom of an apartment together. “As an indigenous person, you have an extra weight to carry, because you base so much of your life on nature, earth, land and water,” Sarakka says.


Sarakka takes a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower. This was her first visit to Paris.


Anne Karen, a Sami from Norway, asks for directions outside the Paris metro. She grew up in a family of reindeer herders in Norway’s far north, and she is fascinated by other cultures.


Although Sarakka’s father is Sami, her mother is not, and Sarakka finds herself balancing between these identities. “I see myself as an activist just by being and living as I do—just the fact that I am from a minority group, and carry a very traditional Sami name, and have two cultures, two mother tongues,” Sarakka says.


Sina Brown-Davis greets Sarakka after handing over a symbolic stone. The stone was an integral part of Run for Your Life, a relay race that began in Kiruna, northern Sweden, and aims to focus on Mother Nature in today’s industrialized society. The stone was handed from one runner to another, including thousands of people running thousands of kilometers all the way from the Arctic area of Sweden to Paris.


National policies from the 1880s to the 1960s left a scar on the Sami culture and history that is still visible today. In the name of «assimilation,» the government forbade the use of Sami language and sent Sami children to Norwegian boarding schools far from their parents. The Sami today struggle to maintain a distinct identity in an increasingly modern world.


“Lapland, it is our people who fall through the melting ice, our reindeer that are unable to graze as well in the winter, and our youth who care about the future,” Sarakka says. “But at the same time I am hopeful, of course—after seeing all the activism, love and spirit here. The power of the people!”