The other day I caught the final episode of ‘Arctic: with Bruce Parry’ on SBS. I had missed the first part of the series, but in this episode, the intrepid Bruce spent some time with a group of Sámi people in Norway. Sámi (or Saami) are the indigenous people of Sápmi, which covers the portions of Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Russian Kola Peninsula that are within and around the Arctic circle. Sámi are semi-nomadic and many still pursue customary livelihoods, including their well-known reindeer-herding traditions. Of course, what with modern politics and global warming, the Sámi’s traditions and lifestyles are under threat, as has happened with most indigenous cultures around the world.
So Bruce headed off to live with a reindeer-herding family and find out how their lifestyles are changing. Despite maintaining many of their traditions and customs (the old matriarch still wore her full traditional costume), many other parts of their lives had kept up with modern technologies – they herded reindeer in helicopters and on snowmobiles, got about in fairly sturdy subzero adventure-wear, and even used a ferry to herd the deer across a particular river because a bridge and town had been built at their usual crossing place.
While I watched Bruce frolic in the snow with his new family of (very attractive) Sámi brothers, I found myself thinking about adaptation. Here was a prime example of a Homo indigenous species adapting to ‘modern’, westernised society. They didn’t let the ‘new’ world conquer them and phase them out of the history books. They didn’t simply give up the life they had followed for centuries, move to the city, get a 9-5 job and play with iGadgets. They preserved their traditions, worked out what modern society could offer them, took the benefits and got on with their traditional life.
Now, for the cynics among you, it’s possible a little bit of the story had been romanticised for television, but there is still a grain of Truth there. I imagine it would have been very easy for the Sámi to give up reindeer-herding once urban development and modern political and legal systems began making things difficult. But they didn’t. They adapted and dealt with the new problems as best they could, so they could maintain their Identity.
Similar adaptations have happened elsewhere in the world, including Inuits in Canada or Native Americans, traditional farming cultures in India or Bedouin tribes in Africa and the Middle East. These people find it possible to maintain the aspects of their culture that form their main identity, yet still take advantage of modern developments that can benefit their lifestyles.
So, if it is possible for humans to adapt in this manner, why do Homo digitalis, Homo industrialis or Homo economicus find it so hard to adapt in the opposite direction? Why do ‘westernised’ humans react so desperately against talk of peak oil, global warming and wind farms? How can these humans remotely conquer indigenous lands via development applications, legal manipulations and political permits, yet take umbrage when asked to change their habits by turning off some light switches or ceasing to manufacture redundant plastic junk?
These indigenous cultures that show such ability to adapt are the same cultures that have been persecuted for being ‘primitive’ or ‘underdeveloped’ for centuries. Yet they are still here, in this age of nanotechnology, space travel and terabytes – they have adapted and survived, while still keeping their ancient traditions and lifestyles alive. If industrialisation failed tomorrow, they probably wouldn’t notice. ‘Developed’ humans, on the other hand, swinging off the umbilical cord of Convenience and Entitlement, would be in quite a pickle.
© Manu Saunders 2012