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.