Shahnaj Begum, PhD

Northern Culture and Well-being of the Older Population: A case study from Finnish and Swedish Lapland

Shahnaj Begum, PhD

Gender Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland


Abstract: In this study, I explore the culture of the north in Finnish and Swedish Lapland. I analyse the interconnection and importance of culture regarding the well-being of older people in this northern region. Both local and indigenous Sami people live in the northern parts of Finland and Sweden. They have a distinct culture related to their natural environments. They also have their traditional way of life, which carries their cultural identity. Transformation in the North is generating tension for the Northern culture. Cultural activities are affected by ongoing transformations in the north, which have different impacts on the ageing population in this region. In this regard, I examine the threats and challenges to the well-being of the older population. I explore these issues based on data I collected between 2012 and 2017 in Finnish and Swedish Lapland.

Keywords: Northern Culture, Finnish and Swedish Lapland, Older men and women, well-being and challanges

1. Introduction

Culture has a great impact on the well-being of the older population in the north. Over the last decade, discussion on the importance of the ageing population has increased, since it has become a demographic and economic challenge for the Nordic countries. A good number of older people live in the Northern region. Older people love to live close to nature and want to protect their own culture in the north. Consequently, northern culture plays an important role in the lives of the older population and in their health and well-being. They love to keep themselves active and alive within their own culture and identity for as long as they feel physically and mentally active.

In this paper, I will focus on what culture is and study the kind of culture that is practised in the North, which can be referred to as Northern culture. By Northern culture, I refer to the culture that is practised across the Finnish and Swedish parts of Lapland. I explore Northern culture and its importance to the older population. I investigate how northern culture is interconnected with the well-being of older people in Finnish and Swedish Lapland. Finally, I will explore how Northern culture can be promoted to ensure the well-being of the older population.

This study is based on relevant literature, interviews and observations, which I have collected from Lapland between 2012 and 2017. In this paper, I try to find and pinpoint the challenges concerning Northern culture. In the section below, I define culture and try to show the connection between culture and well-being, which will help to promote the well-being of the region’s older population in response to the challenges identified. This paper will contribute to increasing awareness of the importance of culture. It will also enhance understanding of the necessity to promote the well-being of the older population in response to the changes which the Northern region is undergoing.

2. Meaning of culture in relation to well-being

To accomplish the above-mentioned aims, it is necessary to know what culture is and what constitutes Northern culture. Culture includes the way a group of people lead their everyday lives in a specific manner: what kind of foods make up their diet; how they dress; what kind of traditional festivals they celebrate; what kind of ritual practices they participate in as part of their daily life; and which language they most often use to communicate in their community. All of these are considered to be parts of Northern culture. Therefore, culture includes a wide range of issues which are important for the well-being of an individual and specific group of people. Their natural, human built and social environments are also connected and can be counted as parts of culture too.

When referring to the natural environment in the North, it mainly includes fresh air, pure water, forestal land (Eales et al., 2008, p. 110; Plouffe and Kalache, 2010, p.734) and other resources that are connected with Northern people’s culture that have an impact on their physical and mental well-being. The human built environment includes man-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity. Housing, shops, green spaces, neighbourhoods, educational institutions and different services are considered as part of the human built environment (Eales et al., 2008, p. 111), and they have a great influence on cultural practices in the North. Finally, the social environment includes opportunities and information which uphold connections with family, friends and neighbours (Eales et al., 2008, p. 111; Bubolz and Sontag, 1993, pp. 422 - 448). These opportunities help the older population to be involved with local and cultural activities, which promote their health and well-being. Social gatherings and spiritual activities also form part of the social environment; these activities are treated as part of Northern culture. By ensuring the maintenance of local culture and physical, social and environmental sustainability, it is possible to protect the well-being of the region’s populations.

Culture is connected with and embedded within the well-being of the individual or specific groups in the North. In this research, this specific group includes both indigenous and local people in Finnish and Swedish Lapland. The definition or concept of well-being is a comprehensive issue and has been used extensively in various disciplines (Elina et al., 2016, p. 133). In general, well-being is the condition of the individual or group. It can be related to health, happiness, success and economic state or sustainability. The concept of well-being also works, in many cases, as a measure of social progress. Well-being is socially defined and is dependent on cultural and historical context. For the purpose of this paper, well-being refers to the sustainment of good physical and mental health and the life satisfaction of the older population in relation to culture. In the North, individuals’ well-being is connected with their culture, standard of living, socio-economic position, lifestyle and related environment. Consequently, the promotion of Northern culture directly or indirectly, strengthens the well-being of the population.

3. Importance of culture on the well-being of the older population in Lapland

The northern region has some distinctive characteristics, which include divergent climatic conditions and population dynamics, with the presence of indigenous and local people. The climate of Lapland includes mild summers and long cold snowy winters. It is considered as a well-developed region with high living standards and a good communication system. Lapland is very sparsely populated, and it is surrounded by green nature. Both indigenous and local people live in Lapland. They have traditional ways of earning their livelihoods.

It is relevant to know the criteria for indigenous people. Generally, it denotes any ethnic group who lives in its original location, practises a traditional culture and speaks a minority language. International law and national legislation specify that indigenous people will enjoy a set of specific rights. Those rights will be based on their historical relations to a specific region, and their cultural or historical uniqueness from other populations that are mainly politically dominant. In Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966), it is stated that:

“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language”.

The Sami are the only indigenous people, and a minority, residing in Finnish and Swedish Lapland. The Sami people are also located in the northern parts of Norway and Russia. Their population is approximately 70,000. About 10,000 years ago, the Sami people were the first people to settle in the northern regions of Fennoscandia. Culturally, in about 2000 BC, the Sami language, their livelihoods and their culture became distinctive. Based on their characteristics, the Sami people are treated as ‘Sea Sami’, ‘Forest Sami’ and ‘Reindeer-herding Sami’. It is important to mention that, in Finland, both Sami and non-Sami can do reindeer herding as traditional livelihood practices. In Sweden and Norway, only Sami people can be involved in herding work.

Like in all other countries, the population in the north is ageing. The number of people aged over 64 is higher in Swedish and Finnish Lapland, than those in the total population in that age group at large in these countries (Begum, 2018; Schumann, 2016). When I talk about northern culture and the well-being of the older population, it also includes older Sami people.

The northern population’s health and well-being are connected with traditional food and work. In Lapland, people were, and still are, involved in reindeer herding, fishing, farming, making handicrafts (Doudji), berry picking and forest work, which are all part of their traditional culture and provide them with their subsistence. These jobs also bear their cultural identity. They used to, and still, treat reindeer meat and different fish with potatoes and berries as their main foods. However, the availability of traditional food is not always guaranteed. Access to traditional food is sometimes difficult, and it is not always free from contamination. Grazing land and pastures are the basis for reindeer herding in the north, and loss of land is seen as the main challenge for such a livelihood (Magga et al., 2009).

Language is the other most important component for their culture. The Sami language is one of the key factors in keeping the Sami culture alive and was spelled out by the older populations from the Inari, Ivalo and Kautokeino regions in Finnish Lapland and from Jokkmokk. For the Sami people, the Sami language and their traditional dress have special meanings and values for their well-being and cultural identity. Handicrafts are also emblematic symbols for their culture. Traditional Sami handicrafts are handmade, and materials are collected mainly from nature (TSF, 2019)). There is a trademark for Sami Duodji products, which are reliable Sami handicrafts made by Sami people. It is difficult to control the misuse of their traditional products. The Sami council is attempting to protect their culture. It is possible to identify from Sami traditional costumes “where a person comes from with many other details” (Yle news, 2015).

The older population has played an important role in carrying on their old traditional culture. The respect which older people receive from the younger generation is important for their well-being. This gesture makes older people feel valued and worthy. Older people have asserted that with the combination of the sustainability of the natural, human built and social environments, it is possible to keep their northern culture alive.

In an indigenous community, older people are treated as custodians and holders of their culture. In the year 2013, in Sweden, because of recent mining activities, there were parallel political movements for the protection of the Sami cultural identity. In this context and for the existence of the Sami culture, the younger generation persistently emphasises the support they receive from the older population. On various social media platforms, during this movement, the importance of the older generation as transmitters of Sami culture was referred to repetitively by the younger generation. On another note, older people stressed that in the past they were more respected, compared to in the present day. They control the skills needed for the traditional subsistence work which they use to teach the younger generation. Older women were, and still are, carrying out the main roles of preparing food, providing family healthcare and maintaining a clean environment.

The gender dimension is mentionable in this regard. Older women frequently referred to and emphasised their ordinary life and cultural activities as being valuable. Most of the older women mentioned the importance of clean and beautiful surroundings, available services and religiousness to their well-being. Women have more coping and adaptive capacities to adjust to the transformation of their culture. Compared to men, women are eager to adapt and learn new things in their region.

Older people mentioned the importance of traditional festivals, which are connected with their well-being. The Jokkmokk Winter Market (Jokkmokksmarknad) in northern Sweden is the biggest indigenous Sami festival in Lapland. The festival publicly starts on the first Thursday of each February. This winter market remains the lead meeting place for Sami people across the entire Sami region. At this market, traditional products are available for sale, and these include handmade healing balms, dried mushrooms, jams, fur clothing and carvings. Feast food is prepared over open flames with traditional reindeer and moose meat, fish, root vegetables, herbs, berries and other local foods. The temperature expected during the winter market is usually below -30 degrees. One of the local and traditional Sami celebration days in northern Finland is called St. Mary’s day (Marian Päiva) and it is celebrated in Hetta, Enontekiö. It is an old Sami tradition. This event is part of northern culture, and the local Sami Culture Association organises activities and programmes for this cultural event.

In the following section, I discuss some obstacles and challenges to practising northern culture which affects the well-being of the older population in the north. I have gathered this knowledge from the real-life experiences of older people and from literature reviews.

4. Identifying challenges and the well-being of the older population.

Between 2012 and 2017, I had the chance to interview 47 older people from several places, such as from Rovaniemi, Inari, Ivalo, Hetta, Peltovuoma and Angeli villages in Finnish Lapland, and Tårnaby and Jokkmokk in Swedish Lapland. Every older man and woman whom I interviewed talked about the importance of environment and the importance of northern traditional culture in his or her life. They criticised the transformations that have happened in their region and the changes are still going on in the north. Among those referred to changes, climate change, environmental change, livelihood transformation, in- and out-migration and the changing position of women within their community were very common topics. Different development activities are ongoing in the north, for example, mining activities, tourism and other business, which directly and indirectly affect northern culture and the overall well-being of the northern population. Older populations are more affected by these transformations. I will discuss some issues/challenges which have an adverse impact on their culture in the paragraphs below:

a) Changing the untouched environment

The North was characterised as an untouched sparsely populated environment with pure and fresh air and water. Climate change is one of the main factors that directly and indirectly affects traditional northern culture. The knowledge gathered from both literature reviews and older people’s experiences identifies that several development activities took place, which polluted the fresh air and water and destroyed some of their traditional religious ritual places. Climate change creates opportunities to build new industries and mining activities in the northern environment. Older adults specifically mentioned the importance of fresh air and water for the well-being of the Sami community. Because of mining and industrial activities, they are concerned about protecting water from contamination, for example, that from Lake Inari and the Luleå River.

b) Changing food culture

In the north, traditional foods are the foundations of the nutritious diet that is part of the northern culture. Traditional food ensures a healthy life and the well-being of the northern populations. Traditional food has a vital role, especially for the well-being of the older population. Access to traditional food has been seen as part of northern culture and its cultural identity. Nevertheless, because of the impact of different development activities and climate change, the availability and accessibility of fresh and secure food has been affected. Climate change increases more access on sea ice, and as a result, to shipping routes, oil and gas exploration mining and tourism, which all affect herding and fishing arrangements, creating threats to food security and safety. Besides this, some national laws have also limited cultural rights. For example, the Finnish Fishing Act confines the fishing rights of the Sami people. By law, catching salmon is not allowed at any time during the year. But in a recent case, “Lapland's indigenous Sámi score victory in fishing dispute” (Sámi score victory, 2019), the judge gave a favourable decision for catching salmon in the Vetsijoki River during the restricted period. The judge said that catching salmon is the Sami people’s cultural right. There is enough salmon stock, and hence it will not create a deficiency in future fish supplies.

c) In- and out-migration

Over the last few decades, out-migration has been identified as a common trend and social problem in the north (Rasmussen, 2009). Because of modern job opportunities and higher-level studies, it is mainly the younger generation that is leaving the north. The north is already less populated and when the younger generation moves to the south or other countries, municipalities reduce their services and cut budgets. For example, many local schools, shops, post offices, public transportation and health centres have been closed. Because of fewer services, it is difficult to keep the northern communities alive and active. With the small amount of people, municipalities cannot earn enough taxes. As a result, providing services in the north becomes costly.

In the present situation, local authorities and municipalities are emphasising the privatisation of different services. Responsible authorities are reluctant to provide budgets for certain educational activities, such as teaching traditional handicrafts and the Sami language in schools. They demand budgets for teachers and new materials in schools. All older Sami people mentioned the importance of the Sami language, music, traditional food and dress for their overall well-being. Older Sami man from Inari referred to the fact that the nurses who come to visit them and give them care do not speak the Sami language. They expressed the view that the nurses should know the Sami language and their cultural values. A Sami woman who was staying in a nursing home also stated the same issues. She missed the traditional music and food, which are emblematic parts of her culture. She missed the forest and her own home where she lived previously.

Some older people also stated the importance of making their traditional Sami clothes, such as socks, by hand. The younger generation is a bit reluctant to learn the techniques for sewing or making those traditional socks and dresses. In both Finnish and Swedish Lapland, older people are afraid that one day their village will die without people. Frequently, young families settle in other cities, and they very seldom come to visit the older people. Older people expressed that, with a lack of job opportunities and institutions for higher studies, the younger generation is not staying in the north.

They also expressed their fear of losing their cultural identity because of the arrival of foreign origin population. In the region, in-migration also occurred because of new industries and mining activities. Those companies and industries are bringing cheap labour from outside the region. Most of the foreign people are not properly concerned with how to maintain a healthy environment, and instead, bring new food culture, life stele and other new habits which create challenges for northern traditional culture.

d) Changing position of gender

There is also a knowledge gap regarding the position of women in the Sami culture. Previously, when compared to other cultures, older Sami women had stronger and better positions in northern culture. In traditional Sami culture, older people have contributed to reindeer herding in different ways. Older women expressed very gloomily that most of the research is focused on male reindeer herders. Women’s contributions to traditional cultural activities are often not officially recognised.

e) Livelihood transformation

Over the last decade, tourism has become popular in this region, which, at a glance, seems to be gaining economically from this. However, it brings many challenges to northern traditional society. For example, older Sami women stated that in some shops they are selling products which look like Sami handicrafts. Most of the time, these shops do not ask for copyright permission from them. Those products are fake ones, produced by industry in other places and sold at cheaper prices compared to real Sami products. Many tourists buy cheap products for themselves and their friends. Some tourists become confused about which are the real ones. As a result, in the marketplace, competition means that their real traditional products do not get proper attention. In contrast to those fake products, the Sami and local people have worked hard and spent a long time producing those Sami handicrafts. Consequently, traditional handicraft makers cannot make a profit. Nowadays, the younger generation are not that willing to learn traditional subsistence-related work. If northern authorities and communities do not take proper care of these kinds of cultural activities, there is a risk that they will vanish from northern culture someday.

Without the active participation of the younger generation and with a lack of budget, it will be difficult to continue the traditional Sami celebrations, such as St. Mary’s day and the huge gathering at the Jokkmokk Winter Market.

In the north, human activities have had a significant effect on the environment and landscape of Lapland, through changes in land use (Schumann, 2016). Mining companies offer work opportunities for the local people. But, at the same time, they create negative impacts on traditional livelihoods, especially on those people who are involved with reindeer herding, fishing and farming (Hassler, Sjölander and Janlert, 2008). Human activities are also polluting the northern environment and creating obstacles to keeping the northern culture intact. Overall, these changes affect both the northern ecosystem and older people’s health and well-being.

f) Climate change and its adverse impacts on the older population

Climate change is directly and indirectly affecting northern culture, which affects the well-being of older people in many ways, for example, by disturbing water sources, food security and the built and social environments. It is difficult for the northern population, especially the older population, to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change. Climate change has affected indigenous people’s culture in many ways (Igl et al., 2010). Hunting, reindeer herding and fishing are considered to be traditional Sami work. Nowadays, most of the Sami people are involved in other professions.

In the north, older women are more concerned about the health of their family members and preservation of their traditional rituals. They are treated as responsible guardians who transmit those traditional customs to the younger generation and to their local community. Previously, older people could predict the weather in advance. Different cultural and ritual activities and festivals are connected with those weather forecasts, and were arranged based on their predictions. Because of climate change, those predictions no longer work in the same way. Both older men and women feel upset and vulnerable. They have the fear of losing their unique identity. This feeling is most apparent amongst older Sami people.

Through stating many reasons, this group of people has identified that their culture has been threatened from many different perspectives that need to be considered for safeguarding in the future. The changes in livelihood have created new cultural practices which are not familiar to the north. As a result, new forms of livelihood are affecting northern cultural integrity. These kinds of changes cause emotional and psychological suffering, especially to the region’s older women, as custodians of traditional culture.

5. Concluding remarks

This paper aimed at giving an overview of northern culture, showing the importance of culture to the older people who are living in Lapland. From the above discussion, it can be outlined that nature, a fresh environment, pure water, traditional livelihood, traditional foods, language, dress, festivals and ritual practices are all part of northern culture. Northern culture also encompasses the social and physical environments that work as tools to link this culture to their family, friends, neighbours and overall, to their community. It can be said from the above deliberations that northern culture is interlocked and connected with the well-being of the older population.

Because of climate change and increased human activities, it is expected that in the future there will be a huge impact on the culture and overall lifestyle of the population in the north. Ongoing cultural transformation has already affected older people’s sense of belonging, well-being and both their physical and mental health. Therefore, it is important to create consciousness about the importance of northern culture among the parties who arrange development activities. There is a need to develop and increase nature-based livelihood. In maintaining good relationships between families and communities, it is evident that older women, especially older Sami women, play an important role. They have assembled information about their language, handicrafts, food and verbal history. These issues have gradually developed central identity symbols to recover the northern and Sami identity. Northern culture plays an important role in the well-being of the older population in Finnish and Swedish Lapland, and also in building resilience to rapid changes in the north. It is expected that local authorities should ensure access to services and provide facilities for northern people. It is also expected that the government should take initiatives to protect the older people’s culture so that older men and women can live with their family members and friends in the same community.

Older people suggested that their cultural norms and values need to be promoted through different educational institutions and social media so that the younger generation gets inspired to acquire and protect their own culture. The narratives and stories of the older people often carry many cultural values. By storytelling, older people can transmit cultural values to the younger generation. By ensuring an age-friendly environment, it is possible to promote older people’s well-being in the north. By safeguarding northern traditional food in a sustainable way, it is also possible to promote the culture and well-being of the older population.

The government should find innovative ways to keep the younger generation in their own community in a sustainable way. Perhaps, in that way, northern culture and community can be protected. The government or other funding sources should provide a big enough budget to allow for buying materials for handicrafts and for paying language and handicraft teachers in schools. A budget should also be sanctioned for the celebration of northern cultural events.


This chapter has been written as part of the “Advancing Elderly People’s Agency and Inclusion in the Changing Arctic and Nordic Welfare System (AEPA-Wel)” project, funded by Nordic Council of Ministers under the Arctic Co-operation Programme.


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