Story of a Sámi Shaman

These past few months, I have been studying an online course in Sámi history via Umeå University and one of the books we have been reading is about a Sámi noajdde (shaman) who lived during the 19th century in Tärna, northern Sweden. The book is only in Swedish (“Fattiga som de voro” by Birger Ekerlid) and so I wished to share some of the story with you here in English, as well as some reflections about the Sámi culture and history.
The Sámi couple known as Stor-Nila and Lill-Docka were found frozen to death in the mountains of Northern Sweden, year 1899. The newspaper articles reported the accident, writing about how the old “lappman” (the Sámi were called “lapps” in older times”) had tried to keep his wife warm by giving her his jersey and his woollen hat. The article wrote in Swedish, “de woro eljes mycket dåligt klädda, fattiga som de woro,” (1899) in English: “they were very poorly dressed, poor indeed as they were.”

Nils Nilsson Njajta "Stor-Nila"

Nils Nilsson Njajta, known as Stor-Nila (Big-Nila), and Maria Larsdotter, known as Lill-Docka (Little-Doll), both lived during the years 1822 – 1899 and their lives inspired many stories that still live on to this day.
In year 1848 in Renberg, a drunken fight between Stor-Nila and another man led to Stor-Nila being charged with murder and sentenced to death. The sentence changed to two years at the prison Långholmen in Stockholm. During his time at the prison, his wife Lill-Docka gave birth to their third child. Their first two children had died. Alone she was forced to take care of both their child and their reindeer herd. The work was too much for her, and so the reindeer ran off, taking with them the family’s sole source of income. 
Stor-Nila belonged to an old noajdde (shaman) family. In the old days, the noajdde served as link between the people and the spirit world. The noajdde communicated with the spirits of nature. The people lived as hunters and gatherers in a cold, harsh climate. Reading the signs of nature was an essential part of their survival and way of life. 
”Most people have the ablitiy to golet, hear, or beljek, hear well, but Stor-Nila had goletje. That meant that he could hear more than what was common and hear that which was of the other world.” (Ekerlid, “Fattiga som de voro”, p. 118)
”Rumours of his supernatural powers spread throughout Lapland. On one occasion, he came into conflict with the pharmacist’s wife in Lycksele. “Move out of my way you luslapp (lice-lapp),” she spat at him at the pharmacy. “You will pay for that,” answered Stor-Nila, who refused to let people treat him with disrespect. His revenge came the next Sunday, when the pharmacist’s wife went to a nice party. Suddenly her clothes were crawling with lice. She was forced to go to Stor-Nila and beg for his forgiveness in order to get rid of the lice…” (Ekerlid, “Fattiga som de voro”, p. 74)
Stor-Nila was an outsider. In the old days, he would have been treated with much respect, but during his lifetime he was treated with suspicion, disdain and fear. He and his wife Lill-Docka became beggars, roaming the mountains and living off of hunting, fishing, foraging and begging. They were unwelcome guests wherever they went. Sometimes they stole a reindeer or two for the meat and fur. “It could as well be one of our own reindeer who ran off,” said Stor-Nila. But eventually the stealing of reindeer sent him to prison again – over two years for stealing a reindeer. 
At the prison, they were forced to work while wearing chains of iron weighing 40 kilos. Such instruments of torture were known in Swedish as järnkronan – “the crown of iron”. If they worked well they were eventually given chains weighing only 18 kilos. “It’s like putting on the dress of a maiden,” said the prisoners. 
Stor-Nila’s brother Jonas lived a very different life. He was a great singer and he knew all the psalms off by heart. When a young missionary named Ludvig Bergström was travelling in Västerbotten, northern Sweden, he wrote about his meeting with Stor-Nila’s brother Jonas, “I asked the lappman, who had previously been a nomad, which he preferred: to be a farmer or a nomad-lapp. ‘oh it isn’t so bad (being a farmer),’ he said, ‘and I can have Sundays off.’”

Sámi drum

During Stor-Nila and Lill-Docka’s lifetime in the 19th century many Sámi were abandoning the nomadic lifestyle and becoming farmers. Some were both reindeer-herders and farmers simultaneously. The settlers were moving in and claiming all the best land, so the Sámi had to hurry and make their claims to the land known. In a world becoming all the more dominated by the settlers from the south who came with a different language and culture, the Sámi had to fight for their survival and rights to the land where they had lived for many thousands of years. 
Their way of life was changing. The missionaries played a significant role in changing Sámi society. The most influential priests were those who knew the Sámi language and took time to learn about the culture and religion. They found a way of burying the Sámi religion from within. They spoke the people’s language and could tell stories the people could relate to. The Sámi drums were called “troll drums” by the church and seen as an instrument of the devil. The drums were taken from the Sámi and either burnt or given away as exotic gifts to European aristocrats. Many of the drums have still not been given back to the Sámi people but are on display at various museums. 
Many of the old sacred places were destroyed. Singing in the Sámi way – yojking – was condemned as sinful.
The state realised that there were great riches to be gained from the land of Sápmi. But what to do with the Sámi people who lived there? Well, the Swedish state didn’t want the Sámi people to flee to the neighbouring countries. They wanted to own the land up north and extract all the riches possible from it, but they also wished to make good use of the Sámi people. The Sámi people were excellent hunters and craftsmen for example, and so for a long time merchants traded with the Sámi and the European royalty enjoyed sporting wild furs from the north. 
When silver was discovered in the Nasa mountains in the 17th century the Sámi were also forced to work by transporting the silver with their reindeer. There are stories about the cruelty enforced upon the Sámi. It is said that they were pulled under the ice and drawn up again until they were willing to work. 
The noajdde lost status in the Sámi society. They became outsiders like Stor-Nila, forced to hide their drums and honour the old ways in secret. Some died for it. In Arjeplog 1687 the Sámi man Lars Nilsson let them take away his drum. But when his son died and the reindeer became ill, he made a new drum and refused to give up the old ways. He was executed year 1692, a time when thousands of men and women, witches and shamans, had been burnt at the stake all throughout Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. 
There are stories about how the Sámi people continued to practice their religion in secret. The priests took their drums away, and so, new drums were made – small enough to keep in your pocket and easy to hide if a priest should appear. 
Despite attempts to destroy the Sámi culture, the sound of the yojk can still be heard out on the tundra, invoking the spirit of Sápmi and singing a song of survival. 
We are still here… 

Photo by Erika Larsen


Ekerlid, Birger (2007) Fattiga som de voro. Berättelsen om Stor-Nila, Lill-Docka och andra människor i Lappmarken under 1800-talet. Östersund: Jengel Förlag

Haetta, Odd Mathis (2002) Samene. Nordkalottens urfolk. Kristiansand : HöyskoleForlaget

Kjellström, Rolf (2000) Samernas liv. Stockholm: Carlssons

Kuoljok, S., E. Utsi, J. (1993) The Saami: People of the Sun and Wind. Ájtte, Swedish Mountain and Saami Museum, Jokkmokk

Lundmark, Lennart (2008) Stulet land – Svensk makt på samisk mark. 1:a uppl. Stockholm: Ordfront Förlag


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