Interview with Wenche Spjelkavik – Focal Point North Contributor
By Vanessa Brune and Chelsea Mackay – Students in the Masters of Indigenous Studies program
Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background.
My name is Wenche Spjelkavik, and since 2009 I have been employed as the head of the Sulitjelma mining museum, and the Sulitjelma visitor’s mine. I am educated as a journalist and have majored in economic history, but I have also been a miner for several years.
Tell us about your work.
I was born and raised in Sulitjelma, and it was after the mining stopped, that I started to study. I worked for several years for a newspaper, before I became a freelancer and had a part-time job at a public library. After that I have been working at Nordlandsmuseet in Sulitjelma.
Having responsibility for a visitor’s mine is a big challenge, and as a historian, I am proud to have been able to renovate the mine, and to create a good mineral exhibit at the mining museum.
How did you become interested in Sami history?
My interest in Sami history has always been there. I grew up with a father who was a good storyteller, and he told us a lot about the lives of famous Sami people in our area. I can remember the first time I realized that there were children living in the mountains around Sulitjelma. I was about five years old, and was sick with the mumps. My aunt, who ran a small hotel for the mining company, came to visit me. She told me then that the same day, a little Sami girl had arrived from Staloluokta, a small place behind the Sulitjelma Mountains. The little girl came to the hotel, riding on the back of a reindeer; she had something in her eye, and the eye had become inflamed. The nearest doctor was at the mining company’s hospital. I dreamt of becoming friends with the girl, and to join her at her home behind the mountains. But before I recovered from the mumps, the girl had left Sulitjelma. Five years later, a small airplane disappeared in the Sulitjelma Mountains. The whole community listened to the radio for news, and after a few days we heard that the airplane was found. It had crashed into a mountainside and the pilot and a family had died. Many years after this I learned that the girl I dreamt about, had died in this accident.
Nevertheless, the dream of visiting Staloluokta did not disappear, and in my late teens I visited Staloluokta, in Lule Lappmark, several times and found many new friends. My mother also joined me to visit Birgit and Henrik Blind, and they visited us in Sulitjelma on several occasions. I also made many friends in Pite Lappmark, where people for generations had been in contact with people living in Sulitjelma. Several youths from Sulitjelma married Sami from Arjeplog Municipality. For my part, I found many friends among older people who could tell stories of their ancestors’ use of the Sulitjelma area. Their stories are what still inspires me today.
What is your favourite story or legend from Sulitjelma?
My favorite story is “Sara-Jonas“. That’s because I’ve been hearing about him since my early childhood, and because so many unexplained events have happened through the years that have encouraged me to look for information about him. And, after years of research, he is no longer a fairy tale figure, but a man with a special destiny. In addition, I annually visit his last residence, a secluded place in the mountains.
How were the Sami influenced by the mining at Sulitjelma?
When mining began in Sulitjelma in 1887, it was impossible for reindeer herders to use the valley. At that time, the Sami had small herds of reindeer, which were very tame. They continued to use the mountains around the valley, and they suddenly had a large market for the sale of meat. Not only that, many Sami did also work at the mining company. For Sami who moved around in the mountains, it was a great advantage that the doctor, hospital and retail businesses were within a day’s journey away. You can say that both the miners and the Sami benefited from the new community of Sulitjelma.
In recent years, several hundred cabins have been built in the mountains. There have been large hydro-power developments, and today it’s never quiet in the mountains. With alpine lift facilities, tourists, and hunters, there are always people in reindeer husbandry areas.
What do you think people should know about Sulitjelma?
I hope that future generations can reflect on the fact that hundreds of years of pastoralism in Sulitjelma have barely left traces on the landscape, other than place names. On the other hand, 100 years of mining have given us a pollution problem that will never end. Mining created a vibrant community, but when what was inside the mountain was not profitable anymore, Sulitjelma was left to itself.
How did you become involved with Focal Point North?
Today, only a few historians are interested in Sami history in my area, Salten. Therefore, one of the pioneering women in the field, Bjørg Evjen, is well known. She has, on various occasions, been in contact with me on Sami issues. I was so happy when she invited me to the Focal Point North project. The three months I have participated in so far have been a great experience for me, especially the writing advice that Bjørg has given me. Another special bonus with the project was the opportunity to get to know all the young people from around the world participating in the project. My contribution to the project has been small, when seen in the light of the experiences it gave me.
To read Wenche’s articles on Sulitjelma, click here.