#21 - JRL 7260
FEATURE-Russia's Saami culture reborn in the midnight sun
By Oliver Bullough
LOVOZERO, Russia, July 22 (Reuters) - According to the Saami legend, their nation will die when the god Groma, son of the devil, fires a third arrow into the man-reindeer he is pursuing.
For Nadezhda Bolshakova, decades of Soviet rule, which effectively banned the culture and language of her people -- also known as Lapps, although they consider the name derogatory -- brought their extinction perilously close.
"But now I have hope that the third arrow will never be fired," she said, speaking in the village of Lovozero, a two-hour drive southeast of the Arctic port of Murmansk through vast tracts of birch forest dotted with the dark spikes of conifers.
Since 1991, Russia's Saami who number 1,800 have reforged Scandinavian links and their culture has surged back. At a recent national festival they were joined by ethnic brethren from Norway, Sweden and Finland -- dancing, drinking and playing traditional sports.
Women in bright long skirts charged across a patch of moor after a reindeer skin bag used as the ball in Saami football, and young men in bright, high-collared jackets boasted to the girls of their shooting and rowing skills.
The northern sun, which stays above the horizon 24 hours a day in summer, could be glimpsed through the clouds.
A smart new cultural centre, shaped like a traditional conical tent called a Chum, and built with Norwegian money, was evidence of pan-Saami cooperation.
But no one would claim the relatively wealthy Scandinavian Saami and their Russian kin are equivalent.
"Unemployment is a huge problem here, maybe 30 percent of us don't have work," said Larisa Avdeyeva, director of the new cultural centre.
"When they do work, they are out in the tundra for eight or nine months at a time with the reindeer, and they often only earn 1,500 roubles ($50) a month."
In remote areas all over Russia, rural communities have crumbled as the economy has contracted and many of the more educated people flee to big cities like Moscow or St Petersburg.
Russia's indigenous peoples, such as the Saami, say that since the fall of the Soviet Union -- problems such as alcoholism, soaring unemployment soar and reduced life expectancy -- have hit them harder than anyone else.
"I think the problems are common to everyone in Russia, but we are small in number so we have more to lose," said Anna Prakhova, the only Saami in the Murmansk regional government.
"Because we are so few the problems are more critical for us, we are losing our language and our culture."
Many indigenous cultures, all across Russia's north and in Siberia, were hit by Soviet farming policies, which gathered groups of largely subsistence-level farmers into towns, where they had to adopt intensive farming techniques.
Lovozero, now a collection of shoddy concrete five-storey apartment blocks, was a hamlet until the 1940s, when the Saami were herded into it, cleared away from the sensitive borders with Finland and Norway, allowing Soviet companies undisturbed exploitation of the area's mineral wealth.
Reasserting traditional land rights against the military and private companies was proving hard.
"Under the Russian constitution...we should have rights to use this land free of charge, but the legal code does not allow it," said Prakhova, gesturing at distant hills where the Saami have run with their reindeer for centuries.
OIL TAKES ON REINDEER
According to activists, many of Russia's native peoples are being squeezed out by oil companies, which have huge operations in Western Siberia, and are moving into Eastern Siberia, the Arctic and the Pacific Coast.
Nikita Kaplin, a vice-president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, said it was crucial that the government enforced the laws relating to native rights.
"The most important issue is the right to access to traditional lands. The situation is very hard since the government does not seem to have the political will to enforce the laws."
"The oil companies are often given permission to go ahead without anyone asking the aboriginal peoples."
He said maintaining traditional farming practices was crucial not only in protecting the fragile environment, but in saving what is unique about aboriginal cultures.
"If the aborigines' traditional techniques survive, the aborigines will survive. If not, they will just be assimilated."
Bolshakova says unemployment and alcoholism had hit the Saami hard, and admitted she had no idea how to combat the problems, but refused to be downhearted.
"Look at all these people," she said, pointing at the crowds at the Saami festival, dancing and eating barbecued meat.
"I'm not saying they don't drink -- they drink a lot, really a lot -- and maybe they don't have good jobs. But they are here, so the culture is alive."