Karolina Sevä – Sámi Entrepreneur in Jokkmokk

Karolina Sevä is a Sámi entrepreneur living in Jokkmokk. She works with duodji, traditional Sámi handicraft. We followed her a day out in the forest where she collects bark from the sallow tree. The bark is to be used when tanning reindeer leather. The leather is later used for creating duodji. 

It’s a warm summer day, the first of July, when we visit Karolina Sevä in Jokkmokk. Karolina is originally from Kiruna but lives in Jokkmokk with her family. She works with duodji, traditional Sámi handicraft, and we were invited to join her in the forest while she was collecting bark from the sallow tree. 

She easily finds the suitable terrain where sallow grows and she chooses the thinnest trees. She asks the sallow for permission for her intentions. The allowance is given and, with a gentle hand, she cuts down the ones she needs. Afterwards, she sends a silent thank you to the trees. She tells us that it is best to gather bark in the beginning of summer, when the trees have sap. At that time it is easy to peel of the bark that is later dried for storage. When it’s time for tanning the hide, she needs to mill the bark before she boils it with water and some salt. The water from the bark contains tannic acid and is perfect for its purpose. The process doesn’t only give a beautiful color to the leather, but also makes it soft and sustainable for generations to come. It is an old sámi traditional knowledge, that she has been gifted from her áhkku, grandmother, and will in turn give to her daughters when they get old enough. And so the knowledge is passed forward and kept safe for generations.

The bark that is used can be gathered from different species. A duojar can also mix bark from different trees which changes the properties and color in the leather. However, Karolina’s familybond to the sallow is strong and outruns generations. In her grandmothers instructions on how to tan the leather (something she in turn learned from the generations before her), sallow is essential. The ways of tanning leather are individual, just like other family traditions. 

Karolina says that the Sámi way of life, is to only take what is needed, and never more. And to gather with caution and respect for the nature. ”In that way this whole process is circular, ecological, local and sustainable.”

Tanning their own leather is a part of the duodji tradition for the Sámi people and the process is sustainable and circular already from the reindeer. When the reindeer is slaughtered they make sure to use everything, extremely little is wasted. The hides are either dried or dehaired and then used as rawhides or tan to soften as leather for sewing and creating clothes or tools. The meat and intestines are cooked and eaten, the antlers are used for duodji such as knives and other tools. 

Karolina brings forth a tanned reindeer leather, sisti as it is called in Northern Sámi, that she already has completed the whole process with. She has dehaired the skin, collected and boiled the bark, tanned the leather in the bark water and then softened it, all by hand. With the finished result in front of us, we can’t doubt the quality which is brought by hours of work. The leather is soft and smooth and has a lovely scent of bark. Karolina says that there is a big difference between a leather that is treated by hand or by machine. The difference is obvious in the whole product: the smell, touch and sustainability. This particular leather she work into gáfeseahkat – bags to store coffee in. The coffee bag is a product that the Sámi have used for generations, and that is still used today on a daily basis.

The sustainability is lifelong. The reindeer leather is teared and colored darker naturally with time and use. Everything is biodegradable and free of toxins, consisting only of natural materials. This connected with the fact that the Sámi only take what is needed from nature, makes it very difficult to find historical traces of the Sámi out in the forest and mountains. The Sámi way of living in symbiosis with the nature, is shown in the most sustainable way even while creating beautiful clothes or bags.

Blog text by,
Leila Nutti, Project Manager, Strukturum Jokkmokk