Content warning: racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, general violence, sexual violence
Spoiler warning: spoilers for all ASOIAF books and some spoilers for GoT.
He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.A Game of Thrones, Bran I
Very early on in ASOIAF, we are told these horrible stories about the Free Folk and how monstrous they are. By referring to them as “wildlings” and telling these stories about their barbaric ways, a picture is painted of some sort of terrible uncivilised and threatening hoard of people. The careful reader, however, might be a bit sceptical of these “hearth tales” and wonder if there isn’t more to the story. Which there of course turns out to be. As the books go on, it becomes more and more clear that the treatment of the Free Folk is deeply unfair, and that the Night’s Watch are wasting precious resources on fighting them. As I will argue in this essay, the situation the Free Folk is facing is in many ways reminiscent of what people in our world have faced by colonialism. While the Free Folk weren’t the first people inhabiting their land (that would be the Children of the Forest and the Giants) their land has since been conquered by the Andals. Furthermore, the situation created by the artificial and restrictive border that is the Wall is something many people who have been subjugated by colonialism can relate to (even if they might not have experienced high ice walls specifically). For that and many other reasons, I want to discuss the Free Folk and colonialism. I will ground that discussion specifically in the history of Indigenous people and other marginalised ethnic groups in the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our world, given the Free Folk’s position in northern climates.
It is worth noting that many other people (such as Learned Hands, Girls Gone Canon, and NotACast) have noted how the relationship between the Free Folk and the Night’s Watch (and the Seven Kingdoms in general) bear similarities to relationships between colonial powers and the people they’re subjugating. I have definitely been inspired by their analysis when writing this essay. But I also wanted to add a perspective that I seldom hear discussed, and that is the specific northern flavour of this colonialism. As I will explain more below, I am from Sweden and have family from northern Sweden specifically. So, I can’t help but think of that specific context when considering the Free Folk. Especially once I realised that some of them (the people of the Frozen Shore) keep reindeer, similar to what several Indigenous people in the Arctic and sub-Arctic do and are well-known for doing (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021). I will therefore discuss the history of some of these groups. This is partly because I think it is relevant to the analysis, and partly because I think this history is not very well-known. Not in Scandinavia and even less so outside of Scandinavia. And it deserves to be more well-known. As part of my effort to highlight this history (and the current situation of these groups), I have decided to approach this essay a bit differently than my usual essays. For one, the theory and background section is longer than it usually is. This is because I wanted to allow this part to take up space so I could do it justice. But it is also because I have deliberately included a lot more quotes than I usually do because I want to highlight the voices of Indigenous people and other marginalised groups. I want to share their words and not just my interpretation/summery of them (I have however translated some quotes, those that were in Swedish and Norwegian). As such, this essay has become quite long. But I felt like it had to be in order to do the topic justice. I have also elected to include a lot of sources that aren’t traditional academic texts, in order to highlight that academic knowledge production isn’t the only valid form of knowledge. In fact – when it comes to Indigenous people and other marginalised groups, academia is often far from the most appropriate source of knowledge. But now that we have established that, let’s dig into some northern colonialism!
Some historical, geographical, and personal context
Before going further, I would like to talk a bit about my own position in writing this essay. I’m a white person, born and raised in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. As such, I can obviously not speak to the experiences of Indigenous people. But because of the complexity of history and racialisation, I can still speak somewhat to ethnic discrimination and the results of colonialism. Let me explain.
The northern part of what is today called Sweden first became inhabited by the Indigenous Sámi people more or less as soon as the last ice age was over, with the earliest confirmed archaeological find being from 7 800 BCE (samer.se n.d.a). Their traditional land is called Sápmi, and stretches across several contemporary countries, having been colonised by different states throughout the years.
In this essay, I will use the word Sámi to refer to this group of people and Sápmi to refer to this land. There are slightly different versions of those words, used by different groups in different contexts. For instance, Sámi is sometimes spelt Saami, while Sábme, Sábmie, and Saepmie are other terms for Sápmi. Those terms are used by different Sámi groups. Besides that, there also exists derogatory terms that have been used both historically and today. One such is “l*pp” (or “l*ap” in English). I will generally avoid this term and will only write out the word when it is used in quotes by Sámi people themselves.
As mentioned previously, I am not Indigenous. But I’m not fully Swedish either. My family belongs to the ethnic group called Tornedalians, named after the Torne Valley and Torne River (which constitutes the current border between Sweden and Finland). Nowadays, the area (on both sides of the river) where we have traditionally lived is sometimes called Meänmaa – “our land” in our language (Meänkieli). When exactly Tornedalians came to live in this area is disputed. Some say they emigrated to what is now Sweden from the east around 1 000 CE (Wikipedia n.d. a). Others note theories that they arrived there around 2 000 years ago, or that maybe some version of Tornedalians have always lived in the area but later mixed with groups who have migrated into the area (Pohjanen 2022, 20). Regardless, we have lived there long before Sweden was consolidated into a nation. Some Tornedalians would later move further west and are therefore sometimes referred to by other names, such as Lantalaiset and Kvens. Today, this is the area that’s considered to be part of Meänmaa:
On the whole, the migration of the Tornedalians, while it caused some disputes with the Sámi already living in the area, did not amount to the type of colonialisation I will talk about later. It can mainly be seen as the type of migration that has always happened in human history. People moving into an area where people already lived, which causes some conflict but also intermingling. Eventually, however, the area would be colonised by the Swedish state. This led to abuses of both Sámi and Tornedalians. I will begin with the impact on the Sámi.
The Swedish colonialization of Sápmi began during the 14th century but became even more forceful during the 17th century when the Swedish crown realised it could lay claim to the iron and silver resources in the land (samer.se n.d. b). The crown was at that time constantly at war and in need of more resources. When silver was discovered in the Nasafjäll mountain, the crown realised that Northern Sweden, Norrland (“North Land”), could become what colonies in the Caribbean had been to other European nations. The famous chancellor of the realm Axel Oxenstierna apparently said, “I don’t need a colony – I have Norrland!” (ibid). As often is the case with colonialism, the colonization of Sápmi was highly tied up in the Christening of the Sámi, who traditionally practised their own religion. The website samer.se which is run by Sametinget, the governmental body of Swedish Sámi, puts it like this:
In order to force the Sámi to abandon their religion and instead attend church services and church education, the Church used different forms of punishment: fines, prison, or death penalties. The holy sites were defiled and drums [used in religious rituals] were burned.
For centuries the Sámi religion had been able to live side by side with Christianity. But from the 17th century onward, the attempts to Christen the Sámi went hand in hand with the Crown’s attempt to conquer the land in the north. When religion became a means of power, the Sámi were made to suffer many forms of abuse, just as has been the case with other Indigenous people throughout the world.samer.se n.d. c [my translation from Swedish]
As mentioned above, one motivation for colonialization was to claim natural resources such as silver and iron. In order for the crown to mine these minerals, they often made use of the Sámi, by forcing them into labour. During the industrialisation of Sweden over the coming centuries, even more parts of Sápmi became settled in order to open more mines, mainly iron mines. This continued colonialism was justified by arguing that the Sámi were a primitive people, and the land could be put to better use by a civilised state. Again, a familiar story when it comes to colonialism.
Another event of large historical importance would take place around this time, namely the splitting of Norway and Sweden in 1905. This impacted many Sámi who had previously travelled between land on both the Swedish and (now) Norwegian side of the border, for instance having their reindeer graze by the Norwegian coast in the summer and in the Swedish inland in the winter (Labba 2020). Not all Sámi are reindeer herders, but the reindeer is an important part of Sámi culture and reindeer herding has constituted the livelihood for many Sámi for centuries. Now, however, the Norwegian state started opposing the Sámi moving their reindeer (and themselves) across the border, considering “the nomad life” to be a burden on the country and a “lifestyle” that was incompatible with the interests and structures of “civilised society.” (ibid, 16) The solution to this? Well, in the words of Sámi author Elin Anna Labba:
In 1919 Sweden and Norway solve their common problem through a reindeer grazing convention, which limits how much reindeer can move across the border. Indirectly the states simultaneously decide how many people have to move from their homes by the Atlantic coast.
Starting in 1919 and continuing through the 1920s and part of the 1930s, the county boards in Sweden enact straight-up forced relocations of reindeer herders in order to live up to the agreement with their neighbour country. In the convention, it says that the relocations are to be done in agreement with wishes “from the lap population.” In reality, they have no say.
The government agencies call the solution dislocation. In Sámi another word is born. Bággojohtin. Forced displacement. Or sirdolaččat, like the elders that have been forcibly displaced, call themselves. The moved ones. The first to leave their homes in the belief that they will get to return.Labba 2020, 16 [my translation from Swedish]
But not only are people forced to relocate from the Atlantic coast, but Sámi in Sweden are also forced to relocate. With so many Sámi moving in from the Norwegian side of the border, the Swedish state feels that there are too many Sámi in the area around Giron, Jielleváre, Jåhkåmåhkke, and Árjepluvve. The so-called “l*ppfogdarna” (“l*p bailiffs”) were the ones calling the shots on behalf of the state and pressured or straight-up forced people to move. And even when l*p bailiffs didn’t directly force Sámi to move, their reindeer weren’t used to being confined to such a small area with so many other reindeer. It wasn’t sustainable. People were forced to move further south. Moving to unfamiliar lands. These were lands where other Sámi have lived before, but it was new to these groups. People longed for their own homelands.
They cried. Eidde told me that. They said farewell to the cot places and the cot meadows. Bloody hell. I’ve thought that they should have gotten something for it. There are such sleek mountains there, and here they’re so ugly. I’ve heard that the mountain Bealčán in the north has such beautiful flowers. My aunt always cried over Bealčán. She who loved flowers. They took farewell to that too. There was like a kiosk with a window. They stood there on either side and cried.
It was lap is to be lap, you know. It was a rule by the bailiffs, like hell. They were so scared for those bailiffs. Isá wasn’t allowed to move from Guvtjávrre but he moved to Vássjá anyway. They snuck down, lawless.
They were supposed to live in dark black cots. Eidde said to “make a big cot for us” and isá built up on a hill, a cot with a window. There was so much light in that cot. And eidde ordered a stove so she could bake. Then they came, the lap bailiff and the land notary and whoever else it was, and you know, lap was to live black. They weren’t allowed to have windows. They were to tear them out. And she was to pay a fine for installing a stove, and for the windows. Whoever touches my stove I’ll report, said eidde. Whoever touches a single nail on the cot I’ll report. She wasn’t scared of anyone. But they were terrible, those lap bailiffs.
Just put that in the book, our history. It’s true.Válkko Elle Susá, quoted in Labba 2020, 121 [my translation from Swedish, I’ve deliberately not translated Sámi words that aren’t translated in the Swedish copy]
What Válkko Elle Susá says here of the policy “l*p is to be l*p” (“l*pp skall vara l*pp”) was a broad policy the Swedish state enacted at this time, which had its roots in racist and eugenic thought. Sametinget writes this about the political thought at the start of the 20th century, and its consequences:
It began being claimed that the Sámi were born with certain “race characteristics” that made them inferior to the rest of the population. Therefore, they could not live as “civilized” people in real houses. If they did, they would become “lazy” and start neglecting their reindeer. That would result in all Sámi people having to become beggars because they did not have any skills besides reindeer husbandry. The Riksdag [the Swedish parliament] decided in 1928 that the Sámi who were not reindeer herders would not have any Sámi rights either. For example, they were given no special right to hunt and fish in the areas where their ancestors had lived. In this way, the state drew a sharp boundary between the Sámi living on reindeer husbandry and those who support themselves in other ways. The Sámi schooling was also affected by racism. A law about a special nomad school came in 1913 which stated that teachers would walk around the mountainous regions in the summer. There, the youngest schoolchildren would be taught in the family’s cot for a few weeks each year during the first three school years. The rest of the school time consisted of winter courses in regular schools for three months a year for three years. The teaching would only cover a few subjects and it had to be at such a low level that the children were not “civilized”. Children of nomadic Sámi were not allowed to attend public primary schools.samer.se n.d. d [my translation from Swedish]
This occurred during a time of generally increased nationalism and racism. In 1922, The State’s Race Biological institute (Statens rasbiologiska institut) was created in Uppsala in Sweden, by the “scientist” Herman Lundborg (Hagerman 2016, 961). He wished to research the Swedish race and the mixing of races in Sweden. This was done in several ways, both by looking at records of marriages and births (often supplied by church officials who had access to so-called “church books” that recorded this), and physical examinations of people. He, and other “scientists”, travelled around Sweden to examine the Sámi people and other groups that were considered inferior (such as Finns, Tornedalians, Roma, Jews, disabled people, etc). The physical examination of Sámi people often happened in collaboration with local churches or schools (Hagerman 2016, 984). Another part of the eugenics movement in Sweden that is worth mentioning here is the forced sterilisations that took place during this time. Again, the minorities mentioned above (as well as working-class women) were the main targets of these policies (Hübinette & Lundström 2014). This was an attempt to “better” the “stock” of the Swedish nation. In total, around 60 000 people were sterilised between 1935 and 1975 (Johannisson 1991). Sweden’s population in 1975 was approximately 8 million (SCB 1977, 9).
As Hübinette and Lundström point out, in Sweden at the time, ethnic minorities were either to be completely assimilated or completely segregated from the rest of society (Hübinette & Lundström 2020, 33). The former was the case with the Tornedalians (more on this later) and the latter with the Sámi. All as part of a process to make Sweden Swedish. A similar process took place in other states that colonised Sápmi, which Liisa-Rávná Finbog describes in the Norwegian context (2022b). During the 19th and 20th centuries, Norway was properly establishing itself as a nation and “as part of that work, much focus was given to establishing an own Norwegian identity. In other words, in the state of Norway, you were to be Norwegian.” (ibid) [my translation from Norwegian] This led to a forced Norwegianization of the Sámi, which for instance took place at the schools Sámi children were forced to attend (Minde 2005). As one person, Per Fokstad, who lived through this process put it as an adult:
“Now and then I think about this, there is such a large pain that I can’t sleep. I lay awake at night, I feel like I need to speak out. Tell someone about this, all of it that hurts, that’s been pushed down. There is something inside of me that screams: don’t smother me. Something that needs air, that wants to rise, that wants to live. But we got branded. We got pushed down and I can never forget it. Never forget what it was like. Everything was taken from us. We weren’t allowed to speak our mother tongue. No one listened to us.”Dahl 1970, 10. Quoted in Minde 2005, 15. [my translation from Norweigan]
Policies like that, and the corresponding Swedish policies, might not exist anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the oppression has ceased. Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia are still colonising the Sápmi. Many of these nations have taken steps to recognise the Sámi as an indigenous people and national minority (in Sweden it’s one of five official national minorities, the other ones being Finns, Tornedalians, Jews, and Roma) but again, this doesn’t mean the oppression is over. The nations are still laying claim to land and resources, as has for instance been seen in Sweden in the fight against logging and mining (Johansson 2022) and recently in Norway against the green colonialism that is windmills on reindeer grazing lands (Ahtone 2023).
But before moving on, I would like to return to Tornedalians. Similarly to Sámi in Norway, Tornedalians in Sweden were expected to assimilate into Swedish culture, and this too was intensified during the 19th and 20th centuries. One big shift was of course when the border was drawn between Finland and Sweden in 1809. The border was drawn along the Torne River, splitting Meänmaa and its people in two. As author Bengt Pohjanen says of the border:
”Us Meänkieli-speaking shore-dwelling Finns have always lived in Meänmaa and experienced both sides of the Torne River as part of one culture. After all, our friends and cousins lived on the other side of the river. The border has created three-eyed people. We needed two eyes to see, and a third so we could overlook.
“There isn’t a whiff of sin in smuggling,” said a Laestadian preacher who had been fined for smuggling knives. We have experienced the customs as offensive gates and unnecessary obstacles. There’s no wonder that the customs officers are called hurtat, dogs.Pohjanen 2022, 20. [[my translation from Swedish, “hurtat” and the Swedish translation Pohjanen gives, “byracka” is difficult to translate. It’s maybe closer to hound or perhaps mongrel, used to describe a mean/feral/wild dog. It is definitely used derogatory here.]
The border also had huge consequences on language. Tornedalians have traditionally spoken a version of Finnish, which is today referred to as Meänkieli (“our language”), not Swedish. As mentioned, when the border between Finland and Sweden was drawn, no one bothered about ethnic or language borders. Loads of Tornedalians ended up on the Swedish side of the border, and they were increasingly pressured to assimilate into Swedish culture and speak Swedish (Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen n.d. a). I have several relatives who have put in so-called “work cottages” during the 1920s, vocational schools for poor children. The children lived at these cottages where they got basic schooling and were taught different trades while having to work to earn their upkeep (UR 2018, 12:36). They were also taught to be productive Christian Swedish citizens. This is one example of how the oppression of Tornedalians has been (and is) wrapped up in class oppression as well. Many Tornedalians have lived in rural areas, often working in the mines and forests. Author Bengt Pohjanen also points out how language plays into the intersecting oppressions, both from one’s own community and those outside of it:
“…the oppression from our own, the fancy folk, finiit ihmiset, “the masters on the devil’s level”, police, teachers, customs’ officials who had denied their languages, their culture for our own good. (…) Our own middle class has been, and seems to remain, the Meänkieli-speaking cultural bearers’ ever-present problem. (…) Hullunfinit ihmiset, crazy fancy people, were ummikot (monolingual Swedes). Niitä hääty passata ja varoa. (You had to wait on them, watch for them, it wasn’t even proper to speak to them).”Pohjanen 2022, 16. [my translation from Swedish]
Swedish was the language of fancy folk, of civilised folk. Of course, this also permeated the education the poor children in rural areas were to get in working cottages. They were forbidden from speaking Meänkieli, were only to speak Swedish, and those who disobeyed were often beaten. All to turn them into Godfearing, proper productive citizens. As my own grandfather put it:
“First and foremost, I have to say that there was an iron discipline. If we turned into anything – we turned into either ruffians or weaklings.”UR 2018, 13:09-13:19. From the documentary ”Man grät och längtade hem” from 1977, a cli of which is shown in the UR documentary. Quote translated from Swedish to English by me.
Many internalised this discipline to the degree that they tried to get their children to only speak Swedish too, an experience that Tornedalian Roland Jatko has written about (Jatko 2011). As he puts it, this can be considered a form of colonialism and cultural imperialism. What’s more, this colonialism has been so successful that many Tornedalians now feel unsure of what their cultural identity really entails. As Jatko writes:
What does it matter where we come from, when we arrived, and what we’ve called ourselves through history? No people on the taiga can say that we’ve always been here because we all arrived after the ice melted. Where did those who made the rock carvings at Aarevaara come from, those who named the places, and those who renamed them? (…) My homelands have been Sámi hunting grounds and fishing waters once. When we came and took their fishing waters, hunting grounds, and reindeer aren’t written down in any history book, and neither where we came from and why we took their land. The only thing I know is that we did it because we could. (…) Do we have to rely on unreliable DNA tests to try to prove who we are? What are we to do with that evidence? Argue that we are an Indigenous people because we lived in the river valleys before Sweden even existed? The Kvens tried that, but after swallowing the Swedish culture in full the state said we weren’t culturally distinct enough to be an Indigenous people. (…) The only thing I can say is that we’re still here, even though everyone is trying to kill our culture with their silence.Jatko 2019. [my translation from Swedish]
As researchers Hübinette and Lundström puts it, what the Swedish state did against both the Sámi and Tornedalians amounted to “forced assimilation aiming at outright cultural and linguistic extermination” (2014, 429). And as mentioned above, similar to the Sámi, Tornedalians were also subject to eugenic examinations. However, there are some relevant differences between Tornedalians and Sámi. One such is that some Tornedalians have participated in the oppression of Sámi both historically and today (Moreno 2020; Jatko 2021). Trying to assert their own rights and fighting for their interests have often resulted in opposing Sámi. That’s not to say all Tornedalians have acted that way, and with the long history between the ethnic groups, there are also plenty of people who are both Sámi and Tornedalian (Karvonen 2022). But another difference between Sámi and Tornedalians is that while a few generations back, Tornedalians weren’t considered white and Swedish, we generally are today. This is something Hübinette and Lundström discuss as a way racial boundaries are constantly renegotiated. We’ve been successfully assimilated.
So, growing up, I never really experienced direct discrimination because of my ethnicity. Because it had in large parts been erased. My dad never taught me Meänkieli, probably partly because he was forced to stop speaking it at school as a child. Work cottages weren’t around anymore when he went to school, but Swedish was still to be spoken in schools (UR 2018, 13:48). Even by children like him who didn’t speak a word of it when they started school. However, in later years, my dad has started to relearn his mother’s tongue and I’m trying to learn it for the first time. This is also happening at a time when the historical discrimination against Tornedalians is gaining more attention. In 2020, the Swedish government appointed a truth and reconciliation commission that “shall investigate violations and abuse that Tornedalians, Kvens and Lantalaiset were subjected to as a result of the assimilation policies of the 19th and 20th centuries.” (Kväner, Lantalaiset, Tornedalingar: Sannings- och Försoningskommissionen n.d. b) This is all to say, I’m white and I’m not Indigenous. But I do have a personal and familial experience that relates to being part of a minority ethnic group in a northern climate that has been affected by colonialism.
Some more historical, geographical and theoretical context
Having said that, I thought it would be helpful to discuss colonialism some more. What it is, how it has worked historically and today, and specifically in some northern contexts. First of all, what do I mean by colonialism? On a basic level, it is of course when one state lays claim to an area that it has not previously claimed, often exploiting its land and people along the way. But it’s also more than that. As Sámi scholar Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog puts it:
However much we are accustomed to thinking of colonization as a process that aims to dispossess land from Indigenous peoples, colonialism is much more layered. In addition to the stealing of land and material things (and sometimes even people), the process of colonization is also about imposing the colonizers’ worldviews and values upon the colonized, erasing Indigenous knowledges and ways of live. This is epistemicide, a colonial killing of Indigenous ways of being, of knowing, and of doing- our ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies.Finbog 2022a.
That this has been the case in regards to Sápmi and the Sámi has probably been clear already in this essay. But they are of course not the only people of the north in our world that has suffered through these kind of processes. As a text by the Saami Council and German Arctic Office points out, there are a lot of different Indigenous people that live in these Arctic and sub-Arctic areas:
The distinct cultures and territories of Arctic Indigenous Peoples extend over 30 million square kilometres in seven countries and three continents. In Fennoscandia, Arctic Indigenous Peoples include the Saami in northern territories of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Northwest Russia, an area also named Sápmi. The land of Inuit, Inuit Nunaat, stretches over Chukotka (Russia), Alaska (USA), Canada, and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). Some examples of Arctic Indigenous Peoples in the North American region are Aleuts, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Dene, Gwich‘in and Athabaskans. Just like the Saami and Inuit, Gwich‘in and Athabaskans are cross border people. In the vast territories of the Russian Federation, a few examples of Arctic Indigenous Peoples are Nenets, Khanty, Mansi, Even, Evenk, Yukaghir and Chukchi, residing all the way from the Kola Peninsula, through Siberia and to the Far East.Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021, 2.
I, unfortunately, do not have the space to discuss all these cultures here, but I want to note their existence. People live across the Artic and sub-Arctic regions. These are not empty lands. People with varying cultures live here and have done for millennia. While the land could be considered scarce in resources in some ways, people have lived there and have had a very strong relationship with the land. For many cultures, this includes their connection to other beings residing on the land, with reindeer for instance holding a special status in several cultures. In total, there are about 24 reindeer herding peoples in the world, and the majority reside in these Arctic and sub-Arctic areas (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021, 4). Today, reindeer herding is threatened in many places, both by colonialism and climate change. This is for instance the case in many parts of Sápmi. With the traditional grazing lands of reindeer being destroyed, so are the culture and livelihood of many people are too. Similarly, other Indigenous people are experiencing changes to the environment where they traditionally hunt and fish. But there is more than “just” food, culture, and livelihood at stake here. As Dr Liisa-Rávná Finbog explains (when discussing protests by Sámi activists in Oslo) Indigenous people often have a different conceptualisation and relationship to land than people in the West.
Sámi, like most Indigenous philosophies, teaches us that the world is made up of relations – a nexus of connections, between and to people, land, waters, beings, spirits, and entities. Born to and of the land, and grounded in these connections, said relationality seeds a system of kinship where we are made into kin as much as we make kin. The worlds we live in (and besides) are as such performed into being through our interactions with everything that lives in and on the lands and waters we belong to. It is as such a world of relations between and through everything in existence.
We are all equal within this worlds-of-relations, and we all have subjective will. As such, when you claim ownership of something- whether land or people- you are in truth subjugating their will. We have no word for subjugation in our languages. In fact, our (Indigenous) understanding of the term comes from our experience of being subjugated and dehumanized by colonial nations. (…) The use of landback in Oslo by the Sámi activists, is not a demand to return ownership of lands. It is a demand to respect Sámi sovereignty and ways of life. It is a demand to respect the sovereignty of the land, refusing the notion that she can be owned. It is a demand to respect the necessary connection between all living things, and to never enforce your will onto others, subjugating theirs.”Finbog 2023.
But since Western countries don’t see land this way, they have often been able to claim that Indigenous lands are unpopulated, a “Terra Nullius, or “nobody’s land” (Finbog 2021). Therefore, the land can be claimed, settled, and both people and land subjugated. As mentioned previously, the results of this are still evident with the ongoing colonisation of Sápmi.
Another important aspect of colonialism is the “othering” of the colonised people. Dr Finbog discusses “othering” in relation to Sámi in Norway:
According to the Sámi folklorist Stein Roar Mathisen puts it, this process can be seen in the relationship between the Norwegian people and Sámi. Concretely, he argues that the Sámi culture has represented something fundamentally strange, which up until our time has served a function as a contrast to the Norwegian culture. Therefore, the Sámi has been categorised as The Other. The use of The Other as a contrasting function is not new. For instance, in her ground-breaking book “The Other Sex” from 1949, Simone de Beauvoir has shown how the woman is defined by – and works as a contrast to – the man, who is “the subject […]. The Absolute.” Edward Said on the other hand contributed with the book “Orientalism” from 1978 where he describes how the West for centuries has created a picture of the Orient that has led to it becoming Europe’s defining contrast. In their different ways, Beauvoir and Said have therefore shown how usage of The Other as a category can be used to create metanarratives, that don’t just convey knowledge about, but also exercises power over the people that are put into the category.”Finbog 2022b. [my translation from Norweigan]
As Finbog points out, by categorising a group of people as The Other, power is exercised over them. For one, they are made into something “fundamentally strange”, which affects how people interact with them. But this categorisation also impacts their orientation in the world, impacting the paths that become available to them and which obstacles they’ll meet (Ahmed 2006, 112). In our world today, someone who has been designated as Other might encounter a myriad of “stopping devices” when navigating the world, from being “randomly selected” at the airport to struggling to get promoted at work (Ahmed 2006, 140).
When Indigenous people are made into Other, part of what colonizers see as other and strange has often been their conceptualisation of sex, gender, and sexuality. As Dr Finbog puts it:
In imperial Europe, sexuality and gender was (and still is) understood from a patriarchal hierarchy where men where superior to women; and white superior to BIPOC. These (false) differences were consequently encoded into Western Law, obligation, and behavior. When the colonial structures of the West were imposed on Indigenous communities, thus came the enforcement of heteropatriarchy, a socio-political system in which cisgender males and heterosexuals have authority over cisgender females and other sexual orientations and gender identities. But historically, sexual diversity has actually been the norm rather than the exception among Indigenous peoples. (…) Like many Indigenous communities, Sámi society historically practiced a form of equality between individuals characterized on a complementarity of domains, roles, and tasks. There is also evidence to suggest that the notion of gender was fluid, allowing for a movement between gender roles. (…) There is also evidence to suggest that Sámi sexuality was heavily targeted – especially the sexuality of women and non-binary individuals. Sources from the 17th century, for instance, shows colonial officials disapproving of Sámi sexuality – deeming it immoral and unseemly.Finbog 2022a.
Here we see how anything that doesn’t conform to Western gender and sexuality norms is demonised, be it cis women being sexually active or queer/trans people existing. Those breaking binary gender norms have in particular been seen as some combination of sinful, uncivilised and exotic (Towle & Morgan 2006). To that point, I wanted to share an excerpt from a talk between Timimie Gassko Märak and Ivvár Ovllá Nilla Pinja, who are both non-binary Sámi.
Nilla Pinja: In the Sámi religion we have so many, so much like really feminine icons and gods like: Juoksáhkká, Máttaráhkká, Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká and they are like really strong and… And I think that the world we have has been really different back in days.
Gassko Märak: They [Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká and Juoksáhkká] are called like the three sisters. Yeah. The three sisters, and when you talk about it in English and Swedish you talk about them as like goddesses, and they have different roles like in Sápmi. And you and I were talking earlier today about, about like the Sámi non-binary experience. And one of the reasons it took so long for me to realise like my transness or my non-binaryness is because Sápmi has a totally different femininity. Like I was raised with another way of what femme is. And then you said, it’s like with Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká, Juoksáhkká, it’s like…They have like… they are more human than godlike. They have powers but like everyone in Sápmi, they have their role, like they do what they’re supposed to do. And they can be like cheeky, they can, they can have bad days.
Nilla Pinja: Yes, they are big personalities. And not like some holy figures. Maybe not always so caring and soft and kind. They can also be really dangerous, and they do really what they want.
Gassko Märak: Yes! And that is also very different from like Western religion, where it’s like something that is very holy and you can just like, if you say this and if you sacrifice this then everything will be good because this person is always good if you are. But like the Sámi gods, they don’t give a shit. No but you’re doing it, but I’m having a day today so… you’re pregnant, is it going to be a boy, is it going to be a girl, or is it going to be something different? I don’t know, depends on my mood! So, I suppose you and I were that mood, maybe.
Nilla Pinja: Yeah, and it’s also like, really… when you think, all the other Indigenous cultures and… and for example, the third gender, they have been like… in some other Indigenous cultures they have always been there. They have. And so like, it really makes me think, the Western influence, and what the colonialism has done in all this.Gassko Märak & Nilla Pinja 2021.
That is all to say, Sámi understanding of gender has been quite different from Western understandings, and Sámi religion also incorporates this view of gender. Furthermore, as Nilla Pinja mentions here, many Indigenous cultures have had conceptualisations of gender that go beyond the Western binary views. On Turtle Island (the lands colonised by the USA and Canada), the term Two-Spirit is often used by various native nations as an umbrella term to describe gender and sexual identities beyond the binary (Neptune 2018). What exactly Two-Spirit means can vary between native nations (and individuals) but the term is often used as an umbrella term specifically to create common ground and help educate about traditional teachings. In many Indigenous societies, Two-Spirit people have traditionally held a proper and accepted place. This was based on spiritual teachings that all life is sacred. Geo Neptune, who is Passamaquoddy and Two-Spirit, notes the following about the meaning and history of Two-Spirit identity:
To illustrate the diversity of what Two-Spirit contain, consider the following:
In Lakota, the word winkte means “to be as a woman” and refer to Two-Soul Lakota people who transgress boundaries of gender from what may be considered male to female.
In Diné, nádleehi means “those who transform” and refers to one of four genders: masculine-feminine, masculine-masculine, feminine-masculine, and feminine-feminine. Each gender has its own word in the Diné language.
And those are just two nation specific examples, there are so many more! Each nation’s understanding of gender and sexual diversity is different and grounded in specific spiritual beliefs. Although all nations don’t have a concept of Two-Spirit people, across those indigenous nations that do, Two-Spirit people were historically held in high regard and often considered sacred or divine, holding important positions like matchmakers, medicine people, or warriors on the front lines of battle. Many Two-Spirit people perform roles traditionally assigned to both men and women.Neptune 2018.
Many more examples could be given (and I go into some more in my essay about trans history), but the point I wanted to make is that many Indigenous people have broader understandings of gender and sexuality than Western cultures have. While some Indigenous people (for instance Two-Spirit people) also use terms like trans, non-binary, queer or gay to describe themselves, not all do and Westerners should be careful when escribing these labels to them (for more discussion, see for instance Roen 2006; Boellstorff, Cabral, Cádenas, Cotten, Stanley, Young, and Aizura 2014). Westerners already have a history of telling Indigenous people how to identify in regard to gender and sexuality, we should not do it again.
A caution should also be made regarding the term “third gender” which has often been used both in academia and outside it to describe gender identities and expression outside the gender binary that has traditionally existed in non-Western contexts (Towle & Morgan 2006). While not all use of that term is problematic, Towle and Morgan raises several reasons to why it’s often used in a problematic way, especially by Western academics:
The “third gender” is a uniquely Western concept produced by a society just beginning to grapple with the theoretical, social, political, and personal consequences of nondichotomous gender variability.
It is thus an apt rhetorical and analytic device for the current historical moment, because it can accommodate contradictory social impulses; it signals both tolerance for cultural diversity and adherence to Western categories. Rather than accept uncritically the need for a “third” gender category, though, we should ask how “our” narratives about “them” (cultural others) reflect our own society’s contradictory agendas concerning sexuality, gender, and power. In spite of the obvious imaginative and political potential created by the awareness of gender diversity across cultures, several flaws emerge in the utilization of “third gender” concepts. In the remainder of this essay we enumerate and illustrate these flaws, which we organize as follows:
Towle & Morgan 2006, 671.
- The primordial location. “Third gender” societies are accorded a primordial, foundational location in our thinking, as though they underlay or predated Western gender formulations.
- Reductionism and exclusionism. The “third gender” concept lumps all nonnormative gender variations into one category, limiting our understandings of the range and diversity of gender ideologies and practices.
- Typological errors. By identifying “third gender” types, the concept ignores the diversity of experience within categories and glosses over the often contentious processes through which social formations, relations, and hierarchies are created, lived, negotiated, and changed.
- Inconsistent use of the culture concept. Does culture facilitate or delimit social change?
- The West versus the rest. “Third gender” concepts may isolate the West, for analytic purposes, from other societies, thereby reinforcing our ethnocentric assumptions; inhibiting us from forging alliances across national or cultural borders; and inducing us to focus on diversity between cultures while ignoring diversity, or the complexities of social change, within them.
As I hope has been made clear here, in general, while many Indigenous people have shared struggles and there are similarities in their understandings of gender, this should not be generalised. Especially by white people. What can be said, however, is that many share experiences of oppression from colonialists who have had a very binary, cisnormative, heteronormative, and sexist understanding of gender and sexuality.
Free Folk cultures and southern prejudice
When we first hear about the Free Folk in the prologue of A Game of Thrones, it’s in the context of the Night’s Watch looking for them and assessing them as a threat. Given that the chapter is told from the point of view of a Night’s Watchman, the Free Folk are immediately positioned as the enemy. In the next chapter, Bran I, we hear more tales about the Free Folk as Bran remembers Old Nan telling stories about them. In these stories, the Free Folk are described as cruel and scary, allying with literal monsters and drinking blood. Of course, the Free Folk is also referred to as Wildlings here, giving the general impression of them being a wild uncivilised folk and a threat. This is expanded upon when we learn more about Mance, and how he might be trying to invade the North. With that, the Free Folk are positioned as a wild hoard that will threat civilised society. But as I mentioned in the introduction, this first view of the Free Folk slowly gets more nuanced. In ACOK, Jon meets Craster who is undeniably a monster, but he also meets Craster’s daughters and later Ygritte. The reader eventually learns that other Free Folk also think Craster is horrible. Generally speaking, Free Folk aren’t monsters, and what Craster is doing has more in common with someone like Walder Frey than Free Folk in general (as for instance, NotACast has pointed out).
As for the threat from the Free Folk, throughout ACOK the Night’s Watch worry about the fact that the Free Folk has abandoned their villages to gather with Mance. But what might at first look seem like a mustering of an army later turns out to be the gathering of a whole people (or rather several peoples) to escape an apocalyptic threat. They’re fleeing the cold, the lethal change to their land. I sometimes hear people describe the land above the Wall as uninhabitable, a sort of cold barren wasteland, but clearly people have managed to live there for thousands of years. They have tried to move south before, but this mass migration is new. Now that their lands are changing, they truly cannot stay. I think a parallel can be noted here to how Indigenous people in our world are impacted by climate change. Of course, the Others aren’t just a metaphor for climate change. But there are parts of them that work that way. They do change the climate and pose a deadly threat. And as such it’s darkly fitting that the Free Folk are the ones to be affected first and (so far) in the harshest way. As I mentioned previously, many Indigenous people in the Arctic and sub-Arctic are being affected by climate change as it’s wrecking their traditional lands and therefore also their way of life (Saami Council & German Arctic Office 2021). One such example is how the warmer winters (in addition to the cutting down of forests) are making it more difficult for reindeer to find food, which has huge impacts on for instance the Sámi. It’s difficult not to think about that when reading passages like this, from when Jon oversees the Free Folk going through the Wall:
After the riders came the men of the Frozen Shore. Jon watched a dozen of their big bone chariots roll past him one by one, clattering like Rattleshirt. Half still rolled as before; other had replaced their wheels with runners. They slid across the snowdrifts smoothly, where the wheeled chariots were foundering and sinking.
The dogs that drew the chariots were fearsome beasts, as big as direwolves. Their women were clad in sealskins, some with infants at their breasts. Older children shuffled along behind their mothers and looked up at Jon with eyes as dark and hard as the stones they clutched. Some of the men wore antlers on their hats, and some wore walrus tusks. The two sorts did not love each other, he soon gathered. A few thin reindeer brought up the rear, with the great dogs snapping at the heels of straggles.A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII.
What will happen to that reindeer now that they have to live in a completely new territory below the Wall? What will happen with the people of the Frozen Shore, how will this impact their culture and way of life? It seems like reindeer are an important part of their culture, given that it’s mentioned that they both keep reindeer and that some of them have reindeer antlers on their hats. That indicates that reindeer holds some sort of cultural significance for them. There is not enough textual evidence to say much more than that – but I do want to note the potential parallel to reindeer herding Indigenous people in our world and how changing climates impact them and their reindeer. Such change can impact entire cultures, especially if reindeer hold strong cultural significance. When reindeer herding is more than just one’s livelihood, when it’s part of one’s culture and one’s relationship to the earth and land, being forced to relocate like this can have huge consequences.
Something else that I wanted to touch on here is how many different Free Folk cultures there are. In the eyes of most of Westeros, the Free Folk are just a hoard of wild folk, but as we learn when Jon grows closer to them, there’s much more to them than that. They’re not just uncivilised brutes, they have a culture. Or rather, several different cultures. They create things just like in the land south of the Wall: clothing, jewellery, music, etc. They have traditions and customs, and these all vary between different tribes.
There were cookfires all along the river, amongst wayns and carts and sleds. Many of the wildlings had thrown up tents, of hide and skin and felted wool. Others sheltered behind rocks in crude lean-tos, or slept beneath their wagons. At one fire Jon saw a man hardening the points of long wooden spears and tossing them in a pile. Elsewhere two bearded youths in boiled leather were sparring with staffs, leaping at each other over the flames, grunting each time one landed a blow. A dozen women sat nearby in a circle, fletching arrows. (…) There was no doubting which tent was the king’s. It was thrice the size of the next largest he’d seen, and he could hear music drifting from within. Like many of the lesser tents it was made of sewn hides with the fur still on, but Mance Rayder’s hides were the shaggy white pelts of snow bears. The peaked roof was crowned with a huge set of antlers from one of the giant elks that had once roamed freely throughout the Seven Kingdoms, in the times of the First MenA Storm of Swords, Jon I.
Along with the Tormunds and the Longspears rode other sorts of wildlings, though; men like Rattleshirt and the Weeper who would as soon slit you as spit on you. There was Harma Dogshead, a squat keg of a woman with cheeks like slabs of white meat, who hated dogs and killed one every fortnight to make a fresh head for her banner; earless Styr, Magnar of Thenn, whose own people thought him more god than lord; Varamyr Sixskins, a small mouse of a man whose steed was a savage white snow bear that stood thirteen feet tall on its hind legs.
And there were folks fiercer even than Varamyr, from the northernmost reaches of the haunted forest, the hidden valleys of the Frostfangs, and even queerer places: the men of the Frozen Shore who rode in chariots made of walrus bones pulled along by packs of savage dogs, the terrible ice-river clans who were said to feast on human flesh, the cave dwellers with their faces dyed blue and purple and green. With his own eyes Jon had beheld the Hornfoot men trotting along in column on bare soles as hard as boiled leather. He had not seen any snarks or grumpkins, but for all he knew Tormund would be having some to supper.
Half the wildling host had lived all their lives without so much as a glimpse of the Wall, Jon judged, and most of those spoke no word of the Common Tongue. It did not matter. Mance Rayder spoke the Old Tongue, even sang in it, fingering his lute and filling the night with strange wild music.A Storm of Swords, Jon II
“As they passed, each warrior stripped off his treasures and tossed them into one of the carts that the stewards had placed before the gate. Amber pendants, golden torques, jewelled daggers, silver brooches set with gemstones, bracelets, rings, niello cups and golden goblets, warhorns and drinking horns, a green jade comb, a necklace of freshwater pearls… all yielded up and noted down by Bowen Marsh. One man surrendered a shirt of silver scales that had surely been made for some great lord. Another produced a broken sword with three sapphires in the hilt.
And there were queerer things: a toy mammoth made of actual mammoth hair, an ivory phallus, a helm made from a unicorn’s head, complete with horn.”A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII
As we can see, there’s a lot more to the Free Folk than the people below the Wall might think. Sure, some of the treasures mentioned above have probably been acquired south of the Wall, but definitely not all of them. A lot is Free Folk made. Besides the quotes above, there are also several more mentions in the books about adorned clothing, armour (bronze and otherwise), masks, etc. The more you look for it, the clearer it becomes that just because the land beyond the Wall is cold and in some ways has fewer resources than below the Wall, that doesn’t mean that the Free Folk can’t create things (this is something I have tried to make clear with the artwork used in this essay). They can make things that aren’t just shabby fur haphazardly sewn together.
The Free Folk cultures are rich and complex, even if it’s not in ways the people south of the Wall would appreciate. A large reason why the people south of the Wall don’t appreciate their culture is plain old prejudice and xenophobia. But a contributing factor is probably also the lack of written records about the Free Folk, apart from ones from the perspective of maesters or lords. Free Folk history is oral history, and just as in our world, such history is generally not seen as reliable or proper. Something else to note is the mention of how a lot of Free Folk only speak the old tongue, not the common tongue. The first men spoke this language too, but those south of the Wall has forgotten it after getting more assimilated with Andal culture. This reminded me of what Pohjanen (2022) writes about how the “fancy” Tornedalians would abandon their language to speak the language of the richer majority population, and at the same time take up positions where they helped police and control other Tornedalians. This is but one example from real life about how the usage of language plays a part in ethnic and class-based oppression.
Before moving on, I wanted to comment on one more thing about Free Folk culture, namely their relationship to the land. In general, it seems like those who are believers of the Old Gods have a close relationship to nature, more so than for instance those who believe in the Faith of the Seven. But what sets the Free Folk especially apart is their philosophy regarding land rights. When Ygritte and Jon discuss the land of the Gift, and how it’s been abandoned, their different view on land comes up.
“Maybe they were tired of fighting. Tired of barring their doors every night and wondering if Rattleshirt or someone like him would break them down to carry off their wives. Tired of having their harvests stolen, and any valuables taken.” But if the Wall should fall, all the north will lie within the reach of raiders.
“You know nothing, Jon Snow. Daughters are taken, not wives. You’re the ones who steal. You took the whole world, and built the Wall t’ keep the free folk out.”
“Did we?” Sometimes Jon forgot how wild she was. “How did that happen?”
“The gods made the earth for all men t’ share. Only when the kings come with their crowns and steel swords, they claimed it was all theirs. My trees, they said, you can’t eat them apples. My stream, you can’t fish here. My wood, you’re not t’ hunt. My earth, my water, my castle, my daughter, keep your hands away or I’ll chop them off, but maybe if you kneel t’ me I’ll let you have a sniff. You call us thieves, but at least a thief has t’ be brave and cleaver and quick. A kneeler only has t’ kneel.”A Storm of Swords, Jon V
In this passage, it becomes clear how people south of the Wall and north of the Wall have very different understandings of land and land ownership. In Ygritte’s view, land isn’t something you own, it is something for everyone to share. Ygritte also relates this to the Free Folk ideology of not kneeling. In a sense, this is similar to what Dr Finbog writes about the Sámi not believing in subjugating either land, non-human beings, or human beings (2022a). As she notes, the forced erasure of this way of thinking and understanding amounts to epistimicide. Perhaps we’ll see a similar process with the Free Folk as they are forced to migrate to the south and assimilate into another culture. Now, Jon and many other characters might object to the notion of freedom and non-subjugation given the Free Folk tradition of stealing daughters. And that brings us to our next topic, Free Folk understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality.
Sex, sexuality, and gender
One reoccurring thing that people south of the Wall bring up as a danger with the Free Folk is their tradition of stealing women. This is something Jon and Ygritte discuss, and she offers these counterpoints to his criticism of the practice:
”And what if they do? I’d sooner be stolen by a strong man than be given t’ some weakling by my father.”
”You say that, but how can you know? What if you were stolen by someone you hated?”
”He’d have t’ be quick and cunning and brave t’ steal me. So his sons would be strong and smart as well. Why would I hate such a man as that?”
”Maybe he never washes, so he smells as rank as a bear.”
”Then I’d push him in a stream or throw a bucket o’ water on him. Anyhow, men shouldn’t smell sweet like flowers.”
”What’s wrong with flowers?”
”Nothing, for a bee. For bed I want one o’ these.” Ygritte made to grab the front of his breeches.
Jon caught her wrist. ”What if the man who stole you drank too much?” he insisted. ”What if he was brutal or cruel?” He tightened his grip to make a point. ”What if he was stronger than you, and liked to beat you bloody?”
”I’d cut his throat while he slept. You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Ygritte twisted like an eel and wrenched away from him.
”A man can own a woman or a man can own a knife,” Ygritte told him, ”but no man can own both. Every little girl learns that from her mother.” She raised her chin defiantly and gave her thick red hair a shake. ”And men can’t own the land no more’n they can own the sea or the sky. You kneelers think you do, but Mance is going t’ show you different.”A Storm of Swords, Jon V
Now, I’m not saying this tradition is unproblematic. But it’s not necessarily worse than being married off by your father, which is very common in the Seven Kingdoms. What’s more, as Ygritte points out, it is much more culturally acceptable for Free Folk women to take action if they’re displeased with their man. Be it throwing a bucket of water at him or killing him. A Free Folk woman isn’t owned by her husband. Nonetheless, this tradition makes the Free Folk seem wild and uncivilised to the people south of the Wall. To them, it’s unacceptable for a man to take a woman to wife without the consent of the woman’s previous owner, her father. As Learned Hands have pointed out – in medieval times, the crime of rape was mainly seen as a problem since it damaged the property of a man (be it his daughter or wife). A woman’s father or husband is the one to decide over her sexuality and reproduction. Clearly, the Free Folk don’t view it like that.
That the Free Folk don’t think of sexuality and reproduction in the same way as the people south of the Wall becomes clear in Jon’s story. In Jon’s second chapter in ASOS, Jon and Tormund discuss sexuality with Tormund joking that he’s heard that the Night’s Watch cuts off watchmen’s members so they will stay chaste. Tormund argues that this is the only reason he can see for Jon not sleeping with Ygritte.
Jon could feel himself turning red again. “She spoke for me when Rattleshirt would have me killed. I would not dishonor her.”
“You are a free man now and Ygritte is a free woman. What dishonor if you lay together?”
“I might get her with child.”
“Aye, I’d hope so. A strong son or a lively laughing girl kissed by fire, and where’s the harm in that?”
Words failed him for a moment. “The boy… the child would be a bastard.”
“You’re bastard-born yourself. And if Ygritte does not want a child, she will go to some woods witch and drink a cup o’ moon tea. You do not come into it, once the seed is planted.”
“I will not father a bastard.”
Tormund shook his shaggy head. “What fools you kneelers be. Why did you steal the girl if you don’t want her?”
“Steal? I never…”
“You did,” said Tormund. “You slew the two she was with and carried her off, what do you call it?”
“Yes, but… Tormund, I swear, I never touched her.”
”Are you certain they never cut your member off?” Tormund gave a shrug, as if to say he would never understand such madness. ”Well, you are a free man now, but if you will not have the girl, best find yourself a she-bear. If a man does not use his member it grows smaller and smaller, until one day he wants to piss and cannot find it.”
Jon had no answer for that. Small wonder that the Seven Kingdoms thought the free folk scarcely human. They have no laws, no honor, not even simple decency. They steal endlessly from each other, breed like beasts, prefer rape to marriage, and fill the world with baseborn children. Yet he was growing fond of Tormund Giantsbane, great bag of wind and lies though he was. Longspear as well. And Ygritte . . . no, I will not think about Ygritte.A Storm of Swords, Jon II
There’s so much going on in this one quote. Firstly, it becomes very clear that the Free Folk have a very different view on bastardy than the people south of the Wall. They don’t see it as a problem if someone has a child out of wedlock, whereas in the Seven Kingdoms that would be dishonourable. Specifically, it would dishonour the woman who is no longer a “pure” maiden. As I’ve discussed previously in an essay about virginity norms in ASOIAF, the focus the Seven Kingdoms put on women’s virginity is part of patriarchal control. Controlling women’s sexuality is part of the greater control of women. That the Free Folk don’t have this preoccupation with women’s sexuality speaks to their general greater gender equality. However, it also becomes part of what makes them seem “scarcely human” as Jon puts it. This reflects the experiences of for instance Indigenous people in our world, where the sexuality of their women specifically has often been seen as problematic by Westerners (Finbog 2022a). This has contributed to these groups being “Othered” – seen as other/strange/wild, as compared to the upstanding “civilised” people of the West. The same thing can be seen with the relationship between Free Folk and the people of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk are the dark mirror that the people of the Seven Kingdoms use to see themselves as proper and good.
Something else to note in the above quote is that Tormund mentions that Ygritte could go to a woods witch to get moon tea if she doesn’t want a child. Learned Hands have previously discussed exactly what moon tea is (is it a contraceptive? Plan B? Abortion?) and how accessible it is to people in Westeros. It is a bit unclear based on the books, but it is definitely some sort of medicinal treatment to either completely avoid pregnancy or terminate a pregnancy. What is clear is that it provides greater reproductive freedom for those who have access to it which also leads to greater gender equality, similar to the role of both contraceptives and abortion in our world (United Nations Population Fund 2023, 100). I would, however, be remiss if I do not point out how the same medical procedures have been and are being used to control the reproduction of marginalised groups. The United Nations Population Fund referenced above does a great job of discussing this. Nevertheless, in general, greater access to contraceptives and abortion leads to greater reproductive freedom and gender equality. That Free Folk has more control over their reproduction is in line with the general greater gender equality we see in the Free Folk, where women are not restricted by the same gender norms as they are south of the Wall. There are plenty of examples of spearwives, i.e. warrior women, throughout the story and we see several women in leader positions as well. That can be seen with for instance leaders like Harma Dog’s Head, Mother Mole, Val, and Morna White Mask. However, there aren’t really any examples in the text of Free Folk men taking up more “feminine” roles. My tentative conclusion based on this is that Free Folk typically don’t have as strict of a divide between what roles men and women can hold compared to the lands south of the Wall, but that they still value “traditional” above “traditional” femininity (regardless of gender). At least if we consider what we (Westerners) might typically/traditionally see as masculine or feminine. The Free Folk seem to consider gender and gender norms differently than the rest of Westeros, so it might not make much sense to talk about traditional masculinity/femininity at all. Essentially, in the eyes of someone from the Seven Kingdoms, Free Folk women might act masculine, but in the eyes of the Free Folk, they’re behaving the way a woman might be expected to act. This is an example of how gender norms are in the end socially constructed, and different cultures can understand them differently.
But speaking of Free Folk whose gender might seem strange to people south of the Wall, I have to take a moment to discuss Morna White Mask. When we are introduced to her in ADWD, she’s described like this:
The warrior witch Morna removed her weirwood mask just long enough to kiss his gloved hand and swear to be his man or his woman, whichever he preferred.A Dance with Dragons, Jon XII
In this small passage, we learn several things about Morna. She’s described as a warrior witch, which indicates both a fighting ability and some sort of magical and/or medicinal ability. She also wears a weirwood mask, which hints at some sort of (magical) connection with the Old Gods. And, of course, she hints at some sort of gender fluidity when saying she could be Jon’s man or woman. This magically connected character being associated with genderfluidity is interesting and also dovetails with other magical genderfluidity in the books. For instance, some argue that the dragons in the story can change their sex, which I have discussed in my essay about dragons and sex. We also get a brief mention in Cersei’s story about an alchemist who can transform women into men for a night, something Rohanne and I discussed in our Cersei essay. And of course, Arya whose story is so tied up in gender and gender nonconformity, ends up with a death cult that teaches her to change her face (I’ve discussed that in my essay about Arya, Alleras, and Brave Danny Flint). In that light, a warrior witch having a fluid gender makes total sense. But I also can’t help but wonder if GRRM was inspired by various indigenous cultures where for instance Two-Spirit people traditionally have held positions such as warriors or medicine people (Neptune 2018). It’s also worth noting how Morna seems to hold a position of respect among the Free Folk, as can for instance be seen when she’s chosen as one of the people to command a Night’s Watch castle after Jon lets the Free Folk through the Wall. This is a huge contrast to how gender-nonconforming people below the Wall are treated. As I have discussed elsewhere, for instance in relation to Brienne and Brave Danny Flint, gender nonconforming people are rarely respected in Westeros, and are in fact much more likely to be subjected to violence because of their gender nonconformity. So, Morna being seen as a respected leader is quite the contrast, and again something that tracks with how a lot of Indigenous cultures have treated gender-diverse people. But again, this understanding of gender diversity is something that the Seven Kingdoms would see as proof of the Free Folk’s wildness and use to legitimise their control of them.
Having discussed the way the Free Folk are “Othered” by the Seven Kingdoms, I would like to discuss the colonial control of the Free Folk that this “Othering” helps legitimise. Because the relationship the Seven Kingdoms (and the Night’s Watch) have with the Free Folk isn’t just what a country might normally have with a neighbouring country, with them defending their borders for example. In other places in the world of ice and fire, we see those kinds of relationships between countries, for instance with the Free Cities. They might sometimes war against each other, but they also trade with each other, and people can migrate between the cities. After the latest war between Braavos and Pentos, Braavos might have forced Pentos to certain concessions (such as having no slavery and a limited amount of war ships), but it’s still not as extreme as the control the Night’s Watch enforce. In the context of Westeros, we might look at the land before the Targaryens conquered the realm – we know the different kingdoms warred amongst each other, but there is no evidence that someone from the Riverlands couldn’t jump on a ship to White Harbour to sell some grain. But when it comes to the Free Folk, this isn’t allowed. The Free Folk can’t travel to the south of the Wall to trade goods, and there seem to be limitations on who can trade with the Free Folk too. As Davos recalls:
The first time he had seen the Wall he had been younger than Devan, serving aboard the Cobblecat under Roro Uhoris, a Tyroshi known up and down the narrow sea as the Blind Bastard, though he was neither blind nor baseborn. Roro had sailed past Skagos into the Shivering Sea, visiting a hundred little coves that had never seen a trading ship before. He brought steel; swords, axes, helms, good chainmail hauberks, to trade for furs, ivory, amber, and obsidian. When the Cobblecat turned back south her holds were stuffed, but in the Bay of Seals three black galleys came out to herd her into Eastwatch. They lost their cargo and the Bastard lost his head, for the crime of trading weapons to the wildlings.A Dance with Dragons, Davos I
Here we have Night’s Watch stopping a Tyroshi captain (so not even Westerosi) from trading with the Free Folk. Now, he was specifically trading weapons, but it is unclear if it is allowed to trade other goods either. We know that some Free Folk are allowed to trade with the Watch, for instance, Craster but also Varamyr’s mentor Haggon. Varamyr remembers a visit to Eastwatch when Varamyr himself was 10 years old:
Haggon traded a dozen strings of amber and a sled piled high with pelts for six skins of wine, a block of salt, and a copper kettle. Eastwatch was a better place to trade than Castle Black; that was where the ships came, laden with goods from the fabled lands beyond the sea. The crows knew Haggon as a hunter and a friend to the Night’s Watch, and welcomed the news he brought of life beyond their Wall. Some knew him for a skinchanger too, but no one spoke of that.A Dance with Dragons, Prologue
Can you only trade with the Night’s Watch and land south of the Wall if you are “a friend to the Watch” and willing to provide information on your fellow Free Folk? If you’re a “good wildling” who doesn’t challenge the Night’s Watch right to control the land and border, then you can get some benefits. I’m sure that’s a familiar story for many people who have lived under colonialisation…
The situation with the enforced border also reminds me of what Pohjanen (2022) writes about how Tornedalians have experienced the Finnish/Swedish border, with a preacher arguing that there’s not a “whiff of sin in smuggling.”(ibid, 20) If you don’t believe in the legitimacy of a colonial border, you won’t believe there is anything wrong in defying the rules set up by the officers that guard it either. Now, having said all that, I want to make one thing clear: just because I think the Free Folk should be allowed to move across the border and trade with people south of the Wall doesn’t mean I think the land above the Wall is some sort of desolate wasteland where no one could want to live. It’s clear in the story that Free Folk have lived north of the Wall for millennia, including very far north of the Wall. I also mentioned above how the Free Folk have a different relationship and understanding of land than people south of the Wall, and perhaps also a closer connection to the land. I compared this to how many Indigenous people have a different understanding of what relationships to land mean and entail compared to people of the West. I therefore also want to mention that Indigenous people in our world who live in Northern lands hardly see these lands as uninhabitable and desolate, even if people from the south might. Earlier in this essay, I quoted Válkko Elle Susá (who is quoted in Elin Anna Labba’s book) who talked about Sámi people missing the mountain Bealčán (Pälstan in Swedish) after they had been forcibly relocated to the south. To put that in perspective, this is where that mountain is located:
That’s pretty far north. In a land that a lot of people from the south would assume to not be somewhere you’d want to live. Yet people live there and have a deep connection to the land. Assuming that no one would want to live there contributes to the perception that the land is either useless or not worth preserving for people. This idea has done a lot of damage in our own world, with colonial states like Sweden and Norway both historically and currently legitimising their exploitation of Sápmi in this way. The value that the land has to the people living there is dismissed, and focus is only put on how the land can bring value to the colonial state, be it through wind power or mines. The situation isn’t quite the same in ASOIAF, but I still think it is dangerous to dismiss the land beyond the Wall as uninhabitable. For one, it diminishes the suffering of the Free Folk who, due to the onslaught of the Others, have had to give up their homes. But it also reinforces the discourse that is present in our world that northern lands such as these are desolate, which as mentioned above is dangerous. In my opinion, the problem in ASOIAF isn’t that you can’t live off the land above the Wall. The problem is that the Free Folk are prohibited from trading with other cultures and communities. Their enforced isolation is what is problematic. In this way, the Night’s Watch operates as colonial officers, enforcing the subjugation of the Free Folk, similar to for instance customs officers by the Swedish/Finnish border.
Another aspect of colonial control that I want to discuss is what Stannis does when he arrives at the Wall. After defeating the Free Folk in battle, Stannis allows them to pass through the Wall, but only with certain conditions. They have to swear themselves to him as their king and they have to give up their religion. They have to burn symbols of their religion. So, while Stannis might give the Free Folk a chance to not die against the Others, he also forces them to give up their culture and religion. And he makes it very clear that he expects them to pay him (and the realm) back with their labour, fighting for him. As Eliana of Girls Gone Canon has pointed out (when discussing Jon III in ADWD), what Stannis does here with the forced religious conversion amounts to ethnic cleansing and is very similar to what many colonial states have subjected colonised subjects to. Stannis might in theory give the Free Folk a choice, they can choose to not submit and instead try their luck against the Others, but that’s not a real choice. If they want to live, they have to submit and agree to give up their culture and religion. According to the UN, ethnic cleansing is defined as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” (United Nations: Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect n.d.) Stannis isn’t removing people from an area per se, but he’s trying to render an area culturally and religiously homogeneous by using force and intimidation.Much like different colonial powers have tried to do. Yet, as Eliana and Chloe point out in a later episode, the Free Folk persist and continue to keep their own gods. Similarly, many colonised people in our world have managed to resist the extermination of their own culture and religion to a certain degree. But much has still been lost. In the context of northern colonialism in our world, Stannis’ attempt at this reminds me of how the Swedish crown burned Sámi religious symbols and sites (samer.se c). All the while they forced Sámi to work in the mines that the crown set up to exploit their land. While the Sámi have been resilient and tried to hold on to their culture throughout all of this, there have still been significant losses. In the context of ASOIAF, we can see that another approach is absolutely possible since Jon later allows Free Folk through the Wall without forcing them to convert. That is not to say that Jon’s approach is unproblematic, but he doesn’t engage in the same type of ethnic cleansing. While Jon hasn’t fully shed the ideas he’s grown up with, his time with the Free Folk has helped him see them and their culture as something more than uncivilised wildness. Much of the Night’s Watch, and arguably Stannis, still see the Free Folk as something that needs to be controlled. Some might acknowledge that their labour can be utilised, but still think they must be ruled by their betters.
Throughout the ASOIAF books, it’s clear that in the mind of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk are understood as uncivilised wildlings – a dark mirror to their own civilisation. The Free Folk are a threat to defend against. This becomes evident in many ways, especially in how the Seven Kingdoms view Free Folk sexuality and gender. In comparison to the people of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk have greater gender equality and sexual freedom, and maybe also greater acceptance of gender fluidity. This makes the people of the Seven Kingdom see them as uncivilised and wild, very similar to prejudice against for instance Indigenous people of our world. However, this is not the only reason the Free Folk are seen as wild. Another is their view on land and their belief that land cannot be owned by people. Both their views regarding gender and land pose existential threats to the status quo of the Seven Kingdoms, which is another reason why it becomes essential to dismiss the Free Folk as wild and uncivilised.
But all of this can also be used to legitimise the colonial control of the Free Folk. In this way, the Free Folk have much in common with many colonised people in our world, including those in Arctic and sub-Arctic climates. That they are being seen as uncivilised is seen as a reason why it’s acceptable to rule over them and take control over their lands, it’s not like those lands can hold any value, right? In ASOIAF, we have not yet seen the same exploitation of land as can be seen in for instance Sápmi, but we are beginning to see the exploitation of Free Folk labour. What’s more, I would argue that it’s a mistake to dismiss the importance that the land above the Wall might hold to Free Folk culture. In doing that, we risk making the same mistakes as someone like Tywin Lannister when he dismisses the Free Folk army thusly:
Pycelle cleared his throat, which involved a deal of coughing and hawking. ”The letter is from the same Bowen Marsh who sent the last. The castellan. He writes that Lord Mormont has sent word of wildlings moving south in vast numbers.”
”The lands beyond the Wall cannot support vast numbers,” said Lord Tywin firmly. ”This warning is not new.”A Storm of Swords, Tyrion IV
And truly, who wants to make the same mistake as Tywin Lannister? Clearly, the land beyond the Wall can support vast numbers, and clearly, the people there have managed to not only survive there but uphold many different vibrant cultures. Cultures that survive even the bitterest circumstances and attempts at cultural and religious extermination from southern kings.
I hope this essay has been able to give some insight into the power dynamics between the Free Folk and the people of the Seven Kingdoms and also taught you something about colonialism in our world. When discussing these topics in a fictional context, it is always important to remember that these aren’t just theoretical issues, they are issues that have very real consequences in real life. I hope that I have managed that.
Special thanks to Noah and DREADLady for the art used in this essay!
Before listing all the references below, I want to note that the book by Elin Anna Labba about the forced displacement of Sámi that I have quoted will be available in English by December 2023. Keep an eye on Labba’s Instagram account for more information!
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