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Why are so many rural Swedes obsessed with the American South?

Residents of Sweden's major cities who have not spent much time in more rural areas of Sweden may not be aware of the 'raggare' subculture, with key elements including American cars, Confederate flags and Swedish rockabilly music.

Why are so many rural Swedes obsessed with the American South?
Power Big Meet in Västerås, the world's largest meet for vintage American cars. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Raggare culture is an extremely Swedish phenomenon, existing mainly outside the larger cities. There are some small pockets of raggare in Finland, and in Norway, where they are known as rånare.

Although there are many young people who would identify themselves as raggare, it is by no means a new subculture, having been around in Sweden since at least the end of the Second World War, inspired by American ‘greasers’.

One of the reasons raggare are found mainly in rural Sweden is that raggare culture centres around owning a car. This can be anything from an old American car from the 1950s or 60s, to a vintage Volvo from roughly the same time period.

Younger raggare (who might not have the funds to buy a swanky classic American car) are more likely to be spotted driving an a-tractor, a small cut-off car with an orange warning triangle on the back which is limited to a top speed of 30km/h.

A Norwegian ‘raggare’, referred to as ‘rånare’ at a meet in Strömstad. Photo: Thomas Winje Øijord

Many of these a-tractors are hand-built or hand-altered from standard cars, meaning that they are often personalised to the owner, with colours, decorations or decals reflecting the owner’s personality.

Another aspect of raggare culture – both among the classic-car raggare and the a-tractor raggare – is listening to American-style rockabilly music (not always in English – one Swedish example popular with raggare is Eddie Meduza, who wrote the unofficial raggare anthem, appropriately titled Raggare).

This music is most often played through a pumped-up car stereo system, like this example of a teenager suspected of stealing a Hesa Fredrik warning signal and hooked it up to the soundsystem in his a-tractor car.

Prejudice towards this subculture is based partly on the fact that locals often get tired of their drinking, allegedly dangerous driving and loud music, and partly on the fact that historically, raggare had questionable morals, loud mouths and often archaic attitudes towards women.

A raggare car decorated with the Confederate flag. Photo: Thomas Winje Øijord

Raggare often attend meets together, usually in the summer, where copious amounts of alcohol are drunk while wearing American-inspired clothing such as jeans, leather vests or denim jackets, pomade in their hair, leather boots and often a large number of Confederate flags.

Former Social Democrat minister for public administration, Ida Karkiainen, who is from Haparanda, a small town with a large raggare population, was in hot water back in 2021 after pictures surfaced of a Confederate flag in her partner’s band practice room which she dismissed, saying she “had no influence” in the band’s choice of decoration.

One raggare showing his backside next to a Confederate flag. Photo: Thomas Winje Øijord

The Confederate flag, known in Sweden as a sydstatsflagga or “southern state flag”, was the flag used by the pro-slavery southern American states during the American civil war. It is a symbol commonly used in the USA among right-wing extremists and white supremacists.

In Sweden, it is instead generally connected with raggare culture, often used as a nostalgic symbol for the American south – although its racist connotations have been increasingly debated in recent years here, too.

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Sweden’s ‘Truth Commission’ delves into painful Sami past

After centuries of persecution, Sweden's indigenous Sami people are beginning to provide testimony about the injustices they experienced in a recently launched "Truth Commission" probing the country's discriminatory policies and their consequences.

Sweden's 'Truth Commission' delves into painful Sami past

Experts have since February been gathering the often-painful accounts from Samis, formerly known by the pejorative term Laplanders or Lapps.

There are an estimated 100,000 Sami people across the vast Arctic wilderness of northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia’s Kola peninsula.

They have lived by hunting, fishing and herding reindeer for thousands of years, and been subjected to colonisation for centuries.

Like all children of Sami reindeer herders since 1913, Nils-Henrik Sikku, a Sami writer now aged 72, was taken away from his family at the age of seven and forcibly placed in a state-run boarding school.

At these “nomad schools”, founded as part of a policy aimed officially at preserving the Sami, the education was basic and, paradoxically, taught in Swedish rather than the Sami language.

The children were punished if they spoke their mother tongue.

“If you did something wrong you were punished, you could be hit, you could be locked up, they could take your clothes and you would be sitting outside until the next morning,” Sikku recalled in an interview with AFP.

The severe conditions led him and a few friends to escape on a freezing winter night.

“We ran… I don’t know how we managed to do it,” he said. “But we were more afraid to go back than to continue.”

The last Sami boarding schools were closed in 1962, but this did not bring an end to the Sami’s long and painful history.

The persecution of the Sami, Europe’s only indigenous people, goes back to the 17th century, when the state began colonising and exploiting their resource-rich lands.

They were first brutally forced to Christianise and abandon their shamanism, before assimilation efforts intensified in the 19th and 20th centuries as the far north’s economic importance grew.

Racial biology

The policies were motivated by the emergence of theories about a “pure Swedish race”, leading to the creation in 1922 of the world’s first State Institute for Racial Biology in Uppsala.

Its director travelled regularly to Lapland to collect skulls and measure and photograph Sami – often children and the elderly, forced to strip naked – in a bid to prove they were an “inferior race”.

Sikku believes he, like his father before him, was subjected to the pseudo-scientific examinations.

“We don’t know what they did with us. But we stood naked in front of the so-called doctors,” he said.

Sami reindeer herders. File photo. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

The Sami were treated differently if they were reindeer herders, considered “authentic” Sami.

“Because the Sami were seen as an ‘inferior race’, (the authorities) thought they were going to disappear so they wanted to preserve the reindeer herders, to salvage them,” explained Sami researcher Kaisa Huuva.

Children of reindeer herders were sent to the state boarding schools, while other Sami lost their land rights.

“A lot of these wrongdoings that were committed a long time ago are still reflected in the families, their living conditions or how they perceive their relations with Swedish society,” Kerstin Calissendorff, head of the Truth Commission, told AFP.

‘Stealing land’

While neighbouring Norway and Finland are scheduled to present the conclusions of their own truth commissions later this year, Sweden is due to publish its report in 2025.

It is expected to pave the way for a reconciliation process.

But Sikku won’t be participating.

“I have no confidence” in the process, he said. “They have stolen our land, forbidden our religion and stolen our childhoods.”

The past, as painful as it was, must not overshadow the problems the Sami still face, Huuva warned.

Even today, “it’s all about the stealing of the land”, she said.

Today’s reindeer herders, considered the last guardians of Sami culture, now see their traditional way of life threatened by climate change and conflicts with industry.

A recent study revealed that the suicide rate among young male reindeer herders was significantly higher than in the general population.

“They want to pass on their culture… and they overstretch their capacity” carrying out the challenging work, study author Petter Stoor, a psychologist at Umeå University, told AFP.

Swedish mining giant LKAB in January announced the discovery of Europe’s biggest deposit of rare earth minerals, much needed for the green transition.

The deposit is located near Kiruna, on Sami land belonging to Huuva’s family.

She’s worried.

“If our land is gone, we are gone with it. We will melt like snow in the sun.”

By AFP’s Maëlle Lions-Geollot