The Sami People: History, Culture, and Contemporary Issues

historical photo of sami group, 1900
Photograph of Sami Group and Lavvo Tents in Tromsdalen, 1900. Image Credit: Monovisions Photography Magazine.

Who are the Sami? What is their History?

The Sami are the oldest indigenous ethnic group in Europe, dispersed throughout areas in Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. They are the descendants of nomadic peoples who had inhabited northern Scandinavia for thousands of years. Today, the total population of the Sami ranges from around 80,000 to 100,000, the majority of whom live in NorwayThe Sami have traditionally built their livelihood through fishing, hunting, and reindeer herding throughout the Arctic. They are most notably recognized for their close relationship with reindeer, an animal that continues to hold importance within their culture. The Sami have several other unique cultural traditions, such as ‘gakti’, traditional Sami clothing, and other forms of craftsmanship.

The earliest written records describing the Sami date all the way back to the works of Cornelius Tacitus (56 AD- 120 AD), a Roman historian and politician. In his ethnographic work Germania, Tacitus describes an encounter with a group of semi-nomadic reindeer hunters. Later on, in his History of the Langobards, historian Paul the Deacon observes a similar group of reindeer  herders that ‘pursue wild beasts very skillfully with a piece of wood bent in the likeness of a bow’. The first mention of the term ‘lappir’, or ‘lapps’ to describe the Sami dates back to the twelfth century, with the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus.

Though much of this historical evidence remains sparse and somewhat inconsistent, it is believed that initial contact between the Sami and Norse missionaries (ancestors of dominant ethnic groups in modern-day Norway, Sweden, and Finland) began around the ninth century, when Ottar of the Norwegian Vikings encountered the Sami on a journey to what is now referred to as the Kola Peninsula. Early relations between Norse missionaries and the Sami mainly consisted of trade and exploitation; in exchange for furs and other goods, the Sami were able to obtain grain and iron tools.

However, by the nineteenth century, the Sami were viewed to be racially inferior to other Scandinavian ethnic groups (this in part was due to the rise of Social Darwinism), which inspired Norwegian efforts to lift the Sami from their circumstances and assimilate them through education. The introduction of these policies brought about a period known as ‘Norwegianization’, which lasted until the late-twentieth century.

Sami Language:

The Sami speak a total of ten separate but related languages (six of which have written standards) throughout Scandinavia, three of which are in active use in Northern Norway. These languages differ widely from other Indo-European languages; rather, the Sami language is instead a member of the Uralic, or Fenno-Ugrian linguistic group, spoken from Central Sweden and mid-southern Norway to the tip of the Kola Peninsula. There are no deep linguistic boundaries between Sami dialects; however, Sami people from different areas may not always be able to communicate with one another due to linguistic dissimilarities. 

The use of the Sami language plays a role in everyday life, and is based on both tradition and cultural continuation. However, it is estimated that only 25,000-35,000 Sami speak their native language today, a small percentage of the entire population; the slow death of the language is mainly an effect of Norwegianization policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which many Sami children were forced to learn Norwegian languages and disregard their native tongue. In 1992, the Sami Language Act was passed in Finland, giving the Sami the right ‘to use the Sami language before authorities, orally and in writing, and to receive a reply in the same language’; this was done in an effort to make amends for previous repressive policies, and to raise the Sami language to the status of Finnish in Scandinavian society.

While the Sami have been granted more cultural autonomy in recent decades, language rights still remain a pressing issue for Sami representatives today- limited resources have been made available for those wishing to learn the language, making it more difficult to use the Sami language in business and social settings.

Sami Religion:

Carving displaying a Sami Shaman practicing their faith, with the sacred drum; displays Sami religious practices
Carving of Sami Shaman or ‘Noiade’ with Sacred Drum, 1767. Image Credit: Wikipedia

In addition to their language, the Sami religion stands out in comparison to Indo-European belief systems. The Sami religion combines shamanic beliefs with components of both animism and polytheism. Similar to other pagan religions, the Sami celebrate a cycle of death, life, and rebirth, and their spiritual beliefs hold that all components of the natural world contain a spirit or life force. Among their many polytheitic beliefs, the spirit(s) of the father, the mother, the son, and the daughter are considered to be the most important ; in the Sami language, these are referred to as ‘Radienecca’, ‘Radienacce’, ‘Radienkiedde’, and ‘Radienneida’. 

The shamans, or ‘noiade’ in Sami culture, are highly respected and purposeful figures among practitioners of the Sami faith. They serve as both protectors and healers in Sami communities, as well as mediums between the world(s) of the living and the dead. Shamanic rituals typically involve the practice of yoiking, another important Sami tradition, combining a rhythmic chant with the accompaniment of a sacred drum. In these rituals, the drum itself is seen as a tool used to represent connections to the spirit realm. Sami religious practices have received more global attention recently, and were even an influence in the making of the 2013 animated feature, Frozen. Upon production of the film, Disney Studios signed an agreement with Sami advisory groups to ensure that their beliefs and traditions were portrayed in a respectful manner. 

The Yoik:

The Yoik can be seen as representative of the whole Sami culture, in and of itself.  Simply defined, the yoik as a form of song, which uses unique rhythms and vocalizations to express anything within the Yoiker’s perception at any given moment. A yoik can not be thought of in the way we would usually consider a song, at least for many western audiences. A yoik usually is not accompanied by musical instruments, and is not seen as a performance. The structure of a yoik is non-linear; it does not follow Western musical traditions, in the sense of having a concise beginning or ending. The yoik rather follows the traditional Sami saying, of ‘no beginning, no end.’ 

In addition, a yoik is not a song, in the sense that is is not about something; rather, a yoik is something. Because it can represent anything within the Yoiker’s perception, emotions, animals, and even other people can be ‘yoiked’. As such, it is practiced in many situations as a part of everyday life, and many Sami people accompany their daily activities with a yoik. In terms of technique, the yoik utilizes nearly the whole range of human vocal potential. It is a skill which places stress on the vocal chords, and thus requires careful breath control. Yoiking as a musical genre can be divided into three distinct dialects, which roughly correspond to dialectical areas of the Sami language: the northern form is known as the ‘luohti’, the southern as the ‘vuolle’, and the eastern as the ‘leu’dd’.

Reindeer Herding and Nomadism:
photograph showing sami reindeer herders in action, wearing traditional Sami clothing
Sami Reindeer Herders in Sweden. Image Credit: Pinterest.

Reindeer have remained a staple component of Sami culture, spirituality, and economy for centuries. Before initial contact with Norse missionaries, Sami people were mainly nomadic, and herded reindeer in small numbers; at this point, Sami nomads would follow reindeer on foot as they searched for ideal grazing grounds over hundreds of miles of Arctic terrain.

While nomadism has virtually disappeared today, reindeer still play an important role in everyday Sami life, and are typically kept in larger herds. Reindeer provide adapted Sami families with meat and milk, hides for clothing and shoes, bones for tools and weapons, and even sinew for sewing. Indeed, there are over 1,000 words across Sami dialects dedicated to describing reindeer. Contemporary Sami herders refer to their world as ‘boazovazzi’, which translates to ‘reindeer walker.’

Norwegianization and its Lasting Impacts:
photograph showing Sami children being taught at Norwegian school, as a result of Norwegianization policies
Sami Children Outside of a Norwegian School, 1929. Image Credit:

Like many other indigenous communities throughout the world, the Sami have been subjected to multiple forms of ethnic, religious and cultural discrimination by domineering ethnic groups. The Norwegianization policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are a prime example of this. Roughly between 1850 and 1950, these policies of assimilation or ‘forsnorking’ rose out of a belief that the Sami posed a threat to dominant ethnic groups, and that they needed to be ‘civilized.’ In 1851, years after the Norwegian state acquired its constitution, parliament instituted a policy known as ‘Finnefondet’, or ‘The Lapp Fund’, a section in the national budget reserved for bringing about a change in language and culture. Finnefondet policies promoted the teaching of Norwegian in intermediate districts, to ensure the ‘enlightenment’ of the Sami people, particularly Sami children attending school. It was through these policies that the slow death of the Sami native languages began. 

From this point onward, measures were tightened. By 1880, it was demanded that all Sami children were to learn to speak, read, and write Norwegian, and were even punished if they spoke the Sami language in the wrong environment. Financial allocutions for Norwegianization policies tightened even more in the early twentieth century, particularly after the first World War due to greater fears of invasion from the East and changes in Scandinavian borders. These measures are believed to have carried on during and outside school hours up until the late 1960’s.

While the Sami now have greater political autonomy and continue to advocate for language and cultural rights, the lasting effects of Norwegianization policies have brought permanent damage to the survival of the Sami language, and the lack of native Sami speakers today.

The Sami Today:
Image of the Sami Parliament, democratically-elected individuals dedicated to advocating for Sami rights
Photograph of Sami Parliament in Finnmark, Norway. Image Credit: Sametinget.

The Sami have experienced somewhat of a cultural renaissance in recent years. In the 21st century, Sami culture is being introduced to the world in innovative ways; knowledge and interest in the Sami has grown rapidly with the rise of social media and digital publishing. The Sami now have their own national theatre, as well as broadcasting mediums which utilize their language. The Sami Parliament was also opened in 1989, which provides visitors with guided tours and introductions to Sami culture. 

Unfortunately, there are ongoing and emerging threats to the Sami way of life which have not lessened with this growing cultural interest. In Norway, large wind farm and property developments are encroaching on Sami land used for reindeer grazing, a loss which is seen by the Sami as the biggest threat to their livelihood and culture. Several Sami settlements in the upper reaches of Finland are also sought after by European corporations.

Most notably, railway promoters have advocated for the development of a railway through Finnish Lapland to the European Union’s Arctic port in Norway, as well as for further exploitation of the region’s natural resources. It is estimated that the region contains 5-13% of the world’s untapped oil, and 20-30% of the world’s untapped gas; indeed, comparisons have been made between contemporary Lapland and the California ‘gold rush’ in the late-nineteenth century. These lands, which have been occupied by the Sami for centuries, are often regarded as Europe’s last great wilderness, or ‘the lungs of Europe’.

Both Sami locals and climate scientists are in opposition to the projects, as they would further disenfranchise residents and endanger the land’s ecosystems-environments which are crucial in the ongoing fight against runaway climate change. The democratically-elected members of Sami Parliament are in an ongoing fight to defend Sami land and cultural rights against the threats posed by these conflicts.

It is evident that the Sami people and their cultural landscapes play a significant role in several global issues, including an ongoing fight against climate change which could ultimately disenfranchise not only indigenous groups, but others all around the world. While there are powerful political and diplomatic factors to consider in light of these issues, an examination into the rich cultural history of the Sami and their relationship with the natural world exemplifies the global benefits, and even conflict resolutions, that might be found through the amplification of indigenous voices and experiences. 

image of Sami family today
Contemporary Sami Family in Northern Finland. Image Credit: Robert Harding.

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