The Sami


[dropcap] T [/dropcap]he derivation of the name “Sami” is disputed, but today it is the term used to describe the people who have inhabited Arctic Europe for at least 5,000 years. The term “Lapp” is no longer used as it is considered pejorative.

A depiction of a Sami hunter, in Jokkmokk musuem

A depiction of a Sami hunter, in Jokkmokk musuem

The Sami live in an area across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Their ancestral home covers an area of almost 400,000 square kilometres. Historically they were self-sufficient hunters and fishermen, but there were divisions in the population and at least ten separate languages existed. The Norwegian Sami were originally fishermen and farmers while those in other areas were primarily hunters, though fishing was important to them too. In the 14th century the bubonic plague ravaged the Norwegian Sami and seventy per cent of their small farms were abandoned. However, today most Sami, around 40,000, live in Norway. This is partly because Swedish Sami were, over several hundred years, encouraged by Norwegians, to move to Norway to take over the abandoned farms.

The inland, or mountain, Sami, who were much more isolated, did not suffer from the plague to the same extent, though eventually their numbers declined for other reasons, including migration to Norway. Today, there are approximately 20,000 Sami in Sweden, 6,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia*. Originally, their existence was to a large extent dependent on reindeer. Up until about the 15th century, they hunted these animals but around this time they started to tame them into domesticated herds. In Sweden, around 2,000 Sami still make their living from reindeer.

*Source: Stulet land – Svensk makt pa Samisk mark – Lennart Lundmark

Pitesamisk beiarn 2005Clothing

The most well-known item of traditional Sami clothing is the Gakti. This a high collared tunic which is worn by men and women, sometimes with a belt, both in work and ceremonial situations. The women’s gakti is longer than the men’s and forms a dress, but both are brightly coloured. The design and colours vary geographically and the details on the gakti can indicate marital status and identify which family the person belongs to. Originally the gakti was made of reindeer skin, but now mainly wool is used.

Trousers, boots and accessories vary from region to region, but all clothing illustrates the Sami’s considerable skill in using the materials traditionally available to them such as animal hides, wood, bone and antlers. These skills are still very much in evidence in Sami handicraft work.


Traditional Sami religion, though there was some geographical diversity, was closely connected to the land, animals and the supernatural. There was a strong link between the natural and the spiritual worlds. The Shaman, or holy man, enabled ritual communication with the supernatural. This was done through beating a drum and chanting. Some objects, such as large stones and certain places, were considered sacred.

Shamanism persisted until the 18th century, though there had been various attempts to introduce Christianity long before this. In Norway in the early 18th century missionaries confiscated shaman drums and thousands were burnt. Today the main religion is Lutheran.

A traditional Sami Kata in Arvidsjaur, Sweden

A traditional Sami Kata in Arvidsjaur, Sweden

Exploitation and persecution

There is a sad history of exploitation of the Sami. Even in the ninth century, the Norwegian Sami were taxed by southern Norwegians. This was described by Otharr, a Norwegian merchant who visited King Alfred’s court. The mountain Sami following the herds of migratory reindeer, which respected no national boundaries, sometimes found themselves taxed in Norway, Sweden and Russia.

There were many efforts through history to subjugate the Sami. In Sweden, the Sami were once made to work as slaves in a mine at Nasafjall. Government troops were ordered to prevent the Sami from fleeing from such work. They were unsuccessful and the areas of Luleå and Piteå were thus depopulated.

Each of the four countries has long had policies to try to eradicate the Sami culture, religion and customs. Special residential schools were set up in the 19th and 20th centuries to assimilate the Sami into the dominant culture of each country. In Russia, Sami children aged 1-2 were taken away from their families and returned when they were 15-17 with no knowledge of their traditional heritage and language. Between 1900 and 1940, the Norwegian authorities tried various measures to pressure the Sami. In 1913 a law was passed which allocated the best land in northern Norway to southern Norwegian settlers. In order to buy land, a prospective purchaser had to have a Norwegian name and speak the language. The traditional Sami song chants, “yoiks”, were illegal in Norway from 1773 until 1958.

In Sweden, the Sami languages were forbidden in schools and economic development in the iron mining areas in the north discriminated against the Sami. The sinister sounding Statens Institut for Rasbiologi, (The National Institute for Racial Biology), had an invasive Sami research programme which among other things included compulsory sterilisation of some Sami women, until 1975.

The Sami flag

The Sami flag

The scorched earth policy of the German army between 1944-45 in northern Norway resulted in the destruction of most traditional Sami houses and many historical sites.

Today, there is a resurgence of interest in and enthusiasm for Sami culture. In Norway a Sami parliament was set up in 1989 and many property rights restored. In the same year, Sweden recognised the existence of the Sami nation and in 1993 the Swedish Sami Parliament was established. In 1998, Sweden formally apologised for the wrongs committed against the Sami. There is now a Sami national anthem, “Song of the Sami Family”, and a national flag.

Samisk kvinna - Nordiska Museet - NMA.0033065

A Sami Gakti

           Find out more about the Sami in Finn’s Fate

                  Available on Kindle at £1.99 or $3.16


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