The Sámi Of The North

CULTURE | December 11, 2019

The Sámi collecting reindeer. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sámi people of the shores of the Arctic Ocean are best known to the outside world for their practice of reindeer herding. The Sámi are still mostly known to outsiders as the Lapps or Laplanders and have for centuries tried to preserve their culture in an ever-shrinking world. Their future as a culture is still in doubt.

A map of Sámi regions. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Sámi live in the far north of Europe with a territory that overlaps areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. This area is referred to as Sápmi. The Sámi are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally separate from the Scandinavians to the south. Their most ancient origins are unknown but archaeological evidence shows them living on the coast of the Arctic Ocean some 10,000 years ago.

The oldest written reference to the Sámi comes from the Roman historian Tacitus who called them the Fenni. According to him, they traveled on skis, hunted reindeer, and were cloaked in furs. The Sámi, however, have not passed on their own story since their traditions have been entirely oral. 

A Sámi shaman. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sámi were originally polytheistic and shamanistic. Emphasis was placed on noaidis, a shaman who was the mediator between people and the spirits. There was a reputation of them being able to make prophecies — so much so that the Vikings were recorded to have come to consult with them. Their beliefs divided the world into three parts, an upper, middle, and nether world of which humans inhabited the middle. The main gods in Sámi religion were the Sun (Beaivi), a thunder god named Dearpmis, as well as Leaibolmmái, an “alder-tree man” who was a god of hunting. The alder tree was sacred to the Sámi. After the Protestant Reformation, there was a strong movement to convert the Sámi to Christianity. At first, the Sámi largely adopted some of the trappings of Christianity including putting Christian symbols on their shamanic drums but otherwise practiced their traditional beliefs. However, this came to an end in the mid-19th century by attacks on Sámi culture.

A Sámi family circa 1900. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The general structure of traditional Sámi society was family groups living together headed by an elder, either male or female. This structure has largely changed with only those living the most traditional lifeways still in these family groups.

The Sámi traditionally were nomadic, relying mainly on hunting and fishing for their livelihood. Such items that they had they would trade with the Scandinavians to the south. Sámi are divided into multiple groups and even their own dialects are so diverse that certain Sámi cannot understand other Sámi groups.

As time passed, those to the south came to subjugate the Sámi to taxation and laws to which they had no say. Even their most well-known name, Lapp, is considered derogatory having come from a word meaning a patch of clothing, thus implying Sámi poverty. Today, there are virtually no nomadic Sámi. 

Sámi milking a reindeer. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

When most people think of the Sámi, they generally think of reindeer herding. Historically this came about possibly as early as 500 A.D. when Chinese sources mention people in the north who used reindeer for transportation. However, it is well-documented that they began to herd reindeer and semi-domesticated them in the 16th and 17th centuries probably in order to preserve herd size in the face of overhunting through the use of new-fangled firearms.

The Sámi divided reindeer herding into eight seasons which is based on the lifecycle of the reindeer. This allowed the Sámi to oversee the growth of a reindeer from its calving until its slaughter. Most important to the Sámi is to have forested herding grounds in the winter so that reindeer can feed on lichens while snow deeply covers the ground.

A Sámi harvesting reindeer. Source: (Getty Images)

The Sámi were largely left alone because of their unique adaptations to the arctic environment. They did particularly well after the bubonic plague assailed the Scandinavian countries but largely left the Sámi alone. In 1751 there was an agreement that they could freely cross the border with their herds between Norway and Sweden. Starting in the 19th century, the Scandinavian nations, particularly Norway began to attack Sámi culture coupled with the migration of Scandinavians into Sámi territory. Norway’s government wanted to make Norwegian the official language and gave precedence to ethnic Norwegians. The pressure to assimilate increased in the early 20th century as further restrictions fragmented Sámi culture not only in Norway but also in the Soviet Union which forced them into one collective. Meanwhile, most of the four countries who governed over the Sámi regulated reindeer herding in some way thus eroding at their traditional lifestyle. All these efforts have made it so that today, many Sámi do not speak their mother tongue.

A Sámi in traditional garb with a reindeer. Source: (Getty Images)

However, the latter part of the 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in Sámi rights. Separate parliaments were established for them in Norway, Sweden, and Finland which enabled them to have a say in what happened to them. Education is now being offered in the Sámi language and being taught Sámi history and culture. In 1986, a Sámi national anthem (Sámi soga lávlla) and a flag were created. On February 6, 1994, Sámi National Day was first celebrated.  However, in Russia, where there are laws on the books to preserve culture and rights, that interest in natural resources has caused an incursion into Sámi lands. Also, in the Scandinavian countries, there has been an ongoing dispute between private land ownership versus the right to allow the Sámi to let their herds graze in those lands. The courts have ruled with private land ownership. Even the herding of reindeer has become somewhat mechanized with Sámi no longer using traditional methods of slaughter, skinning, and transportation.

As things stand, the 100,000 Sámi living by the shores of the Arctic have already been changed greatly by the world outside. It is impossible that they can ever fully recover their past as they had known it, but it is a good thing that other people now see the value in remembering and trying to preserve their ancient culture.

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