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Nordic FAQ - 2 of 7 - NORDEN
Section - 2.3 The Sámi people (not Lapps!)

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See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
This section by Kari Yli-Kuha
(being revised - last edited 98/03/21)
A more recent version might be found at

  2.3.1 Who they are
   The Sámi people are one of the aboriginal peoples of the Fennoscandian
   area, (meaning here: Scandinavia, Finland, eastern Karelia and Kola
   peninsula) and for long they lived more or less disconnected from the
   European civilization.
   They are often referred to as Lapps but they themselves prefer to be
   called Sámi (Saamelaiset/Samerna) because Sápmi is the name they use
   of themselves and their country. There is also a very old name vuowjos
   which has been linked to the Sámi.
   The Sámi languages (there are several of them) are Finno-Ugric
   languages and the closest relatives to the Baltic-Finnic languages
   (Finnish, Estonian).
   Sámi people live nowadays in an area which spreads from Jämtlands Län
   in Sweden through northern Norway and Finland to the Kola Peninsula in
  2.3.2 Sámi history
   The origins of Sámi people have been researched for long but no
   certain answer has yet been found. The name "Sámi" has the same origin
   as the names "Suomi" (Finnish name for Finland), and "Häme" (Tavastia,
   an area in southern Finland) and comes originally from the Baltic word
   "Sämä" - meaning the area north of Gulf of Finland, i.e. current
   Anthropologically there are two types of Sámi people, the eastern type
   which resembles northern Asian peoples, and the western which is
   closer to Europids; blood survey, especially in this century,
   indicates western rather than eastern heritage.
   Perhaps the Sámi identity should therefore be seen more as a nomadic
   hunter-gatherer way of life, rather than as anything genetic - people
   who adopted the Sámi way of life became Sámi.
   It is believed that the original Sámi people came to areas now known
   as Finland and eastern Karelia during and after the last ice age,
   following herds of reindeer. Prehistoric (some 4000 years old) ski
   findings by the Arctic Sea show that there was some sort of Sámi
   culture living there already at that time. Some 1500 rock drawings
   have been found in the areas where they lived, e.g. by lake Onega and
   in Kola peninsula; the easternmost of them are 5000 years old.
   Some archeologists have linked the oldest known Scandinavian stone age
   culture, the so-called Komsa culture by the Arctic Sea, to the
   ancestors of the Sámi. Historians now also note that Ghengis Khan
   wrote that the Sámi (or, Fenner as they were then called), were the
   one nation he would never try to fight again. The Sámi were not
   warriors in the conventional sense. They simply didn't believe in war
   and so they "disappeared" in times of conflict. The Sámi remain one
   culture that has never been to war but are known as "peaceful
   retreaters" adapting to changing living conditions, whether they were
   caused by nature or by other people.
   Anyway, it is known that the Sámi people are the original people in
   the Fennoscandia area. Many names even in southern Finland and central
   Sweden are of Sámi origin. There was a Sámi population in those areas
   as late as the sixteenth century. The Sámi are known to have fished
   and hunted seals on the west coast of the Gulf of Bothnia, but in the
   late Middle Ages the Swedish agricultural population "invaded" the
   coastal area, pushing the Sámi further north. The same happened in
   Finland so that now the original Sámi people can only be found north
   of the Arctic Circle.
  2.3.3 Sámi cultures
   Sámi people have always settled thinly in a large area, making their
   living mostly hunting and fishing, families having large hunting areas
   around them. Connections to other people were rare although they had a
   strong sense of community thinking when it came to dividing
   hunting/fishing areas between families, and, of course, the marriages
   were made between people in nearby regions. This seems to be the major
   reason why there is no one Sámi culture and language, but several Sámi
   cultures and languages. The cultures have been formed both by
   different surroundings and living conditions and varying contacts with
   other cultures; in Sweden and Norway the Germanic culture, in Finland
   the Finnish culture and in Kola peninsula the Russian and Karelian
      Forest Sámi
   Sámi people living in coniferous forests lived mainly by fishing, but
   hunting was also very important. Most of the Finnish and Swedish Sámi
   people belong to this group. Families formed Lappish villages
   ('siida') normally by some large river. The size of the siida varied
   from just a couple of families up to 20 or 30, totaling some hundred
   individuals. Watersheds were natural borders between these villages.
   It was also common to have some reindeer for transportation and for
   the furs, which were an important material for clothing.
   A special group of forest Sámi are the Sámi north of Lake Inari
   because their language differs from the rest of forest Sámi - it's the
   westernmost dialect of eastern Sámi languages.
      Fjeld Sámi
     [ About the word "fjeld": The ice age has shaped the Scandinavian
     mountains, especially in Lapland, so that the top of them is round,
     and mostly bare. In some Nordic languages there is a special word
     for them (fjell/fjdll/ tunturi) to separate them from other
     mountains. There is also a rarely used English word "fjeld" for the
     same purpose. The word "fjeld" means here a [treeless] mountain in
     Lapland. ]
   The fjeld Sámi are also known as "reindeer Sámi" because the reindeer
   is by far the most important part of their economy.
   They live on the fjelds between Sweden and Norway and on the highlands
   north of it tending their herds. This kind of nomad culture is unique
   in Europe and as such it has been the subject of a lot of interest. It
   has been seen as the most typical form of Sámi culture although as
   such it's only a few hundred years old. It's not nearly as common as
   the half-nomad forest Sámi culture. The fjeld Sámi do also some
   fishing and willow grouse (am. willow ptarmigan) trapping. The
   importance of reindeer in the Sámi culture can be seen in the fact
   that in Sámi languages there are about 400 names for reindeer
   according to gender, age, color, shape etc.
   One special group are the River Sámi living around river Đeatnu/Tana
   and its tributaries. They lived mainly fishing salmon but nowadays
   they have some agriculture and domestic animals, and more permanent
   settlements than the fjeld Sámi.
      Sea Sámi
   The first written remark of the sea Sámi living in northern Norway by
   the Arctic Sea was made in year 892 by a Norwegian tribal chief Ottar.
   The remark described that "up in the north there are people who hunt
   in the winter and fish on the sea in the summer". This half-nomad
   culture is strongly affected by both Norwegian and Finnish
   inhabitants. They live in two different areas. The Norwegians call the
   northern people "sjřfinner" and the southern "bufinner".
      Kola Peninsula Sámi
   The Sámi living in the Kola peninsula are the original population in
   that area. The number of Sámi there has remained pretty much the same
   throughout the years, slightly below 2000 people. They live mostly
   fishing and reindeering.
  2.3.4 Sámi mythology
   Living of the nature has formed the original conceptions of the world
   among Sámi; the world view was animistic by nature, with shamanistic
   features. They believed that all objects in the nature had a soul.
   Therefore, everybody was expected to move quietly in the wilderness;
   shouting and making disturbance was not allowed. This beautiful
   concept still prevails among the Sámi.
   When speaking about beliefs I deliberately avoid using the word
   "religion", because among Sámi that word is strictly connected to
   christianity - instead one should speak about "world of beliefs", or
   about "a Sámi mindset", however vague that may sound.
   The Sámi believed that alongside with the material world there was an
   underworld, saivo, or (Jábmiid) áibmu, where everything was more whole
   than in the material world and where the dead continued their lives.
   Eastern Sámi use the word duot ilbmi, "that air" (i.e. afterworld).
   Important places had their divinities. Every force of nature had its
   god and sources of livelihood were guarded by beings in spiritual
   world which could be persuaded to be more favourable.
   Stállu stories are known in all Sámi cultures. Stállu was a large and
   strong but simple humanlike being living in the forest, always
   traveling with a dog, rahkka, and he could some times steal a young
   Sámi girl to become his wife. It is believed that stállu stories are
   related to early contacts with Vikings.
   Some people were capable to foretell future events, or fortune in
   hunting etc. A person with this special gift could be 'called' and
   accepted by the community as a noaidi (shaman). A noaidi was capable
   of visiting the saivo and people from far away would come to him/her
   for advice. For more demanding "trips" a noaidi sometimes used a
   "magic drum", much in the similar way as the northern Siberian
   In the forest you could find trees which resembled a human body, or
   you could make one. These were called sieidde (in Finnish seita) and
   they were worshipped. Also a strangely shaped stone or rock could be a
   Christian missionaries and priests normally didn't understand these
   Sámi concepts, but regarded them as satanic. Sámi people were
   converted to Christianity by force and shamanic practices were
   The disintegration of the hunter/gatherer culture and the transition
   to other forms of occupation meant that the old world view had less
   significance for the Sámi, although at first the christian beliefs
   were adopted alongside with the original beliefs. The "Sámi apostle",
   Norwegian Thomas von Westen (1682-1727) started public education among
   the Sea Sámi in Sámi language. From 1773 on Sámi language teaching was
   forbidden and all teaching had to be in Danish until nineteenth
   Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-1861) has had the strongest religious
   influence on Sámi people and his thoughts spread all over Sámi region
   although there is evidence that elements of the original religious
   practices of the Sámi were used as late as the 1940's. Characteristic
   to Laestadius' ideas is the central significance of parish. This has
   helped in preserving Sámi culture.
  2.3.5 Sámi languages
   As there are several Sámi cultures there are also several Sámi
   languages and dialects. It is not exactly known what kind of language
   the ancestors of the Sámi originally spoke, obviously it was some kind
   of proto-Uralic language. Now the common theory is that the Sámi
   languages developed from early proto-Finnic languages side by side
   with proto-Finnic language, so that there was some sort of
   proto-Lappic language around 1000 BC - 700 AD. This then developed to
   various languages and dialects as we know them now. The Sámi languages
   are regarded as Finno-Ugric languages and their closest relatives are
   the Baltic-Finnic languages (Finnish, Estonian).
   It's often hard to decide whether two related forms of speech are in
   fact different languages or merely dialects of a single language,
   especially when there are transition areas between them. Commonly the
   Sámi languages are divided into nine main dialectal areas.
   The numbers in brackets represent the approximate number of speakers
   of the language according to the Geographical distribution of the
   Uralic languages made by Finno-Ugric Society in 1993.
1. South Sámi - in central Scandinavia                 [500]
2. Ume language                                        [very few]
3. Pite language                                       [very few]
4. Lule language                                       [2 000]
5. Northern languages (Norwegian Sámi, fjeld language) [30 000]
6. Enare language - north of lake Inari                [400]
7. Skolt language - in Pechenga                        [500]
8. Kildin language - in central Kola peninsula         [1 000]
9. Ter (Turja) language - in eastern Kola peninsula    [500]

   As there are several languages, there are also several grammars and
   orthographies for them. The areas 2 - 5 have more or less the same
   written language but several orthographies. Language 6 has its own
   orthography whereas areas 7 - 9 use mainly Kildin language in
   The following description about the history of written Sámi concerns
   mainly the languages spoken in Sweden.
   The first Sámi books were religious literature, used for converting
   the Sámi people to Christianity during Gustav II Adolf's reign in the
   17th century. The first books (ABC book and mass book) were made by
   the priest Nicolaus Andreae in Piteĺ in 1619, but they were in a very
   clumsy language. The first written grammar was again made in Sweden by
   the priest Petrus Fiellström in Lycksele in 1738.
   For a long time the written texts in Sámi languages were solely for
   religious purposes. Poetry and other literature in Sámi languages is
   rather recent. In 1906 the Sámi teacher Isak Saba (1875-1921)
   published a poem Same soga lavla (the Song of Sámi Family) which is
   known as the national anthem of the Sámi. Four years later Johan
   Turi's (1854-1936) Muittalus Sámid birra (A Story about Sámi) was
   published in Sweden. This is probably the most famous volume written
   in Sámi language. Just as an example what Sámi language looks like
   here's the first verse of Same soga lavla in the orthographic form
   proposed by Sámi Language Board in 1978:
          Sámi soga lavlla                    Song of Sámi Family

  Guhkkin davvin Dávggáid vuolde         Far in the north under the Plough
  sabmá suolggai Sámieatnan:             looms quietly the land of Lapps:
  duottar laebbá duoddar duohkin,        a fjeld lies behind a fjeld,
  jávri seabbá jávrri lahka,             a lake spreads near a lake,
  c´ohkat c´ilggiin, c´orut c´earuin     peaks on ridges, tops on bare fjelds
  allánaddet almmi vuostá;               rise against the sky;
  s´ávvet jogat, s´uvvet vuovddit,       rushing rivers, wuthering forests,
  cáhket ceakko stállinjárggat           steep steel capes stick
  máraideaddji mearaide.                 into roaring seas

   [ c´ and s´ denote c and s with apostrophe ]
  2.3.6 The Sámi as citizens
   Before the 1600s the Sámi lived their own life more or less
   undisturbed. They were gradually pushed further north by new
   inhabitants but it happened peacefully. It is believed that the Sámi
   were mainly following reindeers and other wild animals which were also
   retreating further north.
   In the 1600s, and later, there were some "colonialistic" features in
   the way the Sámi were treated by the kingdoms ruling over their lands.
   It was considered "natural" to subjugate cultures that were regarded
   as "undeveloped" and "primitive". At that time the government of
   Sweden-Finland had a political goal to have permanent agricultural
   settlements in the Swedish Lapland instead of sparse nomad
   inhabitation; it was thought that keeping the area within the state
   would be easier that way. This is why many Finns were also encouraged
   to move there. Although the same basic European colonialistic thinking
   was also common in Scandinavia, it has to be noted that the attitude
   towards the original people has never been as inhuman as it was in
   many colonies elsewhere in the world.
   As a general observation it can be said that as the Nordic countries
   divided the Sámi territories between states they failed to take into
   account the Sámi colonies and to let them develop naturally. Instead
   the Sámi people were forced to adapt to the cultural system of each
   The Swedish king Gustav Vasa declared that "all permanently
   uninhabited land belongs to God, Us and the Swedish crown". This
   declaration concerned also the territories where Sámi lived. Because
   of their nomad way of living they were not seen as "permanent
   inhabitants". Later the Sámi's right for land was stabilized as
   certain "family areas". In 1867 in Sweden a new administrational
   "cultivation border" was formed. It goes several tens of kilometers
   from the Norwegian border all the way from Karesuando to Jämtlands
   Län. All land in the Swedish territory was given to the Sámi and only
   Sámi people were allowed to live there without a separate permission.
   All activities that are done there need a permission and the money
   goes to "Lapland fund". The money of this fund is used for
   reindeering, building bridges, etc. in that area. All this is done by
   the state and the Sámi people have very little to say about how the
   money is to be used.
   There have been discussions about the Sámi's right for the natural
   resources in their areas between the Nordic Council and the Nordic
   Sámi Council but so far there has been little progress in this issue.
   There have been several agreements between the Nordic countries and
   the Sámi people but they are beyond the scope of this document.
   All in all, the Nordic countries have not been indifferent about Sámi
   but due to lack of ethnosociological knowledge the Sámi have been
   treated as "children who don't know what's best for them".
   Because arctic occupations favour the individual mind, and the Sámi
   population is sparse, their own activities as Nordic citizens have
   developed very slowly. Also, belonging to four different countries
   doesn't make it easier - on the other hand crossing borders between
   the Nordic countries has never been a problem. This belonging to
   different countries has been one factor which has increased the common
   sense of ethnicity among the Sámi people during this century. Only a
   few decades ago it was not desirable that Sámi children spoke Sámi
   with each other in school whereas now, in principle, it's possible to
   complete university degrees in Sámi language.
   How many Sámi are there, then? Well, that depends on who is counted as
   a Sámi and who isn't, as there has been much assimilation and mixing
   with the rest of the population. Some figures were presented in the
   chapter concerning Sámi languages. Another often presented statistic
   tells that there are 25,000 Sámi in Norway, 17,000 in Sweden, 4000 in
   Finland and 2,000 in Russia. Yet another statistic which only counts
   people who speak Sámi languages as their mother tongue says: 10,000 in
   Norway, 5,000 in Sweden, 3,000 in Finland and 1,000 in Russia.
  2.3.7 The Sámi Today
   For centuries the majority population has had a patronizing attitude
   towards the Sámi, which has affected cultural policy and politics.
   This policy was abandoned after World War II. This phase was signalled
   in 1948 in Norway by the official "Proposals for Sámi School and
   Educational Affairs" from the Coordinating Commission for the School
   System. A definitive change did not come before 1963, however, when
   the Norwegian parliament discussed the recommendations of the Sámi
   Committee of 1956. The official policy then adopted is expressed in
   the Parliamentary Records for 1962-1963 as follows:
     "The policy of the national state must be to give the Sámi-speaking
     population the opportunity to preserve its language and other
     cultural customs on terms that accord with the expressed wishes of
     the Sámi themselves."
   Later in 1980 the Norwegian government appointed two new commissions
   with very extensive mandates: the Sámi Rights Committee and the Sámi
   Cultural Committee. At the moment demands for clarification and
   legalization of local rights in areas traditionally used by the Sámi
   are under consideration by the Sámi Rights Committee. Since much of
   this area has diversified use by different Sámi and non-Sámi groups,
   it has been difficult to arrive at a just and nationwide solution.
   The Nordic Sámi Council was established in 1956 to promote cooperation
   among the Sámi in Finland, Norway and Sweden. The Council has twelve
   members, four from each country. Both state authorities and the Nordic
   Council have recognized the Sámi Council as a legitimate spokesman for
   the Sámi and have met many of its demands.
   The Sámi have their own flag which was officially acknowledged in the
   13th Nordic Sámi Conference in 1986. The flag is designed by Astrid
   Behl from Ivgubahta/Skibotn in Norway. The basic idea in the flag is a
   symbol from a drum. The circle is a symbol of sun and moon - the sun
   ring is red and the moon ring blue. The colours are also the colours
   used in Sámi costumes.
   The Cultural Heritage Act, passed in 1978 in Norway, states that
   everything which is more than 100 years old and related to the
   cultural heritage of the Sámi, is automatically protected by law
   - this is to protect historic sites and monuments.
   Sámi as an elective language is taught in primary schools in several
   places in Lapland. Special Sámi high schools are located in
   Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino and Kárásjohka/Karasjok. Sámi language and
   culture courses are taught at several universities in the Nordic
   Modern Sámi applied art has largely extended the development of
   traditional Sámi handicrafts such as horn- and wood-carving, basketry,
   leather work, etc. Sámi art appears at present to be undergoing an
   important period of creativity - this applies to music as well. The
   traditional Sámi folk song, the joik, has won increasing recognition
   and interest. The Norwegian Sámi Singer Mari Boine Persen has won
   international fame among world music fans, while in Finland e.g
   Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (who sang joik in the opening ceremonies of
   Lillehammer Olympics), Wimme Saari (who mixes joik with ambient techno
   backgrounds) and the band Angelin Tytöt have gained acclaim. There are
   five Sámi newspapers, or newspapers intended for Sámi readers, in the
   three Nordic countries but the circulation figures for them are small.
   The newspapers and magazines are dependent on state funds for their
   existence. Radio programs are broadcast in all three countries, in
   Kárásjohka/Karasjok (Norway), Giron/Kiruna (Sweden) and Anar/Inari
   (Finland). Plans exist for the establishment of a Nordic-Sámi
   production center for radio and television programs, but the extent
   and form of cooperation have not yet been agreed upon.
   Because of growing Sámi cultural consciousness and sympathetic
   official minority policies, there is good cause for believing that the
   Sámi will survive as a viable ethnic and cultural group in
   Scandinavia. The meaning of "Sámi" will change as the way of life
   itself changes. The Sámi's own actions and self-conception will be
   decisive in forming the future meaning of the term - or, as one Sámi
   scholar put it when asked about the Sámi tradition:
     "Tradition? As of when? Fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, or a
     thousand years ago? We adapt our ways to fit the times."
   I would like to thank Jari Oksanen of Tromsř University and John Blood
   <> of Sámi Association of North America for their
   help, opinions and references.
   Karl Nickul: Saamelaiset kansana ja kansalaisina, 1970
   Mikko Korhonen: Johdatus lapin kielen historiaan, 1981 ISBN
   Bjřrn Aarseth: The Sámi Past and Present, Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo 1993
   ISBN 82-90036-32-9
   Johan Turi: Kertomus saamelaisista, 1979 ISBN 951-0-08410-7 (based on
   Muittalus samid birra, 1910)
   SANA Sámi Association of North America
   ODIN  (Offentlig dokumentasjon og informasjon i Norge)

[ the sections above are available at the www-page ]

  2.3.8 SANA - The Sámi Association of North America
   (from: Ruth M. Sylte)
   SANA was formed on 10 April 1994 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
   The purpose of SANA is to create a strong Sámi presence and an
   understanding of the Sámi people and Sámi culture in North America.
   Membership includes a subscription to the North American Sámi Journal,
   which will continue to function as the official organ of communication
   for the group.
   SANA encompasses both the United States and Canada. It has recently
   been given permanent observer status at the Sámi Governing Council.
   For more information, contact:
          Susan Gunness Myers, SANA USA
          10010 Monticello Lane North
          Maple Grove, MN 55369 USA
          E-mail: <>
          Faith Fjeld, Editor
          3548 14th Avenue South
          Minneapolis, MN 55407 USA
  2.3.9 The Sámi in Internet
   (I'd hate to say this, but... this chapter is still very much under
   Sámi links:
     * The Sámi "Parliament" of Sweden.
     * The Sámi of Norway by Elina Helander, ODIN.
     * The Sami in Finland by the Foreign Ministry of Finland.
     * An introduction to the Sami people a web-site associated to the
       magazine Samefolket.
     * The magazine Samefolket did a survey of www-sites, and delivered
       for instance murderous critics of this very site.

[ the sections above are available at the www-page ]


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