Alternative names: also spelt Sami, Same, Somi, also called Lapps
Location: Norway, Sweden, Finland, USSR
Population: Total: 60,000: Norway 40,000, Sweden 15,000, Finland 4000, Soviet Union 1500-2000 (est. 1971)
% of population: Norway 1%, Sweden 0.2%, Finland 0.08%
Religion: Protestant
Language: Saami, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish

The Saami, more widely known to outsiders as Lapps (a name which they consider as derogatory), are the indigenous people of the region in northernmost Europe known as Lapland, the major part of which falls within the Arctic Circle. By tradition they are a nomadic people, living by hunting, fishing and reindeer-herding, but many have taken to farming in the twentieth century. Demographic statistics are largely lacking but the figures given indicate a considerably higher number of Saami than had previously been thought.

The origins of the Saami are unknown. Various hypotheses have claimed them to be amongst other things Mongoloid, Finnish, and the survivors of a root race for both Mongoloid and Caucasian races. The Saami language belongs to the western division of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralric family. There are a number of major dialects, not always mutually intelligible, which can be divided into three groups: Eastern, Central and Southern Saami. There have been Saami-Finnish relations for at least 2,000 years and Saami contains many words borrowed from the Finnish; although Norwegian and Swedish are increasingly used in the northern regions it is still possible to find areas in which the population is trilingual, speaking Saami, Finnish and Norwegian or Swedish.

History and background

Saami once lived throughout Fenno-Scandia as hunters and fishermen as well as reindeer herders. Raiders and traders from the south entered Saami-land searching for food and furs; later the traders were licensed by the monarchical governments to the south who began to claim the Saami lands, and non-Saami settlers slowly pushed Saamis to the far north. National borders were not fixed and Saamis migrated through different spheres of influence. When the Norwegian-Swedish border in the north was specified in 1751, Saami traditional grazing rights were guaranteed in a codicil to the boundary agreement. The dissolution of the Swedish-Norwegian union in 1905 restricted Saami grazing rights in Norway and some Saami were relocated further south. Efforts were made in the interwar period by the various countries to improve the poor living standards of the Saami. The borders were closed during World War II and much of Norwegian Lapland was destroyed by retreating German troops.

Christian missionary activity, which began in the eleventh century, has had a major impact on the lives of the Saami and has caused the near-eradication of their earlier Shamanistic practices. The major transition to Christianity occurred in the 1600s and the Church played an important role in Saami education and in facilitating colonial administration. The eastern Saami are strongly influenced by the Greek Orthodox Church and elsewhere a puritanical fundamentalist movement founded by Lars Levi Laestadius has a strong following.


The Swedish Supreme Court has recognized Saami immemorial land rights in principle, but in practice these rights are ignored and the government does not recognize general Saami ownership of land. The issue of damage by Saami reindeer to settlers’ property has been a dominating theme in herding law and herding and farming systems have consequently been separated as much as possible. An area of some 24,000 square kilometres has been divided into 52 districts which are designated as herding land, although only about 137,000 square kilometres are usable pastureland. There is a limit on the number of reindeer permitted in each district based on the number of reindeer needed to support a normal family and the need to avoid over-grazing. At present between 300 and 500 reindeer per family are thought to be appropriate. Saami who give up herding are obliged to leave the herding districts.

Reindeer herding has been seriously threatened by the proliferation of extractive industries and by tourism. The growth of the timber, mining and hydro-electric industries has brought an increasingly large population to the north and the Saami have become a major tourist attraction. Nowhere in Sweden do Saami form a majority of the population and consequently they do not have a strong voice politically. Swedish Saami political and cultural organizations such as the Confederation of Swedish Saami (LSS) receive financial aid from the Saami Fund which comprises money received in compensation for lands taken from the Saami for non-herding purposes.


The Department of Agriculture administers reindeer herding in Norway, but each region has its own local administration, and reindeer-herding Saami are represented at both local and central levels of administration. In Norway non-Saami can only practise herding outside designated areas. As in Sweden there is conflict between Saami and industry over the loss of important pasturage. The combined resistance of the Saami and conservationists to the construction of the Alta hydroelectric dam was a significant factor in altering government policy. As the largest Saami group and the most militant, Norwegian Saami have been active in campaigning both inside and outside Norway. There are several Saami political organizations of which the Confederation of Norwegian Reindeer Herders (NRL) is perhaps the most influential, dealing with economic, social educational and cultural issues and promoting the herders1 cause against extractive industries which endanger the grazing lands.

A report by the Norwegian Saami Rights Commission presented in 1985 led to the establishment of a Norwegian Saami parliament and in 1987 a new paragraph was added to the report to the effect that Saami language and culture should be safeguarded. Since 1971 the Culture Board of Norway has promoted Saami literary activity and there is now a Saami publishing company.


The herding areas of Finland are divided into 56 districts. Each district has a communal treasury to which members pay according to their reindeer stock. Each district is a member of the central organization which is responsible for Saami administration, development and research. Non-Saami are permitted to own and herd reindeer provided they live within the herding area. Herders may earn the main part of their income from sources other than herding, unlike Saami in Sweden.

The Finnish Saami Parliament had its first meeting in 1976. It is concerned with Saami rights and development and may also present cases to the different authorities. The parliament has 20 representatives and there are elections every fourth year. There is also a Saami Delegation which prepares government recommendations regarding the Saami and monitors the development of Saami economic conditions.


There are many different reindeer-herding peoples in the Soviet Union, of whom the Saami are just one group. At the time of the Russian Revolution these peoples were assessed to be at a “precapitalist” stage of development and were encouraged to develop socialistic cultural values whilst at the same time continuing their national form of culture. Reindeer ownership was collectivized although some small-scale private ownership still exists. All reindeer-herding farms are worked collectively: the state owns the reindeer and the workers are paid by the state. Reindeer-herding is not considered to be merely a traditional life-style permitted by government. It is vital to the northern economy and it has been estimated that 77%, or 2,400,000, of the world’s tame reindeer are found in the Soviet Union. Reindeer-herders are highly paid and well-provided with schooling, housing and social facilities. Cultural contact with the Saami of the Fenno-Scandian countries has increased recently.

Effects of nuclear fallout

The Saami have been profoundly affected by nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. In Norway the concentration of Cesium 134 and 137 rose to 10 times the limit set by Nordic governments. The absorption properties of the lichen and the grazing habits of the reindeer have meant that reindeer herders in certain areas have a continuing problem and thousands of reindeer have been confiscated, their meat declared unfit for human consumption. In some areas new methods have been used to decontaminate the reindeer with a certain degree of success and families have been forced to change their eating habits. In those areas worse hit by the disaster the effects seem likely to continue for many years, forcing more Saami out of the herding areas and thus reducing the size of the Saami herding community, already a small minority within the Saami population.

The Chernobyl disaster brought new impetus to Saami co-operation within the region and outside. This process had started well before 1986. Through the Nordic Saami Council the Saami of Sweden, Norway and Finland became members of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIO) in 1975. Saami have also testified at the UN Working group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva.

(See also Inuits in North America; Native peoples of the North and Siberia in USSR)