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Sometimes, borders can feel arbitrary, especially if you were there thousands of years before them. Such is the case of the Sami population, the northernmost indigenous people of Europe situated in an area that stretches across the northern parts of what today is known as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. After having suffered discrimination and forced cultural assimilation into the Scandinavian societies, nowadays the Sami people are finally able to preserve and develop their identity. Here’s why this is so important, especially in Norway and Sweden where the majority of the Sami population currently live.
The Sami have been living in the Sapmi country (aka the Northern Arctic and sub-arctic Nordic regions and Russia) since the prehistoric times. They were there long before the Vikings. The first documented mention of the Sami was made by Roman historian Tacitus in 98 C.E., but it is estimated that they have inhabited these lands for 5,000 years. Originally known as Finn in Old Norse, these nomadic people were of Finno-Ugric descent, and their languages were of the Uralic language family. With Old Norse evolving into the different Scandinavian languages, “Finn” took to mean more strictly “an inhabitant of Finland”. The term is still used occasionally in Norway (referring to the Sami population in the Finnmark area), but the Sami themselves consider it derogatory. The word “Lap”, used in the English language to describe the population, is also considered derogatory by the Sami.
Because of the forced cultural assimilation the Sami people have faced, it is difficult to estimate their population exactly. Too many generations of Sami kids have been taken to missionary schools and raised to deny their traditions. It is currently estimated that there are between 80,000 and 135,000 Sami people spread over four countries. More than half of the population are living in Norway, another big percentage in Sweden, and smaller groups can be found in northern Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Most of them have been urbanised, but there is a substantial amount still living in the traditional Sami villages in the high Arctic. Depending on where they live, each Sami group has distinct differences; from the language (there are 10 different Sami languages) to the details of their clothing and many of the aspects of their day-to-day lives.
Norway is one of the most tolerant societies in the whole world, welcoming all kinds of people from all ethnicities and religions. Sadly, this wasn’t always the case. In the past, the Sami living in Norway have suffered from discrimination – their traditional religion was condemned as witchcraft, their ritual drums were burned (thankfully some can still be found in museums today). By the 19th century and until World War II, children weren’t allowed to be taught in the Sami language, as all education had to be taught in Norwegian. In 1913, the Norwegian parliament passed a bill that allocated the best lands to non-indigenous groups of people.
As recently as 2011, the Racial Discrimination Committee of the United Nations had to make recommendations to Norway to improve its treatment of the Sami population. Since then, steps have been made to ensure that “the Sámi people can maintain and develop their language, culture and way of life”. To account for the cultural assimilation that has been taking place, the Norwegian state now recognises as Sámi any Norwegian who had at least one great-grandparent whose home language was Sámi. The Sami people now have their own parliament and rights to their ancestral lands (earned in great part thanks to their own Sami activism) as they should.
The majority of the Sami population can be found in Finnmark, Northern Norway (as well as in Trøndelag and in Femundsmarka, Hedmark county). If you want to become acquainted with their vibrant culture, you can camp in one of their traditional lavvu (tent) in the Sápmi Culture Park in the town of Karasjok, which is broadly considered the Sami capital. You can interact with the reindeer, which play a vital role in the Sami way of life by providing them with milk, transportation, fur and food. If you’re lucky, you will listen to some of the traditional “joik”, the Sami songs that are being passed on from generation to generation. If you come in the spring, you’ll catch the Sami Easter Festival, but there is also a Sami Week in Tromsø every February, and the international indigenous festival Riddu Riđđu Festivàla in the summer.
For the Sami people who live in Sweden, life hasn’t been without its share of adversities. A 1928 law practically forced the Sami to choose either reindeer herding (which meant a nomadic way of life) or farming. The Sami language was not taught at Swedish schools until 1962, which explains why so many Sami today still cannot read or write their own language. It was thanks to the political struggles of the Sami in the ’50s that the first Sami associations were established and, in 1993, the Sami parliament came to be. The parliament is now financed by grants from the Swedish Government, and has been given resources to preserve the Sami culture and language, which was recognised as an official minority language in Sweden in 2000.
Nowadays, the Sami population in Sweden live mostly in the north. They have, for the most part, moved to modern houses and only use their traditional tents in the summer, when it’s reindeer migration season (although only 10% of the Sami in Sweden make their living exclusively from the reindeer industry). The Sami villages, or sameby, are more like administrative unions to facilitate the keeping of reindeer. As younger generations of Sami are choosing other professions, there is a struggle to ease the existing regulations so that people can belong to a sameby without having to own reindeer. There are 51 Sami villages in Sweden, with Sirkas in Jokkmokk being the largest.
Despite its inevitable modernisation, the Sami way of living is still celebrated. The indigenous heritage can be seen in the unique folk costumes such as the kolt (or gákti), which nowadays have been given distinct family patterns similar to a tartan for each Scottish clan. The Sami in Sweden will wear their kolt at special occasions such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. They will get together and sing their yoik (or joik) – which had been banned by the Swedish Lutheracn Church for a long time as a “pagan activity” – and they will blend it together with rock music. (Hey, rock music was also considered unholy once.) They will cook their traditional Sami foods, giving new twists to classic dishes and bringing Sami cuisine to a non-Sami audience. The Sami people have been here for thousands of years and endured much – you’d better believe they’re not going anywhere.