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LOCATION: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia
POPULATION: About 100,000
LANGUAGE: Sami language in many dialects; also language of country in which they live
RELIGION: Lutheran


While the Sami (also spelled Saami), or Lapps (as they were formerly called), are commonly thought of as the inhabitants of Lapland, they have never had a country of their own. Th ey are the original inhabitants of northern Scandinavia and most of Finland. Their neighbors have called them Lapps, but they prefer to be called Samer or Sami (pronounced "Sa-mee"). (They refer to their land as Sapmi or Same eatnam.)

The Sami first appear in written history in the works of the Roman author Tacitus in about ad 98. Nearly 900 years later, a Norwegian chieftain visiting King Alfred the Great of England spoke of these reindeer herders, who were paying taxes to him in the form of furs, feathers, and whale bones. Over the centuries many armed nations, including the Karelians, Swedes, Danes, Finns, and Russians, demanded their allegiance and taxes. In some cases, the Sami had to pay taxes to two or three governments, as well as fines imposed by one country for paying taxes to another.

The Sami are now citizens of the countries within whose borders they live, with full rights to education, social services, religious freedom, and participation in the political process. At the same time, however, they continue to preserve and defend their ethnic identity and traditional cultural values. Until the liberalization instituted by the Gorbachev government in the late 1980s, the Russian Sami had almost no contact with those in other areas. Sami living in Finland, Sweden, and Norway formed the Nordic Sami Council (Nordisk Samerad) in 1956 to promote cooperation between their three populations. In 1992, the Russian Sami joined the organization, which then changed its name to the Sami Council (Sameradet). The Sami Council secretariat, based in Utsjoki, Finland, has had advisory status within the United Nations since 1989.

In 1973 the Nordic Sami Institute at Kautokeino, Norway, was founded to promote the study of the Sami language and culture and, in 1989, a Sami College was established there as well. The universities of Tromsø in Norway, Umla in Sweden, and Oulu in Finland have Sami departments in which Sami topics are taught, both separately and as part of established disciplines.


The Sami live in tundra, taiga, and coastal zones in the far north of Europe, spread out over four different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula in Russia. They live on coasts and islands warmed by the Gulf Stream, on plateaus dotted by lakes and streams, and on forested mountains. This land area inhabited by the Sami is referred to as the Sampi.

Sami territory lies at latitudes above 62° north, and much of it is above the Arctic Circle, with dark, cold winters and warm, light summers. It is often called the land of the midnight sun, which, depending on the latitude, may be visible for up to 70 days in the summer. The far north sees almost three months of continuous daylight. Balancing this out, however, is an equally long period of darkness in the winter, which may last from October to March. Beginning in November, the sun disappears for weeks. Much of the Samis' land is at high altitudes, rising to over 1,829 m (6,000 ft) above sea level. The highest point is Kebnekajse, at 2,121 m ( 6,960 feet).

Traditionally, the Sami lived in a community of families called a siida, whose members cooperated in hunting, trapping, and fishing. While exact numbers are not available, the Sami population in the four major countries of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia has been estimated at 70,000 and 100,000 (or more). It is thought that between 60,000 and 100,000 live in Norway, 15,000 to 25,000 live in Sweden, over 6,000 live in Finland, and about 2,000 live in Russia. However, some think the actual number is considerably higher, perhaps up to 200,000. For many years, the Sami culture and way of life were disparaged by their neighbors, causing many to conceal their true identity. Thus, it is difficult to know how many Sami there actually are.


Sami is a Finno-Ugric language that is most closely related to Finnish, Estonian, Livonian, Votic, and several other little-known tongues. While it varies from region to region, it does so based on the lifestyle of the Sami people rather than on the national boundaries of the lands in which they live. In fact, the present official definition of a Sami is primarily a linguistic one. There are several distinct dialects; however, the language is usually grouped into three main categories: Eastern Sami, Central Sami, and Southern Sami. Today, almost all Sami also speak the language of their native country.

Sami is rich in words describing reindeer, with words for different colors, sizes, antler spreads, and fur textures. Other words indicate how tame a reindeer is or how good at pulling sleds. There is actually a separate word describing a male reindeer in each year of his life. A poem by Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, recipient of the Nordic Council prize, consists mainly of different Sami words for different kinds of reindeer. Th ere are also hundreds of words that differentiate snow according to its age, depth, density, and hardness; terms exist for powdery snow, snow that fell yesterday, and snow that is soft underneath with a hard crust.

The availability of schooling in the Sami language has become an important issue to those concerned with the preservation of the Sami culture and way of life. In 1995, the Norwegian government issued the Sami Language Act, allowing for the use of Sami as an official language in several municipalities. Finland and Sweden have since passed similar acts. Sami may be used as the language of instruction throughout primary and secondary school. Sami is taught and studied at the university level as well.


Traditionally, the Sami believed that specific spirits were associated with certain places and with the deceased. Many of their myths and legends concern the underworld. Others involve the Stallos, a race of troll-like giants who ate humans or sucked out their strength through an iron pipe. Many tales involve Sami outwitting the Stallos.

Some of the Sami epics trace Sami ancestry to the sun. In the mid-19th century, a Sami minister, Anders Fjellner, recorded epic mythical poems in which the Daughter of the Sun favored the Sami and brought the reindeer to them. In a related myth, the Son of the Sun had three sons who became the ancestors of the Sami. At their deaths they became stars in the heavens, and can be seen today in the belt of the constellation Orion.


The traditional Sami faith contained elements of animism, shamanism, and polytheism. The Sami believed that both living beings and inanimate objects, such as trees, had souls. A priest or shaman, called a noaidi, acted as an intermediary between the spiritual and material worlds. He would consult with the dead while in a trance, induced by beating on a magic drum and performing a special kind of chanting called yoik.

Over the course of time, all of the Sami were converted to Christianity, either by choice or by force of assimilation through the governments of the countries in they live. One major move toward Christianity was brought about through the efforts of Lars Levi Laestadius, an evangelical Congregation-alist who was the founder of the Laestadian Lutheran Church in the 19th century. Today, most Sami practice the dominant Lutheran religion of the Nordic countries in which they live.


Sami observe the major holidays of the Christian calendar. Every Easter, a big festival is held at Kautokeino in northern Norway, complete with typical Sami entertainments, including sledge races and yoik singing. Many couples choose this setting for their weddings. Many Sami observe Finland's "little Christmas" (Pikkujoulu) early in December, marking the beginning of festivities that last through the twenty-sixth of the month. On Christmas Eve, special "midday trees" are adorned with candles, silver, and gold ribbons, and other decorations. After readings from the Gospels, a festive meal is eaten, typically consisting of salmon, ham, vegetables, and rice pudding. Boxing Day on December 26 is marked by sledge rides, lasso throwing, and other traditional games.

Secular holidays include the large spring celebrations held by the Sami every year, occasions on which they don their best clothes and gather with friends to mark the end of winter. Since 2004, Sami National Day has been celebrated on February 6 in Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Finland. The day commemorates the establishment of the first Sami congress in Norway in 1917. In Norway, Sami National Day is observed as a flag day by the government, meaning that both the Norwegian flag and the Sami flag are flown from the Government Administration Complex and the Storting (parliament building) on that day.


The Sami observe major life cycle events within the Christian tradition.

Sami weddings are festive affairs and are primarily the responsibility of the bride's parents. In one traditional secular courtship ritual, a man circled the lavvo (tent) of his lover with his reindeer and sledge; if the woman regarded his suit favorably, she came out and unharnessed the reindeer.

Sami funerals and burials are generally conducted according to Lutheran customs. The Sami have little interest in an afterlife.


Sami society is traditionally open and egalitarian, and the Sami are known for their courtesy and hospitality to outsiders. They willingly accept other Sami who may not be full-blooded; a person's attitude toward the treasured Sami language and traditions are more important than bloodlines. A knowledge of the Sami language is considered one of the main ways of identifying someone as a Sami.


As a nomadic people, the reindeer-herding Sami traditionally maintained permanent dwellings, sometimes more than one, and spent part of their time living in tents. The permanent homes were either frame buildings or sod huts. The Sami tent, called a lavvo, has a circular framework of poles leaning inward like the teepee or wigwam of Native Americans and a floor of birch twigs covered with layers of reindeer fur. Both tents and huts are arranged around a central fire. Today, most Sami, who are no longer reindeer herders, live in typical Scandinavian houses with central heating and running water. Family life typically centers on the kitchen.

The Sami receive the same level of health care as other citizens of the countries in which they live. Like their Scandinavian neighbors, they have a high rate of heart disease. However, Sami are often active and well into their 80s. Th ey sometimes supplement Western-style medical care with home remedies or treatment derived from old beliefs in the curing power of the word of the shaman, or medicine man.


Traditionally, the Sami lived in a group of families called a siida. Today, the nuclear family is the basic social unit among the Sami, and families are close-knit with lavish attention paid to the children. The Sami language contains an unusually large number of words that refer to family relationships. Traditionally, the males of the family were occupied with herding, hunting, and making boats, sleds, and tools, while the women cooked, made clothing and thread, and cured the meat. Each family had its own mark (and children had their own marks as well). Herding families use these marks to distinguish their reindeer from those of other families.


Some Sami still wear the group's brightly colored traditional costume, known as a kolt. It is most easily recognizable by the distinctive bands of bright red and yellow patterns against a deep blue background of wool or felt. These bands appear as decorations on men's tunics (gaktis), as borders on the women's skirts, and on the hats of both sexes. Men's hats vary from region to region; some are cone-shaped while others have four corners. Women and girls may drape fringed scarves around their shoulders. Warm reindeer-skin coats are worn by both sexes. The traditional Sami might wear moccasins of reindeer skin with turned-up toes, fastened with ribbons. However, they wear no socks. Instead, they stuff their moccasins with soft sedge grass to protect their feet against the cold and dampness. Today, many Sami wear the styles of clothing typical to their home country, saving the kolt for special ceremonies.


Reindeer meat has been a traditional dietary staple. Even the reindeer's blood is used for sausages. Fish caught in the many lakes of the Sami's homelands are eaten boiled, grilled, dried, smoked, or salted. Wild berries are another mainstay of the Sami diet, especially the vitamin C-rich cloudberry. To help them stay warm and alert in their cold environment, the Sami drink coffee throughout the day. Supper is the main meal of the day.


Traditionally, Sami children learned what they would need to know as adults by observing and helping their parents. The goal of education was not simply to acquire more knowledge but to become a better citizen. In modern society, many Sami still maintain this attitude toward education and prefer an experiential approach to learning. Sami often attend the schools in the countries in which they live. However, there are now schools within Norway and Sweden where most of the subjects are taught in the Sami language. Sámi Allaskuvla, a Sami university, was established in Norway in 1989.


The Sami have a rich tradition of oral storytelling. A Sami tradition that has recently been revived is the singing or expression of the yoik. The yoik might be considered as both a form of poetry and of song; however, the melody is based on non-Western scales and what might be considered as non-melodic vocalizations. Traditional yoiks are typically unaccompanied. They do not generally tell a narrative story, as the typical Western song might. Instead, a yoik presents an idea, a memory, or an emotion through the use of melody, rhythm, facial expressions, and gestures, as well as words. The yoik resembles the Native American practice of "melodizing" a feeling or mood. As new generations of Sami and their European neighbors have rediscovered the yoik, they have added to and reshaped the tradition. Musicians of pop, rock, and folk music have added yoik techniques and melodies to their music. An annual Sami Music festival is held in Kafjord, Norway.

The earliest Sami literature dates back to about the 17th century, with the earliest texts relating to religion and the Sami language, such as alphabet books. In 1991, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää of Finland became the first Sami writer to win the Nordic Council prize for literature with his book Beaivi, Áhcázan (The Sun, My Father).

The revival of the Sami language in recent years has also opened the door for the creation of Sami language theater productions, films, and newspapers.


About 10% of the Sami population in Sweden is still nomadic reindeer herders, making treks of up to 220 miles to provide pasture for their herds, which average about 500 animals. In 1947, Sami reindeer breeders formed the National Association of Norwegian Reindeer Breeders, which today plays an important role in the development of modern reindeer breeding. Handicrafts are a major source of income for some Sami, who find eager markets among tourists. While some Sami still work in the traditional occupations of fishing and hunting, a growing number of Sami live in urban areas and work in a wide variety of common occupations.


Outdoor recreation for the Sami is closely linked to the activities that provide their sustenance. They enjoy competing to see who can throw their reindeer lassos the farthest and with the greatest precision. Reindeer-drawn sledge races are another popular leisure-time activity, especially at the Easter festivals in the heart of Sapmi, which many tourists also frequent. Skiing is a popular sport among the Sami, who believe that their own ancestors were the inventors of skis. Soccer has also become a popular sport among the Sami.


Sami entertainment is provided both by expressive activities, including storytelling and yoiking , and physical contests such as sledge racing, skiing, lasso throwing, and soccer matches. The Sami also participate in the wide variety of entertainment options enjoyed by their fellow Scandinavian citizens.


The traditional style of Sami arts and crafts is known as duodji . Sami crafts usually had a very practical purpose in daily living, such as tools and utensils that are made from bone, wood, and reindeer antlers. However, these items are often highly decoration, designed to be pleasing to the eye as well as useful. Duodji has a spiritual aspect as well as a material one. Items are usually made from natural materials, with the expectation that they will be worn down and even destroyed through repeated use, perhaps to remind the user that all natural life is only temporary. Modern art in the Sami tradition is known as Dáidda , and includes items that are generally meant for display, rather than use. The Sami have also perfected a special kind of ribbon weaving. Th eir crafts are popular tourist purchases, although the Sami save many of their creations for their own use, and much of their artistic talent goes into the elaborate braided designs of their costumes.


In recent years, the Sami homelands have been affected by the encroachment of mining and logging concerns, hydroelectric power projects, communication networks, and tourism. A controversy that received particular attention was the building of the Alta hydroelectric dam in Norway, which flooded reindeer pastures important to the region's Sami herders. A group of Sami protesters traveled to the capital city of Oslo, where they set up lavvos (tents) in front of the Norwegian parliament and began a hunger strike. While their cause was unsuccessful, their actions drew worldwide attention to their threatened way of life.

Since 1968, the National Association of Norwegian Sami (NSR) has been working actively for Sami political rights, as well as improvements in cultural, social, and economic conditions. Norway, Sweden, and Finland all have separate Sami parliaments addressing issues of concern for the Sami.

The Sami were also affected by the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine, which contaminated some of their grazing areas, making their reindeer potentially unsafe for them to market or eat themselves. Fish, berries, and drinking water in the affected areas were poisoned as well. Another problem for the Sami has been the increase of tourists from the south, who deplete important Sami resources, such as game-birds, fish, and berries, without actually bringing much money into their community.

Besides displacement by roads and other forms of development, the livelihood of the Sami herders is also threatened by overgrazing and uncontrolled breeding, which results in smaller, less healthy animals, and it is hard for the migrant Sami to find alternative forms of employment.


There has been some evidence to indicate that the traditional Sami embraced a matriarchal culture, in which women held a high level of authority in both the community and in the family. The tasks of raising children and providing food and clothing for the family were considered to be of great importance. Since women were the ones trained in accomplishing these tasks, women were held in high esteem. Traditional Sami religion, which included a number of female deities, may have also supported a culture in which men and women were viewed as equals. However, the introduction of Christianity and the influence of more dominant cultures resulted in a loss of authority to women. New Christian men and women were taught that women should be submissive to men. Assimilation into other Scandinavian societies also inspired a shift toward a more patriarchal attitude.

A Sami feminist movement began in the 1970s at the initiation of female reindeer herders who expected equality with their male herders. In 1988, Sami women formed the organization known as Sarahkka, which works to resolve issues important to Sami women. The group became a central force in the formation of the World Council for Aboriginal Women in 1989. Sarahkka continues to focus on projects that lead to greater education and social development among women.

Many Sami women still consider raising children and passing along the traditions and beliefs of their culture as their most important roles. These roles are also generally respected within Sami society. The creation and sale of duodji, traditional Sami handicrafts, has been taken up by some women as a primary or secondary source of income. Some Sami women, particularly in urban areas, have taken jobs typical of their female counterparts from their home countries. Sami women have also been elected to seats in the Sami parliament.


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—revised by K. Ellicott