Norway 1900

The Sámi People of Lapland

The Sámi people of Lapland are the indigenous inhabitants of the northernmost regions of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Frequently called Lapps by those outside the culture, the term Lapp is now considered derogatory because it is derived from the Swedish word for ‘rags and scraps.’ They do not have a country of their own. A region found almost entirely north of the Arctic Circle; it is a land of many lakes and enormous expanses of arid tundra. The population of the Sámi people is hard to pinpoint, but most recent figures estimate 50,000 to 100,000 currently reside in Lapland. The reindeer that thrive in this frigid territory are at the center of Sámi pastoral culture. Historically Sámi families were seminomadic, the seasons and the reindeer demanded a transhumance lifestyle. With modernization many no longer migrate with the herd, but the reindeer people are a society intent on preserving their rich culture.

With over 150 words for reindeer and just as many for snow, the Sámi language reveals the roots of their culture. A separate word is used for each year of a male reindeer’s life. The word used for snow will also convey the look and feel of it. With some similarities to the Finnish and Estonian languages, the Sámi language has many distinct dialects. Often Sámi speakers with different dialects will be unintelligible to each other. Although many Sámi also speak the language of the country they reside in, the different dialects among the Sámi language is not based on national boundaries, but on the lifestyle of the community. The mountain-Sámi, forest-Sámi and coastal-Sámi are the primary dialect distinctions. Unfortunately, as the Sámi way of life has changed to reflect the modern times. The language which is so rich in descriptive words for nature, terrain, animals and the elements, is slowly disappearing. Making revitalization all the more difficult is the complexity of a verb based language where a word can have an amplified meaning or a completely new meaning simply by attaching another word to the end of it. This equates to almost endless variations in cases such as describing motions. The definition of Sámi today is primarily a linguistic one.

The Sámi people are working hard to keep the language strong among their communities through language revitalization programs in schools and homes. Radio and newspaper are also some of the most important institutions for ensuring the continued use of the Sámi language. Laplanders receive most of their local and world news through radio programs and Sámi programming has proven to be a unifying force among Sámi speakers. Although newspapers in Sámi have been published in Lapland since shortly after World War II, it is not readily available outside the larger urban centers.
Political dominance belongs to the majority culture of the country in which the Sámi resides. Sámi Parliaments have been established in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Russia unfortunately does not acknowledged the Sámi; other than to relegate their communities to reservations. In 1953 the Nordic parliaments’ created the Sámi Council, called Samerådet, which later expanded to also represent the Russian Sámi. Samerådet operates independent from the national governing bodies. Its mission is to improve the Sámi people’s economic and social position through cultural policy and political cooperation. The Sámi people have and will always fight an uphill battle to preserve their rights as aboriginal people and a minority. In recent years, the Sámi relationship with nature has been embraced for their holistic view of our natural world. As the western world begins to recognize the ill effects of pollution and deforestation, the Sámi community is being looked to as a model of low impact, sustainable living.

Today, only ten percent of Sámi are employed in the traditional occupation of reindeer herding. Many now live in modern homes and go to work in modern businesses, although reindeer meat is certainly still a staple in modern Lapland. The Sámi ranchers of today have many modern conveniences helping them to manage their herds like never before. No longer do reindeer pull sledges loaded with gear or people, except as a novelty for children and tourists. Skiing is still a skill all Sámi acquire, but it is not necessary for travel or survival. Snowmobiles, called “sleds,” are the primary mode of transportation for herd management. Helicopters are used during the slaughter season to rapidly transport meat out of the wilderness and into town. One ancient tradition still in practice is the marking of their animals. Every rancher has a unique identifying mark for its reindeer which is made by biting chunks out of the animal’s ear. These pieces of the ear are kept as a record and help the family take inventory of its herd. Identifying symbols are used often in Sámi culture to mark ones possessions. All Sámi receive a personal symbol as children, and are entitled to use that symbol on anything they own once they reach maturity.

The Sámi community is called a siida, or a “reindeer pastoralist district.” Often it is comprised of several extended families that live and work together for the mutual benefit of all. Frequently Sámi will refer to their siida when talking about their family because for them it is one in the same. Often young people will have to look outside their siida to find a partner who is not a distant relation. Marriage among the Sámi is very similar to western practices in the sense that couples choose their partners. Youths will have a few opportunities’ to mingle at the occasional Sámi fair. When a couple decides they would like to be married, the boy will visit the girl’s family dwelling. While he is in the presence of her family, she will pretend to not be there and not acknowledge him. Her family will also be very reserved, and possibly say nothing. Tradition dictates that the suitor offers to make coffee for the family and they can choose to drink or not. If they do not drink, the marriage will not take place. If they do drink the coffee he prepared, it is a sign of acceptance, and the girl may now acknowledge her future husband.

Children are very important in Sámi culture, making large families very common. The harsh environment of Lapland demands a strong family unit. Having children to help with the ranching is very important, but the greater concern is for the elderly. Young couples are encouraged to start a family as soon as the marriage is final. They often will have the first child, often several, while living with the bride’s family. Childless couples may have no one to care for them in illness and old age. It is this concern that prevents young couples from immediately building or buying a home. Although most of them would rather not live with parents, occasionally they will remain under the family roof their entire lives.

Sámi men do not participate in childbirth. They are banished from the tent, and many will spend the anxious hours among their reindeer. Women give birth in their homes, with the help of a midwife or neighboring women. Demonstrating the strong matrilineal tradition of the Sámi, the name of the child is revealed to the mother in a dream, and she alone bestows it on that child. Children are always named for past generation family member. The Sámi believe that when a name “returns to the living” it comes with the protection and blessing of the ancestor the child is named for. Another form of protection bestowed on children is an amulet of copper, given to them by a grandmother if they have one living. The amulet is worn by boys in their armpit, and by girls upon their breast. These ceremonies are a celebratory time for the Sámi mother, but the father will remain away from his home because the mother handles all things pertaining to babies. Immediately Sámi newborns are introduced to reindeer by way of the traditional Sámi cradle. A portable wooden carrier, that resembles a canoe, it is lined with the fur from a reindeer’s throat; long considered to be the softest. The cradle has an awning, or overhang, that shelters the child from the elements when in transit. Although babies are no longer strapped to reindeer for long migrations, the traditional cradle has proven to be highly functional and is still favored today.
These days most Sámi children attend the public schools of the country they live in, although several Sámi high schools are now open and working to preserve the language through immersion teaching. The culture is learned at home from family members and neighbors. Boys will learn about the environment, shelters, hunting, fishing and managing the herd. By the age of eight, Sámi girls are quite capable of helping their mothers with the domestic chores and will be learning the art of Sámi hand crafts.

Men and women share the domestic burden, though women do attend more to the home, cooking and child care. Men are the herders, hunters and generally work out of doors. Often during busy seasons women will work with reindeer, and it is common to see men working around the home when time permits. Although they are rather egalitarian in the division of labor, Sámi women are the head of the household. Many who have observed the culture made particular note of the Sámi woman’s dominance over conversation. Even today, you will find the woman is much more fluent in the national tongue while her husband may only speak Sámi. This deferral and trust that his wife can and will handle matters outside the Sámi community would not be found in a western male dominant culture.

The most recognizable art form of the Sámi is their traditional clothing. Royal blue jackets, called gak’te, are worn over fur or other insulating layers. The gak’te, is worn by men and women, the only difference being that women wear theirs longer than the men. The eye-catching and artistic part of the jacket is in the exquisite ribboning detail found around the collar, on the shoulders and around the wrists. The braided trim details are primarily red and yellow, striking a beautiful contrast against the blue garments. This ribbon detail is also found on the moccasins and hats, which vary in style from region to region. Like many arctic cultures, the Sámi clothing features bright colors to make the wearer highly visible against the stark white landscape of winter. The gak’te is one of many utilitarian handicrafts, called Duodji, which the Sámi people are known for. Antler handle knives, ceremonial drums, and wooden cups carved from burls called guksi also exhibit the artisan work of the Sámi.

Folk music is one of the most expressive art forms of the Sámi and one of the longest living music traditions in Europe. The traditional form of song is called a yoik. Very complex in expression and melody, the yoik is comprised of the melody, called luohti, and the lyrics, called dajahusat. The personal yoik is the most common and represents one specific individual or location. Sámi are ascribed a personal yoik when they are very young as a form of identification within the culture. Itattempts to evoke the nature of that person rather than being about that person. Many times a yoik will be sung a cappella and improvising the words is very common. The formula of a yoik is very specific and a trained ear will be able to learn much about the topics character. The personal yoik will be changed if it no longer represents the person accurately. The oldest written Sámi texts were two yoiks from the 17th century. Sámi folk music is considered one of the oldest forms of music originating in Europe.

Until the 18th century, Sámi were a shamanistic culture, who incorporated elements of animism and polytheism. The Sámi religion had many spirits and gods. Most significant of these were the Mother, Father, Son and Daughter. The folklore of Lapland frequently refers to the sun as a god. Folklore also suggests that the children of the sun made up the lower gods. Many of the tales revolve around his precious daughters, who are the embodiment of different types of sun beams. Demonstrating again the cultures respect for women and nature. The noaide, or shaman, were thought to protect and heal but most important they maintained a link between the world of the living and the world inhabited by departed Sámi. There was a noaide for every siida, and their loyalty and concern was for that specific community. Worship was in the form of drumming and yoiking. Everything in nature was respected as sentient beings with a soul. Even today there are several seid, a sacred stone that the Sámi treat with reverence. The Sámi distinguished between the “body-soul” and the “free soul.” Noaide were thought to travel out of body via the “free-soul” because the “body-soul” was tied to the real world. Ancestry was very important to the Sámi and they believed “that the living and the departed were regarded as two halves of the same family.”

The majority of Sámi today are part of the Lutheran church. Missionaries began working to convert the indigenous people of Lapland during the 17th and 18th centuries.  This led to the eventual demise of the Sámi religion and the noaide. Today the only element of Sámi religion that may be perceived in the culture is their continued relationship with their natural environment. Like their ancient ancestors, who may or may not have invented the sport, Sámi today are still accomplished skiers. They live, work and play in an unforgiving region and appreciate every aspect of what it has to offer.

The culture of the Sámi has been threaten by western influence and pressure to assimilate. Although some aspects of the culture may be lost, the Sámi people are dedicated to the preservation of their language and history. As the modern world encroaches on tribal lands and pushes aside their culture, we must be aware of what we stand to lose. The languages, customs and religions of indigenous people offer a glimpse into our human origins. They remind us that diversity is one of the great wonders of this world. They show us that this planet is fragile and must be handled with more care. The Sámi people of Lapland have no country, but this ancient culture has no need for man-made boundaries.


Beach, H. (1993). A year in Lapland: Guest of the reindeer people. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Bosi, R. (1960). The Lapps. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers, Inc.

Gaski, H. (n.d.). Sámi culture in a new era. Retrieved fromámi/diehtu/newera/gaski-newera.htm

Gaski, H. (n.d.). Sámi Culture in the Nordic Countries – Administration, Support, Evaluation. Retrieved fromámi/dieda/hist/nordic.htm

Gaski, H. (n.d.). The Decline of the Sámi People’s Indigenous Religion. Retrieved fromámi/diehtu/siida/christian/decline.htm

Manker, E. (1964). People of eight seasons. New York, NY: The Viking Press.

Riordan, J. (1991). The sun maiden and the crescent moon: Siberian folk tales. Brooklyn, NY: Interlink Books.

Took, R. (2004). Running with reindeer. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

3 thoughts on “The Sámi People of Lapland”

  1. Wonderful article – I have been researching Sami traditions for my next book and this is helpful; thank you!

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