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The Sámi (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
nordic flags
The home pages for the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.nordic
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The Sámi

[ Who they are  |  History  |  Sámi cultures  |  Sámi mythology  |  Sámi languages  |  Sámi as citizens  |  Sámi Today ]


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winter landscape
North Scandinavian winter landscape
 
 


Subject: 2.3 

The Sámi people (not Lapps!)

This section by Kari Yli-Kuha
(being revised - last edited 98/03/21)
A more recent version might be found at
<http://www.sqc.fi/~ylikuka/scnordic/sami/>
map over Sámi lands  

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 Russia.


 

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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 Finland.

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.


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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.


 

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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 cultures.

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 Ðeatnu/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 "sjøfinner" 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.

 

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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.


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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 shamans.

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 sieidde.

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 forbidden.

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 century.

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.

 

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2.3.5 Sámi languages

dialect map

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 publications.


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Johan Turi
Johan Turi

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 Piteå 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 ]

 

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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 country.

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.

 

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2.3.7 The Sámi Today


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Sámi family
Sámi family

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 flag

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 countries.

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."



Acknowledgments:
I would like to thank Jari Oksanen of Tromsø University and John Blood <guovtta@winternet.com> of Sámi Association of North America for their help, opinions and references.

References:
Karl Nickul: Saamelaiset kansana ja kansalaisina, 1970
Mikko Korhonen: Johdatus lapin kielen historiaan, 1981 ISBN 951-717-248-6
Bjørn 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)



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- Is the text above really reliable?
- See the discussion in section 1.2.2!
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© Copyright 1996-2001 by Kari Yli-Kuha.
You are free to quote this page as long as you mention the URL.
The line of flags is modified after a picture at det Åländska skoldatanätet.
This page was last updated June the 12th in the year of 1998.

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