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Sami of Scandinavia & Russia

The Sami of Scandinavia & Russia

The Sami are an indigenous Arctic people whose territory encompasses northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Their traditional lands cover an area about the size of Sweden and ancestors of today’s Sami settled there around 2,000-2500 years ago. It has been claimed that they are the aboriginal northern Europeans. The first written historical mention of the Sami was made by the Roman historian Tacitus in AD 98 who described them as being extremely poor with no weapons, no horses and no houses. The Sami are the largest indigenous ethnic group in Europe and out of the estimated 85,000 Sami living today, 60,000 are in Norway, 17,000 in Sweden, 6,000 in Finland and 2000 in Russia.

The Sami’s connection with reindeer is ancient. At first they exploited the reindeer for food, clothing and shelter (tent covers). Initially they just hunted reindeer but later they kept some tames animals that they used as decoys and for transport. During the middle ages, some groups of Sami combined hunting wild reindeer with herding domesticated ones. From the 17th Century reindeer herding gradually took over from hunting.


The traditional Sami language belongs to the Finn-Lappic group of the Uralic language family and has about 50 different dialects. There are an estimated 30,000 Sami who speak the own language, but today almost all Sami also speak the language of their native country.

Daily Life

Sami in Russia
Traditionally the Sami have undertaken a variety of employment including coastal fishing, sheep herding & trapping but they are however best known as reindeer herders. It is probably correct to say that reindeer herding ‘carries’ the Sami culture although less than 10% of Sami are actually involved in herding. It is the Mountain Sami of North Norway who are perhaps the best known of the reindeer herders. They lead a semi-nomadic existence migrating each spring from their winter pastures in the Kautokeino and Karasjok districts to the coast with their herds, returning again in the autumn. On these migrations some Sami still use traditional tepee style tents called ‘ lavvu’ but most of the year they live in conventional modern houses or huts when they are out at their pastures. The Sami reindeer herders use an extended family system called a ‘Siida’ to share the work involved in reindeer herding and these groups could consist of up to about 50 people. Today, there are only about 2,800 Sami in Norway who are directly involved in reindeer herding, the rest follow a wide range of careers which include bank managers, lawyers and university professors.


Reindeer meat and fish were the traditional staple foods of the Sami. Though reindeer were kept primarily for their meat and skins, the Sami also milked their reindeer. Most of the milk was made into cheese, which was highly prized. Once shops were established and southern Scandinavian foods became readily available, the practice of milking reindeer died out. Today virtually all Sami communities have supermarkets that carry a variety of foods that you might find in small shops in Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki or Moscow.


In former times reindeer were the main form of transport for the Sami and they had a variety of different styles of sled. In the summer they used reindeer as pack animals with bags slung on either side, babies were also carried this way in special cradles. The Sami were also skilled at making a variety of wooden boats that were used on rivers, lakes and on the coast. Nowadays the snowmobile has replaced the reindeer sled in winter, four wheelers are used in the summer, as too are modern fibre glass boats with powerful outboard motors. Some Sami nowadays even use helicopters to help them round up their reindeer in the summer months.


Like many Arctic peoples the Sami traditionally held animist beliefs. They believed that virtually everything in the natural world had a spirit. Human beings could only successfully make their way in this world by cooperating and living in harmony with these natural forces. It was important not to harm nature as that would interfere. To understand the spiritual aspects of their life the Sami used the services of a Noadi (shaman) who was able to make contact with the spirit world. The Noadi used a shaman’s drum to help them travel in or out of the spirit world. Over the course of time many Sami converted to Christianity, in large part through the efforts of Lars Levi Laestadiusin, a nineteenth-century evangelical Congregationalist. Today most Sami practice the dominant Lutheran religion of the Nordic countries in which they live, the exception being the Sami of the Lovozero district of Kola Peninsula in Russia.


Sami traditional clothing
Some Sami still wear their brightly colouredtraditional clothing, with its 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 (gatki), as borders on the women's skirts, and on the hats of both sexes. Men's hats vary by region; some are cone-shaped while others, called the Hat of the Four Winds, have four corners. Women and girls may drape fringed scarves around their shoulders. Warm reindeer-skin coats are worn by both sexes. The Sami also wear moccasins made of reindeer skin with turned-up toes, fastened with ribbons. They stuff their moccasins with dried sedge grass to insulate their feet against the cold.

Social Problems

The main problem that is common to most Sami groups is the loss of their traditional grazing land. The Sami have been affected by the invasion of mining and logging companies, hydroelectric power projects, communication networks, the military, and also tourism. In Russia’s Kola Peninsula the Sami have been prevented from fishing in many of their ancestral rivers because of wealthy Western sports fisherman who fly in for salmon fishing holidays. This deprives the local Sami of a traditional and important source of food. 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 travelled to the capital city of Oslo, where they set up Lavvus (tents) in front of the Norwegian parliament and began a hunger strike. Their efforts were unsuccessful, but their actions drew worldwide attention.

Text © B & C Alexander

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