The Sami People: Thriving through Reindeer Herding in the North

In the farthest reaches of Europe resides an enduring community known as the Sami people. Their history is a testament to adaptation, survival, and the preservation of a distinctive culture in the face of challenging circumstances and external influences. Join us as we explore the rich past and traditions of the Sami people in the vast expanse of Sapmi.

The Ancient Origins of the Sami People

The Sami People
Engravings on Stone: Häljesta Petroglyphs in Vastmanland, Sweden. ( Source )

Many millennia ago, the Sami, believed to be descendants of the Samoyed tribe, migrated to their ancestral lands from the East. The Arctic coast of northern Norway bears witness to their presence through intricate petroglyphs, depicting zoomorphs, boats, and anthropomorphs. These ancient artworks offer a glimpse into a time when the Sami thrived along the frigid shores.

Around 2000 years ago, the Sami inhabited what we now know as Finland. Their earliest documented mention comes from the Roman historian Tacitus in 98 AD, referring to them as “fenni,” a hunting people of the far north who donned fur clothing, skied, and relied on reindeer for sustenance. Chinese records from 500 AD also speak of a people in Sapmi using reindeer for transportation and dairy. These early accounts, though not written in the Sami language, shed light on their ancient way of life.

The Significance of the Sami Name and Language

The Sami People
Sámi People with Reindeer: Finnmark, Norway (1890-1900). ( Source )

Formerly known as Lapps and Laplanders, the Sami people have transitioned beyond these outdated terms. In modern Scandinavian languages, “Lapp” denotes a patch that requires mending, suggesting patched clothing. The term “Laplander” lacks specificity, as it includes non-Sami individuals living in Lapland and excludes Sami residing elsewhere. The term “Sami” itself likely originates from Proto-Finnic, loosely translating to “land.”

The Sami language reflects their deep connection to nature, boasting an extensive vocabulary for describing elements such as land, water, and snow. Their language is so precise that it can distinguish among thousands of reindeer based on fur, antlers, sex, and age within a single herd.

Exploring the Traditional Sami Worldview

The Sami People
Copper Carving Depicting a Sami Shaman (Noaidi) with a Drum: Meråker, Nord-Trøndelag (1767). ( Source )

Traditional Sami spirituality is rooted in polytheistic paganism, closely tied to the natural world. Animism, a belief in spirits inhabiting natural entities, is a cornerstone of their faith, beautifully illustrated in ancestral rock art. Pantheism and a deeply personal spirituality are integral to daily life for the Sami.

The Sami perceive the cosmos as three distinct worlds: the Upper World, the Middle World, and the Underworld. Each world has its unique characteristics and is associated with specific aspects of life, from warmth and life to cold and the afterlife. Shamanic rituals, including drumming and chanting, serve as a conduit for communication between these realms, allowing the Sami to connect with their spiritual deities.

Traditional Daily Life in Sami Society

The Sami People
A Nomadic Sámi Siida (1900-1920): Norway. ( Source )

In times past, Sami society revolved around siida, family groups that shared natural resources. Regardless of gender, the eldest member led the siida, making decisions regarding movement, fishing territories, and meetings with other elders to address common challenges. Some siida were nomadic, with a strong tradition of reindeer herding, while others resided in permanent settlements, sustaining themselves through fishing. Today, reindeer herders continue to live in siida groups during part of the year.

Challenges and Interactions with Non-Sami Communities

Traditional Sámi Artistry: Beaded Belt, Knife, and Antler Needle Case from Norway.

Throughout history, the peaceful Sami encountered other cultures, leading to both positive and negative consequences. Sami stories recount encounters with Stalo, possibly Vikings, who occasionally attacked and looted them. However, their proficiency in hunting and fishing facilitated trade for essential tools, clothing, and jewelry.

Unfortunately, the Sami faced more significant challenges in the form of taxation and loss of land and hunting/fishing rights due to laws and decrees imposed on them from the 1500s onwards. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, pressure to assimilate and threats to their traditional way of life intensified, with mining and forestry projects encroaching on Sami lands and customs.

Modern Life and the Diverse Sami Groups

Contemporary Sámi Lifestyle: A Modern Sámi Man Beside a Lavvu Nomadic House in Norway. ( Source )

Today, the Sami population numbers around 100,000 individuals, with a majority residing in the innermost parts of Finnmark County, Norway, and the municipality of Utsjoki, Finland. Scientists have categorized them into three general groups based on language and geography: North, South, and East. These groups have further divided into eight Sami sub-groups, reflecting varying degrees of cultural strength, dress, and customs.

As the Sami culture continues to evolve, there is a growing concern that modernity may lead to the erosion or eventual loss of their rich cultural heritage. They face contemporary challenges, such as battles for the right to graze their reindeer across international borders, highlighting their ongoing determination to preserve their traditions.

In conclusion, the Sami people’s enduring legacy is a testament to their strength and resilience in the face of adversity. Their ties to the past, evident in their songs, clothing, and way of life, will undoubtedly shape their future, just as it has throughout their history.

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