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General Information

Author: Veli-Pekka Lehtola

The Multi-Faceted Land of the Sámi

Sámi culture has gone through great changes during the recent decades. Since the 1970s being Sámi has taken on new meaning as tradition has been combined with and assimilated to modern influences and views. In the 1990s, the land of the Sámi — Sápmi — got national symbols that reflect the unity of the Sámi in the new world.

The blue, red, green, and yellow flag of the Sámi flies from the poles in conferences and meetings. The national anthem written by Isak Saba in the early 1900s has made a comeback, although it is rivalled today by new "national yoiks". Examples of great Sámi events and remarkable Sámi personalities are subjects of research in history.

Every year, Sámi representatives attend official conferences of indigenous peoples in different parts of the world. Today the Sámi also have seven official flag-raising days, and a national holiday, February the 6th, which commemorates the first Nordic Sámi conference in 1917.

The fact that Sámi ethnicity is being expressed on a symbolic level is linked with the national "awakening" of the Sámi that has taken place in the last 25 years. In the early 1970s, young Sámi started to become aware of and fight for their Sámi heritage, a reaction to a long process of assimilation. The Second World War and the subsequent reconstruction period, the development of a road and communication network, a change in habits, and the school system — all these had come to the North according to the ideals and values of the dominant population.

From the start, the educated young Sámi aimed at creating a bridge between tradition and the present, between the old outlook on life and the influence of the modern society. This quickly gave rise to new forms of participation: new forms of Sámi politics, Sámi media, and Sámi art. One of the turning-points of the political-cultural history was the conflict concerning the Alta power plant at the beginning of the 1980s. This conflict invigorated the Sámi culture and led to important changes in the politics of the Sámi and the policies of the state in Norway.

Although the appreciation of Sámi culture has increased as a result of new laws and the political awareness of the Sámi, there are still conflicts in everyday life. Sámi culture is split into the territories of four countries; it is not protected by clear and strong borders. The status of the Sámi language still needs to be strengthened. In the case of many Sámi, the post-war assimilation period resulted in a low level of self-esteem, and the subsequent problems are still detrimental to, for example, attitudes toward the Sámi language.

A Nation Split by Borders

The Sámi are the only ethnic group in the European Union that have been classified as an indigenous people. They are also a minority that lives in four different countries and has its own language and culture. The number of Sámi varies from 60,000 to 100,000 depending on the method of calculation. The Sámi region — Sápmi — extends from Central Norway and Sweden through the northern part of Finland to the Kola Peninsula.

Norway has the largest group of Sámi, approx. 40,000—45,000, half of whom live in the province of Finnmark. There are 15,000—25,000 Sámi in Sweden, over 6000 in Finland, and approx. 2000 in Russia. In Finland, Sweden, and Norway the Sámi elect from among themselves a representative body, the Sámi Parliament, which has an advisory status.

In Finland, Norway, and Sweden people have traditionally been considered Sámi if they regard themselves as Sámi and have learned Sámi as their native language, or have at least one parent or grandparent who has done so. What is crucial is the family background, the relationship to the Sámi language and through it to the culture, and the feeling that one is Sámi.

More than half of the Sámi speak Sámi. There are several Sámi languages, and Sámi who speak the different languages cannot usually understand each other. In Finland, Norway, and Sweden, North Sámi is the main Sámi language. In Finland and Norway there is a language law that guarantees the Sámi the right to use their language with authorities in their own area.

A Sámi — a Lapp

The name Sámi — sápmelaš — is an ethnic qualifier that refers to the view the Sámi have of themselves as members of a culture which is different from the dominant one. It has replaced the old term Lapp, which was coined by outsiders and which Sámi consider too tinged with the long process of subjection, and even offensive.

The word "Sámi" is a fairly new term in Finnish; it has only been used since the early 1900s. As a Sámi term, however, it is an ancient Finno-Ugrian word, from which the original name for the Finns was also derived. In older documents and literature, the word "Lapp" meant persons who earned their living from the "Lapp sources of livelihood" (reindeer herding, fishing, and hunting) in an area which they permanently owned and for which they paid land taxes to the state.

The Different Groups of Sámi

In the old literature on the Sámi we find several names for the Sámi, such as Forest Sámi, Mountain Sámi, River Sámi, and Eastern Sámi. Classification may be useful, but the groups should not be mixed up: linguistic, geographical, ecological, historical and livelihood groups are not congruent with each other. We must also keep in mind that some of the divisions have become outdated since World War II, as living conditions have changed and characteristics blended. The economic significance of the traditional means of livelihood has decreased considerably, whereas the importance of trade and services has increased.

It is very common to think that the Sámi have been and still are reindeer herders — Reindeer-Herding or Mountain Sámi. In fact only one out of five Sámi in Finland, for instance, owns reindeer, and not even all of them have reindeer herding as their main source of livelihood. Nomadism has left its mark on the whole Sámi culture, although, as a means of living, it is rather recent, existing only since the 1500s. In terms of the way of life, the Sea Sámi living on the coast of the Arctic Ocean are the biggest group, making up almost half of the Sámi people. Reindeer herding is of little importance to their way of life. There are Sea Sámi only in Norway. The Sea Sámi language is one of the dialects of North or Mountain Sámi.

Historical texts often use the word "Forest Sámi culture" to refer to a culture that is older than the reindeer-herding one. Above all, it is linked with the natural environment and way of life. It entails a diverse economy in which hunting, fishing and gathering, and later small-scale reindeer herding, formed the basis of livelihood. The Forest Sámi culture extended from the Central Scandinavian coniferous zone to the forest and lake regions of the Kola Peninsula.

Another division that is often used in addition to the livelihood division is one based on language. The Sámi language is today divided into ten main languages, and each one is further divided into dialects. We can really talk about different languages: in the course of a millennium, the dialects of Proto-Sámi have diverged from each other so much that, for example, a person who knows North Sámi has trouble understanding Skolt Sámi or Inari Sámi.

Geographically, those speaking North Sámi are the largest linguistic group: North Sámi dialects are spoken by the River Sámi of the Tenojoki River and the Sámi of Kautokeino and Enontekiö, as well as the Sámi living in Northern Sweden. It is also the most prominent literary Sámi language, although South, Lule, Inari, Skolt, and Kildin Sámi all have their standard languages, too. Three of the main languages — Inari, Skolt, and North Sámi—are spoken in Finland.

A Culture Linked with Nature

The Sámi have always relied on nature. Nature has been the source of both the material and spiritual culture of the Sámi. It also distinguishes the Sámi culture from an industrial culture or the agricultural civilizations of the peasantry. However, nature has not unilaterally dictated the terms of living. Throughout the centuries, the Sámi culture has adjusted itself to its natural environment. The community of people has put its "cultural mark" on this natural environment.

The inner distinctions of the Sámi culture are based on the nature of Northern Fennoscandia. The many regions of the land of the Sámi are in fact very different in terms of landscape. There is the wide northern coniferous zone extending from Swedish and Finnish Lapland all the way to the Kola Peninsula. In the northernmost parts of the land of the Sámi are the coasts of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Between the coniferous zone and the coast, we find the highlands with both gentle fells and the wild Kölen mountain ridge.

The diverse nature has given rise to diverse sources of livelihood and also formed natural borderlines between the cultural groups. The differences created by the cultural borders appear today as distinct languages, concrete expressions of the cultures, and sources of livelihood. Still, all the Sámi groups have had one thing in common: they have all adjusted their ways of life to the yearly cycle of nature and the local natural environment.

The natural conditions in the land of the Sámi are so unproductive and cold that there are few sources of livelihood that can guarantee survival for humans in the area. The Sámi have learned how to get along in extremely barren conditions and in areas where other people have not been able to live. However, this way of life, unlike agriculture, has only been able to provide for a rather limited population. Therefore, the number of Sámi has always stayed reasonably low.

The Sámi way of life has been based on living in harmony with nature. The Sámi have been very frugal in their use of nature. They have seldom changed their environment radically, for example, through logging or dam building. However, as communities have grown, overexploitation may have taken place. This happened in connection with the hunt for the wild reindeer in the Middle Ages, and possibly also earlier, in the Iron Age, in connection with whale and seal hunting.

The tight link with nature was apparent in the religion of the Sámi. According to the traditional Sámi religion, the world was permeated by spirits. Humans could only be successful in making their living if they cooperated with the natural forces. It was important not to damage nature, as that would have meant interfering with God´s work. The religion of such a people was cyclical, committed to the pattern of seasonal migration and the cycle of life.

A thorough knowledge of nature`s traits has been the prerequisite for adjusting human behavior to the basic productivity of nature. A pattern of seasonal migration and a diverse economy were the starting-points of life. The migration pattern was not arbitrary and passive; instead, the Sámi society—the system of Lapp villages, or siidas—was very well organized.

The Sámi have also adjusted nature to their own purposes. They have adopted new technology as well as new means of living, like reindeer, sheep and goat husbandry, in a very practical way. Changes in society may also have been caused by crises. These crises have included phenomena linked with nature, like lack of game, or population growth in the area; they have also included, for example, overhunting, which led to the exhaustion of the stock of wild reindeer. Such crises resulted in new adjustments. For example the lack of wild reindeer gave rise to reindeer herding.

The peasant culture attempted to control nature, and this aim was in conflict with the traditional Sámi view of the world. The spreading of a technical-industrial culture to the land of the Sámi has created many problems. Forestry, the building of hydro-electric power plants, mining, and recreation and conservation are competing ways of using nature, and the needs of a small population are usually subordinated to them.

This is why the future of the land of the Sámi is linked with the issue of who owns the lands and waters of the North. For the Sámi, nature has been a source of reproduction that outsiders have seized —and without satisfactory judicial grounds. According to the Sámi, the balance between people and nature can only be returned by going back to the original knowledge that the old Sámi way of life relied on.

The Tradition of Portraying Lapland

There are certainly few peoples in the world that have been portrayed as frequently in literature as the Sámi, or Lapps. These portrayals have been influenced not only by the real conditions of the Sámi but also by the cultural and social background of the writers. The Lapland and the Lapps of literature are concepts that have their own history; they rise from a tradition in the history of ideas; they have their own images and vocabulary. They have largely existed to meet the needs of "the South".

From the very beginning, knowledge and myths blended and accumulated in the literature on Lapland. Even Tacitus´ portrayal in Germania was full of clichés that were used by the writers of the time to describe tribal peoples. The people that Tacitus called the Fenni were primitive hunters but "happy in their simplicity", as they did not have to sweat in agricultural work. The oldest portrayers of the Sámi also include Prokopios and Jordanes (550 A.D.), Paulus Diaconus (795), the Norwegian Ohthere (894), Adam of Bremen (1070), and Saxo Grammaticus (1200).

All these writers contributed new details to the picture: the Sámi were skiing skrithiphinnoi, they lived in a country where the sun did not set at night, they were masters in casting spells. All this reinforced the earlier image of the Sámi. Certain mythical and often curious portrayals were repeated from book to book, thus strengthening the misguided picture of the Sámi. Observations based on fact were misinterpreted and became myths that in turn created new myths.

Olaus Magnus Gothus´ Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, published in the mid-1500s, brought a new and even revolutionary flood of information on Lapland. Unlike his predecessors, Olaus Magnus based his portrayals partly on his own experiences, as he had in fact travelled as far north as Tornio. With the spreading of administrative and mission activities, the amount of information available on the northern regions started to increase. The classic work Lapponia by Johannes Schefferus (1673) was the first monograph to focus on the Sámi, and it represents the tradition of scholarly thinking.

From the 1600s on, there were an increasing number of researchers, administrators and travellers visiting Lapland. In addition to their actual work or travelling, they wrote down their experiences and views. They came to the North for different reasons. In older times, merchants tried to find new goods and routes, followed by the clergy who wanted to spread their belief and collect money. Starting in the late 1600s, scientific curiosity and the search for exoticism attracted people to Lapland, and after that there was an attempt to utilize the natural resources of the North which was legitimized by science.

By the late 1700s, there was already a flood of literature on Lapland. In terms of its point of view, it can be divided into two main lines that have existed to this very day. The literature written by travellers increased with the Enlightenment in the 1700s and especially with Romanticism, when a great number of foreigners visited Lapland to have a look at the exotic, primitive people and their way of life in the remote peripheries of Europe. These books were written purely from an outsider´s point of view.

The other main genre of old literature on Lapland is the presentations and descriptions, or beskrifningar, written by the experts — the civil servants who lived in Lapland. In addition, descriptions were often provided by priests, who formed the first intelligentsia of Lapland. Giving sermons had given them a lot of training in the use of words, and their scientific or social hobbies were often linked with the need to write down their observations. The descriptions made by scholars often relied on a systematic structure.

As settlement spread vigorously to the North in the 1700s, the focus of the descriptions of Lapland changed. The new view, which prevailed until the 1900s, emphasized agriculture—as an antithesis to the descriptions of the Sámi. The experts used a great deal of space to discuss the economic conditions of Lapland, but travellers also started to bring forth the fact that agriculture could form the basis of livelihood in Lapland, too.

In the 1800s, the admiration of the peasantry by travellers, experts, and even authorities began to turn into a general obsession with the idea that only agriculture could bring people their daily bread in the North. It was persistently considered the only right means of livelihood even in Lapland, although it often turned out to be a poor alternative. The descriptions of the settlers´ conditions abounded in grumbling about how agriculture in Lapland seemed to mean continuously hitting one`s head against the wall. What is in fact interesting is the unyielding character of the peasants.

In the 1800s, the experts` descriptions started to consist mainly of scholarly works, and the mysticism surrounding the Sámi started to disappear. However, many myths, like the image of people who were innocently primeval and poor but who were nevertheless happy in their ignorance, still lived on. These works, too, emphasized the contrast between a natural culture and "civilization", a contrast which was especially striking in the scientific discussion in Norway and Sweden in the late 1800s.

The History of the Sámi

The history of the Sámi goes back several millennia. It has been a period of many, even drastic, changes. The Sámi have had to adjust both to natural conditions and outside pressures. By the 1700s — at the latest — the Sámi had lost the right to control their country. With time, however, outside pressures gave rise to cooperation among the Sámi.

The Sámi are the descendants of a people who inhabited Northern Fennoscandia just after the Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. Ethnically, however, we can talk about the Sámi only after the Sámi language was born in connection with the breaking of the Finnish-Sámi language connection. This apparently took place no later than the 2nd millennium BC and was a result of livelihood differentiation and subsequent cultural changes. With the Battle Ax culture, the population on the Finnish coast adopted agriculture and was greatly influenced by western (Germanic) populations.

The people in the inland areas maintained their way of life that was based on hunting and fishing. The eastern influence on this part of the population continued, and the people diverged from the "Finns", whose genotype and language were greatly influenced by Indo-Europeans. By the first millennium BC, Sámi had become a separate language, and the Sámi-speaking culture spread throughout Northern Fennoscandia.

The area the Sámi inhabited was at its largest during the first millennium of the Christian Era. There were Sámi (also known as the "Fenni" or "Skrithiphinnoi" in the oldest records, and as "Lapps" since the 1200s) living from Lake Ladoga to the Arctic Ocean, and from Central Scandinavia to the White Sea. With the exception of the south-western and southern coasts, all of today´s Finland was inhabited by Sámi. As a result of pressure from Finnish settlers, the Sámi population quickly assimilated so that by the 16th century there were no longer any Sámi living in the southern part of Finland (cf. map).

The Sámi have mainly been a hunting and fishing people whose way of life was based for thousands of years on diverse sources of livelihood. Until the 1500s, hunting for wild reindeer was a profitable means of living; reindeer products were sold all the way to Central Europe. In a diverse economy, people moved from one place to another according to the season, relying also on fishing both on the sea and on the rivers and lakes, bird-hunting, berry-picking, and gathering. The Forest-Sámi society was very well-organized: "Lapp villages", or siidas, composed of families or clans were the foundation of this society, and the network of these administrative units covered all of Northern Fennoscandia.

For thousands of years, the Sámi may have practiced small-scale reindeer herding using reindeer for transportation and as decoys, as well as for milking. Large-scale reindeer herding, on the other hand, did not come into existence until the 1500s and 1600s. The stock of wild reindeer was in fact exhausted, and the existing grazing lands made it sensible to continue the old means of livelihood by herding reindeer. What people knew about the wild reindeer, its names and hunting methods, became the special skills and knowledge of reindeer herders.

Reindeer herding had an increasing influence on the Sámi way of life, turning it into a nomadic one: the reindeer herders moved by family or clan with the herds. The herds grew, and reindeer herding became the dominant means of living. The livelihood quickly gained ground: land was turned into grazing land with no objection from anyone, and, to save the pastures, the Lapp villages moved great distances in the highlands between the forested regions and the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The traditional siida, the village area, which had earlier covered a rather restricted area, now became a longish zone because of the pattern of seasonal migration.

Especially from the 1500s, the Sámi society was also caught up in drastic changes caused by outsiders. Each state in Scandinavia tried to make the area of its northern interests an integrated part of its kingdom. This attempt involved three crucial methods. Each state attempted to mark its areas in the North by converting inhabitants to Christianity. By supporting settlement in the North it was possible to guarantee that the areas were kept inhabited. On the level of society, the old Sámi form of administration was replaced by a Nordic administrative system.

Little by little, the former Sámi areas were also divided by borders. Agreements were made as early as the 1200s and 1300s, but the first clear border in the North was defined by the Teusina Peace Treaty of 1595. After that, the borders between Sweden and Russia divided the Sámi between eastern and western cultural influences. The later border from Kilpisjärvi to Kolmisoaivi was drawn in 1751 in the Treaty of Strömstad. This treaty also included a special codicil that recognized the old Sámi rights, for example the right to cross state borders. In 1852 the border was, however, closed. In 1889 the border between Russia and Sweden along the Tornionjoki River was also closed. The last border in the Sámi region was drawn in 1944 between Finland and the Soviet Union.

When settlement in the North increased in the 19th century, the states launched a conscious policy in favor of the interests of the dominant population. The Sámi no longer had any special rights. Especially in Norway this led to assimilation, a policy which was supported by the social Darwinistic views of the authorities. An attempt was even made to change the Sámi culture through legislation so that it would comply with Norwegian ideals. This assimilation policy was still being pursued in the 1950s.

As the grip of the dominant populations tightened and the living conditions of the Sámi became more difficult, the Sámi started to see the necessity for national cooperation. The ethnic and national awakening of the Sámi started in the late 1800s in Norway and Sweden, where local Sámi associations and the first Sámi newspapers were founded. This was also the beginning of the cooperation across the borders that led to a general Sámi conference in Trondheim in Norway in 1917.

After World War II this cooperation increased. In 1953, the first Sámi Conference focusing on the rights of the Sámi both to natural resources and to their own language was held in Jokkmokk in Sweden. The actual "renaissance" of Sámi culture started in the late 1960s — giving rise to new Sámi politics, media, and art.