Long before the Vikings, the Swedish and the Finnish culture had developed, the Scandinavian peninsula was already populated by some people. These were the Sami people, the only indigenous people of Scandinavia and the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. We learned a lot about them during our days in Umeå and below we are going to tell all we know about them.
There are over 350 million indigenous people living in all regions of the world. The Sami people are one of them and they live in the very north of Europe. In a place called Sápmi that stretches across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula. They are a minority in their countries even though they’re a majority in the county of Finnmark in Norway and Utsjoki in Finland.
A Little bit of Sami History
The first known historical mention of the Sami was by Tacitus, a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire, about 98 A.D.. Although his account most certainly was based on hearsay only he was the first one to describe those they used to call fenni. This word evolved into Finn, originally used by the Norse speakers to refer to the Sami. Nobody knows for sure how they started being called like that but there is something related to the old norse word used to describe the people that would find their food instead of grew it. Since the Sami are hunter-gatherers, this might make sense but nobody knows for sure. And, yes, in a really simple way, this is how Finland got its name.
But, back to the Sami. Right now, their population is estimated to be around 80,000 people spread over 4 countries. But, since there is no census for them, we can never be sure about it. They’re, also, a nomadic people. Or, at least, this is what they used to be before their children were forced into missionary and state run schools. Today, most of the Sami people live in modern houses and only use tents as temporary accommodations during reindeer migration.
The Sami People and the Reindeer
The reindeer are a central aspect of the Sami survival. This is where they get their food but the reindeers mean more than just food. When you kill a reindeer, nothing goes to waste. The meat, the skin, the feet, everything will be used by Sami people. Since the reindeers are not domesticated, they live in herds and the herds move. Together with the reindeers, the Sami move as well.
According to the Sami mythology, a reindeers was used to create their world, their land. From its fur, the grass and tress were created. From its blood veins, the river were awakened. Its skull, became the sky. And the stars came from their skies and, now they watch the Sami during the dark nights up north. This is their culture and it is endangered due to their land loss and relocation by force.
But you’re making a mistake if you think the Sami can be regarded as one people. There are several kinds of Sami based on their settlement pattern and how they manage to sustain themselves through time. From mountain Sami that herd reindeers to the ones that live near the sea and use fish as their main source of food.
Since the Sami are a nomadic people, their art was different. They consume it in another form. They couldn’t carry big objects with them on their journey following the reindeer herds. Their handicraft is called Duodji and comes from their belief that an object should serve a purpose first and foremost rather that being primarily decorative. But it doesn’t end there.
Their creativity didn’t stop because the Sami are practical people. Their creativity was expressed in their traditional costumes and their music. Art is how you carry your body and this is the essence behind the Gakti, the traditional clothing worn by the Sami people. You can even determine which region a Sami comes from by the clothes they’re wearing. The colors, the patterns and jewelry indicates where a person is from. It can indicate if a person is married or single and even serve as a family badge.
Everything we know about the Sami people come from a early sunday morning talk we had at the Västerbottens Museum in Umeå. There you can see the differences between all the Sami people spread around Sweden. From their houses to the way they dress and speak, everything is preserved there as a way of showing the world the Sami are still there. And they will be for a long time.