The Saami

Saami reindeer herder.

© D.R.


'Men cannot nourish the reindeer, 
the reindeer must nourish men' says a Saami herder.



What is their real name?

The people formerly called the Lapps are today known as the Saami, Sami or Same. They are the only indigenous people of Europe.


Where do they live, and what is their environment like?

The Saami live in northern Scandinavia, that is the North of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Their territory, Sapmi, therefore lies mostly in the frigid zone beyond the Arctic Circle. Its climate is very harsh, with violent winds and temperatures ranging from -50°C (-58°F) in the winter to 16°C (61°F) in the summer. The tundra covers the majority of the territory, and snow blankets its vast expanses for half of the year. At the beginning of summer, there is constant daylight, and, six months later, constant darkness.



How many are they?

There are about 50,000 Saami in Norway, 17,000 in Sweden, 4,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia.


What languages do they speak?

They speak their own language, Saami, and, depending on where they live, they also speak Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian. They ask that Saami be recognized as an official language in each of these four countries. In Sweden, it is less and less spoken, and the Saami demand the right to use it at school, at the town hall, at the hospital or in court. Tundra is a Saami word.


How do they dress?

For festivals, they prefer to wear their traditional costume, made of felt, knit wool, and reindeer skin. Men and women wear belinga, leather leggings, under short, mid-thigh or long, knee-length wool tunics, fastened with an embroidered belt. These tunics are adorned with wide, woven ribbons embroidered in every color.

Men protect their heads with a hat having three long points, and women wear a deeper, round hat that holds their hair. Their knitted mittens are covered with designs, and they all wear reindeer skin skallers with straw instead of socks. For the coldest conditions, they wear reindeer-fur coats.

Today, the Saami buy clothing in town for day-to-day life. Women don't spend as much time tanning hides, sewing, knitting and embroidering. They work at the office while their children are in school.


What are their houses like?

In the past, the Saami were nomads, following their migrating reindeer herds from the North to the South at summer's end and in the opposite direction at winter's end. Today, however, with snowmobiles and helicopters, they follow their herds more easily and have become sedentary, living in modern wooden houses, from which they depart by motorized vehicle to gather and lead their herds across the tundra. In these villages, their children go to school, but they can't follow the reindeer migrations, so they don't learn how to herd reindeer from their fathers.

Their tents were made of birchwood covered with reindeer hides. They also lived in kotas, birchwood-framed huts covered with mats of turf.


A Saami family, circa 1900A Saami family, circa 1900

© D. R.


Which animals live around them?

Reindeers pull Santa's sleigh, but they are also the Saamis' reason for being. They are a means of transportation, and a source of food and material for shelter, clothing and the production of weapons and tools. They are perfectly adapted to the snow, having large hooves that serve as snowshoes of a sort. Their antlers change color with the seasons, from red to brown. They function as shovels for digging in the snow to find the lichen they eat in the winter.

The herds consist of many thousands of animals, and, in the Saami language, hundreds of words are used to describe them according to their fur, their age, their sex and the form of their antlers. In order to distinguish them, herders catch them with lassos and mark them by cutting notches into their ears, which, as a result, are serrated. The females give birth in the beginning of May, and the migration towards the summer pastures must then be finished.

Around them live brown bears, wolverines, wolves, lemmings, foxes and other forest mamals.


What do they eat?

Reindeer meat is cut into slices and dried in the sun on high, wooden poles. Cooking fat is kept in reindeer bladders. They make cheese with reindeer milk. They gather berries in the tundra to make lakka and puolukka jams. For the big, wedding feasts, the Saami are particularly fond of white-tailed ptarmigans, which they catch in traps. In winter, in the Arctic, they fish through holes cut in the ice covering lakes.

In villages where they are now sedentary, they buy chocolate and candy, but also meat and frozen vegetables.


What are their beliefs and rites?

The old beliefs have mostly disappeared with the forced conversion of the Saami begun three centuries ago. However, they still have great respect for the ancient religious sites where their ancestors made animal sacrifices at stone altars. They continue to believe in the Ulda, the people who live under the ground. Beaivi, the Sun, Bieggolmmai, the wind, and Ruonanieida, the spring, were their main deities. The shaman would go into a trance, induced by a magic drum, to communicate with the spirit world.

Today, children are baptized and marriages are held at the church. On these occasions, the traditional costume is worn.


What do they celebrate?

The great gatherings take place at Easter. It's a time for weddings and big fairs. The Saami come together then for reindeer and sled races and music contests. Joik is their traditional, improvised song. In it they combine animal calls, interjections and murmurs to evoke people, animals and elements of nature: a river, a mountain or a lake.

These songs were disappearing, but drunkards continued to mumble them and, therefore, contributed to their preservation. Today, young musicians have reclaimed the songs, mixing them with electro-acoustic music.


What art do they make and what are they famous for?

Like all nomadic peoples who have to move each season, they traditionally had very few possessions, and, therefore, only produced what was essential and easy to transport.

They make beautiful birchwood boxes, knives with handles of reindeer antler, solid silver jewelry and embroidered, multicolored ribbons prized by tourists. Some Saami artists are famous for their sculptures and bone, wood and stone engravings.

In sports, the Sápmi soccer team unites Saami players from the four different countries. It won the 2006 VIVA World Cup in Monaco, and would like to become an official team.


What problems do they face today?


Saami flagSaami flag


Global warming has serious consequences for the Saami. When winter is warmer than usual, snow is more abundant and a succession of snowfall, rain, warming and freezing transforms it into layers of ice polished by the wind. "On most pastures, there are three or four overlapping layers of ice", stated John Haetta, a herder, in 2007. "Moreover, with the quantity of snow that has fallen, it's become almost impossible for the reindeer to break the ice to get to the lichen, their only source of food in winter."

In Sweden that year, the government assisted the herders by supplying them with hay because their animals were in danger of dying by the tens of thousands. There is also concern in Norway: climate change might well put an end to reindeer herding.

According to Ole Henrik Magga, professor at the Sámi University College in Kautokeino, "We must find new ways of herding. It's dramatic. The reindeer, today half-wild, may even have to be raised on farms, which would dramatically change Saami life." In fact, in addition to the difficulty of procuring lichen in the winter, the reindeer have less and less vast pastures.

Not everyone is displeased with climate change: the Norwegian oil and gas industry is turning this Arctic region into its new El Dorado, and the warmer winters suit it well. Are the Saami in danger of becoming farmers, and the herds of reindeer cattle behind barbed wire ?


Kindly translated by Jason Miller