What does an ethnic Scandinavian look like

Nomads of the north: the Sami


Natives of the north

The Sami are the original people of the north. Its name comes from the Sami "sapmi": a word that denotes both the area traditionally inhabited by Sami and the ethnic group. The ancestors of the Sami inhabited the icy regions of Northern Europe more than 10,000 years ago. Today almost 70,000 of the indigenous people still live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

In addition to farming and fishing, many Sami lived on the reindeer for centuries. At first they hunted the animals, but began herding and rearing reindeer as early as the early 16th century. With their large herds they moved back and forth between the seasonally changing grazing areas.

When drawing borders between the Scandinavian states, less and less consideration was given to these grazing areas. The habitat of the seeds became increasingly restricted. Nevertheless, until a few decades ago, many reindeer-breeding Sami were nomads with their herds. In the meantime, most of the Sami have adapted their lifestyle to the modern age. Less than ten percent are still reindeer herders, and the trend is falling.

Conflicts with the nation states

Again and again the Sami speak of the Indians of Northern Europe. That is at least true in their attitude towards land ownership. They claim large areas of their ancestral settlement areas as joint ownership of pastureland for their huge herds of reindeer.

From a purely legal point of view, however, the modern nation-states own the land on which they breed their reindeer. This repeatedly leads to dissatisfaction and conflicts, especially where the states of Northern Europe intervene in the Sami habitat with infrastructure projects and the use of mineral resources.

Against the background of massive economic interests such as the Swedish iron ore mining, the Finnish wood industry or hydropower generation, the Sami were granted cultural autonomy and legal security in land use very late and often hesitantly. Sweden introduced a new reindeer herding law in 1971, giving those Sami who breed reindeer special rights to use land and water.

After the interests of the Sami had been disregarded for centuries by the northern European states, there has been a hesitant improvement since the end of the Second World War. Slowly, the Sami population is being granted more and more autonomy and a customary right to use their pastures. In all three Scandinavian countries there are now official Sami interest groups, which often sit in the national and regional parliaments.

Cultural idiosyncrasies

Even if Sami pose for tourist photos with reindeer and traditional costume in front of their tent, the so-called Kote, this atmosphere does not correspond to their everyday life. Nevertheless, the Sami people have retained a great deal of cultural independence.

Sami music is famous for its characteristic singing, the "joik". Joik singing used to be part of Sami shamanism and was sung as a healing chant and for spiritual reasons. Today this idiosyncratic singing has found its way into world music. The most famous performer, the singer Marie Boine, is known far beyond the borders of Europe.

Despite the reflection on its traditions, the Sami culture is not looking backwards. On the contrary, the seeds even develop new customs and festivals. The Sami reindeer race is an invention of modern times and combines the centuries-old bond with reindeer with skiing. In winter, and in Northern Europe until the beginning of May, reindeer races take place in all Sami-inhabited regions.

The Sami language

Half of all Sami speak their own language, Sami, in addition to the respective national language. The Sami language is closely related to Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian and is still spoken by many people in the Sami settlement areas today. Although Sami living in Norway were banned from using their own language in schools and public institutions until the 1970s, Sami has not died out there either.

There are numerous dialects of Sami that differ significantly from one another. What all dialects have in common, however, is the great wealth of words for the surrounding nature. Sami is traditionally a spoken language with a rich storytelling tradition. A Sami written language did not emerge until the beginning of the 20th century. The first literary work in the Sami language was a story by Johan Turi on the history of the Sami in 1910.