68: The Saami, Indigenous Inhabitants of the European Arctic

Continuing on our series of plogs on cultures in the Arctic (see previously Evenki and Inuit), this time we will be taking a look at the Saami, the indigenous peoples of Northern Europe. As always, a disclaimer that I am not Saami and so not an expert on their culture, but just sharing a brief introduction here. We will be touching on Saami music, handicrafts, some painful aspects of their recent history and some of the important revitalizing and activism work they have been carrying out in recent years. Hope you enjoy!

Sápmi, the homeland of the Saami in Northern Europe, spanning Norway, Sweden, Finland and West Russia (Picture: zmijugaloma/DeviantArt)

Culture

The Saami (or Sami, or Sámi) are said to have lived in a region of Northern Europe called Sápmi, since ‘time immemorial’. Sápmi includes northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola peninsula of Russia. The Saami cultures throughout this area vary, with groups such as the Skolt, Inari, Lule and Pite Saami, each with their own distinct language. The most widely spoken is Northern Saami, which has some overlaps with Finnish but is quite distinct from other surrounding languages. Each region has a distinct style of dress, often in colours of bright blues, reds and yellows, although more recent styles of their traditional dress come in a wide variety of tones and shades. These outfits are often accompanied by distinctive hats and reindeer skin boots.

Saami traditional food centres on locally available ingredients, dishes like reindeer meat stews, blood pancakes made from the blood of the reindeer, Arctic char fresh and smoked, and dishes with cloudberries and lingonberries. Another essential component of the Saami diet is coffee. Whilst Nordic countries are statistically the greatest consumers of coffee in the world, some Saami claim that within these countries they drink the most. A reindeer skin coffee pouch is a traditional item to carry to ensure that wherever one is, whether in the forest or at home, coffee can always be brewed.

These pouches are part of Saami duodji, or handicrafts. Duodji often involves making very practical objects beautiful rather than making separate artworks. This might include intricated beadwork and weaving on clothing and leather items such as coffee pouches, or decorating the handles of wooden cups which are carried around to drink the all-important coffee, or stream water, when on the move. Needle cases carried on the belt as well as knife handles can be made out of wood or reindeer bone or antler, and carved with intricate designs. The Saami have historically been largely nomadic, so beautifying everyday tools and clothing has been far more practical than creating many ornaments or stand-alone artwork.

Another unique aspect of Saami culture is their music, or specifically the joik (also written yoik). This is a form of singing which uses sounds rather than words, though sometimes a few words can be interspersed. It is said you do not joik about something, but rather that you joik the person, animal or place, evoking its essence, just like you don’t paint about a scene or object, you paint it itself. Often these joiks are very personal or spiritual in nature and are sung traditionally without instruments or with only a drum, although more modern joiks are set to wider instrumentation e.g. guitars or whole bands and orchestras. In 1980 and 2019 the Norwegian entries to the Eurovision Song contest included elements of Saami joik, these songs being Sámiid ædnan and Spirit in the Sky.

The Saami Council delegation and the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in 2019, showing a variety of their traditional outfits. (Picture: Saami Council)
Some saami duodji, these being ornately carved knives with handles and sheaths made out of reindeer skin, bone and antler (Picture: Riddu Riđđu/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Livelihood and history

Historically the Saami have survived off subsistence hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding. Herding is what this group are perhaps best known for, though only around 10% of the Saami population own reindeer. Despite this, reindeer remain an important animal for all Saami. Many say that the animal was the only reason that they were able to survive in the northern Arctic landscape, because they provided food for people first from being hunted and later from being herded. For this reindeer are held in high esteem, and some herders are willing to have multiple jobs to sustain their herding as they see it as their duty to take care of the animals that took care of them.

Unfortunately, like many indigenous groups in the Arctic, the Saami have a painful history in relation to colonisation and subsequent assimilation. In the Nordic countries, Nordic groups from the south slowly moved into and colonised Sápmi, eventually splitting it into the national territories we know today. Some relations between Saami and incomers were positive, but there were also many harsh and racist policies put in place again these indigenous people, who were often viewed as inferior. Saami religion was forcibly replaced with Christianity, involving the destruction of sacred Saami objects. Traditional languages, songs and customs were banned. Some Saami were even forcibly sterilised to prevent the continuation of what was seen as an inferior race, and many children were taken into residential schools where they were shamed for their background, removed from their families and often experienced widespread abuse. Many Nordic people today descend from Saami ancestors but do not know, because the historic shame surrounding being ethnically Saami was so strong that parents would not tell their children of their Saami background.

This kind of state sponsored racism is unfortunately common in the history of indigenous Arctic peoples, and is often not spoken about. However, recently awareness is growing of the trauma that groups like First Nations peoples in Canada and the Saami in Europe have experienced at the hands of colonial peoples, many of these occurring within the last century, and whilst this history cannot be changed or fixed, knowing about it and speaking openly has allowed some healing to occur and some understanding to build between groups, so that positive, appropriate further actions can be taken.

The Saami are perhaps best known for being reindeer herders, and their history is tightly linked to these animals, though only a minority of Saami actually undertake reindeer herding (Picture: Mats Andersson/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Revitalization

Despite painful aspects of their recent history, the Saami culture and identity is growing stronger and revitalizing across Sápmi. Many schools done in the local Saami languages are now operating, and things like duodji, joik, and Saami culture more widely, is being celebrated. Internationally, a Saami panel even worked together with the creators of Disney’s Frozen 2, using their real life history to inspire the story and enhancing the film with aspects of their culture, such as music involving joiking. The recently popular film “Sami Blood” also explores some of the darker aspects of Saami history.

The Saami have also proved very politically strong and organised, forming Saami parliaments within Norway, Sweden and Finland. They have also undertaken extensive work in environmental activism, campaigning against the construction of mines, hydropower stations and railways which not only destroy the habitat of reindeer, but degrade the environment more widely. Recently there has been campaigning in southern Sapmi to prevent the destruction of old growth forests by forestry companies, again degrading the habitat for wildlife and making herding more difficult to carry out.

The Saami have done a lot of activism work in recent years to protect the environment. A recent notable campaign led by Saami musician Sofia Jannok aims to protect the old growth forests in Sweden from clear-cutting (Picture: Sofia Jannok)

The Saami are a diverse group of indigenous northern Europeans (and West Russians!), with localised languages, clothing and music. They are a group who balance the practicality of their life in the Arctic with celebrating beauty in their music and handicrafts, have strong spiritual connections to the environment and animals around them, and despite a painful recent history of colonial suppression, they are effectively revitalising and celebrating their culture as well as working hard to protect the landscape they cherish. They have been in Sápmi since time immemorial, and are very much still there!

For more info:

An article about joik including some videos of various joiks- click here

Recent environmental activism work by the Saami in the Luokta-Mávas area against clear-cutting of forests- click here

An article from 2016 from Sweden about the still ongoing issues between Saami and the state in terms of historical and current rights as indigenous peoples- click here

Saami musician Mari Boine speaking about her culture:

Music: kongano.com and ‘Daniel’s Joik’ by Jon Henrik Fjällgren

Title Image: Ernmuhl/CC BY-SA 3.0

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