The Lapps, Sami, and their history

Mr Matti Enbuske, who defended his doctor's dissertation on the settlement history of Lapland at the University of Oulu in June 2008, and the author of a book on the history of Finnish reindeer husbandry Juhani J. Kortesalmi have shown how the ownership and possession of lands has evolved in Lapland. Below I will discuss some of the research results and conclusions of Matti Enbuske's doctoral thesis. See also summary of the thesis.


Lapland and its residents have been a topic of great interest among a broad spectrum of scientists, including historians, linguists and anthropologists. The spread of the settlement to the vast woodland and mountain regions of Lapland has been deliberated and studied for a long time, from various perspectives. The settlement of Lapland reflects many of the great movements and questions in our history. In its own, relatively small scale it shows many of the same features as the history of Finland.

The picture of the settlement history of Lapland derived on the basis of earlier scientific research and especially the view of the Sami people as the indigenous population of Lapland is, however, distorted. These perceptions have provided the fuel for the demands that the lands allegedly stolen from the Sami people by the state should now be returned to them. Matti Enbuske's studies alter the view of how Lapland was settled and show very clearly how questionable the claims that the state would had stolen the lands from the Sami people really are.

The existence of a Lappish settlement was a well-known fact for the governing circles already in the 16th century. It took some time before this gave rise to scientific interest, largely as a result of the expansion of research activities towards economics, languages, folklore and traditional customs in the 18th century. Often this interest was expressed in travel books with descriptions of the Lappish livelihoods, dwellings, customs and language (e.g. Castrén and Lönnroth). Matti Enbuske's thesis is the first comprehensive account of the different stages in the settlement of Lapland directed to the Finnish public at large. In the earlier literature on the local history of Lapland the focus has been on the Sami settlement and certain specific studies have looked into questions that are closely related to this. Matti Enbuske gives a full and true picture of the settlement of Lapland over the centuries.


Matti Enbuske's study shows that centuries ago when villages started to appear around the isolated dwellings in the wilderness, it was considered that the village had the right of ownership to the woodland that was the closest to it. Instead, the surrounding unsettled wilderness areas were considered to belong to the state, and in 1542 the Swedish King Gustav Vasa declared unsettled wilderness areas as state lands. In 1683 a decree was passed, ordering the borders to be defined between the woodlands of villages and public lands.

Cultivation parcels were allocated in the land rearrangements, but the outcome was very poor and led to numerous disputes. In the general parcelling started in 1775 the woodlands were distributed among the village shareholders as private parcels and village lands. The village shareholders had the "option" on these lands, in addition to their own, private lands. This means that the settlement continued to be regulated by the original population, and the reindeer Sami who forced themselves into the area did not gain any privileges regarding the use of the lands. Thus the Sami people who were descendants of the Lapland villagers enjoyed the benefits of land ownership as village members.

The settlement of the vast wilderness areas by the original population of Lapland is a phenomenon that is quite unique to the history of Lapland. It differs from the rest of Finland, where the settlement spread from the coastal regions to the large wilderness areas in the central parts of the country. The expansion of Finns to the wilderness extended to Sweden and Norway, and all the way to North America along with the New Swedish Colony. At that time the population, depending on hunting and cultivating burn-beaten lands, aimed to expand in all directions where the opportunities to carry out these livelihoods were in place.

The turning point for the settlement came when untouched wilderness could no longer be found. Regional concentration and rapid increase in the need for game gave rise to disputes between hunters and population groups engaged in livelihoods that were tied to a specific location, especially in southern Lapland. The Tornio and Kemi regions were largely settled by the population which already lived in the region on a permanent basis, and very few residents came from other regions.

Ethnicity, language or culture had no role in the possession of land during any of the historical stages, but in the Kingdom of Sweden there were efforts to restrict "Lappishness" largely to the form of life of the population group that was engaged in reindeer husbandry as its main livelihood. None of the livelihoods were, however, restricted on ethical grounds as the livelihood of the historical Sami people alone. Nor are the reindeer herding rights of the Sami people founded on any rights of land possession established on ethnical grounds in the course of the history.

The relatively small number of "Reindeer Sami" who moved to Finland in the 19th century introduced reindeer herding on a larger scale in the Finnish territory. As shown by Juhani J. Kortesalmi, this process did not bring along any more advanced production methods, as the Lappish people already settled in the region had developed their own particular livelihood, where reindeer herding occupied a central position. Thus these immigrants to Finnish Lapland in the 19th century settled as a group of their own within the community of the Lappish herders and farmers. The process of language shift among these immigrant reindeer herders differed from that of the Lappish people, among whom the Finnish language had already replaced Lappish a generation ago as a result of the development in the farming and herding activities.

In the last section of his dissertation Matti Enbuske does true pioneer work as he combines the results of the document analysis to other studies. How much does his study then contain completely new research findings? Matti Enbuske has studied the settlement and administration during the time when Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden as well as the settlement process of Lapland in a way that covers the whole country - this has never before been done as thoroughly as here. Based on his studies we can say that the earlier picture of the settlement of Lapland was far too simplistic, founded on false generalisations. This is to be considered as a very significant research finding. Correcting the inaccurate findings of earlier research should be regarded as an important merit. We should also keep in mind that information produced by means of scientific research provides a solid foundation for political decision-making.


On the basis of Matti Enbuske's study, the question of returning state lands to the Sami people can be reformulated as the question whether the lands and forests of Lapland should belong to the people who originally populated and settled the wilderness or to the Reindeer Sami, whose ancestors came to the region only a little over a hundred years ago? The majority of people included in the register of the Sami people in Finland are descendants of the Reindeer Sami, who moved to Finland in the 19th century. In spite of this, the claims of the Sami Parliament on returning the land ownership rights is founded on the view of the Sami people as the aboriginal population of Finland. This view is incorrect, as the majority of the people descending from the actual Lapland villages are not Sami people nor do they consider themselves as such and, according to the current definition for the Sami people, only part of them would be or have been approved to the Sami register. Referring to the Sami register, Matti Enbuske points out that from the historical perspective there is no sense in trying to establish a point in time when the era of the ethnic Sami people is considered to have started or when Finnish people and culture would have superseded the original culture.

The Sami people are not landless and poorly off, as we are often given to understand. The Finnish Sami, unlike their kindred people in Norway and Sweden, own lands with a total surface area of a small Central European country. Their right of ownership, as well as the right to graze lands owned by others, is firmly secured. It seems that in case of land ownership issues the Finnish decision-makers focus on social and political objectives, where priority is given to understanding multiculturalism and heterogeneity and ensuring the preconditions for the existence of minority groups, instead of historical facts.

Translation from Finnish: Jaana Kola.