The Saami past and present


The Saami are the Nordic countries' indigenous peoples, forming an ethnic minority in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Some Saami also inhabit the Kola Peninsula in Russia. As long ago as at the beginning of the Renaissance, in the 16th century, there were Saami in northern Europe almost everywhere in those areas where today one still finds their permanent settlements. This region, where the Saami live and are active, extends from Dalarna in Sweden as far as Engerdal in southern Norway in Hedmark province, and to the north and east to Finland's Utsjoki, Norway's Varank and Russia's Kola Peninsula. It has been estimated that there are 60,000-100,000 Saami altogether. According to one of the latest, conservative estimates, there are around 70,000 of them. The figure quoted for the Norwegian Saami population is 40,000-45,000, the largest proportion of Saami being concentrated in the Finnmark region, where they number around 25,000. In Sweden there are approximately 17,000, in Finland almost 7,000 and in Russia 2,000 (Fig. 1.).

The concept of the "Saami" is frequently used without any precise definition. According to the Saami themselves, a Saami is a person who considers his- or herself a Saami and who also speaks Saami language as his or her mother tongue, or whose parents' or grandparents' mother tongue is or was Saami. In Norway the Saami language is of fundamental importance when, for example, a Saami's origins are being determined, or when it has to be decided who has the right to vote in the "Sameting" (Saami Parliament), or whether a person may stand for election. The same method was used previously in Finland's Saami Parliament, but the definition in the act on cultural self-government introduced at the beginning of this year expanded to include not only language but also those persons who are descended from people who have sometimes long ago paid the same taxes on their land as the original Saami-speaking population. Since 1993, when the Swedes formed an equivalent body, the Saami have had a parliamentary system in all three of the Nordic countries. Russia's Saami are planning to form a similar kind of parliamentary system within the next few years.

In the area shown above, which includes part of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, there are nowadays some 1.5 million people. Of these, however, only 100,000 people belonging to a minority group admit to a Saami origin in regard to their culture and language.

Figure 1.

One can say that the Saami population has been politically awakened. Particularly since Second World War a number of associations have sprung up which have set out to further Saami interests. In the Nordic countries numerous organisations are now defending the Saamis' rights in each country. Common aims and tasks are debated at a Nordic Saami conference, which since 1953 has been held every third year. Nowadays Finland's Saami elect a 21-member Parliament, which officially represents Finland's Saami and which the government funds. In Norway, a 39-member Saami Parliament, Sameting, has existed since 1989. This institution is also financed out of public funds. In Sweden a 31-member Saami Parliament has been operating since 1993. And at Utsjoki the Nordic Council of Saami, established as early as 1956 at the suggestion of the Nordic Council, has the task of promoting Saami rights in general in the direction of the national governments. During almost all of the Soviet Union's period of rule both private and official communications between the Nordic Saami and the Kola Saami were extremely restricted. One consequence of the extremely effective Russianisation was that the traditional culture and language of the Kola Saami almost disappeared, taking with them the people's pride in themselves as a people. In addition, unbridled industrialisation of the Kola Peninsula took place and accelerated, especially during the aftermath of the Second World War. The Kola Peninsula - which originally had possessed good forest reserves, unpolluted rivers, oil, natural gas, metals and other geological riches - is today full of mines, roads, factories, new industrial conurbations, and so forth, where before there had been the traditional hunting and reindeer husbandry areas of the Kola Saami.

Contact with the Kola Peninsula improved with the establishment of the Association of Kola Saami in 1989. This was granted the status of an observer in the Nordic Council of Saami. Through the agency of the Nordic Council of Saami the Saami participated in the activities of the "World Council of Indigenous Peoples" (WCIP). The purpose of this worldwide organisation is to promote communication and the exchange of experiences between indigenous peoples in order to strengthen indigenous people's organisations in the various member countries. The first world conference was held in 1975 - the same year that WCIP was founded - at Port Albert in Canada.

In 1973 a Nordic Saami Institute was founded at Kautokeino in Norway to handle environmental and juridical issues, linguistic-cultural problems, and educational and publicity matters in the Saami regions. Most important of all, the institute coordinates research projects and other schemes which the Saami are eager to implement in their home region. One of the highest Saami objectives is the achievement of extensive autonomy in the Saami region. For this purpose there has been a flag in existence since 1986. Like those of the Saami national costume, the colours on this flag are red, blue, yellow and green; the sun, "the mother of all the Saami" is situated in its middle.

Brief review of history

The oldest written reference to the Saami is by the Roman historian Tacitus. In his "Germania" of 98 A.D. he describes a people he calls the "Fennis", composed of tribes each with their own land area. In 555 A.D. the Greek historian Prokopios describes a war between the Romans and the Goths. He calls Scandinavia Thule. One of the many tribes inhabiting Thule he refers to as the "Skridfinns". Paulus Diaconus in the mid eighth century also refers to the "Skridfinns", a hunting and skiing people who tend animals (reindeer) similar to the red deer. The Icelandic sagas reinforce these early facts. The sagas, which were not written down until the 13th and 14th centuries, tell of events taking place in the 10th to 13th century period, including merchants trading with the Saami, buying and selling goods and collecting taxes. During the Viking era animal hides formed an important item of trade, since there was a constant demand for furs among the inhabitants of the North.

Especially during the late Middle Ages Sweden, Norway (later Denmark/Norway) and Russia competed for domination of the Saami's areas and at times the Saami were forced to pay taxes to several collectors at the same time. In 1751 Sweden and Denmark/Norway made an agreement in regard to crossing frontiers. Then in 1826 Norway and Russia agreed on the Saami borders.

The home region of the Saami (known to the Saami as Sápmi), Lapland as a whole (which they also called Sápmi), was located far from the cultural and economic centres of the feudal states. The Saami have, however, over a period of time developed their own forms of social organisation entirely equivalent to those of their southern neighbours, the Finns, Swedes and Norwegians. Saami villages in Finnish and Swedish Lapland form the core of communal life. Even though they functionally in some way correspond to the southern peasant settlement areas, there was no question, however, of locality and settlement area communities in the traditional sense, the inhabitants of the Saami villages being scattered over large areas, each with their own birthplace. The reason is obvious: the Saami way of life, hunting, fishing and reindeer husbandry could only be pursued over very large areas of land. Thus, Saami village communities are often spread out over an extremely broad area. Saami villages do not merely constitute important elements of the historical development of the Saami, but also of Nordic history in general. As members of village communities, the inhabitants had their rights and obligations and the Saami culture was closely tied to the concept of the Saami village. Even though this concept can no longer be found in geographical works, it retains its previous importance in the Saami mind. "Siida" is a fundamental concept understood to mean the traditional Saami community. "Siidas" were small local communities that since the Middle Ages lived by hunting and fishing. In the 17th and 18th centuries systematic settlement of the northern territories took place, causing an upheaval and spelling the end of the Saami settlement infrastructure. Settlers penetrating the far north above all engaged in farming, a means of livelihood differing sharply from all the traditional Saami means of subsistence. On the other hand, many of the newcomers also partially adopted the Saami way of life, copying their customs, dress, nutrition and home economy.

It was among the Skolts in Petsamo-Tuloma that the hunting and fishing culture survived longest and apparently also in its most original semi-nomadic form. Before World War II, some Finnish ehtnologists actually described this culture alive in the inlands of Petsamo. It was the Ware, in fact, that marked the breaking down of this phase in Saami history. In the Soviet Union, the hunting and fishing culture survived up to the collectivization measures in the 1930s and the wide-scale waterways regulation started in the 1950s.

Language and culture

As mentioned above, the Saami use the word "Sápmi" for their land and people. From this word are derived the Swedish "Samer", the Finnish "Saamelaiset", the English "Saami people" and the German "Samen". The previously used term of "the Lapps" has, in the opinion of the Saami population, acquired negative connotations, for which reason it is consciously avoided. One important criterion of belonging to the Saami population is fluency in the Saami language. In Finland there was a custom for a long time of considering anyone a Saami who spoke the Saami language or at least one of whose parents/grandparents had spoken Saami as his or her mother tongue.

The Saami language belongs to the Fenno-Ugric group of languages, being related to Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, among others. The Saami language is divided into nine local sub-languages or dialects which are aggregated into three groups. The dominant dialect is northern Saami, spoken by over 80 % of the Saami. However, the Saami language has not been recognised as an official language in any of the countries involved in the same way as, for instance, Swedish in Finland. The Saami culture is tied to traditional Saami means of subsistence, natural requirements for survival, and traditional livelihoods. The Saami's complicated and artistically decorated handiwork goes back to the time when Saami households were still self-sufficient.

Most of the written testimony, the verbal custom of telling a story, the "Yoika" inherited from ancient times, comes from this archaic way of life. The "Yoika" is a special Saami way of telling a tale. The traditional yoika still lives on today. In the fields of literature, theatre and painting the Saami also enriched the Nordic cultures, and not just during the last few decades, either.

Saami communications

Although the Saami language has a rich vocabulary in regard to natural phenomena and animal names and this vocabulary is also used as a means of scientific nomenclature, most Saami are unable to write their mother tongue. This is because instruction in the Saami language has only begun to be given very recently. In Finland, however, it is possible to communicate with officials in Saami. Inari's Saami radio (Saamen radio) broadcasts several programmes a day in Saami on its own channel. Apart from these, there is the monthly "Sápmelas" newspaper/magazine published since 1934 in the northern Saami dialect. A wide distribution is also enjoyed by the northern Saami newspapers "Min &Aacu;teigi" and "Ássu", published in Norway.

School education

Since the 1980s the Saami language has had official status in the secondary schools. The current legislation grants Saami language schools the right to receive instruction in Saami in the secondary schools of the Saami region. In addition, the Saami language can be studied in secondary school and high school as the mother tongue, as an optional or obligatory subject. From Utsjoki to Helsinki nowadays some 600 pupils are educated in Saami. In 1994 in Finland Saami matriculation pupils for the first time had an opportunity to take their mother tongue examination in Saami instead of Finnish. Saami can also be studied in the department of Finnish and Saami philology at the University of Oulu. The University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, and the University of Helsinki also offer courses in Saami.

At Inari in Finnish Lapland there is an adult education centre for the Saami area; this was established in 1977. Its function is to preserve and promote the Saami culture and traditional livelihoods. The languages of instruction are Finnish and Saami. The Saami hold important positions in the centre's administration and teachers are expected to be fluent in Saami. Here, too, education in the Saami language and Saami culture is very important.


Still shrouded in mystery are the origins of the Saami people, whose language is similar to Finnish, but whose outward appearance can hardly be held to be similar to that of the Norwegians, Finns or Russians with whom they share a large part of their land. From where did they originally arrive in the north and why? Could it really be possible for them to have lived as long as 10,000 years ago along the shores of the Arctic Ocean in an ice-free zone, isolated from all outside influence and thus acquiring their typical appearance - as many scientists hypothesise - or did they come from the west, from continental Europe, along the coast? And did they come for the abundance of furs, or did the permanent, settled farming Nordic people simply push them progressively further northwards? Increasing numbers of archaeological finds take us ever deeper into this secret. Only through new methods and interdisciplinary thinking can we make progress in solving this dilemma.

Way of life

The Saami have consistently lived by fishing, hunting and reindeer herding. Arable and cattle farming on a modest scale, working in forestry and berry picking and marketing have been new aspects of life this century. Tourism and handicrafts have acquired more importance as sources of income. Moreover, increasing numbers of Saami are now working in the service professions and in other sectors of contemporary society.

While today only around a fifth of the Saami in Finland obtain income from reindeer husbandry, this continues to be an important economic and cultural factor. Three traditional modes of life and forms of economy can be distinguished that were still present in the Saami region in the middle of this century. The fell Saami were one hundred percent reindeer herdsmen. They tended reindeer that in winter sought food at lower, forested elevations and in autumn, spring and summer grazed in the high fells. Right up until the beginning of this century, the whole family roamed with the herd - today only the men do so. Saami reindeer husbandry in the course of history has proven itself to be extremely adaptable, and has always adjusted itself to the terms and conditions laid down by each kind of society. Alienation and law enforcement have constantly led to clashes between the Saami and the non-Saami population, particularly with farmers, but also with travellers, merchants and tax collectors.

According to the present law, the Saami no longer own their lands (although this issue is once again being discussed in a spirit of counteraction), but they do have extensive rights of usufruct over certain areas. These areas were originally marked with border stones and could be sold, inherited or given away among the Saami. Official border crossings established between Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia were not formed without permanent consequences. Among other things, this administrative event blocked the annual migration routes of the Fell Lapps of Finland and Sweden to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. A few family groups solved this dilemma by voluntarily moving to the eastern forested regions of Finland and adapting to the conditions of existence in those parts. The region left for the Saami is one of Europe's rare places where a close-to-nature existence is still adhered to. Its contrast with the modern, economic-technological culture is immense. There are numerous examples of today's plundering of the soil, waterways and air: large forest clearcuts, the construction of mammoth sports and tourist centres, the erection of dams for reservoirs, the pollution of rivers by mining activities (gold panning), and so forth. Such activities have considerably reduced the Saami's opportunities for engaging in their traditional means of subsistence.

Nomadic reindeer herding culture

Compared to the semi-nomadic fishing and hunting culture, the keeping of large herds of reindeer and the nomadic way of life are of relatively recent origin. This culture is assumed to have its roots in the fell regions of present-day Norway and Sweden. It is believed to date back to at least the 16th century. Certainly by the late 1700s large reindeer herds were being tended in northernmost Lapland.

The Saami's refined skills with, and knowledge of, their reindeer were on a par with those of only two other peoples, the Samoyeds and the Chuckchis. For all three peoples the animal served as a means of transportation, a raw material for manufacturing various utensils and a provider of food. Reindeer pelts were used for making furs, winter boots, tanned shoes for summer, hats, bags, mittens, shirts, trousers and gaiters. Sewing thread was made by twisting reindeer tendons. Pelts were used as mattresses and bed covers and for upholstering babies' cradles. Antlers became knife handles, the bony parts of the Saami lasso and handicraft implements for the women. Reindeer meat was usually eaten dried, except in the autumn when it could be consumed fresh. Pancakes and sausages were made from reindeer blood. Reindeer milk was partly preserved with herbs for winter consumption, another fraction being used for making cheeses. This tradition is still at least partially alive.

Scientists have long been puzzled by the development of large scale reindeer husbandry (nowadays also known as reindeer herding and reindeer farming). It is supposed that the nomadic way of life was stimulated by the trade relations established at the fjord fair on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, and later at the winter fairs held in Saami villages. Like furs and fish, reindeer products became commercial commodities of high value exchangeable for costume silverware, textiles, flour and other provisions, such as coffee. Metal tools could also be bartered for.

Reindeer-owning Saami often travelled several hundred kilometres during the year, whereas the hunting and fishing Saami only ranged over a few dozen kilometres. The summer grazing grounds were located along the coast and in the high fells, the winter areas being the fell birch woods or coniferous forest zone. Spring and autumn locations were correlated with the birth of calves in the spring and the custom of slaughtering reindeer in the autumn, as well as with the reindeer's mating time, the rut.

The regular seasonal migrations of the Reindeer, or Fell, Saami explains why 'Lapland' became a region extending across the three Nordic countries of Finland, Norway and Sweden. Today, although the traditional migration routes have changed, with the Norwegian fells and the Arctic Ocean coast being inaccessible to Finns, Reindeer Saami still live in the three countries. Reindeer husbandry as a whole is divided into 57 reindeer husbandry units, which are at the same time herding cooperatives and reindeer herdsmen's associations. In Finland, reindeer herding is by no means a monopoly of the Saami, in contrast to the situation in Norway and Sweden, where only the Saami have the right to practise it. However, as a money-earning occupation reindeer husbandry is considerably more important to the Saami that it is to the Finns.

In the Saami region a reindeer owner on average possesses 62 reindeer, the figure for the entire reindeer herding area being about 31. Despite being a means of exploiting delicate and vulnerable northern ecosystems without posing a risk to the flora or soil, in some areas the number of reindeer has grown excessively in recent years, leading to overintensified pasturing. In the absence of any real threat from predators (apart from a few wolves), the reindeer owners are themselves responsible for keeping their herds in check.

EU and the Saami

In the discussion regarding the possible accession of Finland and the other Nordic countries to the EU the hope was expressed that the status of the Saami and other minority people would be improved. It may be asked, indeed should be asked, whether an integrated, multilingual Europe will become more tolerant towards minorities and citizen groups? Tomorrow's Europe will probably become an area of influence of many strong cultures. While European integration will above all promote social contact between people, it is, however, to be expected that small, local groups of people and their cultures will be increasingly forced into the background under pressure from stronger ones. I see in this the great danger of the vanishing of the minorities into the mass culture. Instead of this, one should perceive the enriching impact of minority cultures. People travel a lot nowadays. Small groups of people and their culture should be acknowledged as refreshing exceptions, as a contrast to the general uniformity.

Aim for the near future

The Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish Saami Parliaments have absolutely no representative legislative power and the governments treat them like any other interest groups. Nevertheless, the establishment of these parliaments represents a step towards Saami self-government and the right of self-determination. The combining of the three parliaments is planned for the future. For the Kola Saami this form of organisation is entirely novel.

Simultaneously with the movements for improving the rights of the Saami people, appreciable interest arose in international collaboration with other indigenous groups and joint action for the realisation of the UN's proclamation on the rights of indigenous peoples. In the municipalities, their own area and the country as a whole the Saami have the same political and administrative rights and obligations as the Finns. However, they do not have any special power to resolve issues affecting the status of their language and culture, society and economy.

The Saami's community, economic and social organisations have so far been obliged to act unofficially, without any particular power to influence events. Even the Saami Parliament has not thus far had any power of self-determination in the language and cultural affairs important to the Saami.

In Finland the Saami's opportunities for preserving their language and culture are constricted by an imperfect legislation and an administrative status which has not been clearly defined. For improving this situation, Finland's Parliament in 1992 adopted a motion to ensure, by means of extensive cultural autonomy, the preservation of the Saami language and culture at the level of that time. In 1995, Finland's Parliament approved a government bill for an amendment of the act connected with this the purpose of which is to guarantee the Saami the right to foster and promote their language and culture.

An extra clause according to which the Saami themselves can decide on all matters relating to their language and culture within the home region was added to the Constitution. The Saami's organ of self-determination would be the "Saami Parliament", which from the start does not seem, however, to have had very strong powers. The new act on self-determination does, however, provide the Saami for the first time with the conditions necessary for themselves choosing the methods and channels for developing their language and culture. The new act also obliges government bodies to discuss all issues connected with the Saami. It has long been felt by the Saami that the absence of such an obligation has been a serious defect.

Public discussion on a contemporary problem

Finland is a multicultural state with a very long tradition of democracy. In particular the rights of Finland's Swedish speaking minority from the very beginning of independence have been well established in the constitution.

In the spring of 1995 Parliament approved clauses concerning the basic rights of the Saami minority in Finland at the constitutional level. At present, the Saami comprise no more than 7000 people in Finland, the total number in all the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden and Finland) plus Russia being about 100,000.

The Finnish State officially recognized at the same time, also at the constitutional level, the status of the Saami as an indigenous people. Saami cultural autonomy in their own region in regard to their own language and culture, including full rights as expressed in international agreements, was also safeguarded. The Saami amendment of the constitution, as well as the statute on the Saami Parliament, which is a central autonomous organ elected by vote, entered into force at the beginning of this year.

According to previously existing legislation, the Saami have the same rights to practice traditional livelihoods as other Finnish and European Union citizens. In respect of their own culture, the Saami have thus already been formally equal to other citizens; the legislation does not discriminate against the Saami. The new constitutional amendment does not change the situation as it has been up to now.

The reform makes it possible, through governmental and municipal administration, to regulate the tasks embodied in the Saami cultural autonomy, or to hand over these tasks to a special Saami administration for implementation. A defect that needs mentioning is that no particular region for the Saami or their own administration in "the administration of State owned land" is safeguarded by the Finnish legislation. "State owned land" in practice means the traditional Saami home region.

In order to improve Saami influence in their own affairs, the authorities have a duty to negotiate with the Saami Parliament in regard to all the far reaching and significant measures which can have immediate and particular impact on the Saami status as an indigenous people. Every authority is obliged to reserve for the Saami Parliament "an opportunity to be heard and to negotiate about any matter" which concerns the Saami.

It may be merely human for reforms of this kind to cause initial uncertainty and contradictory feelings, with unnecessary over-reaction amongst the different people concerned. The reaction has now in part been impetuous. The northern media in particular have been packed not only with factual information, but also with mis- and contra-information on the reform, causing fear and apprehension among the Saami.

Part of the Finnish population living in the Saami home region seems to be rather worried about the possible restriction or loss of its existing rights due to the Saami amendment of the constitution. Which, of course, is not in the least the aim of the reform approved by the Parliament of Finland.

In conclusion

As recently ago as the 1960's the assessment of the Saami's status in northern Europe was negative. The Saami themselves were not permitted to make their own decisions and they were expected to become integrated into one or other economic sector of the industrial society that had spread to the north. They were forced, with the governments interfering directly in their affairs, to decide how to relate to economic development and the change in their traditional environment. From the standpoint of many of the Saami, this rendering of accounts hid a plethora of serious issues, but in the end it was to promote a turn for the better and improved competitiveness within the different subsectors of the Saami economy.

Particularly during the post-war era the Finnish population has radically influenced the economic side of the Saami culture. A nature-based economy continues to be practised but the financial pressures are today clearly discernible. The close association of traditional Saami professions with the traditional way of life, even in the Saami home region, has to a large extent vanished. Reindeer herdsmen's homes are now located several kilometres away from the areas where the reindeer are managed and round-ups take place.

Through the decline in economic growth the area north of the Arctic Circle has had to be subject to a fresh evaluation. In time the already modernised Saami professions will start receiving special subsidies because those Saami, amounting to more than 30 percent of the entire Saami population, who are still engaged in the primary sector have been acknowledged as guarantors of survival in Europe's fringe areas. As a consequence of the increasing freedom and growing influence the Saami centres were equipped with contemporary educational, publicity and maintenance institutions in which the Saami can develop themselves with their own language and in their own culture. The development of the various economic sectors, particularly reindeer husbandry, indicates that the Saami in the fringe areas of economic centres in many spheres today fundamentally promote the social, cultural and economic survival of this fringe area.

In the past the Saami were left with the option to either integrate with the Finnish culture and the prosperity connected with this, or to remain in the Saami culture and the modest opportunities offered by it. In the future it may be extremely unfavourable for the Saami with their close to nature professions to be considered by the majority population to represent merely an ancient and vanishing culture. Taking into account the gross exploitation of nature today, that particular view may well be irritating and dangerous for the main population. Now it is high time to grant the Saami, as one of the North's indigenous peoples, the right to live as an independent community.


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