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A Sámi family  in front of goahti and lavvu housing, early 1900s, Norway

The Sami People: Reindeer Herding and Cultural Survival in the Far North


The Sámi are the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. For thousands of years they have lived in an area called Sápmi - the northern sectors of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula. Traditional Sámi language, music, handicrafts, religion, and clothing differ from other Scandinavian ethnic groups; however settlement patterns and lifestyles can vary amongst Sámi people as well. For hundreds of years this culture has had to adapt and survive in some of the harshest conditions.

The Ancient Origins of the Sámi People

It’s believed that this Samoyed tribe arrived in their lands from the East. Elaborate petroglyphs, including motifs of zoomorphs (often elks and reindeer), boats, and anthropomorphs show that Sámi ancestors lived along the coast of the Arctic ocean in northern Norway 10,000 years ago. Later evidence of human settlement has been found all-over Sápmi.

Petroglyphs, Häljesta, Vastmanland, Sweden

Petroglyphs, Häljesta, Vastmanland, Sweden. (CC BY SA 3.0)

2000 years ago, the Sámi people inhabited all of the area we now call Finland. The oldest document regarding the Sámi people is dated to 98 AD by the Roman historian Tacitus, in which they are referred to as the fenni hunting people in the far north. He wrote that they wore fur clothes, traveled on skis, and hunted reindeer. In 500 AD, Chinese documents show there was a people living in the area of modern day Sápmi who used "deer" for transport and dairy. The next time the Sámi appeared in print was 555 AD, by the Greek historian, Procopius, who called Scandinavia Thule and the inhabitants skirdfinns. As the Sami language is traditionally a spoken and not written language, the historical documents discussing Sami people were created by others.

The Name Sámi and the Importance of Language Reflecting Lifestyle

The Sámi people, also known as Sami and Saami, were previously known as Lapps and Laplanders. As with the words used to refer to many ancient cultures, these terms have become outdated (and less than politically correct). In modern Scandinavian languages "Lapp" means a patch of clothing that must be mended and thus it suggests that Sami wear patched clothes. Laplander is not specific enough as there are people who are not Sami who live in the Lapland area and also Sami who do not reside in this area. The word Sámi itself is likely of a Proto-Finnic origin and has often been translated to mean "land."

The Sámi language contains a rich vocabulary for words related to nature and the environment, with precise terms describing elements such as land, water, and snow. The language has such varied and precise terms related to reindeer description that in a herd of several thousand animals only one will fit a particular description of fur, antlers, sex, and age.

Sámi with reindeer, Finnmark, Norway (1890-1900)

Sámi with reindeer, Finnmark, Norway (1890-1900). (CC BY 2.0)

The rich and diverse vocabulary related to nature in general and reindeer specifically shows the importance of these elements in the traditional life of Sámi people.

A Glimpse into the Traditional Sámi Worldview

Traditional Sámi religion is polytheistic paganism. Due to the vastness of Sápmi, there are differences seen in religious as well as nonreligious aspects of life. However, the oldest beliefs are associated with animism and  a close connection to the earth, as depicted in ancestral rock art. Pantheism and a strong personal spirituality connected to daily life are key elements of traditional Sámi spirituality.

As in many cultures, the Sámi divide the cosmos into upper, middle, and lower worlds. Sacrifices and special rituals allow humans to access the different worlds. In traditional Sámi belief,  the Upper World is associated with the South, warmth, life, and the color white. This is the world of the Sun (female) and the Earth Mother figure Máttaráhkká.

The Middle World can be described as the world of everyday life for the Sámi. It consists of humans and some animals, such as bears. The color of the Middle World is red. The Middle World is separated from the Underworld by a river of blood. This river is crossed in one direction by souls of the dead and in another direction by souls of the newly born as they return to the world of the living. The Underworld is inhabited by creatures that dive, such as otters, loons, and seals. It is associated with the North, cold, bubbling springs, deep caves, and the color black.

Chart of the three worlds in ancient Sámi spirituality

Chart of the three worlds in ancient Sámi spirituality. (Mulk & Bayliss-Smith 2006: 96)

The Sámi shaman, noaidi, was the mediator for communication between the different worlds. The use of drums, chanting, and sacred objects allowed these messages to take place. The shamanic drums are very important painted skins portraying key concepts of Sámi beliefs. Often the three worlds are depicted. Sometimes images of three female deities, the daughters of Máttaráhkká , are also displayed.

Copper carving depicting a Sami shaman (noaidi) with drum, Meråker, Nord-Trøndelag (1767)

Copper carving depicting a Sami shaman (noaidi) with drum, Meråker, Nord-Trøndelag (1767). (Public Domain)

Traditional Daily Life in Sámi Society

In the past, the Sámi society consisted of siida (family groups) living and sharing natural resources. A siida was led by the oldest person in the group, regardless of gender. The siida leader was in control of all aspects of daily life  - such as where and when the group would move, who fished in which area, and in meetings with other elders concerned with common problems.

Some siida were nomadic to varying degrees, while others lived in permanent settlements. Nomadic Sámi people often were the famous reindeer herders, while the Sámi living in permanent settlements often sustained themselves by fishing. Today, only the reindeer-herding Sámi live in siida groups for part of the year.

A siida of nomadic Sámi (1900-1920), Norway

A siida of nomadic Sámi (1900-1920), Norway. (Public Domain)

Non-Sámi Interactions and Difficulties

Over time, the peaceful Sámi people came into contact with other cultures, with some positive and negative effects. Sámi stories refer to Stalo, most likely Vikings, who attacked and stole from them. However, the Sámi also were adept at hunting and fishing, thus they began to trade for tools, clothing, and jewelry with newcomers as well.

As the Sámi of the past were primarily nomadic, their handicraft – duodji – tended to be more purposeful than decorative and made mostly of bone, leather, wood, and antlers. Thus trade allowed them to increase their decorative adornments.

Traditional Sámi beaded belt, knife and antler needle case, Norway

Traditional Sámi beaded belt, knife and antler needle case, Norway. (Public Domain)

Unfortunately, the looting was not the only problem for the Sámi people when interacting with outsiders. Beginning in the 1500s, the Sámi were continually included under laws and decrees that, more often than not, incurred taxation and loss of their land and rights for hunting and fishing.

By the 19th and early-20th centuries pressure for cultural assimilation and attacks on the traditional Sami way of life had intensified. Mining and forestry projects encroached on the Sami lands and customs.

Modern Life and Sámi Groups

Today, the Sámi are a minority in Finland, Russia, Sweden, and Norway, but a majority in the innermost parts of Finnmark county in Norway and in the municipality of Utsjoki in Finland. In total, the Sámi number about 100,000 people.

Modern Sámi man beside lavvu nomadic house, Norway

Modern Sámi man beside lavvu nomadic house, Norway. (Ernmuhl/CC BY SA 3.0)

Recently, scientists have placed them into three general groups, mostly based on differences in language and geographic location. These regions: North, South, and East, have been further subdivided based on the "strength" of their traditional culture, type of dress, etc. creating eight Sámi sub-groups. The interest in cultural strength is just one of the indications that the Sámi culture has changed drastically over time and there is a concern that modernity will lead to a decline or eventual loss of the traditional and culturally-rich Sámi people as an independent cultural group.

The Sámi people have endured hundreds of years of discrimination and legal issues as well as climate change with an admirable strength and determination. Recent issues include a battle for the right to allow their reindeer to cross the border between Sweden and Norway .

An agreement was in place since 1751 giving the Sami permission to continue with cross-border reindeer herding. However, Sweden was reluctant to sign an update to a 1972 agreement, which would regulate grazing more strictly across the border. "The border is just a line on a paper, but the reindeer have been using these lands since ancient times," Niila Inga, the chairman of the Swedish Sami association, said. "We really need a treaty that regulates this on both sides of the border, given that the Norwegian state now says it is going to take vigorous action against the so-called 'Swedish' reindeer husbandry."

The well-constructed ties to the past evident in traditional Sámi song, dress, and livelihood (all still prevalent today), will continue to provide a force for the Sámi to maintain traditions as well as diversify their ways in the future - just as they have always done in the face of change.

Top Image: A Sámi family  in front of goahti and lavvu housing, early 1900s, Norway. Source: Public Domain

By Alicia McDermott


n.a. (2012) The Saami, Samisk, Sámi. Available at:

United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (UNRIC) (n.d.) The Sami of Northern Europe – one people, four countries . Available at:

Swedish Institute (1999) The Sami People in Sweden. Available:

n.a. (1996) An Introduction to the Sami people. Available at:

Mulk, Inga-Maria, (2013). Máttaráhkká: Mother Earth in Sami rock art. Available at:

Henriksen, J.B. (2011) Sami Self-determination. Available at:



Interesting article. As an ethnic Norwegian, I’m a little embarrassed about Norway’s purported stance on border crossings. A recent trip to Russia renewed my interest in the region and its languages, leading me to this great website. Thank you!

My last name is Lapp, and I can trace my Lapp heritage back to Southern Germany and an ancestor's emigration as an Amish person to Lancaster, PA, USA. I am quite interested in the Sami peoples, and Scandinavia, The Vikings, etc. I have only visited Scandinavia once so far, but hope to go many more times.
I travel Our World, for work and on my own, and am really interested in ancient history. Thank you for this article and the information.
Note: My mom and sister are both Pagans, and believe in many of the same things as the Sami peoples do.
PS-My older son is at U. of Toronto, studying European Studies and Spanish.

Alicia McDermott's picture


Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia has focused much of her research on Andean cultures... Read More

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