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

A Window into the Traditional Sami Culture: Reindeer and a Worldview

The Sámi are an indigenous people with a rich cultural history. They have lived in northern Europe for thousands of years. The area they live in, Sápmi, includes the northern sectors of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula. Although they are often regarded as one people, there has long been a difference in settlement patterns and living practices amongst the Sámi.

The Ancient Origins of the Sámi People

Elaborate petroglyphs, including motifs of zoomorphs (often elks and reindeer), boats, and anthropomorphs show that the 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 ( Wikimedia Commons )

Two thousand years ago, the Sámi inhabited all of the area we now call Finland. The oldest documented information 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 . 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. 

The Source of the Name Sámi

The Sámi people, also known as Sami and Saami. Were previously known as Lapps and Laplanders. As with many ancient cultures, these terms have become outdated (and less than politically correct).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, 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. They reportedly also have 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) ( Wikimedia Commons )

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

A Glimpse into Traditional Sámi Worldview

Traditional Sámi religion can be described as a polytheistic paganism. Due to the largeness of Sápmi, there are differences seen in religious as well as nonreligious aspects of life. The oldest beliefs are associated with animism and  a close connection to the earth, as depicted in the 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 the 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) ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Daily Life of the Sámi

In the past, the Sámi society consisted of siida (family groups) living and sharing natural resources. A siida group 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.

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

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

Some siida were nomadic to varying degrees, while others lived in permanent settlements. Nomadic Sámi 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.

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 ( Wikimedia Commons )

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.

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 ( Wikimedia Commons )

Recently, scientists have placed them into three general groups, based mostly 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 greatly 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.

However, 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, told Bloomberg. "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.

To see more past and present images of the Sámi people and to hear a song in Sámi, you can watch a video at:

Featured Image: A Sámi family  in front of goahti and lavvu housing, early 1900s, Norway ( Wikimedia Commons ) 

By Alicia McDermott


n.a. (2012) The Saami, Samisk, Sámi [Online]
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United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (UNRIC) (n.d.) The Sami of Northern Europe – one people, four countries . [online]
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Swedish Institute (1999) The Sami People in Sweden. [Online]

n.a. (1996) An Introduction to the Sami people. [Online]
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Mulk, Inga-Maria, (2013). Máttaráhkká: Mother Earth in Sami rock art. [Online]
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Henriksen, J.B. (2011) Sami Self-determination  [Online]
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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.

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!

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