Indigenous People of Scandinavia: Sami

Indigenous People of Scandinavia: Sami

One of the age-old living cultures in Norway, and perhaps the world is that of the Sami people, who have been living in the barren landscapes of Sami Land (the area commonly known as Lapland- northern Norway in the Arctic Circle) for thousands of years. Some findings suggest it has been as long as 4,000 years the Sami communities have existed in the north of Europe. They are the original inhabitants of northern Scandinavia and most of Finland. The Sami call their region as “Sapmi”. 

Sami people are often referred as Lapps or Laplanders. The name ‘Lapp’ means patch of cloth for mending, they don’t really like being called that way and find it pejorative. Hence, they call themselves ‘Sami’, a more acceptable term, and is the race’s desired name.

Sami is a Finno-Ugric language that is very closely related to Finnish, Livonian, Estonian, Votic, and several other less popular languages. The language varies from region to region, based on the lifestyle of the Sami people rather than on the national boundaries of the lands in which they live.

The Sami culture is fascinating. Traditionally, the Sami lived in a community of families called a “siida” and survived by hunting and fishing. Reindeers are crucial to the subsistence of the Sami, providing meat, milk, fur and transportation. During winter in Finnmark, reindeer sledding is still very popular. Reindeer meat is the staple food of Sami, besides trout, char and whitefish.

The Sami are nomadic people, in the summer months they live in an old-style cone shaped portable tents called laitok (lavvu) made of animal skin, which can be easily be reassembled in a different place as the people move across the country with their animals. There is always a herder who moves with their animals. The reindeers are not kept in captivity and usually found roaming freely on meadows.

The Sami are never profligate. Every part of the reindeer is put to use, for instance, the meat is their staple food, the skin for shoes and clothing, the bones for handicrafts, and other parts are sold to China for their alternative medicinal properties.

Sámi people have their own handicrafts they call as “Duodji”. An example of Duodji handicrafts is Kuksa (drinking cup made of carved birch burl). The burl is kind of warp that appears on some trees. Men use wood, antlers and reindeer bones to make antler-handled scrimshawed Sami knives, drums, and guksi (burl cups). Women use leather and roots to make articles like the birch- and spruce-root woven baskets and clothing called as “gaktis”.

Not all, but some Sami still wear the group’s brightly coloured traditional apparels. One can easily spot by their idiosyncratic bands of bright red, green and yellow patterns against a deep blue background of wool or felt. These bands appear as decorations on men's tunics called as “gaktis” and varies from community to community. For example, the length of gákti in southern parts of Sapmi is longer than the one in the north of the region. Have to mention, the gakti worn by men has a deeper meaning. Looking at the colours, patterns and decorated belt on the gákti one can identify if the person is married or single and where the person is from. The square buttons mean that the person is married and single people wear belt with round buttons. Yes, you read it right!!

The Sami pair their gakti with beautiful silver jewellery, traditional leather boots and a silk scarf. Girls and women may drape fringed scarves around their shoulders. Gakti worn by men is a bit shorter than the one worn by women. Warm reindeer skin coats are worn by all. Urban Sami wear modern, Western-style outfit. 

Also, the men's hats vary by region, like for example, some wear the cone-shaped while others wear their traditional four winds hat or "ciehgahpir". The hat has two parts. The first is central, blue one with four-cornered star on top of the hat. The top has red and yellow decorations. The next is the red band with beautiful patterns.

The Sami wear moccasins of reindeer skin with turned-up toes, fastened with ribbons. However, they don’t wear socks and instead, they stuff their moccasins with soft sedge grass to shield their feet against the cold and sogginess.

Kautokeino is the cultural capital of the Sami people, right in the heart of Sami Norway. They have a rich tradition of storytelling. Also, Sami have their own special way of yodel-like singing called the “joik”. Joik is traditionally sung without music. Today, there are joiks performed with musical instruments too. The joiks themes are mostly animals, people, and special occasions in life. 

There are many Sami cultural festivals around the year. Festivals play an important part in the Sami calendar. In Norway there is “Riddu Riddu”- a music festival organized in Olmmaivaggi (Manndalen). Also Easter is famous in Kautokeino and Karasjok, where Easter festival is organized every year before the spring reindeer migration to the coastal region. They are quite friendly people and happily invite tourists to witness their lifestyle.

Let us finish this article on a positive note. The Sami were beleaguered people for a long time and their culture was in danger of annihilation. Today they stand stronger than most other indigenous people in the world and have their independence day, and their own flag and parliament.



Posted by Gauri Arts

Gauri Arts Team

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