Sami People and Sapmi Country
in Arctic Europe

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Those who in English are usually called Laps from Lapland call themselves Samis or the Sapmi people.


- A Few Facts about Sami Culture
- Reindeer Husbandry in Sami Country or Sápmi
- About some Natural Products Used in Sami Tradition

A Few Facts about Sami Culture

Sápmi territory encompasses the northern areas of 3 countries. Norway - with approximately 40 000 people is the largest community - Sweden, where 20 000 Sami live, Finland with about 6 000, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, where only 2 000 Sami remain.
A Brief History
The oldest traces of Sami civilization show that its people lived in these areas almost 10 000 years ago. Just 2 000 years ago, their territory encompassed the whole of present day Finland, but also the shores of the Botnia Gulf and Atlantic Ocean, central and northern Norway, as well as the entire Russian area up to the White Sea.
The Sami were involved in trading with surrounding peoples from the earliest times. More especially, they swapped reindeer, beaver and elk products in order to insure their supply of tools, utensils, jewelry materials.
From the 16th century, the Sami were gradually integrated into the fiscal systems of the Nordic states, and were taxed for many years by 3 countries at the same time. Their territory was little by little settled by farmers and later taken over by mining industries during the 19th and 20th centuries. This accounts for the gradual switch in the Sami lifestyle from hunting and fishing to reindeer husbandry, which occurred from the 17th century onwards.
Forced Christianization was led by missionaries who in the 17th century started "witch hunts" against Sami religious beliefs and practices, which took its toll on the Sami people. Their cult images and sacrificial sites were destroyed along with their shamans' drums, and disobedience was severely punished.
During these periods, Sami children were forced to attend permanent schools which were managed by the Church until recently. Beyond literacy and providing some basic knowledge of the State's language, the objective was to train some future Sami ministers. In the 18th and 19th century, this educational system was completed by nomadic schools, as most Sami were still not sedentary at the time.
Sami Language
It belongs to the Finno-Ugrian class of languages and can be subdivided into 3 main groups, corresponding to the oriental, central and southern areas of Sápmi. They are distinct enough that they are not mutually intelligible. The Sami dialect from Central Sápmi being the most commonly used, was adopted as the main language. Sami vocabulary concerned with the subjects of nature, the weather and the reindeer is particularly rich. For instance, there are many words describing different sorts of snow or various features of a reindeer, to the point that they could allow identification of a single animal in a herd of several thousands. Out of 70 000 Sami, only 2 000 have a knowledge of some Sami language, but considerable efforts made through education and media conducted in Sami language have now begun to show results.
Since the 1950's, Sami language has been gradually reintroduced into the education system. Schooling is offered in Sami language up to university level. There are several schools providing specific subjects related to Sami culture and handicrafts skills, such as in Jokkmokk in Sweden, or Karasjok in Norway.
The Sami Flag
Adopted in 1986, it is composed of a circle divided into two colors, blue and red, representing the moon and the sun. Two vertical lines, yellow and green, complete the range of traditional Sami colors.
Sami Parliaments
The Sámediggi established in Karasjok since 1989 is the Sami Parliament for Norway. It is composed of 39 representatives elected directly every four years. Their role is the defence of the Sami community in Norway, including the Finnish and Swedish Sami settled in the country. Its remarkable building managed to unify a modern programme with Sami building tradition and culture. Designed by Stein Halvorsen and Christian Sundby, it received two awards in Norway.
The Swedish Parliament was established in 1993 and has 31 representatives, also elected for 4 years. They are based in Jokkmokk, Kiruna and Östersund. In Finland, where there has been a Sami Parliament since 1996, the 21 representatives elected every 4 years are based in Enari, Utskjok and Sodankylä.
Sami Religion
Animistic, the Sami rites have been strongly linked to nature, in which the shaman or rather "noaidi" plays the role of a go-between with the gods thanks to the use of drums. The noaidi is often a seer, and a doctor with strong knowledge of medicinal herbs. In some areas of Sápmi, each family owned one or several drums, which helped them foretell the future or answer some questions. Certain natural or unusual sites were regarded as sacred sites where sacrificial rituals were conducted, particularly with reindeer.
Music, Literature, Art and Handicrafts
A strong oral tradition has survived around "joik", a literary form of expression combining song and poetry, to tell stories and events and describe nature. Since the 1960's, there has been a revival movement around "joik".
Writing came into Sami artistic expressions in the early 20th century. Art and handicrafts, under the one word "duodji" cannot be set apart, as objects are firstly functional in Sami tradition, their aesthetic aspect being a more minor consideration.
A noaidi's drum, the traditional Sami outer garment or usual objects such as knives, bowls or baskets are good examples.
Wood and horn are usually handled by men, while softer materials such as fabrics, skins and roots are the women's areas. Sami art handicrafts have their own label.
A Brief Lexicon of Sami Language
moaïn letne Franskas ire
we come from France
Oatshun ko mon govett du ?
may I take a picture?
you can take
olu gitu
warm thanks
me, I
we (2)
we (3+)
traditional outer garment
dome-shaped house with wooden
structure and vegetal insulation
teepee-shaped portable tent

Reindeer Husbandry in Sami Country or Sápmi

The Reindeer and its Life Cycle
Reindeer are the only deer species in which both males and females have antlers, which they shed every year. Males shed theirs after the mating season, while females keep theirs until spring, an asset in keeping the males away from the best grazing spots during wintertime. A male may guard up to 25 to 30 females.
Reindeer grow to a height of 85 to 120 cm, and their large hooves allow them to run in the snow as well as to dig through it for lichen.
The females' fecundation occurs in the fall and calves are born in May. Each will follow its mother for one year, until the next newborn arrives. Sometimes calves will tag along for two to three years, with brothers and sisters.
Reindeer Arrival
"Tal ello puohta!" The reindeer are coming!
Varying somewhat depending on climatic conditions, the herd location and the direction it is taking, the exact date for starting marking cannot be determined ahead of time.
Reindeer are semi-domesticated animals that see men only a few times a year. Nowadays, collars fitted with signals are worn by the leading reindeer as well as helicopters are used to spot the grazing herds, and cross motorbikes help as much as dogs in directing herds about.
For the herders in the northwestern part of Sweden, it is time by mid-July to prevent herds from heading further north into the mountains of Norway since marking should begin soon. Herders direct their reindeer down towards their village, and into a collective corral. When marking is completed, herds will be taken further down into forest areas for the winter. Each family usually owns one house here and one house there.
Reindeer do not arrive from the mountains in one continuous flow but often in groups. When too many come all at once, dogs and motorbikes will break the herd into smaller groups before the reindeer reach the village.
Marking the Reindeer
When the reindeer belonging to several families come down together from the mountains, newborn calves need to be marked. The location for building a corral was chosen long ago on a narrow pass on the herd's route downwards. The herd is first driven into this corral, then enclosed into only half of it. This process will facilitate the herders's job of catching calves with a lasso.
Herders wait for mothers and calves to have found each other thanks to their cries, a sort of guttural groaning "hon, hon".
A herder spots a female deer belonging to the family thanks to its earmark and identifies its calf behind.
Then he tries to isolate it, often with the help of one or two other herders, and to catch it with a lasso.
Nowadays, brightly colored nylon ropes are preferred to traditional ones, as they are lighter and more supple.
As one herder immobilizes the calf, the other one draws a mark in each ear with a knife.
Finally, the calf is released and returns to its mother.
To facilitate the counting of newborns, a marker keeps in his/her pocket a little piece of ear taken from each marked calf. If he/she marks reindeer for several people, then a code will be added on each piece of ear pocketed, to identify each owners's calf count.
When reindeer belonging to other villages happen to mingle in, these newborns will be marked also with their owners' marks. Then in the fall, the village owners get together again to separate their own. Each village keeps the others informed of a chosen date for this event, so that any lost reindeer can be recovered by its owner.
Each reindeer owner has his/her own mark, which can be inherited. This was the case for Sunna, Laila's daughter, who got her grandmother's earmark and herd as a present at birth. When needed, new marks will be designed for each new member of the family, most often by adding a specific detail to the family mark.
When a new mark is being designed, it must be submitted to the approval of each village council. If the submitted project is deemed too similar to his/her own existing mark, any herder can oppose such new mark. This is what had happened to Laila's husband Arild upon proposing a new mark as a young man. Laila's father had vetoed it. Needless to say, the problem was solved when the two got married...
Laila's father knew over 600 owners' marks! For most Sami herders though, a little booklet comes handy; it gathers all marks used in one region, classified by family and identifying each owner by name and mark. These marks are recorded in the county adminstrative board registers.
Children learn how to identify the family marks thanks to cutouts of pairs of ears on which marks are drawn as seen from the front. When children have memorized earmarks and are able to reproduce them on birchbark, they are given their first reindeer calf by their parents.
Some reindeer wear a plastic identification in their ears. This is used when reindeer change owners through sale, inheritance or to correct a marking error.
Castration is conducted on fully mature males in order to make them stronger. They will turn into more meat, or into herd leaders. Castration prevents a major weight loss occurring in the fall, when males forget to eat during mating season. Fall is when they are at their fattest, which is also slaughtering time.
Castration nowadays is conducted with a sort of pliers with which herders squeeze the canal above the testicles for about 30 seconds.
In the old days, herders used their teeth. Laila remembers having done so herself when she was young, for older herders whose teeth were not good enough any more. "You squeeze tight and when you hear a little crack, it's done", she narrates with an odd smile.
Women and Reindeer
Although some women like Laila, her mother and daughter Sunna own reindeer and mark, and do the same job as men, a silent disapproval remains sometimes. But less and less so, we are told...
Laws Regarding Reindeer Husbandry
In Sweden, a Sami must be a member of a "sameby" in order to exercise the right to reindeer husbandry. A sameby is a collective husbandry operation of up to several hundred owners of small herds. In one particular village, 15 families, each composed of several herders, own approximately 9 000 reindeer, but there are about 20 000 animals in this region only.
A sameby is an economic organization operating on a specific geographical territory. There are two types of sameby. The mountain sameby move their herds there for the summer and back to the forest areas before winter, while forest sameby remain sedentary all year round.
Herds moving to the mountains often do so across borders. Although ancient agreements between countries still stand regarding the herd's free circulation, there are constant attempts to renegotiate such rights. Moreover, the right to let herds graze on private property is being increasingly challenged, particularly in forest areas.
Reindeer Industry
Reindeer are an important part of Sami economy. Out of 70 000 Sami, approximately 10 000 people are involved in this industry, but few of them manage to support themselves by this activity alone. In order to do so, at least 400 reindeer are needed, a number which is not very commonly reached. Even fewer owners were able to invest in meat processing units, financially the most rewarding segment of the reindeer economy.

About Some Natural Products Used in Sami Tradition

The Sami used to dry all sorts of food, from plants, berries, mushrooms,vegetables, meats to even milk and blood. For instance, during the long winter months when fresh food was unavailable, eating 3 or 4 preserved cranberries each morning was particularly important for the vitamin intake in order to keep infections away. Another option is drinking a glass of concentrated berry juice with fresh water, an alternative which has survived in many homes throughout the Nordic countries.
Pine Tree
Tips from pinus sylvestris are picked early spring and prepared several ways:
Pine tree soup or "Grandskott soppa" in Swedish, "Guossaliepma" in Sami.
Pine tree cough medicine: put tips in alcohol (32 to 34° max) and close the bottle airtightly. Put it by a window for light for a week, then store in a cold place like a cellar for 8 to 10 months. Strain the tips away, add brown sugar or syrup to make cough medicine. Take one spoonfull 2 to 3 times a day.
Pine tree bark can be ground into flower and used in bread dough, mixing it with rye and wheat flower 50/50. Makes crusty thin flat bread.
Other modern uses include flavored vinegar with tips left inside the bottle or pine tree tips syrup, which is good with meat or desserts.
Lingonberries, vaccinium vitis-idaea in latin
Lingonberry leaves can be dried or roasted, then boiled for 10 minutes (one handful per liter)to make good healthy herbal tea.
Lingonberries can be boiled with water, cardamom, star anis and a little sugar, then pressed in a sifter. This makes a good drink or, thickened with some potato meal, can be a dessert fruit soup. The remaining crushed berries can be eaten as jam or with game meat.
Lichens and Moss
Pale-footed horsehair lichen, Bryoria Fuscescens in latin, Manlav in Swedish.
This dark-colored moss grows on pine trees and must not be mistaken for another lighter-colored moss of greyish green hue which grows on Christmas trees and birch trees, is poisonous and called Garlav in Swedish.
Lichen Soup
This soup has a subtle taste recalling that of artichoke.
Iceland moss, Lichen Cetraria Islandica in latin, Islandslav in Swedish.
Boil, throw the bitter water away, cut and add into soup, or put into bread, or dry for later use, whole or crushed as a spice. Is very good against cough.
Angelica leaves can be boiled for 10 minutes then drained, chopped and used as one would spinach for soup, omelet, or frikadeller.
In modern cooking it also works well with fish wrapped in foil. Traditionally, it was also used in cakes. Leaves are eaten fresh in season but can also be dried for later use.
Angelica stems: were traditionally chopped and candied with a little sugar.
Other Plants
Mountain sow thistle, Cicerbita alpina in latin, torta in Swedish.
Its long leaves can be boiled, strained and frozen. Good in omelets, where they can be mixed with angelica leaves.
Rosebay willowherb or fireweed, chaemaenerion angust in Latin, rallarros or mjölkôrt in Swedish.
Its root picked in early spring can be eaten boiled. Its tastes a bit like asparagus. Its newer leaves or flower tips can be added for flavor to salads. Leaves can also make good herbal tea.
Epilobium angustifolium: same use as plant above.
Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria in Latin.
This plant is good for rhumatism. Pick only the tips and boil in water for 30 minutes, then sift. Add sugar or syrup to the juice and pour in a bottle. This syrup makes a very quenching drink when added to cool water.
Harebell, Campanula rotudifolia in Latin
These delicate mauve flowers in the shape of bells can be picked, boiled and sifted. Keep the juice, add gelatine to turn into jelly, to accompany game meat.
Midsummermen or roseroot or rosewort, Sedum rosea in Latin.
Full of vitamin C, these leaves can be used in salad or in soup. They can also be dried. Roots can be picked any time of year and dried.
Sorrel, Rumex acertosa in Latin.
The Sami eat its leaves boiled and cooked into a green sort of porridge, which they eat with milk. Dried, its leaves can be used as spice.
Fern Roots
When dried, fern roots give a flavorful, slightly sweet taste to herbal tea.
Birch leaves can be used as gelatin, and their sap collected as a drink or to make syrup with.
From Grouses
The Sami keep the geezers and dry them. Then they open them up and collect the stone inside, which is used to flavor salt with, or alcohol (32 to 34° max). Smells a lot like juniper.
Non Edible "Recipes"
Birchwood ashes make a detergent: in a bucket, pour 1/4 ashes, 3/4 water. Stir and let sit for 24 hours minimum. When the color turns yellow, it is ready to be used as soap. Ashes at the bottom of the bucket can clean pots and pans. There are many other uses in Sami culture for birchwook, its bark and thin roots being woven into baskets, its sap collected to be drunk, etc.
From Fish Skins
The Sami used to make leather by first soaking the skins in water for one night then soaking them in morning urine for 12 to 24 hours. The skins are cleaned with water and soap, then the remaining meat is delicately pared away with a knife. Then scales are taken out. Set lying vertically against a wooden board, skin up, skins are spread with egg yolk then let to dry in the sun for about 20 minutes.
A Natural Hand Baum
A very effective hand baum is made with a mixture of reindeer fat, beeswax, pine tree sap (75% from Christmas tree, 25% from other types of pine trees), juniper berries, calendula, also called pot marigold.