The Sami: 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. ( 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 As the Sami language is traditionally a spoken and not written language, the historical documents discussing Sami people were created by others.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 As with the words used to refer to many ancient cultures, these terms have become outdated (and less than politically correct).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). ( 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. ( 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). ( 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.


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