The distinctive traditional culture of the Saami developed over centuries under the diverse influences, especially the natural environment. The ancient economic culture of the Saami was characterized by a combination of hunting, fishing, and (later) reindeer breeding. For those Saami who live near the seashore, the hunting of sea mammals, particularly the nerpa (a kind of freshwater seal), has always been important; among the Saami living far from the sea, the hunting of northern reindeer was particularly developed. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the role of hunting in the economy lessened because of the exhaustion of game in the region. The basic source of subsistence became reindeer herding, with fishing for "black" fish from inland lakes ( vodoyom ) and for the syomga salmon at the mouths of large rivers falling to secondary importance; there were also other, nontraditional occupations such as working on the Kirov railroad or as guides for geological groups. Today about half of all the Saami living in Lovozer are reindeer breeders. In addition, Saami are employed in many nontraditional forms of work, including dairying, construction, education, and service industries.
The traditional system of reindeer breeding of the Kola Saami has characteristics that set it off as a special type among the reindeer-breeding systems of the Peoples of the North and Siberia. These are small herds, free pasturing of the reindeer in the summer with the use of brands ( dymokur ) , reindeer barns and fences ( izgorod' ) , and the use of herding dogs. The Saami used the reindeer as pack animals when traveling on foot or harnessed them to a very distinctive one-runner sleigh-carriage (Russian: bezkopyl'nyl ) similar in appearance to a boat with a truncated poop and a sharply raised prow. They sat in this sleigh-carriage with their feet extended forward or with the right foot extended and the left hanging overboard. They drove with the help of reins running along the left side of the reindeer from a halter around its head. They sometimes hitched two reindeer to a freight sleigh-carriage.
The pack saddle, like the harness, was also different from analogical elements of the culture of other reindeer-breeding peoples. It was marked by great simplicity of construction, consisting of two small arch-shaped boards that dropped down along the sides of the reindeer. Their lower ends were fastened with a thong that passed under the belly of the animal, whereas the upper ends were fastened together and the loads, in special sacks, were hung from them. At present the harness and carriage have been replaced by the practical and convenient reindeer sleigh (Russian: narta ) of the Samoyed type, on a high, slanted sleigh-carriage.
The techniques of fishing resemble in many ways those of the neighboring Russian and Karelian fisherman. Since time immemorial the most widely used equipment have been the stationary ( stavnaya ) net, harpoon or fish spear, the fishing hook, and, for syomga trout, the "locks" constructed of poles and containing snares made out of withies, with which the Saami used to block off rivers.
The most widespread means of hunting the wild reindeer in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the drive or battue with fences. They drove the reindeer into huge traps made of branches covered with snow. Later they began to hunt with firearms—in the fall with the help of reindeer decoys, but in the spring on a special kind of ski (Russian: lyzhy-golenitsi ) on the crust (the so-called Russian gon'ba ) . Furbearing animals were hunted with firearms and diverse traps.
Industrial Arts. The basic materials for the preparation of clothing were reindeer hides and tanned skins, procured locally, but also cotton cloth, linens, and calico obtained from traders at the annual fairs in the district city of Kola. Fox, rabbit, and bear skins were used for adornment. Some kinds of footwear were prepared from water-resistant seal skin (Russian: nerpa and tyulen' ). The Saami also knitted socks and mittens and wove belts from sheep's wool.
The basic upper garment, which was the same for men and women, was in use until the early twentieth century; made of reindeer hide with the fur on the outside, it was put on over the head and came down to below the knees, with the skirt spreading out. This was worn with a fur or cloth cap, of which there are many variants in the various regions of Lapland. Men cinched their coats with a leather belt from which they suspended a knife in a leather sheath, whereas women used colored belts woven of wool. The Saami also wore clothes of a similar cut but made of cloth, which served as outerwear in summer and in winter was donned under the coat. Clothing made of textiles, particularly that of the women, was strongly influenced by neighbors, especially the Russians. Thus there appeared the sleeveless tunic dress ( sarafan ) of the Saami women, with a skirt ( stiaps ), a calico jacket, and a kerchief over the head.
The Saami sewed footwear out of reindeer skins or tanned leather. This footwear could be high, with a legging running up to the crotch, or low, barely above the ankle. A characteristic of all Saami footwear was that the tip of the toe was turned sharply upward, allowing Saami to step easily into leather bands on their skis and ski without their feet slipping out.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the appearance on the Kola Peninsula of Komi and Nenet reindeer breeders precipitated the diffusion to Saami culture of many Izhem-Samoyedic elements, including clothing. This led to the adoption of the Komi-style cowl ( malitsa ) and a combination sock-sandal made of fur. This clothing remains the basic garb for hunting and similar work in the settlements, but the general population wears purchased factory-made clothing. Footwear of deerskin enjoys great popularity.