Saami - Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The entire Saami population of the Kola Peninsula at the turn of the century consisted of seventeen societies or communes (Lovozersky, Iokangansky, Semiostrovsky, etc.), constituting territorial associations of sorts. Each society had permanent settlements and its own territory for production (pastures, fishing sites, hunting grounds), the use of which accorded with ancient Saami norms. No information has been preserved about the existence of a clan structure among the Saami. Seventeenth-century sources, however, distinguish three groups of Lopi on the Kola Peninsula and Karelin that perhaps correspond to their earlier division along clan or tribal lines. These are the Konchanskaya Lop' in the western regions of the peninsula, the Terskoya Lop' in its eastern regions, and the Leshoya Lop' in northern Karelin.

Marriage and Domestic Unit. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the Saami lived in small families. The son, after marriage, would separate from his father and run his own household economy. In rare cases, a young husband had to work with his father-in-law, sometimes for as long as one year, before setting up his own household. An only son would remain with his parents until their deaths. The parents always selected the spouses of their children, although this was usually done with the agreement of the children. The groom and the bride were usually related but of different settlements. Weddings generally took place in the winter, after Epiphany, when the entire population was free from work. Saami couples entered into marriage at the age of 20, and it was not unusual for the bride to be older than her groom.

Division of Labor. In the past the head of the Saami family was always the man, but, at the same time, the position of the woman was rather free. Women, according to old notions of the Saami, were considered unclean and, in connection with this, faced a series of prohibitions and constraints. Thus, they could not be in the part of the home (vezha) where the so-called clean/pure place was located and could not participate in the general meal. When guests were in the home, women only served. They could not approach sacred sites. (Whether the Sammi actually regard women as "unclean" is controversial and hinges on the gloss for the Saami word mugga, which can also be translated "spiritually powerful, magically efficacious, dangerous." Women were and are seen as having the potential for special connections with the Mistress of Game, and it may well be that it was for this reason their actions were ritually circumscribed.) Despite these prohibitions, the relationship of the spouses and the allocation of respective duties and obligations were determined by the necessities of the Saami way of life, particularly the day-to-day economic routine under conditions imposed by the severe northern environment. The family actually spent a great deal of time out of touch with the other families of its settlement. Under these circumstances, a wife had to participate on equal terms in the domestic economy, including raising the children and obtaining the basic means of subsistence (catching fish, sometimes even herding reindeer). There was thus no strict gender-based division of labor, although some kinds of work were usually carried out by men (e.g., care of the reindeer, preparing firewood), and others were carried out by women (e.g., preparation of food, sewing, repairing clothing, catching small fish in the lakes).

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