LOCATION: Norway; Sweden; Finland; Russia

POPULATION: About 50,000

LANGUAGE: Sami language in many dialects; also language of country in which they live

RELIGION: Lutheran Church


While the Sami, or Lapps (as they were formerly called), are commonly thought of as the inhabitants of Lapland, they have never had a country of their own. They are the original inhabitants of northern Scandinavia and most of Finland. Their neighbors have called them Lapps, but they prefer to be called Samer or Sami , since Lapp means a patch of cloth for mending and was a name imposed on them by the people who settled on their lands. The Sami refer to their land as Sapmi or Same.

The Sami first appear in written history in the works of the Roman author Tacitus in about AD 98. Nearly 900 years later, a Norwegian chieftain visiting King Alfred the Great of England spoke of these reindeer herders, who were paying taxes to him in the form of furs, feathers, and whale bones. Over the centuries many armed nations—including the Karelians, Swedes, Danes, Finns, and Russians—demanded their loyalty and taxes. In some cases, the Sami had to pay taxes to two or three governments—as well as fines imposed by one country for paying taxes to another!

Today the Sami are citizens of the countries within whose borders they live, with full rights to education, social services, religious freedom, and participation in the political process. Norway, Sweden, and Finland all have Sami parliaments. At the same time, however, the Sami continue to preserve and defend their ethnic identity and traditional cultural values. Until the liberalization instituted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's government in the late 1980s, the Russian Sami had almost no contact with those in other areas. Sami living in Scandinavia formed the Nordic Sami Council in 1956 to promote cooperation between their populations in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. In 1973 the Nordic Sami Institute at Kautokeino, Norway, was founded to promote the study of the Sami language and culture. In 1989, a Sami College was established there as well. The universities of Tromsø in Norway, Umla in Sweden, and Oulu in Finland have Sami departments in which Sami topics are taught, both separately and as part of established disciplines.


The Sami live in tundra (arctic or subarctic treeless plain), taiga (subarctic forest), and coastal zones in the far north of Europe, spread out over four different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia's Kola peninsula. They live on coasts and islands warmed by the Gulf Stream, on plateaus dotted by lakes and streams, and on forested mountains. Sami territory lies at latitudes above 62 degrees north, and much of it is above the Arctic Circle, with dark, cold winters and warm, light summers. It is often called the "land of the midnight sun" because depending on the latitude, the sun may be visible for up to seventy days and nights straight in the summer. The far north sees almost three months of continuous daylight. Balancing this out, however, is an equally long period of darkness in the winter, which may last from October to March. Beginning in November, the sun disappears for weeks. Much of the Samis' land is at high altitudes, rising to over 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) above sea level. The highest point is Kebnekajse, at 6,960 feet (2,121 meters).

Traditionally, the Sami lived in a community of families called a siida , whose members cooperated in hunting, trapping, and fishing. Officially, the number of Sami is estimated at between 44,000 and 50,000 people. An estimated 30,000 to 35,000 live in Norway, 10,000 in Sweden, 3,000 to 4,000 in Finland, and 1,000 to 2,000 in Russia. However, some think the actual number is considerably higher. For many years, the Sami culture and way of life were criticized by their neighbors, causing many to conceal their true identity. Thus, it is difficult to know how many Sami there actually are (some estimates are as high as 200,000).


Sami is a Finno-Ugric language that is most closely related to Finnish, Estonian, Livonian, Votic, and several other little-known languages. While it varies from region to region, it does so based on the lifestyle of the Sami people rather than on the national boundaries of the lands in which they live. In fact, the present official definition of a Sami is primarily a linguistic one. Altogether there are fifty dialects, but these fall into three major groups (east, central, and south) which are unintelligible to one another, which is to say that speakers of one dialect sill not understand those of another dialect. Today almost all Sami also speak the language of their native country.

Sami is rich in words that describe reindeer, with words for different colors, sizes, antler spreads, and fur textures. Other words indicate how tame a reindeer is or how good it is at pulling sleds. There is actually a separate word describing a male reindeer in each year of his life. A poem by Nordic Council-prizewinning poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää consists mainly of different Sami words for different kinds of reindeer. There are also hundreds of words that differentiate snow according to its age, depth, density, and hardness. For example, terms exist for powdery snow, snow that fell yesterday, and snow that is soft underneath with a hard crust on top.

The availability of schooling in the Sami language has become an important issue to those concerned with the preservation of the Sami culture and way of life. Nowadays Sami may be used as the language of instruction throughout primary and secondary school. Sami is taught and studied at the university level as well.


Traditionally, the Sami believed that specific spirits were associated with certain places and with the deceased. Many of their myths and legends concern the underworld. Others involve the Stallos, a race of troll-like giants who ate humans or sucked out their strength through an iron pipe. Many tales involve Sami outwitting the Stallos. Another kind of villian in Sami folklore is the stallu, a usually wicked person who can appear in various forms.

The Sami creation myth, directly related to their harsh environment, tells the story of a monstrous giant named Biegolmai, the Wind Man. In the beginning of time, Biegolmai created the Sapmi region by taking two huge shovels, one to whip up the wind and the other to drop such huge amounts of snow that no one could live there. One day, however, one of Biegolmai's shovels broke, the wind died down, and the Sami were able to enter Sapmi.

Some of the Sami epics trace Sami ancestry to the sun. In the mid-nineteenth century, a Sami minister, Anders Fjellner, recorded epic mythical poems in which the Daughter of the Sun favored the Sami and brought the reindeer to them. In a related myth, the Son of the Sun had three sons who became the ancestors of the Sami. At their deaths they became stars in the heavens, and can be seen today in the belt of the constellation Orion.

One of the most famous Sami folktales is the story of "The Pathfinder." In it, a Sami village is attacked by a marauding tribe from the east called the Tjudes. The village fights as best it can, but the Tjudes vastly outnumber the Sami and soon kill all but one—a young boy. The Tjudes then force the young boy to lead them to the next village so they can attack and overtake it as well. The boy reluctantly agrees, leading the Tjudes by night through the mountains. At the top of one mountain, the Tjudes decide to wait until morning, fearing they will lose their way getting down the mountain. The Sami boy, however, urges them to follow him. He says he knows the mountain well and will lead them by torch. He suggests that they all tie themselves together by rope so none of them gets lost. The Tjudes agree, grateful that the Sami boy has become so loyal to them.

As they make their way down the mountain, however, the Sami boy leads them to a great cliff, stops at its edge and tosses his torch over the side, yelling, "Follow me!" The Tjudes, tied together, fall over the edge.

This story was made into a movie called The Pathfinder.


In the traditional Sami religion, both living beings and inanimate objects such as trees were thought to have souls. A priest or shaman, called a noaidi, acted as an intermediary between the spiritual and material worlds. He would consult with the dead while in a trance induced by beating on a magic drum and performing a special kind of chanting called juoigan (yoik) in Sami. Juoigan is the traditional Sami music.

Over the course of time, all of the Sami have converted to Christianity, in large part through the efforts of Lars Levi Laestadiusin, a nineteenth-century evangelical Congregationalist. Today most Sami practice the dominant Lutheran religion of the Nordic countries in which they live.


Sami observe the major holidays of the Christian calendar. Every Easter (late March or early April), a big festival is held at Kautokeino in northern Norway, complete with typical Sami entertainments, including sled races and yoik singing. Many couples choose this setting for their weddings. Many Sami observe Finland's "little Christmas" ( Pikkujoulu ) early in December, marking the beginning of festivities that last through December 26. On Christmas Eve (December 24), special "midday trees" are adorned with candles, silver and gold ribbons, and other decorations. After readings from the Gospels, a festive meal is eaten, typically consisting of salmon, ham, vegetables, and rice pudding. Boxing Day on December 26 is marked by sled rides, lasso throwing, and other traditional games.

Secular holidays include the large spring celebrations held by the Sami every year, occasions on which they wear their best clothes and gather with friends to mark the end of winter.


The Sami held on to their traditional ways longer than most peoples in Europe and have yet to fully abandon traditional life for a modern way of life. Still, the dictates of today's world have forced them to follow rituals that would be easily recognized in the Western world. Most Sami, for instance, participate in the major Lutheran rituals even though they sometimes adapt them to their own use. The ritual of baptism and the way the Sami have both used and avoided it offer an interesting illustration of a traditional culture struggling to maintain itself within the industrialized world.

The Scandanavian countries where the Sami live required surnames, and the Lutheran church applied pressure on the Sami to use traditional Christian names for their children. The Sami resisted for years, maintaining their tradition of no surnames and naming their children for recently deceased elders or infants. The Sami reluctantly created a system of surnames similar to the Scandanavian system of adding "son" (sen) or "daughter" (dotter) to the first name of a parent and began using traditional Scandanavian names for baptism. Afterward, however, when the family left the church, they would hold their own baptism ceremony in which the imposed name was "cleaned" away and a "stronger," more traditional name was given to the child.

Similar practices have been applied to other areas of traditional Sami life: a concession is made to modernism, while a connection is maintained to traditionalism.


Sami society is traditionally open and egalitarian, and the Sami are known for their courtesy and hospitality to outsiders. They willingly accept other Sami who may not be full-blooded. A person's attitude toward the treasured Sami language and traditions are considered more important than bloodlines. A knowledge of the Sami language is considered one of the main ways of identifying someone as a Sami.


As a seminomadic people, the reindeer-herding Sami traditionally maintained permanent dwellings—sometimes more than one—and spent part of their time living in tents. The permanent homes were either frame buildings or sod huts. The Sami tent, called a lavvo, has a circular framework of poles leaning inward like the teepee or wigwam of Native Americans, and a floor of birch twigs covered with layers of reindeer fur. Both tents and huts are arranged around a central fire. Today most Sami, who are no longer reindeer herders, live in typical Scandinavian houses with central heating and running water. Family life typically centers on the kitchen.

The Sami receive the same level of health care as other citizens of the countries in which they live. Like their Scandinavian neighbors, they have a high rate of heart disease. However, Sami are often active and healthy into their eighties. They sometimes supplement Western-style medical care with home remedies or treatment derived from old beliefs in the curing power of the word of the shaman, or medicine man.


Traditionally, the Sami lived in a group of families called a siida. Today, the nuclear family is the basic social unit among the Sami, and families are close-knit with a great deal of attention paid to the children. The Sami language contains an unusually large number of words that refer to family relationships. Traditionally, the males of the family were occupied with herding, hunting, and making boats, sleds, and tools, while the women cooked, made clothing and thread, and cured the meat. Each family had its own mark (and children had their own marks as well). Herding families use these marks to distinguish their reindeer from those of other families.


Some, but not all, Sami still wear the group's brightly colored traditional clothing. It is most easily recognizable by the distinctive bands of bright red and yellow patterns against a deep blue background of wool or felt. These bands appear as decorations on men's tunics (gaktis), as borders on the women's skirts, and on the hats of both sexes. Men's hats vary by region; some are cone-shaped while others have four corners. Women and girls may drape fringed scarves around their shoulders. Warm reindeer-skin coats are worn by both sexes. The Sami wear moccasins of reindeer skin with turned-up toes, fastened with ribbons. However, they wear no socks. Instead, they stuff their moccasins with soft sedge grass to protect their feet against the cold and dampness.

Urban Sami dress in modern, Western-style clothing.

12 • FOOD

Reindeer meat is a protein-rich dietary staple. Even the reindeer's blood is used, for sausages. Fish caught in the many lakes of the Sami's homelands are eaten boiled, grilled, dried, smoked, or salted. Wild berries are another mainstay of the Sami diet, especially the vitamin C–rich cloudberry. To help them stay warm and alert in their cold environment, the Sami drink coffee throughout the day. Supper is the main (and traditionally, the only hot) meal of the day.


Traditionally, Sami children learned what they would need to know as adults by observing and helping their parents. Today, they generally attend the schools in the countries in which they live. There are several Sami high schools, where most of the subjects are taught in the Sami language. The universities of Tromsø in Norway, Umla in Sweden, and Oulu in Finland have Sami departments in which Sami topics are taught.


The Sami have a rich tradition of storytelling. A Sami musical tradition that has recently been revived is the singing of the light-hearted, unaccompanied song called the juoigan (yoik). It contains improvised words on almost any topic, but the musical element is the main focus. The yoik resembles the Native American practice of "melodizing" a feeling or mood. There are no collections of yoiks because they are so individualized and so private. A person's yoik is only shared within a close circle of friends and family. The yoik has been described by researchers as one of the most ancient musical traditions in Europe.

The Sami also invented their own musical instrument, a small reed pipe. There are also Sami theaters, publications, and arts and crafts organizations. In 1991 Nils-Aslak Valkeapää of Finland became the first Sami writer to win the Nordic Council prize for literature.


Young Sami often are faced with the decision of whether to remain working within their traditions or to adapt to modernism, which the governments of Scandinavia make available to them through schooling and programs of adaptation. For many years, there was intense government pressure for the Sami to abandon tradition and assimilate to Scandinavian life. In recent years, many Sami have rejected this pressure and there is now a considerable movement among the Sami to retain their cultural identity. A considerable number of young Sami who have been exposed to the modern, urban lifestyles of Scandinavia have rejected it for a more traditional lifestyle, although they still have modern conveniences unheard of in earlier generations. Still, it is more common to see a Sami driving a Volvo than to see one herding rein-deer—a traditional occupation engaged in by only 10 percent of Sami.

Sami in Scandinavia have bright prospects for employment. While there is some discrimination, most Scandinavians are rigidly egalitarian, and virtually all occupations are open to the Sami.


The Samis' outdoor recreation is closely linked to the activities that provide their survival. They enjoy competing to see who can throw their reindeer lassos the farthest and with the greatest precision. Reindeer-drawn sled races are popular, especially at the Easter festivals in the heart of Sapmi.


Sami entertainment is provided both by expressive activities, including storytelling and yoik singing, and physical contests such as sled racing and lasso throwing.

A traditional board game, rarely played anymore, is tablo and involves one character playing the wolf or the fox and the other a hunter. The players maneuver their pieces around a board with the hunter trying to corner the predator before he or she "eats" all the hunter's pieces.


The Sami produce beautiful crafts, carving a variety of objects—such as tools and utensils—from bone, wood, reindeer antlers, and silver, often with geometric motifs. They have also perfected a special kind of ribbon weaving. Their crafts are popular tourist purchases, although the Sami save many of their creations for their own use. Much of their artistic talent goes into the elaborate braided designs of their costumes.


The Sami homelands have been affected by the invasion of mining and logging companies, hydroelectric power projects, communication networks, and tourism, and threatened by pollution. A controversy that received particular attention was the building of the Alta hydroelectric dam in Norway, which flooded reindeer pastures important to the region's Sami herders. A group of Sami protesters traveled to the capital city of Oslo, where they set up lavvos (tents) in front of the Norwegian parliament and began a hunger strike. Their efforts were unsuccessful, but their actions drew worldwide attention.

Since 1968, the National Association of Norwegian Sami (NSR) has been working actively for Sami political rights, as well as improvements in cultural, social, and economic conditions.

The Sami were also affected by the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine, which contaminated some of their grazing areas, making their reindeer potentially unsafe for them to market or eat themselves. Fish, berries, and drinking water in the affected areas were poisoned as well. Another problem for the Sami has been the increase of tourists from the south, who deplete important Sami resources, such as game birds, fish, and berries, without actually bringing much money into the community.


Beach, Hugh. A Year in Lapland. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1993.

Lander, Patricia Slade, and Claudette Charbonneau. The Land and People of Finland. New York: Lippincott, 1990.

Paine, Robert. Herds of the Tundra: A Portrait of Saami Reindeer Pastoralism. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1994

Rajanen, Aini. Of Finnish Ways. Minneapolis, Minn.: Dillon Press, 1981.

Reynolds, Jan. Far North. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992.

"Saami." Encyclopedia of World Cultures (Europe). Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Vitebsky, Piers. The Saami of Lapland. New York: Thomson Learning, 1993.


Introduction to the Sami People. [Online] Available , 1998.

Samefolket. Sami Magazine. [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Sami from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

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I was told I am a descendant of the Saami tribe in Sweden. I have recorded ancestry to the 1600's But no recorded info for Saami. How cani claim Saami ancestry,and be recognized
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My DNA has been tested to me being a descendant of the Saami Family Tribe in Sweden. I would like to get in touch with others that are descendents and learn about their families and how they reached America, if in fact they are there. Great website.
This article has been by far the most helpful one I've came across yet. I have to do a sociology paper on my culture and I have been told that I have ancestral roots in Lapland, Finland. I was raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where many Finnish and Sami migrated to. I just think it's pretty neat, Thanks for the much needed information!
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Hi Great article thanks. Was wondering what the death, funerary rituals in the Sami culture are? Both contemporary and traditional.
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Really good over view of Saami life. Bestmore was from Hordaland, not Saami that I know of. But, changes in Saami culture can be seen as a microcosym of what's happened in the the world, at large.
can anyone help me about what proplems they face today
For those that dont know, The Saami have the highest rate in the world for RH NEGATIVE B TYPE BLOOD
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I'm working on a human resources project where the employee is being sent to Scandinavia, so I paraphrased some information to use it. Very insightful!
Robert Astor-Finn
What is known of the role of marriage in the original Sami tribal society? From information I have of Australian Aboriginal pre Christian tribal societies, some tribes or at least some members of some tribes were polygamous. Any similarities known?
Touching to see the interest in Saami culture from as far away as the US!:) My father is Saami and I grew up in Norway. Thank you for sharing your experiences, and for writing this article. Many of you above who have ancestral links to Sapmi are very lucky to have such rich roots!
Hello my freinds i am reading this and i find it very interesting and cool i hope you agree. i have enjoyed learning this topic as i like seeing how other people live and eat. However i would find it extremely hard to survive as i dont like the cold much.
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mhean hadid
Good post , I loved the points . Does anyone know if I would be able to get access to a fillable UT USTC TC-20 copy to work with ?
Fascinating! I too am from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (United States). I have Sami roots on all four sides of my grandparents and intend on learning more of my roots/ ancestors/ origins. I can see where a lot of my characteristics/ mannerisms come from. Thanks for writing!!
Ron Lapp
Interesting site. I am presently investigating this further as I may be of Sami descent. Any suggestions are appreciated.

winthrop staples
I am an American wildlife biologist with Native American ancestors and I have done much reading about American indigenous peoples' religion and special beliefs and knowledge about animals. There have been scattered mentions in North American tribal traditions that some have the ability to communicate with animals often when on vision quests and it is said in many origin stories that all humans used to be able to communicate with none humans at the beginning of time. I wonder if this is something that for example Sami shamans might have claimed to be able to do. I have read that Shamans of indigenous populations in the northern Russian Far East claimed some ability to communicate with none humans as well so it seems they might be connected to Sami traditions and beliefs.
I have many free dvd copies of the original Siberian Russian Sami dance group, recorded on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, when the Siberian Russian Sami dance group came to St. Lawrence Island in 2003. I have copies of Classic Eastern Siberian Russian singers/drummers and motion-dancing dvds, a different Culture/Tradition than Sami. We use walrus stomach membrane on our older Culture/Traditional style drums, instead of Sami Traditional style drums.
I also know each song from every Culture/Tradition from Sami Russians, to Siberian Yupik Russians, Inupiaq/Inuit from Canada, and Inupiaq/Inuit from King Island, Alaska, Diomede, Alaska, Point Hope, Alaska, Barrow, Alaska, all the way from Russia, all over from each Alaska Culture/Tradition, and Canada. I memorize 300+ songs. I hear all the music at once in my head.
I am also half Siberian Yupik and half Inupiaq/Inuit, my mother is Siberian Yupik, and father is Inupiaq/Inuit. I live in the most Western part of the world, and my Ancestors come from the most Eastern part of the world, Eastern Siberia. My hometown Island, St. Lawrence Island also sits in the middle of my mainland home Alaska, and Ancestory homeland Eastern Siberia. I can also see Russia mountains from my Alaskan home. My Inpuiaq/Inuit name means one who knows and sees everything. I feel somehow.
Lori Fisher
I appreciate this article information.
So informative! Does anyone know what dog breeds the Sami people had? Do you know if the had Swedish Vallhunds in their community?
Does anyone have further information regarding Sami folk music and music tradition? Would love to know more... Thanks.

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