Sami people

The Sami people are the indigenous people of northern Europe inhabiting Sápmi, which today encompasses parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Their ancestral lands span across an area the size of Sweden in the Nordic countries. The Sami people are among the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Europe. Their languages are the Sami languages, which are classified as Finnic in the Finno-Ugric group.

Anthropologist have been studying the Sami people for hundreds of years for their physical and cultural differences from the rest of Europe, however in recent years there has been an interest in genetic studies of the Sami as it indicates that the Sami are the original people to inhabit not only Scandinavia, but possibly one of the earliest inhabitants of Europe.

The cultural assimilation over many years of the Sami people in the four countries makes it difficult to estimate the numbers of Sami. However, the population has been estimated to be between 85,000 and 135,000 across the whole Nordic region, including urban areas such as Oslo, Norway, considered traditionally outside Sápmi. The Norwegian state recognizes any Norwegian as Sami if he or she has one great-grandparent whose home language was Sami, but there is not, and has not been, any registration of the home language spoken by Norwegian people. Roughly half of all Sami live in Norway, but many live in Sweden as well. Finland and Russia are also home to smaller groups located in the far north. The Sami in Russia were forced by the Soviet authorities to relocate to a collective called Lovozero/Lujávri, in the central part of the Kola Peninsula.

Traditionally, the Sami had a variety of livelihoods; fishing on the coast and in the inland, trapping animals for fur, sheep herding, etc. The best known livelihood is reindeer herding, but only about ten percent of Sami are connected with reindeer herding, with 2,800 actively invovled full time presently. Today, many Sami lead modern lives in the cities inside and outside the traditional Sápmi area, with modern jobs. Reindeer herding is practiced by a minority of Sami, which for traditional and cultural reasons is reserved for Sami people in some parts of Nordic countries.


The Sami are often known in other languages as "Lap", "Lapp", or "Laplanders", however these terms are considered derogatory to the Sami and often used by someone not connected to the culture. This name was originally used in Norway, Sweden and Finland, and from there the word was exported to all major European languages (English: Lapps, German, Dutch: Lappen, Russian, Ukrainian: Loparie, French: Lapons, Greek: Λάπονες, Italian: Lapponi, Polish: Lapończycy, Spanish: Lapones, Portuguese: Lapões). The widely accepted etymology is the Finnish word lape, which in this case means 'periphery'. Originally it meant any person living from the wilderness, not only the Sami people. In Scandinavian lapp also means a patch of cloth for mending, and one explanation of the name suggests that the Sami wear patched clothes out of poverty, or a derogatory word for their clothing called a gakti. It is unknown how the word Lapp came into the Norse language, but it seems to have been introduced by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus to distinguish between Fish-Fennians (coastal tribes) and Lap-Fennians (forest tribes). It was popularized and became the standard terminology by the work of Johannes SchefferusActa Lapponica” (1673), but was also used earlier by Olaus Magnus in his "Description of the Northern peoples" (1555). There is another suggestion that it originally meant wilds. An alternative interpretation made by Damião de Góis in 1540 derives Lapland from “the dumb and lazy land”, because the land where no vegetables grow is lazy and does not speak.

Another term for Sami used locally in Northern Norway is Finn, whereas local Finnish speakers are called kvæn. “Finn” seems to have been in much wider use in ancient times, judging from the names Fenni and Phinnoi in classical Roman and Greek works.

Sami refer to themselves as Sámit (the Samis) or Sápmelaš (of Sami kin), the word Sámi being inflected into various grammatical forms. It has been proposed that Sami, Suomi (Finnish for Finland), and Häme (Finnish for Tavastia) are of the same origin, the source of which might be related to the Baltic word *ẑeme meaning "land". The Sami institutions – notably the parliaments, the radio and TV stations, theatres, etc. – all use the term Sami, also when addressing outsiders in Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or English. In a Sami context, the terms Lapp and Finn – especially if used by people considered to be well informed – are easily considered derogatory in Norway and Sweden.

Terminological issues in Finland are somewhat different. Finns living in Finnish Lapland generally call themselves lappilainen, whereas the similar word for the Sami people is lappalainen. It would be politically incorrect not to call Lapland Finns with that name and similarly incorrect to use the latter name about the Sami people. This might become troublesome for foreign visitors because of the similar lives Finns and Sami people today live in Lapland. “Lappalainen” is also a common family name in Finland. Furthermore, using the term “Finn” about Finns is completely acceptable in Lapland.


The Sami people have inhabited the northern regions of Fenno-Scandinavia and Russia for at least 2500 years. Since the Sami are the earliest of the contemporary ethnic groups represented in the area, they are consequently considered an indigenous population of the area.

The Origins of the Norwegian ‘Sea Sami’

The Black Death

Up until the introduction of the Black Death of 1349 in northern Norway, the Sami and Norwegians lived very separate economic niches. The Sami, living in the interiors of the mainland of Scandinavia and on the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands, hunted reindeer or fished for their own livelihood. The Norwegians, living on the outer fjords were connected to the greater European trade routes, did marginal farming in the Nordland, Troms, and Finnmark counties, and fished for trade products from the south. The two groups co-existed using two different food resources.

This social economic balance greatly changed with the introduction of the Black Death in December, 1349 in northern Norway. The Norwegians, closely connected to the greater European trade routes where the plague traveled through, were decimated at a far higher rate than in the south. Of all the states in the region, Norway suffered the most from this plague. 60-76% of the north Norwegian farms were abandoned following the plague, while land-rents, another possible measure of the population numbers, dropped down to the level between 9-28%. Although the population of northern Norway is sparse compared to southern Europe, the spread of the disease was just as rapid. The method of movement of the plague-infested flea (Xenopsylla cheopsis) was through wooden barrels holding wheat, rye, or wool from the south, where the fleas could live - even reproduce, for several months at a time. The Sami, having a non-wheat or rye diet, living on the interior islands and mainland on reindeer meat, wearing animal skins and furs, and being not as strongly connected to the European trade routes, fared far better from the plague than the Norwegians.

The Sami and the North Norwegian fishing industry

The fishing along the north Norwegian coast, especially in the Lofoten and Vesterålen islands, is quite productive with a variety of fish, and during medieval times it was a major source of income for both the fisherman and the Norwegian monarchy. With such massive population drops caused by the Black Death, the tax revenues from this industry greatly diminished. Because of the huge economic profits that could be had from these fisheries, the local authorities offered incentives to the Sami - faced with their own population pressures - to settle on the newly vacant farms. This started the economic division between the ‘Sea Sami’ (sjøsamene) who fished extensively off the coast, and the ‘Mountain Sami’ (fjellsamene, innlandssamene) who continued to hunt, and later herd reindeer. Even as late as the early 1700s, there were many Sami who were still settling on these farms left abandoned from the 1350s. After many years of continuous migration, these 'Sea Sami' became far more numerous than the original reindeer mountain Sami, who today only make up ten percent of the total Sami population.

Mountain Sami

As the Sea Sami settled along Norway's fjords and inland waterways pursuing a combination of farming, cattle raising, trapping and fishing, the smaller minority of the Mountain Sami continued to hunt wild reindeer. Around 1500, they started to tame these animals into herding groups, becoming the well-known reindeer nomads, often portrayed by outsiders as following the archetypal Sami lifestyle. However the Mountain Sami faced the fact that they had to pay taxes to three nation states: Norway, Sweden and Russia as they crossed the borders of each of the respective countries following the annual reindeer migrations, which caused much resentment over the years.


For long periods of time, the Sami lifestyle thrived because of its adaptation to the Arctic environment. Indeed, throughout the 18th century, as Norwegians of Northern Norway suffered from low fish prices and consequent depopulation, the Sami cultural element was strengthened, since the Sami were mostly independent of supplies from Southern Norway.

However, in the 19th century, Norwegian authorities put the Sami culture under pressure in order to make the Norwegian language and culture universal. A strong economic development of the north also took place, giving Norwegian culture and language status. On the Swedish and Finnish side, the authorities were much less militant in their efforts; however, strong economic development in the north led to a weakening of status and economy for the Sami.

The strongest pressure took place from around 1900 to 1940, when Norway invested considerable money and effort to wipe out Sami culture. Notably, anyone who wanted to buy or lease state lands for agriculture in Finnmark, had to prove knowledge of the Norwegian language. This also ultimately caused the dislocation in the 1920s, which increased the gap between local Sami groups (something still present today) and sometimes bears the character of an internal Sami ethnic conflict. Another factor was the heavy war destruction in northern Finland and northern Norway in 1944-45, destroying all existing houses or kota, and visible traces of Sami culture. After World War II, the pressure was relaxed somewhat.

The controversy around the construction of the hydro-electric power station in Alta in 1979 brought Sami rights onto the political agenda. In August 1986, the national anthem (Sámi soga lávlla) and flag (Sami flag) of the Sami people were created. In 1989, the first Sami parliament in Norway was elected. In 2005, the Finnmark Act was passed in the Norwegian parliament. This law gives the Sami parliament and the Finnmark Provincial council a joint responsibility of administering the land areas previously considered state property. These areas (96% of the provincial area), which have always been used primarily by the Sami, now belong officially to the people of the province, Sami or Norwegian, and not to the Norwegian state.


In wonderful savageness live the nation of the Fennians, and in beastly poverty.
Tacitus Germania, 98 CE
To make up for past suppression, the authorities of Norway, Sweden and Finland now make an effort to build up Sami cultural institutions and promote Sami culture and language.


Duodji, the Sami handicraft, originates from the time when the Samis were self-supporting nomads, believing therefore that an object should first and foremost serve a purpose rather than being primarily decorative.


Media and literature

  • There are daily news bulletins in Sami on national TV in all three countries. Children's programs in Sami are also frequently made. There is also a radio station in Sami.
  • Two weekly newspapers in Sami, Min Áigi and Áššu, are published, along with a few magazines.
  • There is a Sami theatre, Beaivvaš, in Kautokeino on the Norwegian side, as well as in Kiruna on the Swedish side. Both tour the entire Sami area with drama written by Sami authors or international translations.
  • A number of novels and poetry collections are published every year in Sami, occasionally also in other dialects than Northern Sami.


A characteristic feature of Sami musical tradition is the singing of joik. Joiks are traditionally sung a cappella, usually sung slowly and deep in the throat with apparent emotional content of sorrow or anger. Joiks can be dedicated to animals and birds in nature, to special people or special occasions, and they can be joyous, sad or melancholic. Christian missionaries and priests regarded these as “songs of the Devil”. In recent years, musical instruments frequently accompany joiks.


  • Education with Sami as the first language is available in all four countries, and also outside the Sami area.
  • Sami University College is located in Kautokeino. Sami language is studied in several universities in all countries, most notably the University of Tromsø, which considers Sami a mother tongue, not a foreign language.

Festivals and markets

  • Numerous festivals throughout the Sápmi area celebrate different aspects of the Sami culture. The best known on the Norwegian side is Riddu Riđđu, a music festival in Olmmaivaggi (Manndalen). Among the most festive are the Easter festivals taking place in Kautokeino and Karasjok prior to the springtime reindeer migration to the coast. These festivals combine traditional culture with modern phenomena such as snowmobile races.

Reindeer husbandry

Reindeer husbandry has been, and is, an important aspect of Sami culture. During the years of forced assimilation, the areas in which reindeer herding was an important livelihood were among the few where the Sami culture and language survived.

Today, in Norway, reindeer husbandry is legally protected as an exclusive Sami livelihood, such that only persons of Sami descent with a linkage to a reindeer herding family can own, and hence make a living off of, reindeer. Presently, about 2,800 people are engaged in reindeer herding in Norway.

Sami policy


The Sami have been recognized as an indigenous people in Norway (1990 according to ILO convention 169 as described below), and hence according to international law the Sami people in Norway are entitled special protection and rights. The legal foundation of the Sami policy is:

  • Article 110a of the Norwegian Constitution.
  • The Sami Act (act of 12 June 1987 No. 56 concerning the Sami Parliament (the Sámediggi) and other legal matters pertaining to the Samis).

The constitutional amendment states: “It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.” This provides a legal and political protection of the Sami language, culture and society. In addition the “amendment implies a legal, political and moral obligation for Norwegian authorities to create an environment conducive to the Samis themselves influencing on the development of the Sami community.” (ibid.).

The Sami Act provides special rights for the Sami people (ibid.):

  • “...the Samis shall have their own national Sami Parliament elected by and amongst the Samis” (Chapter 1–2).
  • The Sami people shall decide the area of activity of the Norwegian Sami Parliament.
  • The Sami and Norwegian languages have equal standing in Norway (section 15; Chapter 3 contains details with regards to the use of the Sami language).

In addition, the Sami have special rights to reindeer husbandry.

The Norwegian Sami parliament also elects 50% of the members to the board of the Finnmark Estate, which controls 95% of the land in the county of Finnmark.

Norway has also accepted international conventions, declarations and agreements applicable to the Sami as a minority and indigenous people including:

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Right (1966). Article 27 protects minorities, and indigenous peoples, against discrimination: “In those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities, shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or use their own language.”
  • ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (1989). The convention states that rights for the indigenous peoples to land and natural resources are recognized as central for their material and cultural survival. In addition indigenous peoples should be entitled to exercise control over, and manage, their own institutions, ways of life and economic development in order to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions, within the framework of the States in which they live.
  • The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965).
  • The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
  • The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979).
  • The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995).
  • The Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (1992).
  • The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).


On 16 November 2005 in Helsinki, a group of experts, led by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Norway Professor Carsten Smith, submitted a proposal for a Nordic Sami Convention to the annual joint meeting of the Ministers responsible for Sami affairs in Finland, Norway and Sweden and the Presidents of the three Sami Parliaments from the respective countries. This convention recognizes the Sami as one indigenous people residing across national borders in all three countries. A set of minimum standards is proposed for the rights of developing the Sami language, culture, livelihoods and society. The convention has not yet been ratified in the Nordic countries.


Sápmi is the name of the cultural region traditionally inhabited by the Sami people. Non-Sami and many regional maps have often called this same region Lapland as there is considerable regional overlap between the two terms. However Lapland can be either misleading, offensive, or both, depending on the context and where this word is used to the Sami. Among the Sami people however, Sápmi is strictly used and acceptable.

Sápmi is located in Northern Europe and includes the northern parts of Fennoscandia and spans four countries of: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.


There is no official geographic definition for the boundaries of Sápmi. However, the following counties and provinces are usually included:

The municipalities of Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Arjeplog in Swedish Lappland were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 as a “Laponian Area”.

The Sami Domicile Area in Finland consists of the municipalities of Enontekiö, Utsjoki and Inari as well as a part of the municipality of Sodankylä.

Important Sami towns

The following towns and villages have a significant Sami population or host Sami institutions (Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or Russian name in parenthesis):

  • Guovdageaidnu (Kautokeino) is the perhaps the cultural capital of the Sami. About 90% of the population speak Sami. Several Sami institutions are located in Kautokeino including: Beaivváš Sami Theatre, a Sami High School and Reindeer Herding School, the Sami University College, the Nordic Sami Research Institute, Sami language board, the Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous People, and International Centre For Reindeer Husbandry. In addition, several Sami media are located in Kautokeino including the Sami language Áššu newspaper, and the DAT Sami publishing house and record company. Kautokeino also hosts the Sami Easter Festival. The Kautokeino rebellion in 1852 is one of the few Sami rebellions against the Norwegian governments oppression against the Sami.
  • Kiruna, proposed seat of the Swedish Sami Parliament.
  • Kárášjohka (Karasjok) is the seat of the Norwegian Sami Parliament. Also other important Sami institutions are located in Kárášjohka, including NRK Sami Radio, the Sami Collections museum, the Sami Art Centre, the Sami Specialist Library, Mid-Finnmark legal office, inner Finnmark Child and Youth Psychiatric Policlinic, the Sami Specialist Medical Centre, and the Sami health research institute. In addition the Sápmi cultural park is in the township, and the Sami language Min Áigi newspaper is published here.
  • Gáivuotna (Kåfjord, Troms) is an important center for the Sea-Sami culture. Each summer the Riddu Riđđu festival is held in Gáivuotna. The municipality has a Sami language center, and hosts the Ája Sami Center. The opposition against Sami language and culture revitalization in Gáivuotna was infamous in the late 1990s and included Sami language road signs being shot to pieces repeatedly.
  • Deatnu (Tana) has a significant Sami population.
  • Leavdnja (Lakselv) in Porsáŋgu (Porsanger) municipality is the location of the Finnmark Estate, and the Ságat Sami newspaper. The Finnmarkseiendommen organization owns and manages about 95% of the land in Finnmark, and 50% of its board members are elected by the Norwegian Sami Parliament.
  • Unjárga (Nesseby) is an important center for the sea-Sami culture. It is also the site for the Várjjat Sami Museum and the Norwegian Sami Parliament's department of culture and environment. The first Sami to be elected into the Norwegian Parliament, Isak Saba, was born there.
  • Snåase (Snåsa) is a center for the Southern Sami language, and the only municipality in Norway where Southern Sami is an official language. The Saemien Sijte southern sami museum is located in Snåase.
  • Divtasvuodna (Tysfjord) is a center for the Lule-Sami population. The Árran Lule-Sami center is located here.
  • Aarborte (Hattfjelldal ) is a southern sami center with a southern-Sami language school and a Sami culture center.
  • Ohcejohka (Utsjoki).
  • Iänudâh or Eanodat (Enontekiö).
  • Aanaar, Anár, or, Aanar (Inari), seat of the Finnish Sami Parliament
  • Arjepluovve (Arjeplog).
  • Jiellevárri or Váhčir (Gällivare)
  • Johkamohki (Jokkmokk) holds a Sami market held the first weekend every February.
  • Giron (Kiruna)
  • Lujávri (Lovozero)


In the geographical area composing Lapland the Sami are a small minority. According to the Swedish Sami parliament the total Sami population is about 70,000. The Sami may be divided into smaller groups based on either the area where they are from, the Sami language (dialect) they speak, their occupation, or the country of residence.

Division by geography

Sápmi is traditionally divided into:

  • Eastern Sápmi (Kola peninsula, eastern Norway and Finland Sami regions)
  • Northern Sápmi (most of Norway and Finland Sami area, northern part of Swedish Sami area)
  • Luleå Sápmi (Luleå river valley area)
  • Southern Sápmi (southern Sweden and Norway Sami area)

It should also be noted that many Sami now live outside Sápmi, in large cities such as Oslo in Norway.

Division by language

A division based on language is (the numbers are the estimated number of speakers of each language):

Note that many Sami do not speak any of the Sami languages anymore, so the number of Samis living in each area is much higher. There are also two extinct Sami languages Kemi Sami and Akkala Sami.

Division by occupation

A division often used Northern Sami is based on occupation and the area of living. This division is also used in many historical texts:

  • Reindeer Sami (in Northern Sami boazosapmelaš or badjeolmmoš). Previously nomadic Sami living as reindeer herders. Still used about reindeer herders, but most have a permanent residence in the Sami core areas. Some 10% of Samis practise reindeer herding, which is seen as a fundamental part of a Sami culture and in some parts of Nordic countries can only be practised by Samis.
  • Sea Sami (in Northern Sami mearasapmelaš). These lived traditionally by combining fishing and small scale farming. Today often used about all Sami from the coast regardless of their occupation.
  • Non-reindeer Sami not living by the sea (in Northern Sami dalon). Non-nomadic Sami. Is now probably the largest group of Sami.

Historical texts often divide the Sami into: Forest Sami, Mountain Sami, River Sami, and Eastern Sami.

Division by country

According to the Swedish Sami parliament, the Sami population of Norway is 40,000. If all people who speak Sami or have a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent who speaks or spoke Sami are included, the number reaches 70,000. As of 2005, 12,538 people were registered to vote in the election for the Sami parliament in Norway. The bulk of the Sami live in Finnmark and Northern Troms, but there are also Sami populations in Southern Troms, Nordland and Trøndelag. Due to recent migration it has also been claimed that Oslo is the municipality with the largest Sami population. The Sami are in a majority only in the municipalities of Guovdageaidnu-Kautokeino, Karasjohka-Karasjok, Porsanger, Deatnu-Tana and Unjargga-Nesseby in Finnmark, and Gáivuotna (Kåfjord) in Northern Troms. This area is also know as the Sami core area. Sami and Norwegian are equal as administrative languages in this area.

According to the Swedish Sami parliament, the Sami population of Sweden is about 20,000.

According to the Finnish Population Registry Center and the Finnish Sami parliament, the Sami population living in Finland was 7,371 in 2003. As of 31 December 2006, only 1776 of them had registered to speak some Sami language as the mother tongue.

According to the 2002 census, the Sami population of Russia was 1,991.

Since 1926 the number of Sami in Russia has gradually increased:

  • census 1926: 1,720 (this number refers to the total Soviet Union)
  • census 1939: 1,829
  • census 1959: 1,760
  • census 1970: 1,836
  • census 1979: 1,775
  • census 1989: 1,835
  • census 2002: 1,991

Sami Immigration outside of Sapmi

There are an estimated 30,000 people living in North America who are either Sami, or descendants of Sami. Most have settled in areas that are known to have Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish immigrants. Some of these concentrated areas are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Washington, Utah and Alaska; and throughout Canada, including the Canadian territory of the Northwest Territories.

Descendants of these Sami immigrants typically know little of their heritage because their ancestors willfully hid their culture to avoid discrimination by the dominating Scandinavian or Nordic culture. This downplaying of their culture was done in order for them to blend into their respective Nordic cultures.


Sápmi demonstrates a distinct semi-national identity that transcends the borders between Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. However, there is no movement for complete autonomy.

Sami Parliaments

The Sami Parliaments (Sámediggi in Northern Sami, Sämitigge in Inari Sami, Sää´mte´ǧǧ in Skolt Sami) founded in Finland (1973), Norway (1989) and Sweden (1993) are the representative bodies for peoples of Sami heritage. There is no single, unified Sami Parliament. Rather, each of the aforementioned three countries has set up their own separate legislatures for Sami people, even though the three Sami Parliaments often work together on cross-border issues. In all three countries, they act as an institution of cultural autonomy for the indigenous Sami people. The parliaments have very weak political influence, far from autonomy. They are formally public authorities, ruled by the Scandinavian governments, but have democratically elected parliamentarians. Their mission is to work for the Sami culture. The candidates' election promises often get in conflict with the institutions' submission under their governments. But as authorities, they have some influence over the government.

Russia is not actively taking part of this recognition of the minority of Samis.

Swedish organizations

The main organisations for Sami representation in Sweden are the "siidas". They cover northern and central Sweden.

Border conflicts

There is a border, and some state that the rights (for reindeer herding and in some parts even for fishing and hunting) would include a larger part than of Sápmi. However, today's "border" originates from the 14th to 16th centuries when land-owning conflicts occurred. The establishment of more stable dwelling places and larger towns originates from the 16th century, and was performed for strategic defence and economic reasons, both by peoples from Sami groups themselves and more southern immigrants.

Owning land within the borders or being a member of a siidas (="corporation villages") gives rights. A different law enacted in Sweden in the mid-1990s gave the right to anyone to fish and hunt in the region, something that was met with large skepticism and anger amongst the siidas.

Court proceedings have been common throughout history, and the aim from the Samic viewpoint is to reclaim territories used earlier in history. Due to a major defeat in 1996, one siidas has introduced a sponsorship "Reindeer Godfather" concept to raise funds for further battles in courts. These "internal conflicts" are usually conflicts between non-Sami land owners and Reindeer owners.

The question whether the Fjeld's territory is owned by the governments or the Sami population is not answered.

Sami national symbols

Although the Sami have considered themselves to be one people through history, the idea of Sápmi, a Sami nation, first gained acceptance among the Sami in the 1970s, and even later among the majority population. During the 1980s and 1990s a flag was created, a national song was written, and the date of national day was settled.

Sami flag

The Sami flag was inaugurated during the Sami Conference in Åre, Sweden on 15 August 1986. It was the result of a competition for which many suggestions were entered. The winning design was submitted by the artist Astrid Båhl from Skibotn, Norway.

The motif (shown right) was derived from the shaman's drum and the poem "Paiven parneh" ("Sons of the Sun") by the south Sami Anders Fjellner describing the Sami as sons and daughters of the sun. The flag has the Sami colours, red, green, yellow and blue, and the circle represents the sun (red) and the moon (blue).

Sami National Day

The Sami National Day falls on 6 February as this date was when the first Sami congress was held in 1917 in Trondheim, Norway. This congress was the first time that Norwegian and Swedish Sami came together across their national borders to work together to find solutions for common problems. The resolution for celebrating on 6 February was passed in 1992, at the 15th Sami congress in Helsinki. Since 1993 Norway, Sweden and Finland have recognized 6 February as Sami National Day.

National song

Sámi soga lávlla ("Song of the Sami People", lit. "Song of the Sami Family") was originally a poem written by Isak Saba that was published in the newspaper Sagai Muittalægje for the first time on 1 April 1906. In August 1986 it became the national anthem of the Sami. Arne Sørli set the poem to music, which was then approved at the 15th Sami Conference in Helsinki in 1992. Sámi soga lávlla has been translated into all of the Sami languages.


Shamanism persisted among the Sami up until the 18th century, but no longer exists in its traditional form. Most Sami today belong to the Lutheran churches of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Some Sami in Russia belong to the Orthodox church, as do some in North Eastern Finland, with an additional small population in Norway.

Traditional Sami religion

Sami religion shared some elements with the Norse mythology, possibly from early contacts with trading Vikings (or viceversa). Through a mainly French initiative, from J.P. Gaimard, Lars Levi Læstadius began researching the Sami mythology. His work resulted in four bands or fragments, since by his own admission they contained only a small percentage of what had existed. The fragments were termed Theory of Gods, Theory of Sacrifice, Theory of Prophecy, or short reports about rumorous Sami magic and Sami sagas. Generally, he filtered out the Norse influence and derived common elements between the South, North, and Eastern Sami groups. The mythology has common elements with other Circumpolar religions as well — such as those in Siberia and North America.

Missionary efforts

The term Sami religion usually refers to the traditional religion, practiced until approximately the 18th century. Christianity was spread by Roman Catholic missionaries as early as the 13th century. Increased pressure came after the Protestant Reformation, and rune drums were burned or sent to museums abroad. In this period, many Sami practiced their traditional religion at home, while turning up in church on Sunday. Since the Sami were considered to possess witchcraft powers, they were often accused of sorcery during the 17th century.

In Norway, a major effort to convert the Sami was made around 1720, when the "Apostle of the Sami" – Thomas von Westen – burned drums and converted people by force.

In the far east of the Sami area, the Russian Monk Trifon converted the Sami in the 16th century. Today, the St. George's chapel in Neiden, Norway (1565) testifies to this effort.


The Swedish Sami vicar Lars Levi Læstadius initiated a puritan Lutheran movement among the Sami around 1840. This movement is still very dominant in Sami speaking areas. Sami on the Kola peninsula and in North-Eastern Finland, as well as a handful in Norway are members of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Today, one occasionally comes across Sami shamans offering their services, through newspaper advertisements, at new age-arrangements or for tourist groups. These shamans are not a part of an unbroken Sami religious tradition, but are rather an expression for a wish to return to traditional values. They may be compared with neo-paganism and modern druids.

An altogether more traditional religious idea is represented by the numerous "wise men" and "wise women" found throughout the Sami area. They often attempt to heal the sick by rituals combining pre-Christian elements and readings from the Bible.


There is no single Sami language, but a group of ten distinct Sami languages. Six of these languages have their own written standards. The Sami languages are relatively closely related, but not mutually intelligible; for instance, speakers of Southern Sami cannot understand Northern Sami. Especially earlier these distinct languages were referred to as "dialects", but today this is considered misleading due to the deep differences between the varieties. Most Sami languages are spoken in several countries, because linguistic borders do not correspond to national borders.

The Sami languages belong to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family, and are thus related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian. Due to prolonged contact with neighboring Scandinavians, however, there are a large number of Germanic loanwords in Sami. The majority of the Sami now speak the majority languages of the countries they live in, i.e. Swedish, Russian, Finnish and Norwegian. Efforts are being made to further the use of Sami language among Sami and persons of Sami origin.

Genetics and the history of genetic studies on the Sami

The mtDNA studies have revealed that the Sami had separated from other Europeans over 10.000 years ago, making the Sami a unique and ancient sub-group of Europeans. Haplogroup V (mtDNA) indicates ancient population movement that started about 15,000 years ago, from Southwestern Europe up to Northwestern Europe. The Haplogroups frequency in Europe is the highest among the Sami (40.9%) followed by Catalonians (26.7%) and Basque (20.0%).

Modern research in genetics seems to agree that Sami people have a slightly higher incidence than other European populatons of markers on their mitochondrial (maternal line) DNA indicating descent from hunter-gatherer peoples that followed the receding glaciers at the end of the latest ice age. While the Y-chromosome (paternal line) markers indicate some ancestry among the Finno-Ugric populations of central Asian origin. Genetic studies also indicate shared ancestry with neighboring Nordic populations. Archeological evidence for the area suggests that several different cultural groups made their way to the core area of Sapmi from 8000-6000 B.C., presumably including some of the ancestors of present-day Sami.

History of scientific research carried out on the Sami

The genetic makeup of Sami people has been extensively studied for as long as such research has been in existence, although until recent times the purpose of this research has mostly been ethnocentric at best, at worst racist and defamatory. During the 1920s and 30s, many Sami were photographed naked and anatomically measured by scientists, with the help of the local police - sometimes literally at gun point, to collect data that would justify their own racial theories. There is thus a wide degree of very understandable distrust in the Sami communities towards genetic research.

Notable people of Sami descent

See also

Sami Culture

Sami Films

Sami Books

Sami Government and Policy

Sami Genetics


External links



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