The Sami: a model in their ability to bridge modernity and a traditional lifestyle

Posted by Marie Roué on December 16, 2011

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By Marie Roué, ethnologist, director of research at the CNRS / Museum of natural history, Paris. A specialist of Arctic peoples, she has been studying the Sami since 1969.

Marie Roué en costume sami traditionnel

The Sami live on a territory they call Sapmi (Lapland) that covers 4 different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Despite the borders and different legislations in each of these countries, the Sami have retained a strong sense of unity in respect to both language and culture.

The origins

The first traces of life that archeologists have found in the area are those of Sami ancestors – traces of a camp near the sea on the Norwegian island of Sørøya, dated between 11,000 and 8,000 B.C.

There’s also archeological proof that some groups of Sami hunters and fishermen ventured inland Swedish Lapland: wild reindeers and elks were already hunted. The climate was much warmer then than it is now, with milder winters, and wetter summers.

Colonization and Christianization began to spread in the 17th century: attempts in convincing the Sami to give up their traditional shamanist religion were conducted the hard way. Shamans were even burned along with their drums. Some of the ancestral beliefs are still alive today though, even if they’re difficult to spot, having blended in with other religions and cultures.

How many of them are there now?

The Sami population is difficult to estimate as criteria differ from one country to another. Anyone who declares themself Sami, speaks Sami, or has at least a father, mother, or grandparents who speak Sami – can be declared Sami.

Estimates, henceforth, account for approximately 70,000 Sami, 2,000 of whom live in Russia, 6,000 in Finland, 40,000 in Norway, and 20,000 in Sweden.

Reindeer farmers: a myth or reality?

Originally, the Sami were hunters-fishermen-gatherers. Farming only began in the 17th century, essentially because of the Scandinavian colonization, which made wild animal populations fall.

Nowadays reindeer farmers are a minority: in Sweden, for example, 2,000 of them make a living off farming, i.e. around 10% of the Sami. As for the others, many have moved south towards the larger cities to find more “standard” jobs, while others went back to traditional fishing despite fierce competition with the fishing industry.

Life is hard for the farmers. The exploitation of their country’s mining wealth and the spread of forest industries are a threat to lichen pastures, essential to reindeers nine months a year.


Political progress

The Sami have kept defending their political and territorial rights, which are being gradually recognized.

They have a parliament in Sweden and in Norway. In Sweden the parliament’s range of action was originally very narrow: it was limited to the domain of culture and could only get involved on economic issues. Reindeer farming was under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture, and hence, of the state of Sweden.

The role of the Sami parliament today is increasingly socio-economic, handling farming and government relations in critical periods that require help from the state.

Important issues such as that of prey animals also fall under its jurisdiction: wolves, eagles, lynx, wolverines, etc. are all protected species that happen to feed on reindeers. The question here is to define whether Sami land can or cannot serve as food-supply for all the wildlife Sweden and the rest of the world wishes to preserve, considering that would be at the expense of reindeer farmers.

The Sami people, very attached to their lifestyle and culture

The Sami show quite a remarkable attachment to their culture. They have this relation to the landscape, the country, the lifestyle they keep perpetuating despite material and economic hardship. They’re aware that if they give up, their line of descent will break off and their children or grandchildren will not be able to resume farming activities. So they keep going, for their own sake but also for the sake of transmission.

And their sense of humor remains untouched when it comes to comment the complexity of their situation. One of my friends from the Swedish highlands once told me with a chuckle: “Since there isn’t much to do this summer, I’m going on holiday to work as a road-mender in Norway because it makes more money than in Sweden, and with that money, I’ll be able to farm again when the season returns.”

They’re confident in their ability to adapt, even to climate change, but questions remain: “Our lifestyle has always been based on nomadism: when there are no resources left here, we move further. But when there’ll be an airport in one place, a city in another, and protected forests all around, where will we be going then?”

The Sami stand at the crossroads of major contemporary issues: how to remain traditional while becoming modern, how to remain oneself without folklorizing? They’re developing strategies to answer all these questions, and do appear as quite a model in the courage they show taking up all these challenges implied by modernity.

Read a description of Sami languages.

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