In the land of Santa Claus, the Samis: the last indigenous people in Europe.

Sami man with his reindeer in Sami Scandinavia ©

Living with his reindeer in Lapland, our dear red Coca-Cola Santa surely resembles the Samis (is he one of them?), this ancient and long despised people formed by the most commonly known as “Lapps”. But who are they? How many are they ? How do they live? Why were they despised? What remains of their culture? Let’s go and meet this people.

Scandinavia is inhabited by Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Icelanders, but also by the Sami people who settled in the far north, near the Arctic Circle.

© Anne-Sophie Rodet pour

In this article, we will no longer call this region Lapland as it is normally done, but Sápmi, as the locals call it themselves. The term « Lapps », which improperly designates them, was addressed to them as an insult: in Swedish « Lapp » names those who dress in rags, those who are « uneducated » or even those who are « stupid » . 

Consequently, to use « Lapland » would be tantamount to speak of « stupidland » or « land of poor people”, or even to refer to Africa as « Negronia ».

No reason therefore to use this racist and pejorative name given by their oppressors in order to marginalize them. They rather call themselves the « sons and daughters of the Sun ». It’s nicer, isn’t it?

And they have the right to choose the name of their territory since they arrived first! Some academics trace the existence of this people back to the Stone Age, around 10,000 years ago.

First to arrive, last to leave? Another key point of this culture: it is the last autochthonous (or indigenous) population in Europe, and despite the discrimination it suffers, it persists today with around 80,000 representatives. 

Half reside in Norway while the rest of the population is found not far away, in Finnish, Swedish, but also Russian territories (Kola Peninsula).

To when do this people date back? Good question! Their nomadism and the disparities of languages blurring the tracks, it cannot be said it with exactitude. However, one thing is certain, they were already occupying the territory when the first Christians arrived in their lands. They had been for a very long time since they were already described as an old nation in decline.

Sami family in Norway between 1890 and 1899 © Edwin H. Husher. © Detroit Publishing Company, via WorldDigitalLibrary.

Who are they and what are they doing for a living? They have always formed a community dedicated either to fishing, living in small villages, or to reindeer farming, living as nomads. They got into the habit of following the annual rhythm of the herds and in particular the summer migration. This habit is healthier, more natural and benefits both parties. However, the conditions of nomadism being more precarious and much less adapted to today’s world, this has changed considerably over the past sixty years and sedentarization is now the common measure.

The nomads took shelter in reindeer skin tepees (yes) called “lavut”. These ephemeral homes, a little bit modernized, are still used during periods of transhumance.

They are closer to the tepees of the Native Americans than to the “Igloos” in which live the Inuits and Yupiks (known by the more generic term of Eskimos), who share the same climate.

Nils Peder Gaup, Sami from Norway, rests in the tundra © Erika Larsen for National Geographic.   

Way of life. Today, the activities of the Samis have diversified. Without counting those who joined the cities and the lifestyles that they entail, the Samis have mainly turned to the meat and fish trade, as well as to tourism or the creation of small crafts of souvenir items. 

The latter is a derivative, less noble, of the “duodji” or great craftsmanship, through which the Sami community continues to produce everything necessary for a culture: clothes (in fabric, leather or animal skins), jewelry and adornments, carriages and sleds, musical instruments and wooden utilities (knives, cutlery, etc.) Remarkable wood cutters, they distinguished themselves for a long time in naval art!

“Sami reindeer in their enclosure” © Lev Fedoseyev / TASS

On one hand the reindeer remains a key element of this people which legally owns more than half of the herds living on Sápmi lands. Like the American cowboys with their cattle, the Gauchos of Patagonia with their horses, or even the Quechuas with their llamas, the herds are not kept in a fixed place, but left free and each family of breeders marks the animals they own.

The Gaup family warms up with a coffee. They prepare to cross the tundra to mark the newborn reindeer © Erika Larsen for National Geographic.

Nevertheless, on the other hand, it is common for women to move towards a full-time job as a teacher, doctor, journalist or seamstress, to balance the family budget weakened by the fall in income from reindeer herding.

The Samis speak… Samish? No, they speak languages called « Same », which, even through the 9 derived dialects that are known, do not resemble Scandinavian languages at all!

Sames languages © Terres de Sames

Note also that like the indigenous Tupi-Kawahib living in the Amazon rainforest and who decline our « green » in 10 distinct colors, and the Maasai who have 15 different shades of red, the Same languages are composed of a very rich vocabulary relating to snow and reindeer. 

However, an article of Géo estimates that in 2016 only 40 to 45% of Samis spoke one of the Same dialects. It doesn’t seem like much is going to persist through the generations to come, right? 

Nb. Snow Queen 2 [il me semble que la version originale du film s’appelle Frozen] is the first Disney movie to receive a translation into Same language! The directors were even accompanied by a small team of Sami advisers to bring to life the tribe hidden in the enchanted forest: the “Northuldra”.

Shamans or Puritans? Both. Of shamanic and animist origin, very close to the elements of nature, the Sami religious tradition did not resist the evangelizations which stifled it. No more noaides intercessors between the spirit world and that of the living nor cult of bears, but a man called Lars Levi Læstadius (1800–1861) who, around 1840, imposed a largely Puritan Christian doctrine derived from Lutheranism. 

However/nevertheless, today some people return to the shamanic animism of their origins: every component of nature has a soul and it is a question of ensuring the harmonious functioning of the whole, without a group (man for example) gaining the advantage by enslaving a number of other “souls” and bringing disorder to the whole balance. 

Note the unusual fact that women and men do not pray the same gods, each sex having its own pantheon.

Young Sami man preparing food in a lavvu in Norway ©

STRUGGLE! This new attraction for the old religion accompanies a general movement of « return to the sources » supported by a new legal and moral valorization of the indigenous ethnic groups which started in the 1960s in Europe. 

Indeed, in addition to a sustained Christianization, Sami lands were confiscated for the benefit of monarchies, including the Swedish crown, which from the 16th century imposed on them a tax on the use of resources (shrine fishing, plants) coming from their own territory!

Amanda Kernell’s film Sameblod (2016), which takes place in the 1930s, shows how racism and assimilation policies marked these people. 

L. Sparrok playing a young Sami girl whose cranial measurements are taken in order to stigmatize the Sami ethnic group. In the movie Sameblod, by A. Kernell, © Sophia Olsson.

Since then, Sami activism has been encouraged by international laws aimed at securing the status and rights of ethnic minorities. 

Very recently, they set up their own political and social institutions, ensuring them the sustainability of their newly acquired rights in the face of economic pressures.  

“In 1977, Sweden finally recognized the Samis as an indigenous people […] However, Swedish policies define [Sami culture] within the very narrow framework of reindeer herding. It always excludes those who do not practice it from certain rights and deprives them of an identification with a Sami culture”, specifies the very good article of the Journal International.

The article goes on to say that: “The Sami Parliament Act of 1992 really freed the Samis from the shackles imposed by the Swedish state. It states that belonging to a Sami identity is no longer correlated with reindeer herding. It is now a mixture of cultural heritage, language, religion, values and traditions. » 

But/Yet, slipping on the pendulum ceaselessly oscillating between recognition and rejection, let us recall the fact that, unlike Norway, Finland and Sweden still have not ratified the Convention (no.169 of ILO) on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Therefore the Samis are still not the legal owners of all their lands. 

Two girls from Sweden protesting against the opening of an iron mine on their land by an English company. September 2013. © Johan Sandberg McGuinne / Survival.

Also, since 1996, the 940,000 hectares which cover the reindeer migration areas have been classified on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a natural and cultural site. The territory therefore belongs to humanity, that’s good, but it does not belong to those who inhabit it and protect it on a daily basis…

After a lot of efforts were made to make this culture known to the rest of the inhabitants of the countries concerned (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia), the racism that the Samis had to endure does not seem to be as virulent as before. 

But let us add that even today the Samis are no longer allowed to live in the tundra with their children, because the conditions are considered too harsh. As a result, governments are forcing the youngest to be temporarily placed in boarding school.

Flag of the Sami nation. Acquired in 1986. The red and blue circle symbolizes the sun and the moon, while the stripes refer to the four territories (Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Russian), as well as the traditional colors of Sami clothing. They also refer to the elements necessary for survival: green for plants, blue for water, yellow for the sun, red for fire. 

According to this endless swing between improvement and the remaining steps to entirely appreciate this culture, in 1986 the Samis managed to present their flag, thus identifying themselves as a nation in the eyes of the world community.

Another “micro tribute”: February 6 is the national day dedicated to them.

In addition, they are now represented in parliaments (there is one in each country). Cultural centers in the form of living museums also exist. These lively places with various activities are dedicated to making known the Sami culture in all its nuances and to encourage contemporary creation. It is characterized in particular by the bequest and the slight modernization of the “yoïk”, the traditional Sami chant which meets a renewed interest.

In 2014 for example, singer Jon Henrik Fjällgren, Sami from Sweden, won the “Sweden’s got talent” award singing yoïk! In 2019 then, it was with a half English pop-half yoïk song that Norway competed at the Eurosong festival. 

Social organization. In addition to a harsh climate with 8 seasons instead of 4 protecting them from invaders (with a difference of 70°C between the hot periods and the colder ones), this people survived until the 20th century thanks to a maternity rate stable for a long time.

Each household carry 4 or 5 children! A Sami proverb partly explains this: “an only child is like an isolated tree, alone against the wind, it does not have the support of the forest”, quoted by Christian Mériot (cf. sources).

A girl feeds a reindeer on International Sami Day in th;e Russian “Kola” community. © Lev Fedoseyev / TASS

This same C. Mériot reports that “even though the girls are considered capable of raising reindeers, they are perceived as too sensitive to do it well enough.”  What an ice aged thought… 

In a matter of marriage, or alliances between families of herders, the union is accompanied by a donation of reindeers as a dowry. The young woman leaves her parents with a whole batch of animals to offer to her husband, whose home she is joining. 

Sven Skaltje, Sami from Norway, boils the horns of two starving young reindeers to keep them as a souvenir. © Erika Larsen for National Geographic.

Fashion Samweek. Nowadays the traditional costume is not worn daily anymore… but it is reserved for parties and special events.  


If it is called « kofte » by all, its patterns and colors vary according to the origins of the one who wears it. Like a Maori tattoo or Amazonian body paintings, it is a real identity card.  

For example, the female headdress made from a fringe of pearls (visible in the photo below), indicates the social status of a young woman and specifies if she is married, how many children she has, where she lives and how rich her family is. 

Everything is good in the reindeer. Traditional Sami dishes consist of every way to eat reindeer (porridge, stir-fry, fried…) and every edible part. A specialty among many others: renklämma, a reindeer wrap (a thin slice of soft bread with cumin, wrapped around a slice of meat). 

Rrenklämma ©receptfavoriter/se

False authenticity. The attraction of seeing « real Samis » fattens the fashion/taste for the new activity of ethnotourism which, if it is more respectful of traditions and customs and aims to maintain the latter rather than destroy them, slides down the slope of the human zoo faster than a Sami sled on snow; the limit is thin.  

Many Samis complain of being transformed into a « decorative nation », reported a survey (available here).

Also, it is commonplace to find stores selling objects produced by we-don’t-know-very-well-who, but sold to tourists by non-Samis who nevertheless do not hesitate to present them as authentic objects.

Dolls dressed as Sami, sold to tourists from Finland © Shutterstock /

The development of tourism allows, of course, the enhancement of a previously despised culture and the pursuit of the making of otherwise forgotten objects, but this tourism standardizes traditions and tends to relegate strong and ancient symbols to the rank of folklore and grotesque.

If the Sami thus suffer the double-edged sword of tourism, this represents only advantages for non-Samis, namely the generated seeds! 

Environment. The Samis (now) have to overcome a new challenge: climate change. Global warming results in the instability of winter temperatures. After successive heating and cooling, the ground is covered with a layer of ice that the reindeer can difficultly dig. Therefore they cannot eat properly, informs UNESCO, and this puts the survival of the Sami nation at stake in the years (months) to come.

Secret sciences. With their possible disappearance (or their migration to the south and their forced assimilation), it is not only a people, a type of languages, a culture and a craftsmanship that will disappear, but also an immense scientific knowledge of boreal and polar soils and geographies, about which the rest of the world scientific community has much less knowledge, that will disappear.

A Sami man with his sleigh and three reindeers, Sweden © Staffan Widstrand /

Why is highlighting the history of the Sami people interesting: 

  • This testifies of the importance of the recognition for ethnic groups in their survival, since thus endowed with rights relating to their way of life, we cannot force their assimilation, dispossess them of their property / land or denaturalize their environment for the benefit of greedy companies.
  • This therefore also shows that there is still some improvements to do in terms of territories and legal paternity of lands. Recognizing a culture and granting it the right to live is good, but it is even better to give to its people the power to evolve tomorrow according to its will and not according to external assaults and pressures. 
  • This nation shows a very strong resemblance of life, customs (up to the shelter in the form of a tepee), and activities (living from tourist crafts) with the natives of the Americas: the Andeans of the Altiplano, the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Chiapas, Nahuas or Totonacs (etc.) of Central America, the Cherokees of the United States and the Huron-Wendat of Canada… In short, of these humans that the Westerner met and « conquered » on his path. However, the Samis are white-skinned, share great phenotypic similarities with Westerners, and this is a game-changer because it is more difficult to “racialize” a human identical in his physical traits to those of his oppressors. The contempt of which they were the object was therefore based, not on « racism » properly speaking, but on another form of xenophobia even more difficult to justify by the actors of this rejection. In short, it is reductive to say that Man is afraid and despises those who do not look like him at first sight; and it would be better to say that the dominant man is afraid and despises those who are not of his “clan” (Westerner, Christian,…), this one being defined by the degree of “civilization” reached.


Read contemporary Sami authors?

Look for the names of Nils Viktor Aslaksen, Rauni Magga Lukkari, John Gustavsen,  Ailo Gaup, Erik-Nilsson-Mankok, Per Idivuoma, or even that of Annok Sarri-Nordrå.

Read novels about a Sami community? 

Roger Frison-Roche, The kidnapping, 1962. For an immersion in the Sami clan of Norway, between revenge, theft, honor, traditions and rejection of the majority society of the country. As well as many of Olivier Truc’s novels. Literary quality is not guaranteed!

Say a few words in Northern Sami *: 

Un homme portant le Kofte sami. © Terres de Sames

A man wearing the Sami Kofte. © Terres de Sames

  • Hello: buorre beaivi
  • Thanks: giitu
  • Goodbye: báze dearvan
  • My name is …: Mun 
  • Culture: mátki / reaisu
  • I love you: mun ráhkistan du
  • Nice: čáppat
  • cold: galmmas
  • Alcohol / the drink: alkohola / juhkamuš
  • Reindeer (domestic): boazu
  • The reindeer (wild): goddi
  • Reindeer meat: bohccobiergu
  • Reindeer skin: bohcconáhkki

* If a Sami goes through this, correct me quickly and well!  

To go further (in French only) :

> Consult the Terre des Sames website .

>> Read the article in Le Monde dedicated to them. (2mn)

>>> Listen to the FranceInter podcast . (7mn)

>>>> Watch the film : Sami, a youth in Lapland (Sameblod), by Amanda Kernell.

Happy granny Sami. ©

© Museum Tales / Writer : Lou Desance / Reviser : Emma Dechorgnat.


Publié par Museum Tales

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