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The Sámi

Europe’s last indigenous people

Nomadism and state-of-the-art technology

Hardly any other day-to-day existence reveals itself to be more full of contrast than the life of the semi-nomadic Sámi. Totally geared to the needs of the reindeer, they move through the countryside with their herds throughout the seasons. While they place great importance on tradition, modern technology has still found its way into their activities: snowmobiles roar through the countryside, and animals are tracked by GPS and guarded by drones that imitate sheepdogs’ barks.


“Counting the reindeer and telling how many you have is not good for your Karma–we don’t talk about it.”

Today there are about 100,000 Sámi living in the northern parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland, scattered as far as Russia. They are considered an autonomous demographic group, have their own language and are very keen on preserving their cultural identity. While their otherness used to be stigmatized, since the 1960s they have been increasingly able to assert their rights and have been recognized as the only indigenous people of Europe.

Growing up with responsibility

From childhood on, the Sámi are entrusted with tasks and responsibilities. Work with the reindeer and untamed nature demand this. Every toddler has their own knife and learns to use it at an early age. It is seen as a tool and not a weapon. “Without my knife I feel naked,” we hear. Even today, about 15% of the Sámi can live exclusively off reindeer husbandry. Most of the time, the women also pursue other occupations while the men do the strenuous work with the livestock. However, almost all Sámi have a strong connection to the animal that so heavily influences their culture. The family’s day-to-day life is structured around the needs of their reindeer. When they move from their summer to winter pastures and back, the children have off school to experience the important event and help out. In the Sámi life attuned to nature, each season requires very specific tasks.

Signs of belonging

When we arrived in Tromsö, we had not anticipated at all how difficult it would be to establish contacts in the middle of Europe despite Facebook and WhatsApp. There is hardly anyone to run into in the vast, uniform landscape. It’s low season in Finnmark, hardly any snow, but already very cold; apart from us, there are only a few tourists on the road. The Sámi themselves are busy driving their herds home from the summer pastures.

We drive to a plateau overlooking the icy sea and meet a group of Sámi who have just finished slaughtering their reindeer. Hospitably, a Sámi invites us to coffee in his hut where his wife is watching a reality show about breast augmentation. Against the backdrop of such rugged, remote nature, to me this is a very bizarre picture indeed.

Via one of our contacts we are invited to witness the splitting of a large herd. It takes us an eternity to find the secluded place because of the lack of addresses or signposts there.

Hundreds of animals are being herded into pens, separated using an ingenious system, grabbed by their antlers with bare hands and led through long corridors into separate enclosures. In the process, the owning families vaccinate their young calves. Each animal is identified in an instant by its “ear tag”: simple geometric shapes carved into the ear. Each family or herd has its own distinctive mark. It is granted during childhood and fills the Sámi with pride. In their culture, ownership is always a matter for the whole family.


Superior craftsmanship

In addition to reindeer husbandry, the Sámi also pursue their crafts with great dedication. We meet Kristine, who makes beak shoes. Reindeer hides are nailed to the huts and houses to dry in the autumn so that birds can pick off the meat. The skins are tanned with birch bark and other plants. In the icy temperatures of -40°, hardly anything keeps your feet as warm as these pointed, hand-stitched shoes with their long, colorful woolen straps wrapped tightly around your calves. The kofta, the Sámi traditional garb of heavy cloth and richly embroidered edging, whose patterns and colors provide information on the family and its origins, are worn by the Sámi just as proudly as they wear their traditional silver jewelry.

Secret chants

For a long time the Sámi were forbidden to joik, to sing songs that resemble yodels and which served as a means of communication with distant neighbors. Like the ear tags, they are also personalized: usually a bar of joiks is given at birth, which expands over the course of one’s life. Joiking aroused suspicion primarily because it was used in shamanic rites accompanied by drums. In the 17th century most of the drums were destroyed, the shamans were persecuted and murdered, and joiking was criminalized.

A history of oppression

In the Neolithic Age, Fennoscandia was settled by hunters and gatherers. They are regarded as the ancestors of the Sámi. Their culture began with the domestication of the reindeer around 1800 BC, and the Sámi are first referred to in documents using the outdated word lop (Lappe) around 1000 BC. There are also numerous theories about their origins and why they developed in such isolation. In the Middle Ages, they were driven back into their settlement area, burdened with high taxes and their shamanic culture subjected to religious assimilation. In the 17th century, Sweden colonized their territories; the natives became impoverished and famines broke out. Persecution, repression and race laws persisted until the 1930s, culminating in a total ban on their culture by the Nazi regime. Modernity also drastically changed the lives of this indigenous population, and on Russian soil nomadic reindeer husbandry was transformed into collective farms and forced settlements.

New restrictions

Currently, the Sámi are again under the watchful eye of the government. The issue at stake is the number of reindeer, which is officially considered too large for grazing. The animals are not being kept in a way that is suitable for their species, something which the breeders find very difficult to comprehend. After all, it’s industry that demands ever more land. The Sámi can’t really do anything about it– they don’t own the land, despite the fact that they have been using it as pasture for several centuries. In a culture in which counting animals and talking about ownership is still taboo, this question will probably remain unanswered for some time to come.

Behind the scenes

maria haas - projects - The Sámi