A single people in four countries
The Sami people live in four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The total population in these four countries is estimated at approx. 80,000, of whom around half live in Norway. Slightly under half of these people talk Sami. I Norway, the Sami people live in almost all parts of Northern Norway, and in Trøndelag and in Femundsmarka in Hedmark.
The Sami people speak a language that is a member of the Uralic linguistic group along with languages such as Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. Norwegian and other Indo-European languages are not related to the Sami tongue.
The different languages
A total of nine different but closely related Sami languages are spoken in the Sami region. Today, three of these dialects are in active use in Northern Norway. Sami people from the south of Northern Norway can talk effortlessly to their nearest Sami neighbours in Sweden, but cannot communicate with Sami people from the far north. The dialect boundaries do not follow the linguistic borders, however, as most of the dialects are spoken in multiple countries. The Sami language is currently the major language in inner Finnmark and is also used in small communities in most parts of Northern Norway as well as in some environments in the Northern Norwegian towns.
Reindeer herders, Lake Sami, River Sami
Around 2,600 Sami people in Norway make their living from herding reindeer, and the majority of the region of Northern Norway is actually used for raising reindeer. Traditionally, most Sami people have supported themselves through fishing, livestock farming and hunting, along the coast, on the fjords and alongside the large rivers farther inland. Today, a large proportion of the Sami people live outside the traditional Sami areas and have moved into the towns of Northern Norway or to the Oslo area. Even more still live in traditional Sami settlement areas, but earn their living in the modern service sector, industry, travel and the public sector.
The Sami culture has many unique forms of expression. Joik, one of the oldest song traditions in Europe, is alive and well. A joik is dedicated to a person, an animal or a place, and the harmonies reproduce the qualities of the object of the song. If you would like to chat someone up, try “joiking” him/her – it has quite an effect!
The "kofte", traditional Sami clothing, are another unbroken, living tradition, but mostly used when dressing up for celebrations or parties. In contrast to what "the national costume police" may say, there is nothing wrong with going your own way, and the "kofte" follow fluctuations in fashion. Duoddji is the Sami word for “craft”, and many traditions of craftsmanship such as tin embroidery, pearl embroidery, weaving shoelaces, jacket seams, wood carving and knife-making are assiduously maintained. Sami boots filled with blister sedge will keep your legs warmer than the latest developments in survival equipment, and are used diligently when the temperature drops below -40.
The Sami Parliament is the Sami people’s representative body in Norway and has appreciable authority on issues concerning culture, cultural heritage, reindeer farming and education. It also applies its influence on financial and business policy. The Sami language is used in nine municipalities, two counties and a range of state institutions. The language is official in Norway, but is not accorded the same prominence as Norwegian. Previously, the Sami people owned land and water communally, but the Norwegian state considered this state-owned land. Today, however, the Norwegian authorities consider the land and water in Finnmark to belong to the people of Finnmark. Similar transfers of ownership have been proposed for large areas in the rest of Northern Norway. For additional information, see www.sametinget.no.
Sami people in the 21st century
In the twenty-first century, Sami culture is meeting the modern world in a new way. No Sami people live a completely traditional life today, and the everyday lives of many of these indigenous people appears very modern indeed. At the same time, however, interest in joik, duoddji and the language itself is increasing rapidly. Traditional joik is being blended with modern rhythms. The Sami National Theatre Beaivas, a rich production of literature, Sami media and broadcasting are all using the Sami language in new fora. This indicates that there is hope for the language and the culture.