The Sami

Indigenous people of the North

© Magnus Strøm

In the far north of Europe, ancient sounds, unique craftwork traditions, and a particular language live side by side with modern technology. The Sami culture is the oldest culture in large areas of Northern Norway and is currently experiencing a strong renaissance.

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 language is very different from Norwegian

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.

Nine languages constitute one people

A total of nine different but closely related Sami languages are spoken in the Sami region. Today, three of these languages 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, Sea and River Sami were the traditional ways of life

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 Joik is a unique Sami attribute

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 Sami are intricate designers of fashion and crafts

The “kofte”, traditional Sami clothing, is 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” follows 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 21st Century has brought in a new era for the Sami

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.