The only indigenous people in the European Union, the Sámi people are spread across four different countries, several different areas and speak a number of different related languages – some of them mutually unintelligible.
Their existence, lifestyle, traditions and languages have been challenged by governments, school systems and societal changes. Yet despite these challenges, it is evident that, in 2018, Sámi culture is alive, thanks to the persistent efforts of Sámi activists, politicians, artists, and journalists – not to mention the ordinary Sámi people.
If the average Nordic person without Sámi roots knows very little about indigenous Sámi culture and politics, then it’s not much of a surprise that most people outside of the Nordic countries have never even heard of the Sámi people.
To get started, here’s a list of five words that are key for the Sámi people – listed here in their Northern Sámi forms.
1. Giella – language
The Sámi languages and Sámi identity are inextricably linked – but Sámi people are basically always proficient in the majority language of the state they live in as well. After decades of under-representation and repression of these languages, there are Sámi people who do not speak any Sámi – and some of the Sámi languages are on the brink of extinction.
The Sámi languages are part of the Uralic language family, which makes them distant relatives of the Finnish language. As with Scandinavian languages, it makes more sense to see the Sámi languages as a dialect continuum: speakers of different varieties may be able to understand each other to a degree – or not.
There are nine living Sámi languages. The largest of them is Northern Sámi, with approximately 15,000 speakers – the most threatened varieties only have a few dozen speakers left each.
2. Gákti – traditional clothing
Gákti is the main part of the traditional Sámi costume. This striking piece of clothing can be worn by any Sámi person, although the details of the colour, fabric and decoration differ depending on the gender, family, marital status and regional identity of the wearer.
Some choose to stick to very traditional colour schemes and materials – but the younger generations especially are keen on adding some variety to their own traditional dress, as demonstrated by their Instagram posts on gákti.
3. Sápmi – Sámi region
Sápmi is an area that spans four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. It is often referred to as Lapland in English, although this word has also been used for provinces with rather different boundaries in Finland and Sweden.
Traditionally, the Sámi people have been semi-nomadic, moving from area to area. Today, many of them live outside of Sápmi altogether, having moved south to study or work.
Estimates of the number of Sámi people vary from 50,000 to 100,000, depending on how a person is defined as having Sámi ethnicity. For some, it’s a question of identity, while for others the Sámi languages are key.
4. Luohti – joik
The best-known aspect of Sámi musical traditions is joik singing. These haunting, chant-like pieces are known as luohti in Northern Sámi.
A luohti is usually a personal composition, which has traditionally been meant to represent or reflect the essence of a place or a person – a relative or a friend, for example. You would joik someone or something, not joik about them.
If you want a taste of this otherworldly tradition, go to YouTube and listen to Marit Kristine Hætta Sara, the winner of the 2012 Sámi Grand Prix.
5. Sámiráđđi – Sámi Council
To safeguard their culture and way of life, the Sámi people have established various organisations and media channels. One of the main ways of cooperating across national boundaries is the Sámiráđđi, or the Sámi Council, founded in 1956. In addition to this, there are Sámi parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland.
The Sámi are the only indigenous people in the European Union – this means different things depending on the member state that they live in. Most recently, many Sámi activists have been campaigning for the ratification of the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Convention (Convention No. 169). Norway is so far the only state with Sápmi territory to ratify this convention.
Here are some more links to continue learning about the Sámi people and their unique culture:
Five short documentaries about five people’s personal relationship with the Sámi languages (subtitles in English)
Trailer for Sami Blood (2016), a film about a young Sámi girl studying at a Swedish boarding school in the 1930s, caught between the expectations of her traditional family and background and the harsh but tempting reality of city life and mainstream culture.
Useful phrases in Sámi (with recordings of the pronunciation)