All About the Sami

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Before the formation of Viking culture, another people populated the far north of the Scandinavian Peninsula. The Roman historian Tacitus described them as fenni in his 98 CE book, The Germania, and the Greek historian Procopius referred to them as skridfinns almost five hundred years later. Today they are known as the Sami.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

All About the Sami

Before the formation of Viking culture, another people populated the far north of the Scandinavian Peninsula. The Roman historian Tacitus described them as fenni in his 98 CE book, The Germania, and the Greek historian Procopius referred to them as skridfinns almost five hundred years later. Today they are known as the Sami.

Tracing the Sami

The oldest archaeological discoveries of Sami culture were found along the coast of the Arctic Ocean in northern Norway, and date back to around 10,000 years ago. Over time, there was contact between the Sami and other peoples. Sami supplied their neighbors with the skins of various animals: squirrels, martins, otters, beavers, foxes, wolverines, lynxes, bears, and reindeer. In return, they received tools or jewelry they could not produce themselves.

Trade and Expansion

Trade contacts expanded east to what is now Russia. Around 2,000 years ago, the Sami began trading with people from present-day Norway and Sweden, using the Norwegian coastline as their trade route. They also used the major rivers of northern Finland and Sweden. Today the Sami live in four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

Sami Social Structure

Ancient Sami society consisted of family groups that utilised natural resources together. Some of these groups lived in permanent settlements, while others lived a nomadic life. The leader of the group was often the oldest woman or man, and they controlled daily routine: They decided when the group would move and which members could hunt in certain places. When there were problems between groups, there would be consultations between the groups’ elders.

Sami Religious Beliefs

Sami based their lives around the goodwill of the gods and wisdom of their elders. These elders were consulted on many issues and obeyed on various decisions. When it came to contacting the gods, the noaidi was the person to see: He was able to make contact with the spirit world and see into the future with the aid of a drum. He was sometimes thought to have the power to cure illnesses.

The All-Seeing Bear

Bear hunting was closely tied to Sami religion. The hunt was ceremonial and had many rules and taboos. In pre-Christian religion, the Sami considered the bear to be god’s messenger and observer on Earth. Therefore the hunting of bears had to be done respectively, from the method of its killing down to the burial of its bones. As part of the ritual, each bone had to be placed in the Earth in the order that it had appeared in the living bear. This was done to safeguard the bear’s continued existence, based on the belief that after the bear’s death it would report what it had seen on Earth to the gods.

Sami Languages

The Sami have three main language groups: Eastern Sami, Central Sami, and Southern Sami. These languages, all closely related, can be broken down into nine distinct variants. The main group with the highest number of speakers is the Central Sami Language which contains the North Sami variety. This dialect has around 15,000—17,000 native speakers, of which around 5,000—6,000 live in Sweden.

300 Ways of Saying “Snow”

Like the Inuit, a culture often encountered on Greenland cruises, the Sami (whose people our cruises do not currently visit) have multiple words for snow – more than 300, in fact, covering everything from sticky snow to snow textured like powdered sugar. Despite the fact that the languages are very descriptive, they are overall genderless. For example, the personal pronoun “son” can be male or female. A big part of the Sami language is oral storytelling. Yoiking, a distinctive form of singing, is used as a way of recalling events and people or to describe nature.

Reindeer: The Foundation of Sami Life

It is unknown exactly how long Sami have used reindeer, but Chinese sources wrote around 500 CE of a people in the northeast who used deer for transportation and dairy animals. In the late 9th century, the Sami were described as having a wealth of reindeer, and even then the animals were being used as transportation or as lures for hunting other reindeer. A combination of sources suggests the Sami have lived with reindeer for more than 1,000 years. In the southern regions, the Sami bred reindeer within a wide area. At the boundaries of these areas, the Sami watched their herds. At regular intervals, these animals were sorted, marked, or slaughtered.

Not One Reindeer Wasted

Reindeer are a large feature of the Sami culture. No part is left unused: The skin makes shoes, the horns make knives, the meat makes food. Sami are known for fashioning reindeer and other natural materials into crafts known as duodji. Sami craftmanship includes tin and pearl embroidery, shoelace weaving, jacket sewing, wood carving, and knife making. To ensure that the duodji sold is authentic, the Sami Council has even created the Sami Duodji Certificate that communicates to buyers that the product is made by a Sami artisan. This protects Sami handicraft from being copied and involved in unfair competition.

The Sami Love of Salmon

While Sami are often associated with reindeer herding, only a small portion of the population actually bases their lives around reindeer. The majority of Sami survive on hunting and fishing along the coasts, lakes, and rivers. In fact, the fish-rich parts of the north were colonised by the Sami first, as the fertile lands around the water enabled them to grow produce. In the summer, salmon fishing provides enough food for a large number of people.

Sami Sources of Vitamin C

The Sami also make use of the edible plants available to them. The most popular plant they gather is the cloudberry, a relative of raspberries and blackberries that grows in moist tundra and bog environments. The cloudberry ripens in late summer and provides the Sami with essential vitamins not found in their meat-rich diet, particularly vitamin C.

The Original Fast Food

Reindeer stew, or finnbiff, is a traditional dish that dates back over 6,000 years. It is a creamy game stew of thinly sliced reindeer meat. To get the reindeer meat thin enough, it has to be frozen before it’s cut. One theory as to why this method is used is that it also preserves the meat throughout the winter. Another theory is that, because the meat is thinly sliced, it can be quickly grilled over an outside fire or even eaten raw. The meat is sliced so thin, it has only to be dropped into a pot and within no time it is cooked. In the modern era, this traditional dish can be served up with pasta, rice, mashed peas – whatever’s handy.

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