Who are the Sámi?

The Sámi are the Indigenous people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Formerly known as “Lapps” or “Laplanders” in English, the Sámi belong to a culture that is at least four thousand years old, and are the descendants of multiple waves of migration into Sápmi (or Sámi Land) beginning towards the end of the last Ice Age. There is no precise count of Sámi population numbers, but current estimates range from between 60,000 to 100,000 people, with the largest number living on the Norwegian side of Sápmi.

The Sámi languages are part of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family, and are distantly related to languages like Finnish and Estonian. There are nine living Sámi languages, and several more that have died out under pressure from colonization and increasing numbers of non-Sámi settlers living in Sápmi. Today the Sámi are minorities in all but a few of their traditional communities. And, while many Sámi continue to speak a Sámi language, at least half of all Sámi do not.

For most of their history the Sámi lived in small hunting and gathering communities known as siidat (singular: siida). Each siida consisted of members of several family groups, and was associated with a specific geographical area. A council of elders made decisions for the siida, and resources were shared among siida members. About 400 years ago, however, this siida system began to give way to large-scale reindeer herding, as the Sámi responded to increasing pressures from outsiders on the wild reindeer herds on which they depended for much of their food, leather, and other products. Large-scale reindeer herding meant that the Sámi had to follow the migration routes of the reindeer across the old siidat boundaries, and led to significant changes in Sámi society. Today approximately 10 percent of Sámi are involved in the reindeer herding industry.

As Sápmi was opened up to settlement by Russians, Finns, Swedes and Norwegians, the Sámi eventually found themselves the subjects of these states. In all four countries many Sámi were dispossessed, and pressure was put on them to convert to Christianity and conform to the colonizing cultures. The racist policy of Norwegianization, carried out on the Norwegian side, was the harshest colonial policy, but Sámi in the other countries also faced many difficulties. 

During the twentieth century, the Sámi became increasingly organized in their anti-colonial efforts. Those efforts have met with some important successes, and today the Sámi are recognized as an Indigenous people in Norway, and as national minorities in Sweden and Finland. In Russia they have long been classified as one of the small peoples of the north. All four countries make some efforts to preserve and respect Sámi languages, and the Sámi in Norway, Sweden and Finland have representative Sámi Parliaments to speak on their behalf. Sámi álbmotbeaivi (Sámi National Day)  commemorates the first Sámi national congress, which was opened in Tråante (Trondheim) on February 6, 1917.