The northernmost reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland, plus the Kola peninsula of northwest Russia, are collectively known as Lapland. Traditionally, the indigenous population were called “Lapps”, but in recent years this name has fallen out of favour and been replaced by the term Sámi, although the change is by no means universal. This more commonly used term comes from the Sámi word sámpi referring to both the land and its people, who now number around 70,000 scattered across the whole of the region. Among the oldest peoples in Europe, the Sámi most likely descended from prehistoric clans who migrated here from Siberia by way of the Baltic. Their language is closely related to Finnish and Estonian, though it’s somewhat misleading to speak of a “Sámi language” as there are, in fact, three distinct versions, each of which breaks down into a number of markedly different regional dialects. All share many common features, however, including a superabundance of words and phrases to express variations in snow and ice conditions.

Originally, the Sámi were a semi-nomadic people, living in small communities (siidas), each of which had a degree of control over the surrounding hunting grounds. They lived off hunting, fishing and trapping, preying on all the edible creatures of the north, but it was the wild reindeer that supplied most of their needs. This changed in the sixteenth century when the Sámi moved over to reindeer herding, with communities following the seasonal movements of the animals.

The contact the Sámi have had with other Scandinavians has almost always been to their disadvantage. In the ninth century, they paid significant fur, feather and hide taxes to Norse chieftains. Later, in the seventeenth century, they faced colonization and moves to dislocate their culture from the various thrones in Sweden, Russia and Norway. The frontiers of Sámiland were only agreed in 1826, by which point hundreds of farmers had settled in “Lapland”, to the consternation of its native population. By that point, Norway’s Sámi had kowtowed to Protestant missionaries and accepted the religion of their colonizers – though the more progressive among them did support the use of Sámi languages and even translated hundreds of books into their language. In the nineteenth century, the government’s aggressive Social Darwinist policy of “Norwegianization” banned the use of indigenous languages in schools, and only allowed Sámi to buy land if they could speak Norwegian. Only in the 1950s were these policies abandoned and slowly replaced by a more considerate, progressive approach.

1986 was a catastrophic year for the Sámi: the Chernobyl nuclear disaster contaminated much of the region’s flora and fauna, which effectively meant the collapse of the reindeer export market. While reindeer herding is now the main occupation of just one-fifth of the Sámi population, expressions of Sámi culture have expanded. Traditional arts and crafts are now widely available in all of Scandinavia’s major cities and a number of Sámi films – including the critically acclaimed Veiviseren (The Pathfinder) – have been released. Sámi music (joik) has also been given a hearing by world-music, jazz and even electronica buffs. Although their provenance is uncertain, the rhythmic song-poems that constitute joik were probably devised to soothe anxious reindeer; the words are subordinated to the unaccompanied singing and at times are replaced altogether by meaningless, sung syllables.

Since the international anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s, the Norwegians have been obliged to thoroughly re-evaluate their relationship with the Sámi – initially by amending the national constitution to include social, cultural and linguistic rights for them in 1988, then a year later establishing a Sámi Parliament, the Sameting, in Karasjok. Certain deep-seated problems do remain – issues such as land and mineral rights and the identity of Sámi both as an indigenous, partly autonomous people and as citizens of a particular country – but at least Oslo is asking the right questions.

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