Among the oldest people in Europe, the Sámi – erroneously known to many as “Lapps” – are probably descended from the original prehistoric inhabitants of much of Scandinavia and northern Russia. Today there are around 58,000 Sámi, stretched across the whole of the northernmost regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia; traces of their nomadic culture have even been discovered as far south as Poland. In Sweden itself – though the population is declining – they number around 17,000 (ten percent of the population of northern Sweden), their domain extending over half the country, stretching up from the northern parts of Dalarna.
The Sámi language is a rich one, strongly influenced by their harmonious natural existence. There are no words for certain alien concepts (like “war”), but there are ninety different terms to express variations in snow conditions. One of the Finno-Ugric group of languages, which also contains Finnish and Hungarian, the Sámi language is divided into three dialects which are not mutually comprehensible. In Sweden you’ll come across two words for Sámi: the politically correct Sámi (as used by the Sámi themselves), and, more commonly, the Swedish corruption Same (plural Samer).
Reindeer, of which there are estimated to be 250,000 in Sweden (the maximum allowed by law is 280,000), have been at the centre of Sámi life and culture for thousands of years, with generations of families following the seasonal movements of the animals. Accordingly, the Sámi year is divided into eight separate seasons, ranging from early spring, when they traditionally bring the reindeer cows up to the calving areas in the hills, through to winter, when they return to the forests and the pastures.
The Sámi were dealt a grievous blow by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, which led to a fundamental change in Sámi living patterns: the fallout contaminated not only the lichen that their reindeer feed on in winter, but also the game, fish, berries and fungi that supplement their own diet. Contamination of reindeer meat meant the collapse of exports of the product to southern Scandinavia, Germany, America and the Far East – and even today the lichen (the reindeer’s favourite food) in certain parts of the north is unfit for consumption, a fact which the Sámi, perhaps understandably, are keen to play down. Promises of government compensation came late in the day and failed to address the fact that this disaster wasn’t just on an economic level for the Sámi, their traditional culture being inseparably tied to reindeer herding.
The Sámi today
The enduring Sámi culture, which once defined much of this land, is now under threat. Centuries of mistrust between the Sámi and the Swedish population have led to today’s often tense standoff; Sámi accusing Swede of stealing his land, Swede accusing Sámi of scrounging off the state. The escalating problems posed by tourism – principally the erosion of grazing land under the pounding feet of hikers – have also made the Sámi’s traditional existence increasingly uncertain.
However, perhaps as a consequence of Chernobyl, there has been an expansion in Sámi culture. Traditional arts and crafts have become popular and are widely available in craft shops, and Sámi music (characterized by the rhythmic sounds of joik, a form of throat-singing) is being given a hearing by fans of world music. On balance, it would appear that the Sámi are largely managing to retain their culture and identity in modern Sweden.
For more on the Sámi in Sweden, visit w sametinget.se.