A newlywed couple - the woman in a white dress, the man in a traditional sami costume - walking across a bridge. Mountains in the background.
A newlywed Sami couple. Photo: Håkan Hjort/Johnér Bildbyrå

Sami in Sweden

With a culture that remains strong, some 20,000 Sami live in Sweden.

Sami country – known as Sápmi – stretches across the northern part of Scandinavia and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The original settlement was even larger, but the Sami were gradually forced to give up land, first to farmers starting in the 1650s and later to industries such as forestry and mining.

There is no census for the Sami, but the population is estimated at around 80,000 people, spread over four countries with approximately 20,000 in Sweden, 50,000 in Norway, 8,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia.

The Sami are one of the world's indigenous people and one of Sweden's official national minorities. The minority status means – in short – that they have special rights and that their culture, traditions and languages are protected by law.

Facts about reindeer

  • There are some 260,000 reindeer in Sweden.
  • Reindeer in Sweden are semi-domesticated and live in the northern forests and mountains.
  • Suovas is a protected word that refers to smoked reindeer meat, which is rich in minerals and very lean.
  • Reindeer milk tastes sweet and looks like melted ice cream.
  • Reindeer hide is used to make shoes and gloves.

Reindeer husbandry traditions

Originally hunters and gatherers, the Sami turned to herding of domesticated reindeer in the 17th century. Reindeer naturally move across huge tracks of land to graze, and the Sami historically lived lives following the herds.

The modern norm is instead to have a permanent home and a cabin in the mountains for the herding season. And those who remain in the business have long since replaced the skis with snowmobiles, AWD vehicles and helicopters. Only some ten per cent of Swedish Sami earn a living from the reindeer industry, and many supplement their income through tourism, fishing, crafts and other trades.

Many have been forced to look for income elsewhere as a result of ongoing challenges to the reindeer trade, including disputes with the government over grazing rights, restrictions as to who may legally be involved in reindeer husbandry, and loss of land.

There’s a historical dispute between reindeer herders’ grazing rights and landowners’ logging rights. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Sami, giving them common law rights to a specific area of land.

'Sami village'

A sameby – ‘Sami village’ – is not a traditional village but a complex economic and administrative union within a specific geographical area. Its members have the right to engage in reindeer husbandry in this area, including building whatever facilities they need. In certain areas they also have fishing and hunting rights. It is regulated by a Swedish law called the Reindeer Husbandry Act (link in Swedish). There are 51 Sami villages, the largest one being Sirges in Jokkmokk.

Towards the end of the 19th century, many Sami permanently kept both farms and reindeer (mixed husbandry). The government, however, would make some contentious decisions, the repercussions of which extended well into the 20th century.

The Reindeer Pasture Law of 1928 limited reindeer ownership and membership in any Sami village to herders and their families. The new restrictions forced mixed husbandry farmers to choose between reindeer herding or other forms of agriculture.

For generations, people have been turning to other professions, and the Sami are trying to ease government regulations so people can belong to a Sami village without having to own reindeer.

Truth and reconciliation

The Sami have long been in contact with the nation states that were established on the land they called home. Through these encounters, the Sami have been forced to change their way of life. It’s a history filled with abuses, violations and racism.

In 2019, the Sami Parliament submitted a formal request to the government for a truth and reconciliation commission to be established. In June 2020, the Sami were awarded 1.2 million crowns (EUR 144,000) from the Swedish state to begin laying the groundwork for a truth commission.

The Sami Parliament

The organised Sami political work for autonomy began in the 1950s with the establishment of Sami associations that eventually lead to the establishment of Sametinget (Sami Parliament) in 1993. Sametinget is both a parliament and a government agency.

As a government agency with around 50 civil servants, the Sami Parliament has the daily responsibility of taking care of tasks concerning Sami culture, languages and Sami industries such as reindeer herding. It serves directly under the Swedish Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

The parliament is made up of 31 members, elected for four years. They convene three times a year. Those on the Sami electoral register – open to those who speak Sami and define themselves as part of Sami society – are eligible to vote.

According to statistics from Sametinget (link in Swedish), the numbers registering to vote have increased every election year since the first election in 1993. The last election, on 16 May 2021, had a voting list of 9,220.

Greater autonomy

Historically, one political goal has united all the political parties in Sametinget: greater autonomy.

Sweden’s constitution was amended in 2011 to affirm the obligation of public power in Sweden to promote the opportunities of the Sami people to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own.

The Sami parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden have drawn up a joint Nordic convention to strengthen their position as an indigenous people and influence decisions on Sami-related matters. The convention has not yet been approved by the Nordic governments.

New ways and old traditions

The Swedish National Minorities and Minority Languages Act, implemented in 2010, provides financial resources to help preserve minority languages and has created opportunities for the Sami people to care for their culture, traditions and languages.

This has meant new opportunities to further Sami interests and include Sami-speaking staff at nursing homes, Sami history in primary schools, and Sami information signs in schools and other municipality premises.

The Sami culinary tradition has also found new followers among both Sami and non-Sami while new twists have appeared through international influences.

The Sami flag - red, blue, green and yellow – blowing in the wind.

The Sami flag is for all Sami people, regardless of which country they live in. Photo: Silje Bergum Kinsten/norden.org (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

A large herd of reindeer being herded by two people on snowmobiles.

The Sami reindeer industry has specific seasons for calving, marking, counting, castrating and slaughtering. Photo: Hans-Olof Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

A woman helping a boy dress. They are both wearing traditional Sami clothing. In the background are two more people.

You can determine which region a Sami member comes from by the traditional kolt dress they are wearing. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström/ imagebank.sweden.se

Close-up on two traditional Sami knife. Handmade with a reindeer horn handle decorated with traditional Sami carvings.

Handmade Sami knives with reindeer antler handles. The decorations are traditional Sami carvings. Photo: Jessica Lindgren/imagebank.sweden.se

Benches covered in reindeer hides next to a table set with cups and bowls and a plate with buns. A coffee pot is placed over a campfire. A lavvu tent in the background and you get a glimpse of a lake between the trees.

Sápmi Nature Camp is a small-scale glamping site, where visitors can get a glimpse of traditional Sámi culture. Photo: Lennart Pittja/Sápmi Nature/imagesbank.sweden.se

The Sami flag - red, blue, green and yellow – blowing in the wind.

The Sami flag is for all Sami people, regardless of which country they live in. Photo: Silje Bergum Kinsten/norden.org (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

A large herd of reindeer being herded by two people on snowmobiles.

The Sami reindeer industry has specific seasons for calving, marking, counting, castrating and slaughtering. Photo: Hans-Olof Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

A woman helping a boy dress. They are both wearing traditional Sami clothing. In the background are two more people.

You can determine which region a Sami member comes from by the traditional kolt dress they are wearing. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström/ imagebank.sweden.se

Close-up on two traditional Sami knife. Handmade with a reindeer horn handle decorated with traditional Sami carvings.

Handmade Sami knives with reindeer antler handles. The decorations are traditional Sami carvings. Photo: Jessica Lindgren/imagebank.sweden.se

Benches covered in reindeer hides next to a table set with cups and bowls and a plate with buns. A coffee pot is placed over a campfire. A lavvu tent in the background and you get a glimpse of a lake between the trees.

Sápmi Nature Camp is a small-scale glamping site, where visitors can get a glimpse of traditional Sámi culture. Photo: Lennart Pittja/Sápmi Nature/imagesbank.sweden.se

The Sami flag - red, blue, green and yellow – blowing in the wind.

The Sami flag is for all Sami people, regardless of which country they live in. Photo: Silje Bergum Kinsten/norden.org (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

A large herd of reindeer being herded by two people on snowmobiles.

The Sami reindeer industry has specific seasons for calving, marking, counting, castrating and slaughtering. Photo: Hans-Olof Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se

A woman helping a boy dress. They are both wearing traditional Sami clothing. In the background are two more people.

You can determine which region a Sami member comes from by the traditional kolt dress they are wearing. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström/ imagebank.sweden.se

Close-up on two traditional Sami knife. Handmade with a reindeer horn handle decorated with traditional Sami carvings.

Handmade Sami knives with reindeer antler handles. The decorations are traditional Sami carvings. Photo: Jessica Lindgren/imagebank.sweden.se

Benches covered in reindeer hides next to a table set with cups and bowls and a plate with buns. A coffee pot is placed over a campfire. A lavvu tent in the background and you get a glimpse of a lake between the trees.

Sápmi Nature Camp is a small-scale glamping site, where visitors can get a glimpse of traditional Sámi culture. Photo: Lennart Pittja/Sápmi Nature/imagesbank.sweden.se

The Sami flag

The colours of the Sami flag from 1986 (blue, red, yellow and green) are those most commonly found on traditional Sami garbs. The circle derives from the sun, in red, a symbol appearing on many shaman drums. The blue half of the circle represents the moon.

The Sami have 11 flag days, one of which is 6 February, the Sami National Day.

The Sami languages

In 2000, Sami was recognised as an official minority language (link in Swedish) in Sweden, and the government has since given the Sami Parliament greater influence and financial resources to preserve the Sami languages, which are rich in variation. Just imagine more than 300 different ways of saying snow – from powder to slush.

The Sami languages are divided into three main strains: Eastern, Central and Southern Sami. These languages are further divided into nine distinct variants, of which the North Sami is the most widely used, with an estimated 17,000 native speakers across the Sápmi region (6,000 based in Sweden).

Written Sami was not linked to the Swedish alphabet until 1950. The languages were then also given an additional seven letters, pronounced with lisping sounds not found in Swedish. Sami became a subject at Swedish schools as late as 1962, and guidelines for the languages’ orthography were not printed until 1979. 

Education

At present, the only Sami upper secondary school in Sweden is in Jokkmokk in the very north of the country. Apart from the general curriculum, the school offers training in reindeer husbandry, traditional cooking, handicrafts and the Sami languages.

For schoolchildren up to the age of 12, there are a handful of Sami schools in Sweden. Sami childcare, which is offered in some municipalities, also helps maintain the Sami languages and pass them on to the younger generation.

Academic courses in the Sami languages can be taken at Umeå and Uppsala universities. There is also a centre for Sami research, Vaartoe, that coordinates research in Sami culture, languages, history and communities, and initiates new research.

Traditional Sami dress worn by the young too

Pride in Sami heritage can sometimes be seen in traditional dress, particularly the Sami folk costume called kolt or gákti, which has gone from being work clothing to a festive garment. The design of the kolt varies depending on its geographical origin. The traditional costumes have at least 12 different styles and differ for men and women. Some have been redesigned and given characteristic family patterns. Contemporary fashion is also an influence.

The kolt is always worn at special occasions such as baptisms, funerals, weddings and confirmations. The male version is shorter than the female one, but tends to be longer in southern Sápmi than in the north. A belt, lace-up shoes, a shawl or bib, decorative collars and hat are worn with the kolt. A child’s kolt with accessories is an exact copy of an adult one, only smaller.

Decorations vary, but North Sami usually wear silver while South Sami and Lule Sami use pewter embroidery. However, all use colourful fabrics with handmade edging.

Sami handicrafts – Duodji

Reindeer are a big part of Sami culture, providing food and raw materials for everyday use. Sami pass on knowledge about reindeer through formal education and from generation to generation. Traditionally, every part of the reindeer was kept and used – skin and antlers for making shoes and knives, meat to cook or for further processing.

Sami handicrafts, duodji, use natural materials and often have soft rounded shapes, pleasing to the touch but functional. Elaborate ornamentation was, and is, important, for showing off the maker’s skills and to preserve family and cultural designs.

Many Sami supplement reindeer husbandry with secondary employment such as making handicrafts or tourism-related activities. A certificate of Sami handicraft quality guarantees authenticity for the buyer, and indicates that the maker is recognised within the industry.

New styles and materials have made their way into Sami crafts, and today, a variety of techniques such as metal casting, visual arts and photography are used.

Music, theatre and dance

Yoik is traditional Sami singing, and was originally closely linked to Sami religion. It is one of the oldest forms of music in Europe. Seen as a pagan and uncultured activity, it was long banned by the Swedish Lutheran Church.

Yoiks are deeply personal and often dedicated to a person, animal or part of a landscape as a way of not forgetting. A yoik is passed down through generations, its style determined by its origin.

Contemporary Sami music is often a blend of yoik with rock, pop or hip hop, with representatives such as Maxida Märak, Sofia Jannok and Jon Henrik Fjällgren.

The Sami have a rich storytelling culture which has gained new perspectives through theatre. The Giron Sami Theatre in Kiruna (Giron is the Sami name for Kiruna) puts on several productions each year.