A newlywed Sami couple crossing a river at the edge of the world heritage site Laponia.
Photo: Håkan Hjort/Johnér Bildbyrå
Sami in Sweden
Archaeological finds suggest that the indigenous Sami people have lived in the Arctic region for thousands of years. The Sami today maintain their rich culture and long-established traditions while being a part of modern Swedish society.
Indigenous culture 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.
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 to have a permanent home and a cabin in the mountains for 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.
A long history of challenges to the trade, including disputes between the government of Sweden and the Sami people over grazing rights, restrictions as to who may legally be involved in reindeer husbandry, and loss of land to farming and industry, forced people to look for income elsewhere.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Sami, giving them common law rights to a specific area of land – possibly the most important modern verdict regarding Sami issues of law.
The Sami languages
The Sami’s own language is divided into three main languages: Eastern Sami, Central Sami and Southern Sami. These languages are further divided into nine distinct variants. The Central Sami language is divided into two varieties: North Sami and Lule Sami.
The North Sami variety is the most widely used, with an estimated 17,000 native speakers across the Sápmi region, of which roughly 6,000 are based in Sweden. As a result of governmental relocations of the Northern Sami people during the 1930s, North Sami spread into areas where other variants were spoken.
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. These are some reasons why many older Sami today can neither read nor write.
On 1 April 2000, Sami was recognised as an official minority language in Sweden, and the government has since given the Sami Parliament (Sametinget) greater influence and financial resources to preserve the Sami languages.
At present, there is only one Sami upper secondary school in Sweden, in Jokkmokk in the very north of the country. The school offers training in reindeer husbandry, traditional cooking, handicrafts and the Sami languages.
For schoolchildren up to the age of 12, there are five Sami schools in Sweden, in Karesuando, Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Tärnaby in southern Sápmi. 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. The Centre for Sami research, Vaartoe, in Umeå coordinates research in Sami culture, languages, history and communities, and initiates new research.
Business and politics
A sameby – ‘Sami village’ – is not a traditional village but a complex economical and administrative union and 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.
Towards the end of the 19th century, many Sami permanently kept both farms and reindeer (mixed husbandry). The authorities, 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 only or other forms of agriculture.
Today, younger generations are finding other professions, and the Sami are trying to ease the regulations so people can belong to a Sami village without having to own reindeer.
Truth and reconciliation
Historically, contact between the Sami and the nation states that were established on the same land they called home forced the Sami to change their way of life. From losing land to Swedish farmers and industries to being subjugated to racial biology and having their religion, culture and language suppressed, the Sami culture and lifestyle has survived into modern society.
In 2019, the Sami Parliament submitted a formal request to the government for a truth and reconciliation commission to be established.
The Sami Parliament
The Sami political struggle for increased influence and autonomy began in the 1950s with the establishment of Sami associations. Today, there are eight political parties within the Sami Parliament of Sweden (Sametinget) and the Sami are largely represented through four stakeholder organisations: the Sami Council (Samerådet), two national federations (RSÄ and SSR) and a youth organisation, Saminuorra. These focus on different areas of interest and might best be described as lobby organisations.
As of 1993, the Sami have elected their own parliamentary body by popular vote. The Sami Parliament’s task is to safeguard, develop and coordinate all matters concerning Sami areas of interest.
Elections to the Sami Parliament are held every four years. The parliament has 31 members who gather three times a year in different locations around Sweden. The parliament also serves as a government agency with 50 civil servants. Over the years, the political parties have changed, both in policy and number. The Sami Parliament is financed by grants from the Swedish government.
Those on the Sami electoral register – open to those who speak Sami and define themselves as part of Sami society through cross-generational connections – are eligible to vote. The numbers registering to vote have increased in recent years, not least because of a growing interest in political issues among young Sami and a growing willingness among older Sami to embrace their ethnicity.
Among the various issues, one goal unites all the political parties: greater autonomy. At present, the parliament is empowered only to deal with matters concerning hunting and fishing, reindeer herding, compensation for damage caused by predators, and Sami language and culture.
The Sami parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden have drawn up a joint Nordic convention to strengthen their position as a minority people and influence decisions on Sami-related matters. The convention has not yet been approved by the Nordic governments.
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.
New ways and old traditions
A government bill, Strategy for the National Minorities, established in 2010, has created opportunities for the Sami people to care for their culture, traditions and language by designating certain municipalities as administrative centres. Minority reform is important because it also provides financial resources to help preserve minority languages. There are 25 municipalities that have been selected to protect, promote, retain and develop Sami culture, and to form consultative groups.
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.
Another focus area is traditional Sami food. Previous generations grew up using everything from the reindeer, the meat being a permanent feature in Sami cooking. Many young Sami want to rediscover dishes that were disappearing, and traditional, local recipes have found new followers among both Sami and non-Sami. Classic dishes are also being given new twists, one example being reindeer carpaccio.
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 flag and flag days are for all Sami, regardless of which country they live in.
Photo: Espen Bratlie/Samfoto
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.
Last updated: 11 September 2019