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The Saami - Reindeer People of the North
Who Are the Saami?
The Saami, also spelled Sami, have lived in the far north of Scandinavia for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Although they have been neighbors to the Old Norse for centuries, whose presence in the region pre-dates the Saami, they are a different ethnic group entirely.
While Norway, Sweden, and Denmark's official languages are Germanic, the Saami's language is in the Finno-Ugric language family (along with Finnish, Hungarian, and others). So, while they are spread out among all of these nations (except Denmark) they are a distinct and separate culture.
The region traditionally occupied by the Saami is known as Sápmi. It is considered a "cultural region," but not a nation.
Although the Saami are spread through a wide expanse of land, they have historically been discriminated against and do not have their own nation state.
Just as indigenous people of other areas, such as the Native North Americans for example, were subjected to programs of assimilation, attempts were made to break down Saami culture and assimilate their people into the larger cultures of the countries in which they lived.
Because of these campaigns, elements of Saami culture began to die out and were in danger of being lost forever. Massive efforts to convert the Saami from their native religion were instituted by the Lutherans during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Saami children were forced to speak Norwegian or Swedish instead of their own language.
Unfortunately, this was not uncommon during recent eras. There are parallels not only with the Natives of North America, but this also occurred with the Celtic language speakers in Ireland, Wales, and other areas of Britain.
Just as many other groups were treated as "less than" by the dominant population, the Saami were often mocked and looked down upon. For many years they were referred to as "Lapps" and their home was known as "Lappland." To this day, many people do not realize that the term "Lapp" is offensive to the Saami people. Apparently it refers to rags and implies they are "the people who dress in rags." Today, the term Saami, or Sami, is preferred.
The Saami and Their Reindeer
It should be said that the Saami, like any other people, have had a wide variety of occupations. Reindeer herding is the one they are most well known for, but it is not all that the Saami do or have done historically. This can sometimes be a point of contention when assumptions are made that all Saami are reindeer herders. That said, it is truthful and fair to say that reindeer herding has been a large aspect of Saami culture for generations.
To this day, reindeer herding is still practiced by many Saami. The herds live a semi-wild life, spending much of their time roaming freely to graze in the wide open spaces of the far north. The Saami drive the deer home at certain times to count and maintain the herd.
Reindeer and Saami people have lived together in harmony for hundreds of years. The animals provide the Saami with food, hides for clothing, and antlers were used to make tools and other household items.
But the connection with the reindeer goes far beyond the tangible. The reindeer hold spiritual and cultural symbolic meaning to the Saami people. They feature largely in traditional myth, legend, and art.
As mentioned above, the Saami have faced prejudice and persecution over the centuries. One major element of their culture that was attacked with great vigor was their ancestral religion.
Saami indigenous spirituality is an ancient form of animism. Central to their system of belief was the presence of shamans. These shamans were known by their handmade spirit drums which they used to beat a trance inducing rhythm to journey into the spirit world. Shaman drums were made of animal hide, often reindeer skin. Drawn on the drum would be a map which directed the shaman to the Other-worlds.
Contrary to popular belief, pockets of Europe were still un-Christianized by the end of the Middle Ages and well into the Modern Era. The Saami were one of these groups. Northern Europe has long been considered the last holdout of paganism, and many textbooks have long taught that the Viking Norse were the last Europeans to convert to Christianity. This is untrue. Many other people held on fiercely to their native religions for hundreds of years after the conversion of the Germanic and Norse peoples. The Balts are just one example, as the great Kingdom of Lithuania held out as long as it could before succumbing to Teutonic invaders. The Mari El, who live deep within the borders of Russia, are another group of people who held on tightly to their native ways, and I will explore both of these groups further in future articles.
Up into the 18th, 19th, and even the early 20th century, the Saami were targeted by Lutheran missionaries for conversion and assimilation. Their ancestral spiritual beliefs were misunderstood and labeled demonic. At the same time that their religion was suppressed, the Saami were discouraged from speaking native languages. They were also subjected to land-grabs, and have lost much of their grazing land over the years. Even to this day, the Saami are fighting to retain the land that they have been living and grazing their herds on for hundreds of years.
Renewal and Revival of Culture
In recent years there has been a renewal of cultural pride among the Saami people. They are using resources such as the internet to connect with other Saami over great distances and making strides in uniting to promote their shared interests. They have been vocal in demanding the rights and respect that they deserve.
Just as other cultural groups in Europe and elsewhere are reviving their ancestral faiths, some Saami are reviving their own indigenous religion and reintroducing the Saami shaman.
Other aspects of culture are receiving attention as well. Many Saami artists are bringing their traditional music to the international stage. Their music tends to contain hints of a tribal sound heard in other indigenous world cultures, with a level of Scandinavian folk influence, but a sound that is distinctly Saami.
There are many beautiful cultures to be found all around the world. But, there is something about the Saami that I, personally, find simply magical. It might be the simple but profoundly meaningful way they have traditionally made a living in the snowy white far north. It might be their hauntingly beautiful folk music, or the contrast between the vivid colors of their traditional clothes against the clean whiteness of the snow. These people seem to hold something that many of us have lost; a deep connection with nature and the animals they share their homeland with.
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Sofia Jannok - A Modern Saami Folk Singer
© 2013 Carolyn Emerick