Originally published on The North Way, my previous blog …
Sámi people, which you might know as “Lapps” (pejorative term!), are an indigenous people of northern Fenno-Scandinavia also called Lapland. This nation is made up of many tribes who officiate mainly in fishing, trapping and reindeer herding. In collaboration with our blogging friends from Gluk, we have created for you an illustrated article on the Sámi history to make you discover this really interesting culture from the north…
Who are the Sámis?
Sámis are the native inhabitants of Sápmi. You have probably heard about Lapland (or Lappland, we apparently can write both), but Lapland is the pejorative word for Sápmi as well as Lapp is the pejorative word for Sámi. Sápmi regroups the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
* This is a ‘Gákti’. It is the traditional Sámi dressing. The shapes can inform about where the person comes from, her/his marital status and even sometimes her/his family.
In Norwegian language, Sámis are also sometimes called ‘Finns’, from which comes the name of Finnmark (northernmost area of Norway), Finnmark being the only place in Norway where you will find more Sámis than Norwegians. Their language is also called Sámi, but it is actually not one language, but many. Everything becomes really complicated when it comes to languages in this part of Europe!
When everything begins
11000 BC: Ice age is ending. Therefore, new possibilities of settlement opens up for humans on the Arctic coast. Tribes of hunters, fishers and gatherers start to appear in this previously virgin area. They will be the first ancestors of those who are going to be called ‘Sámis’. As a consequence, Sámis are considered as an indigenous population of this area.
Time passing, we see this ensemble of different tribes sharing the same culture being more or less split : The sea Sámis, mainly fishers, and the mountain Sámis, living by reindeer hunting.
The middle ages
1349 is a major date in Norwegian history. It’s the year during which black death decimates over 60% of the Norwegian population. During this time, Norwegian’s diet is rye and wheat based and part of this food is imported through European trade routes.
Plague then comes from the rest of Europe to Norway in the wooden barrels containing this food and other supplies. Sámis at this time are still fishers and hunters and thus are not as much concerned about the plague as the Norwegians do.
After the plague, income revenues of the monarchy drastically diminish, as you can imagine. Sea Sámis are then encouraged to take over abandoned farms (they continued to take over those farms until the 18th century! ). This way, population of sea Sámis grows bigger: nowadays, mountain Sámis population does not represent much than 10% of the Sámi population.
On the other side, mountain Sámis , due to their nomadic way of life, have to pay taxes for each nation they are crossing, which does not really help them to grow actually!
The dark ages
During the beginning of the 17th century, colonization of northern Scandinavia begins. Settlers are mainly practicing farming, which is in contradiction with the nomadic way of life of northern Sámis. Some settlers adapt to their way of life, and some Sámis adapt to the Norwegian way of life, interested in the products farmers can provide (houses, butter, milk, wool, …). But in the end, farming and other activities of the settlers lead to the extinction of species and to the destruction of Sámi hunting culture, which imply starvation for their people. Meanwhile in Sweden, the Nasafjäll mine opens up and Sámis are coerced to work here or be severely punished. Many Sámis run away from this area, but the Swedish government sends troops to prevent that …
At the end of the century, colonization of northern Scandinavia becomes more violent. Sámi polytheist religious practices are punished and holy sites and traditional religious objects as Sámi drums are destroyed.
During the 19th century, Norway becomes an independent country. Norwegian government starts reforms willing to make Norwegian culture and language universal. Sámi is restricted in schools and it is now forbidden to sell or lease lands to non Norwegians. Moreover, christianization still makes it’s way through Sámi communities. In 1852 in Kautokeino, the only Sámi revolt against Norwegian policy involving human deaths takes place. An excellent movie has been made about those riots, and I strongly recommend you to watch it: The Kautokeino Rebellion.
This process of “Norwegianization” becomes more and more aggressive until WWII, therefore strengthening independent thoughts and links as a community.
Fight for the future
After WWII, pressure on Sámis is relaxed, but changes take a moment before having any effect. In 1960, the right for Sámis to preserve and develop their own culture is officially acknowledged. Sámi is taught again in schools and institutions are created.
But in 1979 in Alta, the construction of an hydro-electric power station rises up old daemons. A long fight takes place between Sámis and Norwegian authorities that lead in the end to a “compromise”. In 1986, Sámi flag and national anthem are created and in 1989, the first Sámi parliament is elected in Norway.
During the previous decades, Sámis gained more and more rights. Although theory seems to be on the good way, reality is not always that beautiful. Most of the Sámis are now living a “modern” way of life and are no more considered as “under-Norwegians”.
But for those who chose to live the traditional way, cohabitation and environment related problems remains and make their life harder if not impossible…
Big thanks to Céline for the killer drawings! ;)