Encompassing northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula, Sápmi is the collective name for the traditional territory of the nomadic Sámi – Europe’s only indigenous people, who migrated to northern Scandinavia after the last Ice Age and subsisted by hunting reindeer. As the reindeer grew scarce by the seventeenth century, hunters became herders; today, only around ten per cent of the Sámi still make a living from reindeer husbandry.
The Sámi year was traditionally divided into eight seasons, each tied to a period of reindeer herding, and the herders lived a nomadic life, their lightweight lavvu (teepee-like dwellings) enabling them to follow the grazing paths of their reindeer. The former is still true for the herders, but today, many Sámi live in modern housing for much of the year, and even the very process of herding has been modernised with helicopters and snowmobiles. The Sámi are also active in other fields – from art and music to tourism, cuisine and traditional craft-making.
The Sámi population of Sápmi numbers approximately 70,000–80,000, out of which around 40,000 live in Norway, 25,000 or so in Sweden, 13,000 in Finland and 2000 in Russia. Though Sámi culture had faced repression over the course of time in all four countries, it has nevertheless survived; the Sámi have their own language, flag, national anthem, customs and more. The traditional Sámi costume, called the kolt, is worn on special occasions across Sápmi and although all variants use the same colours: blue, red, yellow and green, the appearance varies depending on the region, and Sámi can determine at a glance where the costume comes from.
In all four countries the Sámi way of life was encroached upon when colonisation of Sápmi, or Lappland as it was known, began in earnest, and the establishment of borders between Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia restricted the grazing land of the reindeer. The Sámi still face threats to their land in the form of powerful interests – mining, logging, tourism and military activities – and to counter these threats representative bodies known as Sámi Parliaments have been formed, lobbying for Sámi interests with varying degrees of success; Russia is the only country not to recognise the Sámi as a minority.
Meet the Sámi
In Sweden, the majority of the Sámi live in and around Kiruna, Jokkmokk and Arvidsjaur; in Norway, Kautokeino and Karasjok have the highest concentration of Sámi, while in Finland, many live in and around Inari, Enontekiö and Utsjoki have Sámi majorities.
Those interested in delving deeper into Sámi culture can visit the excellent Ajtte Museum in Jokkmokk, which tackles different aspects of Sámi life – from their history to shamanism to the making of silver jewellery. An unparalleled collection of Sámi silver can be seen at the Silvermuseet, near Arvidsjaur. The Sami National Museum in Karasjok showcases works by contemporary Sámi artists, as well as traditional clothing and hunting techniques, while the Siida Museum in Inari explores the relationship between the Sámi and the harsh environment they inhabit, complete with beautiful photography.
Read about how to join the Sámi reindeer migration >
The biggest event of the Sámi year is the Jokkmokk Winter Market, held in early February. It’s the oldest and biggest of its kind, attracting over 30,000 people from all over Sápmi. Sámi traders come to make contacts, visitors can choose from the best array of Sami duodji (handicrafts) and there are food-tasting sessions, live bands, parades, photography exhibitions and reindeer races on the frozen Lake Talvatissjön.
For visitors interested in experiencing Sámi life, there are a number of operators across Sápmi who focus on specific aspects of Sámi culture. Nutti Sámi Siida, based near the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, arranges visits to the Ráidu Sámi camp to meet reindeer herders, reindeer sled excursions and an eight-day reindeer sled trip through the tundra to the Norwegian border, staying in Sami tents and wilderness huts. Tromsø Lapland in Tromsø, Norway introduce you to reindeer sledding, Sámi food and yoiking, lasso-throwing and overnight stays in a lavvu (traditional Sámi dwelling), while in Finland you can watch the reindeer races and attend Skábmagovat – the Indigenous People’s Film and TV Production Festival in Inari and go hiking, hunting and fishing with Sámi guides of Poronpurijat.
Indulge in Sámi art and music
From Stone Age rock carvings to twenty first century installations, Sámi art has come a long way. Pioneers of Sámi art at the turn of the twentieth century included include Johan Turi, Nils Nilsson Skum and John Savio, but the real breakthrough only came in the 1970s, due to the development of an extremely strong commitment to preserving Sami culture and individuality. This year, as part of the European Capital of Culture events in Umeå, Sweden, the Bildmuseet is showcasing Eight Sámi Artists, from installations by Carola Grahn to paintings by Per Enoksson and Anders Sunna.
One of the cornerstones of Sami identity is the yoik, the oldest musical form in Europe that has traditionally provided a bond between the Sami and nature. The yoik is a rhythmic poem or song composed for a specific person, event or object to describe and remember their innate nature. Though banned as witchcraft at one point, the yoiking tradition was revived in the 1960s, and it’s now performed in many different ways – including yoik metal by Finnish band Shaman, and minimalist folk-rock with yoik roots, performed by Norwegian singer Mari Boine.
Where to buy Sámi handicrafts
The 1970s saw a revival of traditional Sámi craftsmanship; since then, genuine Sámi handwork that utilises traditional designs and materials bears the Sámi Duodji trademark of authenticity.
Sámi crafts combine utility with beauty; men tend to pursue ‘hard crafts’, such as knife-making, woodwork or silverwork, whereas ‘soft craft’, such as leatherwork and textiles, has traditionally been the female domain. Look out for knives in bone sheaths with abundantly engraved handles made of reindeer antler, wooden guksi (drinking cups) or other vessels, made by hollowing out a burl and often inlaid with reindeer bone; cloth decorated with colourful geometric patterns, beautifully-crafted leather bags and silverwork – anything from belt buckles and brooches to earrings and pendants. Reputable Sámi craftsmen include Ellenor Walkeapää in Porjus, Sweden, who specialises in cotton and linen clothing with Sami designs; knife-maker and woodcarver Jesper Eriksson in Jokkmokk, silversmith Juhls Sølvsmie in Kautokeino, knifemaker Knivsmed Strømeng in Karasjok, jewellery, spoons and leatherwork by Petteri Laiti and felt design by Kaija Palto in Inari.
Eat like a Sámi
Traditional Sámi cuisine revolves around reindeer meat and fish, supplemented with cloudberries, lingonberries, herbs such as mountain sorrel, and mushrooms in season. The fish, such as the Arctic char and trout, are eaten fresh, dried or smoked, and every part of the reindeer is consumed, including marrowbone and hooves, with the intestines used to make black pudding; other dishes include renkok (reindeer stew), bread made with reindeer blood, dried reindeer meat and suovas (smoked, sliced reindeer meat). Gáhkku (flatbread baked on embers), ideally cooked over an open fire, is another typical Sámi dish; while cooking was traditionally the premise of Sámi men, women are now also allowed in the kitchen. Restaurants serving Sámi cuisine include the Áttje Restaurant in Jokkmokk, Sweden, Treehotel, Camp Ripan in Kiruna, Duotar Restaurant at the Thon Hotel in Kautokeino, Strogammen at the Rica Hotel in Karasjok, Sámi Tallberg in Helsinki and Tradition Hotel Kultahovi in Inari.