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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Roots and Cultures of the Sami - Europe's Arctic Indigenous Population

Article by: Helen Kurvits

A Life High up North

When thinking of Sami people, you may know nothing. Or perhaps reindeer racing and living in cold climates spring to mind. Either way, life for the largest indigenous people in Northern Europe is fascinating. Most Sami people are living high up in the Scandinavian and Kola peninsula. The semi-nomadic groups are spread out on the territories of four countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. It is estimated that about 80,000 to 100,000 Sami people are living here. And in three of those countries, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, Sami people are even represented by their own Sami parliaments. With such geographical and democratic diversity, let us explore this unique culture.

The Sami Languages

First, and essential to underpinning any culture, is delving into their language. The Sápmi area, where the Sami people have traditionally lived, amounts to 400,000 km2. However, nowadays only 2.5% to 5% of the population in this area are Sami people. Life in smaller communities, spanning across a large area, adds quite some variety to the Sami languages. Rather than one language, nine living Sami languages form a group. Six of these also have independent literary languages. According to some, these can be classified as dialects of one language. However, it often occurs that the Sami language speakers themselves do not understand the speakers of another Sami language and vice-versa. So, do their roots stem from the same tongue?

The Languages Reveal the Roots

The Sami languages belong to the Uralic language family together with Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian and others. As such, it is believed that the Sami people originated from the Volga region and moved northwest during the second millennium BC. However, the amount of time the Sami people have been in the Northern region remains debated. Similarities with the other Uralic languages can surely be noted in grammar and in the Northern Sami language “giitu” means thank you. Knowing some Finnish, one might notice the similarity with “kiitos” which is the Finnish word used for thanking someone; showing some similarities. The Sami languages are strongly shaped by the Sami way of life itself.

Linguistic Diversity Shaped by Lifestyle

The lifestyle of the Sami people has had a great influence on the variety of vocabulary. While there are hundreds of words to describe snow and ice, there are also thought to be about 1,000 Sami words devoted to reindeer appearance, behaviour and habits. Interestingly, the word reindeer is the same in all Sami languages. “Goddi” signifies a wild reindeer and “boazu” is a tamed reindeer who can be milked. This rather distinctive way of describing reindeer in so many different ways could be a hint at the livelihoods of the Sami communities.

What About Those Reindeer?

Traditionally, Sami people pursued reindeer herding and in some regions of the Nordic countries, reindeer herding is legally reserved only for Sami people. Nowadays, only about 10% of the Sami are connected to this. The reindeer meat is used for cooking and leather and fur are used to make shoes and clothing. Antlers and bones can make useful tools and decorative objects. On top of that, it is possible to study reindeer herding at a higher education level. But aside from this, it is said that many of the Sami are also talented in sheep herding and fishing, with the latter being pursued by people living in coastal areas. So, now we know that the Sami communicate in an array of languages and what they do for a livelihood; but there are also many other quirks to the Sami culture.

“A Joik is Like a Friend – All People Should Have a Joik”

The Sami traditional way of singing is called “joik”. The name comes from the verb “juoigat” meaning “to sing something”. Understanding the essence of joik needs a more philosophical way of thinking. According to tradition, people do not joik about something or someone but they joik something or someone. It is a type of philosophy, about the connection with nature and the people around you. The fairies and elves of the Arctic lands gave joiks to the Sami people. Joik is usually dedicated to a person, animal, or landscape. The aim is to make the listener feel as if he or she could experience that person, animal or place through the mere sound of the joik. The joik greatly varies between the regions but they usually have no lyrics and are sung a cappella even though these may be accompanied by a drum. Traditionally, joiks were used in everyday life. The origins of the joik are unknown because the Sami had no written language in the past, but it is believed to be one of the longest-living music traditions in Europe.

What the Shape of the Buttons Tell About Someone

The Sami people’s national clothing, Gákti, is traditionally made of reindeer skin. Nowadays, wool, cotton and silk are more common materials which are used for this purpose. Besides ceremonial contexts, Gákti can also be worn while working, especially in reindeer herding. The pieces of clothing are decorated differently and as such make it possible to make a distinction from which area one is from. But the buttons on the belt of Gákti can also reveal the person’s marital status. If the buttons of the belt of Gákti are square, then the person wearing it is married, and if they are round, the person is unmarried. Or, if the ex-husband continues to use the clothing made by his ex-wife after a divorce, it expresses that he wants her back. Who knew buttons could have such significance?


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