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Johan I. Borgos:

The Sami people

A brief history

The Sami people lives in the northern parts of four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia (the Kola Peninsula). In earlier times Sápmi (the land of the Sami) covered a much bigger part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, probably also more of northern Russia.

In this north-western part of Europe the Sami people is the indigenous population, as far as we know today. Many scientists believe that this ethnic group descends from the Komsa people, who lived along the northern coast as far back as eight to ten thousand years ago.

Through the ages the Sami culture has changed very much and become diversified in the same process. The Sami were gatherers and hunters for thousands of years. They may have been farmers, too. Wild reindeer in the inland and fish in rivers, lakes and the coastal waters were among their main food resources.

The Sami never created a state system, but nevertheless they had a well-organized society, with the siida as the fundamental unit. A siida was an area along a river, a lake or a fjord. Up to twelve families shared each siida, where they had different living places for each season. A siida council decided how the resources should be harvested through the year. This was a very democratic system at the core of an adaptation that didn't threaten its resource base.

When the stock of wild reindeer decreased after the Middle ages some of the families in inland siidas started to keep reindeer herds. No siida had enough grazing land for such big herds. The reindeer had to be moved from the inland plains to the coast and back again every year, crossing many siidas. This was one of the reasons for the decline of the siida system. Pressure from other people (Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Russians) colonizing Sami land was another.

In the coastal areas most of the Sami never had reindeer herds. They lived as farmers and fishermen, a traditional combination along the Norwegian coast. In the later centuries other groups have moved in among them, mainly Norwegians and Kvens (immigrants from Finland).

From the 1700s pressure against Sami culture grew. In Norway the authorities tried to "norwegianize" the Sami, using the school, the church and the laws as means in this policy. Social-darwinistic and nationalistic ideas played a significant role as an ideological base. Things have changed to the better the last twenty years.

This is only a crude sketch of the always interesting and sometimes tragic history of the Sami people. The Net has a lot of good information if you wish to learn more - just google (or bing) the word "saami" or "sami".

Lapps, Finns or Sami?

In earlier times the Sami were called Lapps (as in Lapland and Lappmarken) and Finns (as in Finnmark and Finland). During the centuries when they were suppressed by their majority neighbours the names 'Lapp' and 'Finn' acquired a disparaging value (in English the word 'Finn' means an inhabitant of Finland).

In the last decades Sami (or same in Norwegian and Swedish), derived from their own word sámit, has replaced the older names.

How many Sami?

Assimilation makes it difficult to give exact numbers for the Sami population today. They are at least 30 thousand, but they may be twice as many. The majority lives in Norway, where population numbers are at their most uncertain. Not only has assimilation gone very far in many areas, in addition a lot of Sami have moved to other parts of the country.

Russia has the smallest part. There are two thousand Sami on the Kola peninsula, fighting to survive as an ethnic group. A life-threatening environment in only one of their enemies!

The language

The Sami language is related to - but very different from - Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. Is it divided into many dialects. Over the centuries each of these dialects developed until most of them became mutually unintelligible. However, the North Sami dialect is spoken by a majority of the population, and is the most used dialect in literature and education.

Almost all Sami speak the official language of the state where they live, but far from all speak Sami. However, the Sami language is now expanding among the groups who lost it due to assimilation and cultural suppression.

Sami names

The coastal Sami in Norway use the same naming patterns and more or less the same names as the Norwegians, and have done so for at least 150 years. This applies to first names as well as surnames.

Among the inland Sami there are other names and naming traditions. They have used hereditary family names for many generations, for instance Hætta, Somby, Turi, Magga and so on. These are names used in the north. Among the 'south Sami' mountain names are often used as surnames, for instance Dunfjeld, Kvitfjell and Kappfjell (fjell means mountain).

In all the four countries Sami naming patterns have been influenced by the surrounding traditions. At the Kola Peninsula you will find that most Sami have very Russian-sounding names. However, in Norway, Sweden and Finland it's usually quite easy to recognize a name as Sami.

What does a Sami look like?

Let me answer this way: Tall or small and every height between, blue or brown eyes - slanted or not slanted at all, from very fair to very dark hair, high or medium or low cheekbones. You've got the picture?

Of course you can recognize the Sami when they wear their traditional costumes. But again, the variation is great, with many different costumes, dependent of what region the Sami belong to, and also what kind of costume they are wearing.

Sami and the reindeer

The reindeer-herding Sami is a minority within their own culture, in Norway less than 10% of the Sami population there. But this group has always been proud keepers of the traditional values in their culture, let it be costumes, joik (their songs), lavvu (their tents), language or other cultural traits.

The traditional reindeer-herding is threatened in many ways, but the Sami culture is more vital than it was a hundred years ago. Today you'll find well-educated and gifted Sami in almost every imaginable occupation on all levels of the society. They may not have a reindeer herd in the mountains, but they are without doubt Sami and proud of it.

Sami emigration?

Yes, a group of Sami emigrated to America a hundred years ago. Their descendants are aware of their Sami roots. However, many emigrants from the Nordic majority peoples had Sami ancestors, perhaps without knowing it. This is at least true for the Norwegians. So, if your ancestors came from Nordland, Troms or Finnmark counties in Norway, be prepared to add a new ethnic dimension to your ancestry!

Bygdebok and the Sami

Don't expect to find any information about the Sami in a bygdebok written by a Norwegian before 1980 or even later than that. And if you find some Sami history there it will in most cases be inaccurate and given far less attention than it deserves. This reflects attitudes with roots back in times when the Sami culture was looked upon as inferior compared with Norwegian culture.

Is it difficult to research Sami ancestry?

In some cases - yes, in other cases - no. Sami genealogy information appears in more or less the same sources as the majority people do, at least in Norway and Sweden. In some areas much good work has been done to reconstruct the old family history, and some books are published, most of them in Finnmark county (Norway) and in Sweden. Every dialect group seems to have a genealogy project going on.

The times are a-changing!

Years ago many genealogists stopped the research on an ancestry line when a Sami appeared there. Today more and more genealogists double their efforts if this happens!

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