Sami: Indigenous People in Sweden and Beyond

Sami flag (picture courtesy of sweden.se)
Sami flag (photo from sweden.se)

I have to say that there were very few surprises in Sweden. Furnishings are both functional and creative, weather chilly and snowy, most people tall and blond, and political protests considered regular occurrences. But I did learn about one surprising component that overlaps with Sweden’s culture and history: an indigenous people known as Sami.

Sami memorabilia at the Stockholm Nordic Museum's Sami exhibit
Sami memorabilia at the Stockholm Nordic Museum’s Sami exhibit

Who are the Sami?

Sami are an indigenous people and ethnic minority from Sápmi, an area of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and an adjoining area of Russia. Outsiders have termed this area Lapland and, in the past, referred to the Sami people as Laps or Laplanders.

The reindeer remains an important symbol of this culture, which developed around nomadic reindeer herding. Only around a tenth of Sami still depend on the traditional livelihood today, partly due to conflicting government regulations regarding land and herding. Traditional crafts include carved wooden reindeer milking pots, round on the bottom to prevent being knocked over.

Reindeer tools and crafts at the Nordic Museum's Sami exhibit
Reindeer tools and crafts, including milking pot with handle

As with many other indigenous peoples, the Sami culture historically relied on a predominantly oral language and celebrates a close relationship with nature. The colors of their flag, in fact, which represents Sami throughout the international Sápmi region, symbolize the interconnectedness between the elements of nature.

And, unfortunately, as an ethnic minority group, the Sami were subjected to discrimination and dehumanization during darker times in history. Before the end of World War II, for example, Sami people were measured and examined as part of eugenics research. Even in later times, many families stopped speaking their native language at home and encouraged their children to assimilate with mainstream Swedish culture.

Poem in the Nordic Museum
Poem in the exhibit

The Nordic Museum in Stockholm has an interesting and, in my opinion, thoughtfully presented exhibit about Sami culture. Each section of the exhibit invites the visitor to reflect on the reciprocal exchange as well as controversy that occurs when cultures converge: Whose history? Whose land? Whose influence?

In addition, it includes voices, pictures and opinions of modern day Sami who identify with their sense of being Sami and Swedish in varying ways. One woman summarized her connection to each culture so: “Swedish is my nationality but Sami is my identity.”

Photos from Jokkmokk, Arctic Sweden (photo courtesy of sweden.se)
Sami folk costume from Jokkmokk, Arctic Sweden (photo from sweden.se)

Read more about the Sami on Sweden’s Official Site: https://sweden.se/society/sami-in-sweden/

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4 thoughts on “Sami: Indigenous People in Sweden and Beyond

  1. Thanks for writing about the Sami, this was informative and thought-provoking. I didn’t really know about them or what they had gone through and the issue of nationality and identity are very pertinent ones.

    1. Thanks for reading! I had never heard of the Sami before my trip, so it was interesting to see common themes with minority cultures from other parts of the world (and unique cultural elements as well). Senses of nationality and identity are definitely very interesting topics, and I think very personal constructs.

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