Over the past centuries, as borders were drawn around the globe, many of the ancient nomadic cultures of human civilization were forced to stop moving, forced to stand still. These cultures roamed the lands of Africa, the Middle East and North America, continents home to people who laid claim to no property, but lived freely surviving from the land. They hunted, fished, and lived in areas suited for the season. When conditions changed, they moved. The very idea of owning property was a foreign concept, even unheard of. But as nations took hold and land rights vanished, so did many of these nomadic cultures. Instead, they were made to adapt to a life unwanted and unknown. Stories similar to these of indigenous populations around the globe are told often, and some are still being fought for. However, Europe is seldom included in any conversation involving indigenous people.
They’re cultural roots can be traced back 10,000 years to a time when the hunting of large game was a necessity to survive the cold European north. Today, the Sami people and their culture remain intact. It maybe difficult for many to believe that such cultures still exist in Europe, but this one does, in four different countries in fact. In spite of all the modern advancements of Europe, and throughout the world, the Sami continue to live within communities practicing a traditional way of life. But most people probably never heard of them until now.
With a population ranging from 50,000 to 70,000 the Sami still call Scandinavia home, with communities in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, while a small population lives in Russia. Although they have no state of their own, the Sami have full rights as citizens within their nations and are officially represented in the Scandinavian parliaments, where a Nordic Sami Council even exists. However, in Russia, the Sami did not realize their rights until the fall of the Iron Curtain. Regardless of rights, maintaining traditions are challenging.
The Sami are best known as the “Reindeer People“. Arts, culture, and economics all involve the animal made famous by the myth of Santa. In Sweden, a vast majority of the Sami population still receive portions of their income from the reindeer trade. Many though have been left with little choice to seek other work in more modern practices due to deforestation and the construction of hydroelectric dams that leave less and less space for all to profit from reindeer.
Despite the challenges, the Sami speak both the national languages of their home countries and traditional dialect specific to the region. This also means communicating as one culture is impossible. Despite language barriers, the Sami in Sweden have access to university programs focused on their culture, as well as in Norway and Finland. Even though Christianity has been adopted and observed by the people, the Sami continue to practice their own religion, one that is closely linked to nature. As a people, the Sami have persevered through history. But having to adapt to a modern Europe has left many Young Sami having to choose between tradition or modern life.
For travelers interested in the Sami culture, it is possible to visit communities in Sweden where traditions are still practiced and possible to experience. As the Sami are known as a people open to foreigners, visitors should feel free to introduce themselves and be curious. Visits during the Christmas will provide people with a first-hand look at an ancient culture still in practice. And if you’re lucky, maybe even with a reindeer.