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THE SAMI PEOPLE

It could be argued that the Sami in Sweden, and indeed in the rest of Scandinavia, compared to many other indigenous peoples, live in relative harmony with the mainstream population. But the relationship has by no means been one without conflict.

ASSIMILATION: Through the years many efforts have been made to assimilate the Sami into the mainstream culture of Sweden with the hard custody of Sami peoples resulting in a great loss of their culture. The Sami still bear the consequences of language and culture loss related to generations of them being taken to missionary and/or state-run boarding schools, and the legacy of laws that were created to deny their rights. Yoiking, drumming and scarification have been regarded as "magic" or "sorcery", and banned during various periods of history. The Sami language has been forbidden in schools. In 1913-1920, the Swedish race-segregation policy created an institute which collected research material from living people and graves. Sami women were sterilized under the auspices of a programme that was in existence until 1975. In the 1990s the Swedish government revoked the Sami exclusive right for hunting within their communities and created a new law permitting non-Sami people to fish in lakes previously reserved for the Sami.

LAND GRABS: Throughout history, settlers have been en-couraged to move to the northern regions through incentives such as land- and water-rights, tax-allowances, and military exemptions. Strong economic development in the form of mines in Kiruna and Gällivare and the construction of the Luleå-Narvik railway has led to a weakening of status and economy for the Sami.

AN APOLOGY: In 1998 Sweden formally apologized for the wrongs committed against the Sami and the authorities have been making an effort to build up Sami cultural institutions and promote Sami culture and language to make up for past suppression. But economic development, like the world's largest onshore wind farm being built where the Eastern Kikkejaure village has its winter reindeer pastures, are a cause of concern for the Sami.

In terms of population the Sami, Europe’s northernmost and the Nordic countries’ only officially indigenous people, number around 75 000 with 20 000 living in Sweden. The Sami are one of the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Europe, but among the smallest indigenous groups in the world.

SAMI NATION: In the past the Sami, sometimes also spelt Saami or Sámi, have been known as Lapps, though this term is now widely considered to be derogatory.

The giant area named Sapmi, which covers all land north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula, as well as south into Jämtland and Dalarna in the northwest part of Sweden near the Norwegian border, is partly recognized as a Sami nation in all these countries. In Sweden, the Sami homeland area covers more than 150 000 square kilometers, around 35 percent of the country’s total area. There are Sami political, cultural and youth organizations in all four countries and a Sami parliament in each of the three Nordic countries, with Sweden’s located in the town of Kiruna. The Sametingslag, the Swedish Sami Parliament was established on January 1, 1993.

The Compulsory School Ordinance states that Sami pupils are entitled to be taught in their native language. However a municipality is only obliged to arrange mother tongue teaching in Sami if a suitable teacher is available and the pupil has a basic knowledge of Sami. Legislation still technically bans speaking in a language other than Swedish in the workplace, and yoiking, Sami song-chants, is still banned in schools.

JOKKMOKK: One of the main centers for Sami culture is in the town of Jokkmokk, where there is the Sami museum and the Sami college. This is also where the renowned annual winter market, with a strong presence of traditional Sami culture, takes place every February, attracting a growing number of international visitors. There is a Sami theatre, Beaivvaš, in Kiruna. A number of novels and poetry collections are published every year in Northern Sami and sometimes in the other Sami languages, as well.

LIFESTYLE: Though they have, in most aspects, been fully assimilated in modern Swedish society, the Sami still proudly and energetically retain their traditional culture and lifestyle. A large majority of the Sami live in permanent urban and rural settings but an element of their traditional nomadic lifestyle remains as the reindeer herders and their families follow the herds over huge areas, from the forests in winter to the mountain highlands in summer, though today they use modern equipment such as snowmobiles, motorcycles and helicopters, rather than skis and dogs. The traditional Sami tepee, or “kåta” is still in use.

ORIGIN: In Lappland there are traces of Sami settlements that date as far back as to the Ice Age, some 9 600 years ago. It is believed that since the Viking Age, the Sami culture has been driven further and further north. The frequency of blood group and protein polymorphisms in Sami differ significantly from the general Swedish population. The genetic lineage of the Sami is unique, and may reflect an early history of geographic isolation, genetic drift, and genetic bottle-necking. The uniqueness of the Sami gene pool has made it one of the most extensively studied genetic population in the world.

ORIGIN: Originally, with the Sami languages belonging to the Uralic languages family of Eurasia, it was suggested that the Sami might be of Siberian origin. In more recent years the use of mitochondrial DNA and Y-DNA chromosomal markers has provided more clarification on the origin of the Sami. While their mtDNA haplogroup distribution mainly represents a subset of the European gene-pool, the most common Y-DNA haplogroup among the Sami is of Asian origin. However the second most common haplogroup is I, which is found almost exclusively among those of European ancestry. Thus the Sami appear to have a complex population history, suggesting a mixture of peoples arriving in Fenno-Scandia at different times, from different directions. Their physical appearance reflects this, varying from very European-looking with blond hair and blue eyes like Finns or Scandinavians, to almost indistinguishable from East Asians, indigenous Siberians, or Inuit. There is also an intriguing study that suggesting a connection between the Sami and the Berber people of northern Africa.

HERDING: Originally, the Sami were hunters and fishers. Around 1500, they started taming the reindeer into herding groups and switching to a nomadic lifestyle. Today all reindeer in the Sami area are tame and owned by someone. About ten percent of the Sami are still reindeer herders. They are divided over 44 communities where the families derive most of their income from reindeer herding.

Reindeer herding forms the heart of the Sami culture as all laws recognizing the rights of the Sami apply only to the people involved in reindeer husbandry. The Sami are the only people legally permitted to be reindeer herders in Sweden. During the years of forced assimilation, the areas where reindeer herding was an important livelihood were among the few where the Sami culture and language survived.

GRAZING RIGHTS: The Supreme Court has in the fall of 2011 ruled that Sami reindeer herders in northern Sweden can continue to let their animals graze in forests, thereby ending 14 years of legal wrangling. In the landmark decision, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling from the Court of Appeal for Upper Norrland which said that the Sami had proven that their ancestors had grazed reindeer on the land in the Nordmaling area "since time immemorial".

The Supreme Court’s decision sets a legal precedent for indigenous rights and will be studied closely. It was in 1997 that 104 forest owners in the Nordmaling area sued three reindeer herding collectives owned by indigenous Sami people in the area. The landowners charged that reindeer grazing was causing major damage to their land and forests, and argued that the Sami’s traditional rights in the area were not legal. Besides losing the case, the landowners have to pay the legal costs incurred by the Sami villages, running to a total of 3.75 million kronor.

LANGUAGES: Almost all Sami speak Swedish but they also have their own language. There is no single Sami language, but a group of ten distinct languages that are relatively closely related but not mutually intelligible. Six of these languages have their own written standards. All Sami languages are endangered. The Sami languages belong to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family, the origins of which are geographically from the Ural mountains of Eurasian Siberia. This means that the Sami language is linguistically related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian. In addition there are a number of Germanic loanwords in Sami, particularly for "urban" objects.

SHAMANISM: Widespread Shamanism persisted among the Sami up until the 18th century. The old beliefs are closely connected to the land, animism, and the supernatural. Sami spirituality is often characterized by pantheism, a strong emphasis on the importance of personal spirituality and its interconnectivity with one's own daily life, and a deep connection between the natural and spiritual worlds. Among other roles, the Sami Shaman, or Noaidi, enabled ritual communication with the supernatural through the use of tools such as drums, chants, and sacred objects. Some practices within the Old Sami religion included natural sacred sites such as mountains, springs, land formations, as well as man-made ones such as petroglyphs and labyrinths. The Sami religion shared some elements with the Norse mythology, possibly from early contacts with trading Vikings or vice versa.

CHRISTIANITY: Christianity was introduced by Roman Catholic missionaries as early as the 13th century. Increased pressure came after the Protestant Reformation, and rune drums were burned or sent to museums abroad. In this period, many Sami practiced their traditional religion at home, while going to church on Sunday. Since the Sami were considered to possess “witchcraft”' powers, they were often accused of sorcery during the 17th century and were the subjects of witchcraft trials and burnings.

The Swedish Sami vicar Lars Levi Læstadius initiated a puritan Lutheran movement among the Sami around 1840. This movement is still very dominant in Sami speaking areas although most Sami today belong to the Lutheran church.

HANDICRAFTS: Duodji, the Sami handicraft is an essential part of Sami culture. This originates from the time when the Sami were self-supporting nomads. Therefore the objects first and foremost serve a purpose rather than being decorative. Men mostly use wood, bone, and antlers to make items such as antler-handled scrimshawed knives, drums and guksi (burl cups). Women use leather and roots to make items such as gakti (clothing), and birch and spruce root woven baskets.

JOIJK: A characteristic feature of Sami musical tradition is the singing of yoik/joik which is an important bearer of oral tradition. Yoiks are song-chants and are traditionally sung a cappella, slowly and deep in the throat with apparent emotional content of sorrow or anger. But yoiks can also be joyous. They are often dedicated to animals and birds in nature, to special people or special occasions, and are often based on syllabic improvisation.

The only traditional Sami instruments that were sometimes used to accompany yoik are the "fadno" flute, made from reed-like Angelica archangelica stems, and hand drums - frame drums, and bowl drums, but in recent years all kinds of instruments come along for the ride.

CLOTHES: Gakti are the traditional clothing worn by the Sami both in ceremonial contexts and while working, particularly when herding reindeer. Traditionally the gakti was made from reindeer leather and sinews, but nowadays it is more common to use wool, cotton, or silk in variations of red, blue, green and white. Women’s gakti typically consist of a dress, a fringed shawl, that is fastened with 1-3 silver brooches, and boots/shoes made of reindeer fur or leather. Boots can have a pointed or curled toes and often have band-woven ankle wraps. Eastern Sami boots have a rounded toe on reindeer fur boots with beaded details. Men's gakti have a shorter "jacket-skirt" than a women's long dress. Hats can be wool, leather, or fur. They can be embroidered or, in the East, they are more like a beaded cloth crown with a shawl. The gakti can be worn with a belt. These are sometimes band-woven or finger-woven. Leather belts can have scrimshawed antler buttons, silver concho-like buttons, or brass/copper details such as rings. Belts can also have beaded leather pouches, antler needle cases, and often have a carved and/or scrimshawed antler handled knife.

The colours, patterns and the jewellery of the gakti indicate where a person is from, if a person is single or married, and sometimes can even be specific to their family. Some regions have ribbon work, others have tin embroidery, and some Eastern Sami have beading details on clothing or collar.

RIGHTS: Sweden recognized the existence of a “Sami nation” in 1989, but the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, C169 has not been adopted. All indigenous rights are currently banned. Sweden has received strong international criticism, including by the UN Racial Discrimination Committee and the Human Rights Committee, for violating Sami land rights by not regulating industrial activities in the traditional lands, and not giving Sami villages an opportunity for genuine participation in decisions affecting them. In 2010 Sweden was criticized for its relations with the Sami in the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the Working Group of the Human Rights Council.

But even though the Sami continue to experience cultural and environmental threats including oil exploration, mining, dam building, logging, climate change, military bombing ranges, tourism and commercial development, they are today and integral and respected part of modern-day Sweden, and with increasing awareness of their rich history there should be a good chance for their culture to flourish in an increasingly multi-cultural society.