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The Sami of Norway

By Elina Helander


A brief history
Recent Developments
Sami culture


The author of the article, Elina Helander, has studied languages, ethnography and political science and has a Ph.D from the University of Umeå,in Sweden. Since 1975 she has worked as assistant lecturer and lecturer in Sami. Ms Helander has worked at the Nordic Sami Institute since 1985, first as head of the educational section and later as director of the Institute. Ms Helander has focused her research on the Sami language and its significance for the national identity of the Sami. She has also written a number of articles on the current situation for the Sami, and now plans to undertake a study of Sami youth.

An ethnic minority and a separate people, but Norwegian citizens too. This is how Norway officially defines the country's Sami ethnic minority. But this has not always been the case. Since 1980, the legal status of the Sami, the native inhabitants of Norway, has been considerably improved. This change in attitude is reflected in an Article in the Norwegian Constitution which the national assembly, the Storting, ratified in 1988. It reads as follows:

It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.

The Sami Act sets out the main guidelines for the Sami Parliament (Sameting), which was officially opened in 1989. The Parliament's sphere of operations and other current Sami issues are described in this article, which has its starting point in early history.

The Sami are an indigenous people who form an ethnic minority in Norway, Sweden and Finland. There is also a small population on Russia's Kola peninsula. In more recent history, i.e. from about the sixteenth century, Sami have inhabited nearly all the areas of the Nordic countries where they now have permanent settlements. The Sami region extends from Idre, in Dalarne, Sweden, and adjacent areas in Norway south to Engerdal in Hedmark County. To the north and east it stretches to Utsjoki in Finland, Varanger in Norway and on to the Kola peninsula in Russia.

The size of the Sami population has been reckoned at somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000; a cautious estimate would be about 70,000. In Norway there are believed to be between 40,000 and 45,000 Sami, largely concentrated in Finnmark, where there are some 25,000. Sweden has about 17,000 Sami, Finland around 5,700 and Russia approximately 2,000.

In a number of contexts the word "Sami" is used without any further definition. According to the Act No.56 of 12 June 1987 relating to the Sami Parliament and other Sami legal issues (The Sami Act), a Sami is a person who:

Thus, the everyday use of the Sami language is decisive in determining a person's right to be classified as a Sami and his or her right to vote for representatives to the Sami Parliament or be eligible for election. A similar definition has been formulated in Finland for the Finnish Sami parliament's register of Sami. When the Swedes establish a comparable body, their definition will probably be similar to these.

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The oldest written source of knowledge on the Sami is the Roman historian Tacitus' descriptions of a people whom he called "fenni", in the book "De origine et situ Germanorum" written in 98.A.D. In 555 A.D. the Greek historian, Procopius, describes a war waged between the Romans and the Goths. He refers to Scandinavia as "Thule", and among its inhabitants was a people he referred to as "skridfinns". Paulus Diaconus, writing around 750, also mentions the "skridfinns," describing them as hunters and skiers who kept animals resembling deer (reindeer). The Icelandic sagas confirm these observations. Written largely in the 13th century, the sagas cover the period from about the tenth to the thirteenth century A.D. Traders who had dealings with the Sami bought and sold goods and collected taxes. Animal hides were the most popular commodities at this time, while earlier, in the Viking Age, and later, in the Middle Ages, furs were a highly prized commodity among the peoples of the north.

The richest source of information on the Sami in early historical times is the writings of Ottar, dating from the end of the ninth century. Ottar, who is believed to have come from Malangen in north Norway, served at the court of the English king, Alfred the Great. His description of his native region was added to King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon version of Orosius' history of the world. Ottar related that he owned 800 domesticated reindeer, several of them decoy animals, which are particularly valuable, but his main source of livelihood was collecting taxes from the Sami.

In 1673 Johannes Schefferus issued the book "Lapponia", which provides important information on the life of the Sami at that time.

During the Middle Ages, Sweden, Norway (subsequently Denmark-Norway), and Russia vied for control over the Sami regions, and at times the Sami paid taxes to several states at the same time. Sweden and Denmark/ Norway reached agreement on a boundary in 1751 and as a result of this, Sweden surrendered the two parishes of Kautokeino and Karasjok, in Finnmark, to Denmark-Norway. Norway and Russia agreed on a boundary in 1826.

Early writings describe the Sami as pagans, and churches were built in the Sami regions as early as the twelfth century. In 1714 the College of Missions was founded in Copenhagen and two years later the Pietist Thomas von Westen was chosen to lead missionary work among the Sami, though the College also had an educational function.

Von Westen preached throughout the entire Sami area in Norway from 1716 to 1727. He strongly opposed the Sami practice of shamanism, with its bearing elements of the shaman (priest) and the shaman drums. However, he encouraged the use of the Sami language among the missionaries and clergy, a policy which met with growing opposition after his death in 1727.

In the 1800s Niels Vibe Stockfleth was very active among the Sami, as priest and missionary, and his interest in Sami was highly instrumental in promoting acceptance of the language. Stockfleth translated many works into Sami, including the New Testament, and he succeeded in the difficult task of getting courses in Sami studies accepted at the University of Oslo (then Christiania).

During the Middle Ages, the Sami lived by hunting and trapping, living in small communities known as "siidas", each of which had its own territory. Research carried out at the Nordic Sami Institute has shown that the "siidas" may in fact have enjoyed full ownership rights over their areas. They were also a central element of traditional Sami society.

In the 1600 and 1700s, colonization of the northern areas began in earnest.The settlers concentrated mainly on farming, a source of livelihood which contrasted strongly with the traditional Sami occupations. They had houses, butter,wool and milk, products which many Sami found interesting, but many of the settlers adapted to the Sami way of life, copying their customs, attire, diet and household practices.

Social Darwinism led to a change of attitudes towards the Sami around the year 1850. Reforms were introduced, starting with the schools. At the end of the 1800s teachers were instructed to restrict the use of the Sami language in the schools. From 1902 and onwards, it was forbidden to sell land to anyone who could not speak Norwegian; the process of "Norwegianization" was in full swing,and in the period between the two World Wars the policy was practised quite aggressively.

After World War II, Norwegian policy towards the Sami changed character. A number of reports were prepared on teaching in the schools, and more liberal policies were framed, but it was some time before they had any effect.

The major step forward came in the 1960s, when the Sami's right to preserve and develop their own culture was officially acknowledged. Sami was taught in the schools, and new institutions were established, such as the Sami Collections in Karasjok and the South Sami Collections, a museum and cultural centre for the South Sami, in South Trøndelag county.

When the Alta River in Finnmark was dammed up as part of a hydroelectric power scheme in 1980-81 -- a project which angered many Sami -- the resulting controversy focused more attention on the Sami, and led to fresh reports and new measures.

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Official Norwegian policy is now based on the principle that although the Sami are Norwegian subjects, they constitute an ethnic minority and a separate people.

The legal status of the Sami improved considerably during the 1980s. In 1980 two committees were appointed, one to look into cultural issues in relation to the Sami (Samekulturutvalget) and the other to study legal aspects (Samerettsutvalget). Part of the mandate of the first of these committees was to pave the way for the subsequent Sami Language Act, and in the spring of 1990, the Government submitted a proposition to the Storting on rules of law for the use of the Sami language. The aim of the new legislation is to bring the Sami language onto an equal legal footing with Norwegian and to increase the possibilities for using Sami in an official context. It is expected to come into force from the spring of 1992.

The committee dealing with legal matters had a wide mandate. It focused on the question of constitutional rights for the Sami people and on the establishment of a body of representatives for the Sami. The Norwegian Official Report (NOU) 1984:18 concerning the legal rights of the Sami -- gives an account of these issues. The report contained a draft bill on a Sami Parliament and other legal matters pertaining to the Sami. The next reports from the Sami rights committee will deal with legal rights in the administration of natural resources in the areas of Sami settlement.

In April 1988, Sami rights received national recognition when the Storting adopted the already mentioned new Article to the Constitution, Article 110a.

Further progress was made in 1990 when Norway ratified the ILO (International Labour Organisation) Convention No. 169, which deals with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, and which was adopted at the 76th session of the international ILO conference in 1989.

There is now a special political adviser for Sami issues at the Ministry of Local Government.


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The Sami language belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family, and is closely related to the Baltic Sea-Finnish languages, such as Finnish and Estonian. There are a number of theories as to the origins of the language. One of these is that the Sami previously spoke a quite different language, known as Proto-Lappish. Others believe that the ancestors of the Sami, who are generally believed to have come from the east, spoke an entirely different language, which was related to Baltic Sea Finnish, and that this language was strongly influenced by contact with Finnish.

"The Sami language" is a misleading term in that there are three distinct languages: East Sami, Central Sami and South Sami. Central Sami includes North Sami, Pite Sami and Lule Sami. The main dialects are generally believed to be the following; South Sami, Ume Sami, Pite Sami, Lule Sami, North Sami, Inari Sami, Skolt Sami, Kildin Sami and Ter Sami, though scholars disagree on these issues.

In Norway about 20,000 people speak the Sami language, in Finland around 3,000, in Sweden 10,000 and in Russia about 1,000. Most Sami speakers speak North Sami. In Norway this is spoken in the counties of Finnmark, Troms and Nordland, north of Ofoten. Lule Sami is spoken in part of Nordland county. South Sami is spoken from Nordland county to South Trøndelag county. In Varanger, East Finnmark, Skolt Sami (East Sami) too is spoken.

The use of the Sami language follows no national boundaries. In Norway, there are three main areas in which Sami is spoken; the core area, the coastal area and the remaining Sami area.

In the core area Sami is in everyday use, and is quickly gaining official status. The coastal area has traditionally been Sami-speaking but in competition with Norwegian, Sami is losing ground there. In the rest of the Sami area the population is spread, and settlements often have little contact with one another. Although Sami is in no way discriminated, the pervasive influence of Norwegian has made it difficult to revive it as an everyday language. There are, of course, scattered pockets in the two latter areas where interest in preserving the language is especially strong.

Sami children are now legally entitled to be instructed on and in their own language. A Sami educational council in Kautokeino attends to education issues in relation to the Sami.


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Many elements of the Sami culture can also be detected further east in the arctic and subarctic regions of Europe and Asia. Other cultural features are a result of contact with the peoples of the north; a contact initiated before the Viking age. Sami culture was clearly influenced by the fact that the Sami previously lived by hunting and fishing. In the sixteenth century there was a gradual transition from the hunting of wild reindeer to the present practice of herding, with the result that the Sami became a nomadic people. Today few are nomads, and in Norway less than ten per cent of the Sami are now reindeer-herders.

Major elements of the Sami cultural tradition are the yoik (Sami music which consists of rhythmic sung poems or poetic songs) the Sami language and legends, turf huts, shamanism, folk medicine, Sami national dress, the use of reindeer sleds for transport, the making of carved wares, and a knowledge of ecology.

Yoik is the original form of Sami music, and formed an integral part of the ancient Sami religion of shamanism. As a cultural means of expression it displays a rich diversity, and the singer can create many variations on a theme. Among the most popular types of yoik are those which describe the characteristics of a particular person, who then becomes the rightful owner of the yoik. Both the traditional and the modern form of Sami music have been recorded and performed in the theatre. The works of Nils Aslak Valkeapaas have had a strong influence on the renaissance of the yoik. Others who practise this ancient art are Ailu Gaup (traditional) and Mari Boine Persen, who sings modern melodies intertwined with strains of yoik.

The oral "literature" of the Sami is extensive, and a particularly distinctive form of it is the poetry which accompanies the yoik. The oldest written text of a Sami yoik is found in Johannes Schefferus' work "Lapponia", which contains two yoik poems.

The Sami have an enormous number and variety of legends. Some of these have been collected in the book "Lappisk eventyr og sagn", (Sami Fairy Tales and Legends) written by J. K. Qvigstad (1853-1957).

Before the 1900s, only religious literature, dictionaries, and language textbooks were published in Sami, and Luther's little catechism was available in North Sami as early as 1728, in a translation by the missionary, Morten Lund. The first novel in Sami was written by Anders Larsen (1870-1949). "Bæivve-Algo" (Daybreak) as the book was called, told the story of a young man's personal development in both Norwegian and Sami environments. Literary production really started to accelerate in the 1970s. Among the new authors are Nils Viktor Aslaksen, Rauni Magga Lukkari, John Gustavsen and Ailo Gaup.

Pictorial art among the Sami is inspired both by the ancient culture of reindeer-herding and by modern society. Many of the artists incorporate holy symbols from the shaman drums into their work. The reindeer-herding culture is frequently depicted in the works of John Savio (1902-1938), while Iver Jåks (1932- ) selects his motifs from a much wider spectrum. In the 1970s, more and more Sami artists appeared, among them Synnøve Persen, Trygve Lund Guttormsen and Hans Ragnar Mathiesen.

Sami-language newspapers and magazines have been issued since 1870. The oldest surviving publication is "Nuorttanaste", which is published by the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Free Church, and has appeared regularly since 1898. The Sami-language newspaper, Sami Aigi", based in Karasjok, was first issued in 1979.

Broadcasts in Sami first started in 1946. Since then, the programmes have been expanded and given a more varied content. Norwegian television programmes also contain features in Sami from time to time.

The Sami theatre group Beaivvas, based in Kautokeino, was established at the end of 1979 and since 1990 has had the status of a permanent theatre. Up to 1987, Beaivvas had staged about ten large productions. It has also appeared on radio and television. The theatre tours the whole Sami area and elsewhere in the Nordic countries and abroad. Sami tradition, contemporary Sami life, other cultures, the language issue etc. have been the themes of Beaivvas' productions.

The products of duodji, or Sami handicraft, were originally intended only for domestic use. Today, they are produced and sold in large numbers. Duodji provides a livelihood for many Sami, and an important extra income for those engaged in the more traditional occupations. It has gradually become an important industry, embracing not only the traditional crafts but also art and art wares. Production and sales are becoming more and more organized.


Official efforts to promote the Sami culture in the first 20 years after World War II concentrated mainly on education. The Norwegian Cultural Council, which administers the Norwegian Cultural Fund, was established in 1965. Its functions include the preservation of the Sami culture and the promotion of Sami literature, and in the 1970s, Sami expertise was called upon in the Council's decision-making processes. The Council has appointed a number of specialized sub-committees whose work includes the preparation of long-term cultural plans. Since 1978, another special committee, with a number of sub-committees, has coordinated the Council's varying activities in the Sami cultural sector. In the period 1986-89, allocations of funds to Sami culture in Norway (the graphic arts, literature etc.) amounted to nearly USD 5.4 million. There are now plans to delegate the administration of funds earmarked for Sami cultural measures to the Sami Parliament.


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Apart from reindeer-herding and fishing, agriculture, trade, small-scale industry, handicrafts and the service industries are important sources of livelihood among the Sami. Sami are active in most trades and professions in modern Norwegian society, though surveys have revealed that they are not so well represented in the service industries as in other branches. Reindeer-herding is an essential element in the preservation of the Sami culture. In recent years, it has undergone a modernization process which threatens its position as a central force in the struggle to preserve Sami culture and identity. Reindeer-herding has become a capital-intensive industry. Modern technology has become the central element in a new type of reindeer-herding where the chief aim is to produce as much meat as possible. Herding areas have shrunk and grazing lands have deteriorated as a result of industry and environmental disturbances. Reindeer meat constitutes about one per cent of total meat production in Norway and 2,000 tonnes were produced in 1985. Farming has been combined with other sources of livelihood, but it too has been modernized and become capital-intensive.


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Courses in Sami studies have been offered at the University of Oslo since 1848, but Sami studies are also available in Tromsø, at the Sami regional college in Kautokeino, and at the teacher training colleges in Alta, Bodø, Levanger and Nesna. The Sami regional college in Kautokeino was founded in 1989, and initially provided teacher training courses.

The Nordic Sami Institute at Kautokeino, established in 1974, is a Sami research institute funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers and other external sources. Its purpose is to assist the Sami population of the Nordic countries in theoretical and practical matters through research, reports, instruction and the provision of services. The activities of the Institute are organized into three sections: language and culture, education and information and economic activities, the environment and rights.

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The first of the Sami's political organizations was probably one which was established in Kvænangen in 1903, on the initiative of Anders Larsen, who belonged to the Sea Sami, a group which lived mainly by fishing. Repeated attempts to Norwegianize the Sami provided a strong incentive for organized resistance. Anders Larsen founded the first political Sami newspaper "Sagai Muittalægje". The newspaper gradually became an important political influence, not least because Anders Larsen used its columns to promote the politician Isak Saba, who was subsequently elected to the Storting and served there from 1906-1912. In the 1920s Per Fokstad, a teacher, was politically active, but in the interwar years there was little activity in the Sami organizations.

After World War II, activities were resumed. The oldest surviving Sami organization in Norway is the Sami Reindeer Herders' Association in Norway (NRL), which was formed in 1948 with the goal of promoting the interests of the reindeer-herding Sami. The National Association of Norwegian Sami (NSR), established in 1968, seeks to uphold the rights of the Sami as a people and an indigenous population and to improve their general circumstances. The Norwegian Sami Union (SLF), founded in 1979, aims to protect and develop the Sami language. It also safeguards the special interests of the Sami in areas where they form a clear minority.

Nordic cooperation among the Sami was initiated in 1953 at a conference in Jokkmokk (Sweden). A second conference, which took place in Karasjok in Norway three years later, voted to establish a Nordic Sami Council. This functions as a liaison body between the Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish Sami's political organizations. The following organizations and organs are members of the Nordic Sami Council: from Sweden, the Swedish Sami Association (SSR) and Same Atnam the Swedish Sami League or Alliance (RSA). from Norway, NRL and NSR and from Finland, the Sami Parliament. Russian Sami will be represented in the Sami Parliament as of this year and SLF is expected to become a member of the Council this year.

Through the agency of the Nordic Sami Council the Sami participate in the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), which is a worldwide organization whose aims are to encourage solidarity between indigenous peoples, to promote the exchange of relevant information between these peoples, and to strengthen their organizations in the various member countries. The first world conference of WCIP was held in Port Alberni, Canada in 1975, the year in which WCIP was established.

The common aims of the Sami are presented in a Nordic Sami-political programme, which was adopted in Tromsø in 1980. It sets out the following principles:

  1. We, the Sami, are one people, whose fellowship must not be divided by national boundaries.
  2. We have our own history, traditions, culture and language. We have inherited from our forefathers a right to territories, water and our own economic activities.
  3. We have an inalienable right to preserve and develop our own economic activities and our communities, in accordance with our own circumstances and we will together safeguard our territories, natural resources and national heritage for future generations.


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The Act concerning the Sami Parliament and other legal matters pertaining to the Sami (the Sami Act) laid down the main rules for a national assembly, the Sami Parliament. The Act was approved by the Storting in the spring of 1987 and the Parliament was opened by the late King Olav V on 9 October 1989.

The Sami Assembly is a national body, subordinate to the general regulations of public administration. Its sphere of activity, right of recommendation, and authority are laid down in the Sami Act.

The Sami Parliament deals with all matters considered to be of special importance to the Sami people. It may on its own initiative submit issues to public authorities and private institutions etc.

The Sami Parliament has the power of decision insofar as this is laid down in the Sami Act or otherwise.

The representatives to the Parliament are chosen by direct ballot by Sami who are registered in the Sami electoral register. Its activities are steered through a special administration in Karasjok, established in 1990. Among the major issues it took up during its first operational year were the situation for reindeer-herding and for fishing, the language question, and the construction plans of the Norwegian Armed Forces in Sami territory.

Sami people at the Wikipedia collection.

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