Sami Culture, Religion and People

A Brief History of the Sami People

sami_season.jpg10,000 years ago the forefathers of the Sami hunted moose and game and carved pictures of these animals in the rocks of northern Norway. A century after the birth of Christ, the Roman author Tacitus described the people called "fenni" who dressed in animal skins and slept on the ground. They are also mentioned in texts from the 700s where they it is described how they hunted game over the snow with curved pieces of wood strapped to their feet. The hunting of wild reindeer declined during the 1500s however, and this hunting people adapted their survival strategy to become herders of semi-domesticated reindeer. Along the coast, many Sami became dedicated fishermen.

Sápmi

Samiland is not a sovereign state but a region which for thousands of years has been inhabited by the Sami people. Sápmi crosses the borders of five nations.

Sápmi is populated by approximately 85,000 Sami of which 20,000 live in the Swedish portion. The Sami see themselves as a people with their own culture, language and way of life. In the Sami world view, man and nature are inseparable. The name "Sápmi" can be interpreted as "Sami", "people" or "Samiland"

Saami Religion

The Sami religion contains many gods who steered the powers of nature in differing ways. The will of these gods was interpreted by Sami shamans called Noaid. However, the arrival of Christian missionaries brought with it the edict that man's consciousness could be ruled by only one god.

Pre-Christian Religion. The Sami religion grew from the hunters' relationship to their prey and the nature that surround them both. The wind god, Bieggaålmaj, sent warming or chilling winds and therefore was given sacrifices of appeasement. Gods were called upon during periods of hunger, sickness or when hunting, and their messengers were the Noaid. In daily life, the Noaid were like others in the group, but through their ability to enter into a trance and take on the spirit of animals they were freed from time and space.

Christian Mission

With the support of the King the church condemned the Sami faith as magic and idolatry. When the Sami refused to submit they were made examples of. In the spring of 1693, a Noaid named Lars Nilsson was burned in the square at Arjeplog. He was the last noid to be burned.

Jojk and Music

Saami folk music is called jojk and is a singing style where melody and verse are of equal importance. Jojk is improvised while singing and can express feelings of sorrow, hate or love. To sing jojk means deeply identifying yourself with someone or something.

Saami nåjd sang jojk and drummed to reach religious ecstasy. Consequently, the church looked on jojk as "the song of the Devil" and banned it well into the 1900s.

Today, Saami musicians still practice traditional jojk but with the accompaniment of instruments. Often their playing is flavored with influences from western music.

Colonialism

During this period much of the reindeer grazing land was colonized by settlers and the state required taxes from the nomadic Sami. In the 1600s, silver ore was discovered near the Norrbotten area of Nasafjäll. The Sami were pressed into ore transport using their reindeer as draft animals. Those who refused to cooperate were keel-hauled under the ice. That was the beginning of the Swedish state's claim to the forests, water power and mineral resources in the region where the Sami had lived so long before.

The Sami are northern Scandinavia's indigenous people. When Sápmi, or Samiland was colonized many of the old reindeer grazing areas disappeared and with them some of the history forming the Sami cultural inheritance was also lost. The damages from taxation, racism, and ruthless exploitation need time to heal. Therefore, it is important from the Swedish perspective, to remember another history that is not focused on the Vikings or heroic kings.

The reindeer in the Sami culture

The origins of today's reindeer herding can be traced to the hunting of wild reindeer some 1000 years before Christ. During the 1500s, entire herds were domesticated and the Sami became reindeer-raising nomads. Presently, about 10 percent of the Sami people are engaged in reindeer herding. Despite the use of technical aids like radio communications and snowmobiles, this occupation is still adapted to the herd's annual cycles. The Sami divide these cycles in to eight seasons.Long before recorded history the Sami's developed an almost symbiotic relationship with the reindeers. During the long wintermonths food and other useful commodities could get scarce, the Sami's therefore always made the maximum use of the reindeers. Aside from the use as a transport animal, the reindeers used to be milked. All parts of a butchered animal that could be used for food was eaten, inluding the intestines, something that provided the Sami's with vitamines that would have been impossible to obtain in other ways for the largest part of the year.Tendons and sinews where -and still are- used for sewing, both for putting together the coneshaped "tents" Laitok/Lavvu as well for creating shoes and clothing. Whereas the Sami tents nowadays are made of bought fabric, reindeer skin is still used for clothes and shoes -even such items that are used in daily life.

The eight seasons of reindeer herding:

Springwinter
Pregnant females cause the herd to leave the forests and journey to the mountains.

SpringSnow
melts while the reindeer calves are born in the foothills.

Presummer
A calm period for the herders while the animals graze on the fresh growth.

Summer
Under the light of the midnight sun, herders mark their new-born calves.

Preautumn
Bull reindeer, fat from the summer, are sorted for slaughter.

Autumn
Herders fish for food while the bull reindeer mate with the cows in estrus.

Prewinter
The herd travels out of the frost-covered mountains into marshlands where green growth is still available.

Winter
After dividing the herd, the Sami families move the reindeer to the forest where winter fodder is more accessible.

Sami Crafts

All Sami craftsmen use a few basic materials such as horn, wood and leather. Although one can find genuine Sami handcraft where the artisan have chosen to include parts made of silver, tin or cloth as well.

The Saami craft tradition has its roots in the migration of hunters between different hunting grounds. Tools had to be easy to carry. Raw materials were taken directly from the natural surroundings: reindeer skin, antler, birchwood and roots.

Boxes and vessels

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The items displayed on these pages are created of horn, leather and wood only. These are truly individual works of art, and among the most unique gift items that can be purchased in the world today. 
The smaller vessels below are entirely made out of reindeer horn. They are virtually unbreakable when the lid is squeezed in place and will not open until one applies a moderate pressure on the right spot.

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