The Lapps, or Sämi as they prefer to be called, reside in a vast area of land that is nearly 400,000 square kilometers and crosses the boundaries of four countries: Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. They are the oldest known inhabitants of Finland. The Sämi are in the minority in each of these countries and are often faced with discrimination. Their territory once extended even farther to the south, but as the rest of the world’s population grew and moved closer to the Sämi, they retreated farther north. To the Sämi, the name “Lapp” is derogatory.
It is difficult to determine the exact population size of the Sämi due to the differing methods of determining Sämi ethnicity. For instance, in Finland, language is the primary method used. Anyone who speaks Sämi, or whose parents or grandparents speak Sämi, is considered to be Sämi. However, in Norway and Sweden, reindeer herding is used to determine nationality because the Sämi are known for this mode of production.
Although the Sami are generally known as reindeer herders, there is actually a great deal of variation within the Sami population regarding their primary mode of production. The Sami can be divided into five different groups based on their geographic locations as well as on their primary modes of subsistence. One group is the Coast Sami, whose economy is based primarily on fishing and who reside in Norway. Another group is the Forest Sami, whose economy is based on hunting and trapping, supplemented by fishing, and who live primarily in Sweden and Finland. Another group is the Mountain Sami, whose economy is based on reindeer herding and who live in the central and northern areas of Norway and Sweden. Another group, the River or Fisher Sami, are known for farming and cattle raising. They also fish and herd reindeer to supplement their incomes, and they live in Norway and northern Finland. The final group, the Skolt and Kola Sami, live in the most eastern areas of Norway, Finland, and Russia that are inhabited by Sami. Their economy is based on both forest and sea products. They have been the most influenced by missionaries, especially the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Sami culture is believed by many to be in danger. The primary obstacle facing the Sami with respect to maintaining their cultural identity is the fact that they live in four different countries, making it difficult for them to develop their own separate form of organization. Furthermore, they speak at least six different languages that are closely related to Finnish. In the past, the Sami have had difficulty in maintaining their languages because they were not allowed to use their languages in formal schooling of their children or in official governing processes and procedures. Moreover, in some areas, the Sami have been experiencing population decline.
However, as a result of organization by the Sami, they are now able to use their languages in schooling under the Finnish Schools Act of 1985. Norway and Sweden also have laws to support the use of Sami for education as well as for governance. Linguists have also been studying the languages of the Sami, and books and movies have been produced in Sami. This will likely help to preserve their culture. The Sami Council now represents all Sami and participates in the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.
- James, A. (1989). Lapps: Reindeer herders of Lapland. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke.
- Ruong, I. (1967). The Lapps in Sweden (A. Blair, Trans.). Stockholm: Swedish Institute for Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries.
- Siuruainen, E. (1977). The Lapps in Finland: The population, their livelihood, and their culture. Helsinki, Finland: Society for the Promotion of Lapp Culture.