MEETING THE SAMI
IN FINNISH LAPLAND
I didn’t see the Northern Lights but witnessed living heritage
Parnashree Devi, 26-06-2023
How would you react if I say that I wore the traditional Sami costume and got framed in the middle of a snow-covered forest with an adorable Sami couple in Finnish Lapland? This is usually not the ideal checklist thing to do in a Scandinavian country like Finland. I would still consider it as the highlight of my trip to the winter wonderland and will remain one of the most treasured memories of my lifetime.
Ever since I read about the Sami people of Europe, I was truly fascinated by their history, culture, and lifestyle. My inclination to meet the Sami people was way higher than seeing the Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland. The native people have always been a high point of interest during my travels, and I had the right reasons to be ecstatic about the Sami people.
The temperature dipped suddenly as I touched down in the Northernmost part of Finland. From cold to coldest I could feel the weather transition instantly as I stepped out of Ivalo Airport. But I can recollect the moment vividly when I was greeted with a big smile and a warm tight hug by Mr. Timo, my Sami Guide in Lapland. This was my first meeting with one of the real Sami people I have been so deeply fascinated with.
WHO ARE THE SAMI PEOPLE
The Sami people are Europe’s one of the indigenous people. After the ice age, the Sami were the first people to come here. If you turn over the pages of history, you will know that the origin of Sami goes back to around 4,000 years and it is also said that the first residents of Finland are documented to have arrived 10,500 years ago.
This region is known as Sapmi and covers the Arctic area of the Northern parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula where the Sami population is concentrated. Basically, they live in the tundra (arctic or subarctic treeless plain), taiga (subarctic forest), and coastal zones in the northern end of Europe.
They belonged to no country as they used to move with their herds in search of grazing lands. The Sami were once called Lapps which means ‘scraps of cloth’ in the Scandinavian language. Many Sami people find it derogatory and that’s why they prefer to be called Sami. They are also called Laplanders.
SAMI & REINDEER
I was told that it is considered very impolite to ask a Sami about the number of their reindeer herd. According to them, it is equivalent to asking about their bank balance.
Reindeer are an integral part of the Sami lifestyle and culture. It would not be wrong to state that their life revolves around the reindeer. Apparently, Sami people have been herding Reindeer since 800 CE and since then it has been a central aspect of their survival.
The life of a Reindeer herder is rough. They travel miles with their herds in search of grazing land in utmost arctic weather conditions, spending months in the extreme wilderness in the traditional Sami tents known as Lavvu. The herders lead a lonely life away from their families. Their passion for Reindeer herding, deep-rooted love for nature, and pure connection with their reindeer make them continue their age-old tradition. The most astonishing thing about them is that they are thriving in the arctic circle.
It is also believed that every Sami is required to carry a knife and match in the forest as they say that one must know how to make fire in the forest. In earlier days, they used Reindeer for transportation in the harsh winter.
Reindeer husbandry is their primary source of income. The biggest revolution that happened in Reindeer herding was in 1965 when the Snowmobile became a part of their lifestyle. It changed the approach towards Reindeer herding.
Nowadays, no one stays in Lavvu for a longer period as the distance to the wilderness can be covered in a few hours, albeit the older generation of Sami thinks that it was much better before the new age Snowmobile came into existence.
SAMI WAY OF LIFE
Being nomadic herders there is no permanent settlement for them. In earlier times, they used to live in tents, popularly known as Lavvu, made from a circular framework of poles, leaning inwards like an American Tipi, but less vertical and more stable in high winds.
The Lavvu is a temporary dwelling of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia. The tents and huts are arranged around the central fire. In present times, most Sami individuals reside in conventional Scandinavian houses equipped with central heating. However, the herders in the deep forest still make use of Lavvu, maintaining a connection with their traditional way of life.
With the fast-changing time, the Sami tents are typically constructed to attract tourists and to give them a glimpse of the Sami way of life in Finland, Norway, and Sweden as well.
I first saw the traditional Sami costume in the Siida Sami Museum in the Inari district of Lapland. I found it the most colorful and attractive traditional costume. I was so fascinated by the entire outfit that I decided to wear it. The Sami people look adorable with their colorful costumes in the white expanse of snow.
Gákti is what they call their traditional costume in general, though in different places people call it by different names. Interestingly, the colors, patterns, and jewelry of the costume can signify a person’s marital status and geographical origin.
The length of the Gákti also differs from place to place. Typically, Sami men wear slightly shorter Gakti compared to Sámi women. This Sámi piece of jewelry is known as a Risku or Solju and it comes from the Sami wedding tradition.
The Sami wear traditional furry shoes, made of reindeer skin, and are especially worn during winter to bear the extremely cold weather conditions in the arctic circle.
If you are in the Sami homeland, you must sample the traditional Sami cuisines. I still remember the night when I was taken to the middle of the snow-covered forest to a Lappish wooden log hut – “Kota” where I was welcomed by Mrs. Armi. With a central fireplace in the middle of the hut, symmetrically placed wooden sitting arrangement, and illuminating candles, it was nothing less than a fairy-tale lone hut in the middle of the forest.
Soon I was served cold smoked Reindeer blue cheese soup, glow fried Salmon with mashed potatoes and salad, berry pie, and coffee. Salmon fish is also an essential part of their cuisine.
Though the Sami are associated with Reindeer, only a small part of their population is solely into Reindeer herding. The majority of Sami survive by hunting and fishing along the coasts, lakes, and rivers. In summer, Salmon fishing becomes central to the dining scene.
Do try the creamy Salmon soup, smoked or dried Reindeer meat, willow Grouse sausage, sautéed Reindeer with Lappish potatoes and fried arctic Char or Salmon or Lappish bread and cheese with cloudberry jam.
It’s been a long journey for Sami People from being nomadic to finally getting recognised and accepted in the Scandinavian countries. From being the people with no country to getting identified as the remaining aboriginal people of Europe, having separate Parliaments in Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and attaining the right to cultural autonomy, it’s incredible how the Sami people feel utmost pride talking about their rich living cultural heritage.
Their eyes shimmer with excitement as they discuss Reindeer and the way their yoik, a joyful unaccompanied song, honors the vibrant tradition of storytelling.
I couldn’t have asked for more in Lapland. How I wish to wander with the Reindeer herder covering a large area of land in the white expanse of snow in the Arctic Circle. Maybe someday!
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