The Sami People in Sweden

Factsheet Published by the Swedish Institute
February 1999



The Sami (Lapp) people have inhabited the northern portions of Scandinavia, Finland and eastward over the Russian Kola Peninsula since ancient times. Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden claim territories ill what is now regarded as Sapmi (Lapland).
To some extent, these countries have recognized the property rights of the Sami there. The Area of Sami settlement extends nowadays over the entire Fennoscandinavian arctic region and stretches along the mountain districts on both sides of the Norwegian-Swedish border down to the northernmost part of the province of Dalarna in Sweden (see map).
Today the Sami are a minority in their region of settlement. In a few municipalities of northern Finland and Norway, they constitute a majority. An estimated 50-65,000 Sami live in northern Scandinvia and the Kola Peninsula; of these, between 17,000 and 20,000 live in Swedish Sápmi.


Two thousand years ago, the Sami inhabited all of present-day Finland. They have also lived in coastal areas around the Gulf of Bothnia, in the inland of Sweden and all the way to the Atlan­tic Ocean, from central Norway north to the White Sea, in what is now Russia.

The oldest archaeological discoveries were found along the coast of the Arctic Ocean in northern Norway and are about 10,000 years old. Evidence of later human habitation has been found throughout Sápmi. It is likely that these are the remains of a people who later came to be called Sami.

Their society consisted of family groups (siida) which lived and utilized natural resources together. Some of these groups lived in permanent settlements; others were nomadic to varying degrees. Those Sami who based their liveli­hood on fishing in lakes, rivers, seas and fjords settled more permanently than those who lived on hunting or the full scale reindeer breeding, which developed much later. About half a century ago, some Sami communities became en­tirely nomadic because they followed their rein­deer. Today only a small fraction of the Sami -those engaged in reindeer herding- live in siida groups for at least part of the year. The great majority of them now live like other Scandinavians.

The leader of a siida group, who was often the oldest woman or man, controlled daily life. The leader decided where or when the group would move and which members would fish in different lakes. Different siida groups also held joint consultations in which their elders discussed common problems.

The Sami based their livelihood mainly on hunting and fishing; they often bartered the products from such animals as reindeer, moose and beaver. The major rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Bothnia con­tained plenty of salmon in the summer months. Trading with neighbours to the east and west apparently also played an important role, especially when bartering for implements, tools or jewelry that could not be produced in Sápmi.

Sami society rested on the good will of the gods and the wisdom of the elders. The elders were consulted and obeyed on secular matters. When it came to contacts with the gods or other non-earthly powers, the noaidi or shaman was the man to talk to. The noaidi was a person with special gifts, who could make contact with the gods and see into the future with the aid of a drum. Some of them could also cure illnesses.

The surrounding peoples gradually discovered the riches that existed in Sápmi, in the form of fur-bearing animals and fish. Trade contacts to the east, toward what is now Rus­sia, were established relatively early. Around two thousand years ago, the Sami began trad­ing with people from present-day Norway and Sweden in an east-west and later on in a north-south direction. The Norwegian coastline, with open water all year round, was a particularly suitable trade route. But the major rivers of northern Finland and Sweden were also good pathways for trade.

Sami legends contain many stories about how armed robbers came to take away the treasures the thought the Sami possessed. Because Sami communities consisted of numerous small groups of people spread across huge territories, it was not difficult for armed outsiders to overpower the Sami.

Although these travellers were regarded as a scourge, the Sami also took advantage of their visits because they often also carried useful goods for barter. They might include metal tools or clothes that the Sami themselves were unable to make.

The various nation-states gradually began to claim exclusive rights to this trading, and later also to the lands where groups of traders or robbers had previously journeyed. Some Sami could be forced to pay taxes to several govern­ments at the same time. During the 17th and 18th centuries, these territorial claims were also among the reasons behind the wars between Nordic states.

Another means that nation-states employed to claim sovereignty over Sami territory was to convert the population to Christianity. While witchcraft trials were being held elsewhere in Europe, the Christianization of the Sami was underway. The noaidi -the spiritual leaders of the Sami and the force that held together their communities- were persecuted. They were compelled to renounce their old religion and surrender their sacred drums to the missionaries who traveled around converting the Sami.

While this missionary work was underway, some areas of Sami settlement were colonized. The Swedish government encouraged farmers to move north. Those who settled in the land of the Sami were exempted from taxes, and also from military service for a time.

The missionaries and this relatively modest colonization did not change the lives of the Sami to any significant degree. The big changes arrived during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, when industrialization took off in Sweden and the country needed Sápmi's natural resources: metal ores, hydroelectric power and timber.

Despite the severe living conditions that pre­vail in northern Scandinavia, the ancestors of today's Sami succeeded in building up a viable culture adapted to the environment and ecolog­ical systems of Sápmi. Living within nature and with the help of nature, without upsetting its balance, is a pattern that even today's Sami largely follow.

Reindeer breeding

No one can say for sure how long the Sami have used reindeer. In 98 A.D. the Roman his­torian, Tacitus, wrote about the Fenni, a hunt­ing people in the far north who were probably Sami. In 500 A.D., Chinese sources wrote of a people in the northeast who used "deer" for transportation and as dairy animals. In the late 9th century a Norwegian magnate, Ottar, told of the "wealth" of the Sami-the reindeer. Even then, tame reindeer were being used for transportation or as lures when hunting wild reindeer. There are thus indications that the Sami have lived together with reindeer for more than 1,000 years. Various kinds of tame reindeer breeding gradually developed later.

In the more southerly areas of Sápmi, a more intensive form of reindeer breeding developed. Siidi groups moved along with their reindeer between winter pasture areas in the coniferous forests and summer pastures in the high moun­tains. This completely nomadic lifestyle, where the group lived together with the reindeer herd all year, ended in the mid-20th century, how­ever. Among those Sami who lived in forested areas, a relatively stationary form of reindeer breeding had evolved, where the animals grazed freely within limited areas. This breed­ing system was often combined with hunting and fishing. Today such forest reindeer breed­ing is practiced in the interior of Sweden's Norrbotten and Västerbotten provinces.

The dominant form of reindeer breeding today is more extensive. The Sami allow their herds to migrate within fairly wide, limited areas. They are often watched from the boundaries of those areas. At regular intervals the herds arc gathered for sorting, marking or slaughter. Even in the extensive method of breeding, herds arc often divided into smaller groups during the colder half of the year, when more intensive surveillance and moving of reindeer between different pastures are necessary.

The families move between slimmer and winter pasture areas. But they often have one or two homes in the vicinity of these pastures, where they live permanently for the season.

Today, reindeer breeding is organized into Sami villages. There are 43 of these in all. Their members are engaged in reindeer breeding within a geographically limited area. A Sami village is both a social, an administrative and an economic unit, whose members decide how reindeer herding in their area should be run, within the limits of the Reindeer Husbandry Law (Rennäringslagen), the first one from 1886. Among the purposes of the current law, which dates from 1971, are to promote more efficient reindeer breeding and give the Sami villages a stronger position. It specifies what land and water rights the reindeer-breeding Sami enjoy and what obligations they have toward the rest of society. Only Sami who belong to a Sami village may practice reindeer breeding. These Sami also enjoy other rights, for example with regard to hunting and fishing.

The Swedish reindeer legislation and policy has been discussed and criticised in the Swedish parliament. In 1997 the Parliament asked the government to appoint a committee to revise and modernise the present Act and policies regarding Sami reindeer herding.

Today reindeer breeding is permitted on about 35 percent of the territory of Sweden. Of the country's Sami, approximately 3,000 are directly dependent on reindeer. Modern equipment such as snow scooters, cross-country motorcycles, helicopters and two-way radio are used in reindeer herding. Of the 750,000 reindeer to be found in Sápmi as a whole, some 260,000 live on Swedish territory. Reindeer husbandry is of great importance to many of the municipalities in northern Sweden, because the shipping, trading and processing of its products provide numerous jobs.


The Sami language, belongs to the Finno-Ugric family. It has three main dialects: East Sami, Central Sami and South Sami. The borders be­tween these dialects follow the Sami settlement patterns over the centuries. The differences be­tween the three main dialects are sometimes so great that they can be described as different languages.

All the Sami dialects contain a rich vocabulary related to the natural environment. They have numerous, very precise words to describe land, water and snow. There is also a rich, varied vocabulary for reindeer and reindeer breeding. For example, the appearance of a reindeer can be described using a large number of words. Its fur, antlers, sex and age can be conveyed in such detail that in a herd of several thousand animals, only one reindeer fits that particular description.

Of the three Sami dialects, Central Sami is the most widely spoken. East Sami and South Sami are spoken in areas where Sami are often in a minority. The use of these dialects has therefore declined during the 20th century, and in these areas the Sami have largely switched to speaking the language of the majority popula­tion. An estimated 70 percent of Sami speak Sami. But given the increased awareness of the pivotal role of language in cultural life -not only by the Sami themselves but also among politicians and government agencies- people know how vital it is for Sami children to learn their language thoroughly. Today, one of the roles of the new agency Sametinget is to reinforce and develop the Sami language.

A report, submitted to the Parliament in 1997 proposed that the Sami language should receive official status in Sweden and that special measures should be adopted to reinforce the language in the four northernmost municipalities. However, this means that a large area where the Sami language is spoken is not covered by the proposal. The most threatened Sami dialects are spoken in these areas. With new language legislation in accordance with the report Sweden could ratify the Council of Europe's convention on lesser-used languages.


Because the earlier social structure of the Sami consisted of scattered, more or less nomadic groups of people, there was neither, an opportunity nor a need to establish schools for Sami children. When missionary work began in Sápmi during the early 17th century, however, some attempts were made to put Sami children in permanent schools. This often occurred against the will of the children and their par­ents. In 1632 a permanent Sami School in Lycksele was established. One aim of instruc­tion there was to teach the children how to read and write Swedish, but the main purpose of the school was to try to train Sami clergy­men who could work among their own people. During the 18th and 19th centuries, permanent schools were also established elsewhere in Sápmi, but because a large percentage of the Sami were nomads, it was, also necessary to es­tablish mobile schools.

Until this century, the Church of Sweden assumed responsibility for educating Swedish Sami children. It was very common for the language of instruction to be Sami. The purpose of this schooling gradually changed, however. In 1913 special nomad schools were established where instruction took place mainly in Swedish. The purpose of this schooling was to give Sami children a rudimentary education, so that they could cope with Swedish society, albeit without "sipping the cup of civilization" to an excessive degree. This approach was prevalent among decision-makers during the decades between 1910 and 1930 in particular.

Today Sami children are able to choose between attending government Sami schools or regular municipal nine-year-compulsory schools where they can also receive instruction in Sami. There is a special board of education responsible for the curriculum at the Sami schools. The aim of Sami education in Sweden is to give the children the same instruction that Swedish children receive in the compulsory school while providing them with schooling that takes into account their own linguistic and cultural background.

Sami preschools are now becoming more numerous in Sweden. Sami day care centers, how­ever, exist only in a few municipalities so far. One problem is a shortage of trained personnel. A special training program at the teachers' college in Luleå for Sami-speaking teachers specializing in preschools and grades 1-6 has greatly improved the situation, however.

Since 1950 there has been a special residential folk high school in Jokkmokk that offers adult education with special Sami related courses both to Sami and non-Sami. As for higher education, since 1974 there has been a professorial chair in the Sami language at the University of Umeå and Sami is also taught at the Finno-Ugric institution at the university of Uppsala. There are similar chairs at the Univer­sities of Oslo and Tromsö (Norway) and the Universities of Helsinki and Oulu (Finland). Since 1989 there has been a Sami college in Guovdageaidnu (Kautokeino), Norway, which among other things trains Sami teachers. The instruction takes place in the Sami language, and students from Finland and Sweden are ac­cepted. Gouvdageaidnu also has a Nordic Sami Institute (Sámi Instituhtta) which was estab­lished in 1973) and pursues research.

Music and literature

The oral storytelling tradition has always had a central role in Sami culture, and Sami music is also part of this tradition. "Yoiking" -a distinctive form of singing- is a way of recalling events and people, or describing nature and telling stories. These traditions live on today.

Yoiking used to be something that missionaries, in particular, associated with heathendom and sin. They regarded the Sami as communicating with spirits and the devil through their yoiks. It was therefore continuously suppressed, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. Even today in Guovdageaidnu, Sami children are forbidden from yoiking during school hours. By the mid-20th century, the art of yoiking was close to disappearing. During the 1960s and 1970s yoiking -and Sami cul­tural values generally- underwent a renaissance. Young Sami were foremost among those who began to delve into their cultural heritage, doing research on it and encouraging other Sami to preserve cultural expressions that were in the process of being wiped out.

In recent decades, Sami themselves have also become writers. In 1910 Johan Turi's book  Muittalus sámiid birra (Tale of the Sami) appeared. As the first author to write a book in the Sami language, he presented the history of the Sami, including descriptions of the daily lives of reindeer-breeding Sami around the turn of the century. The book also records his peo­ple's legends and folk beliefs. Many others fol­lowed Turi's example. During the past 30 years, too, a relatively large quantity of Sami­language literature has been published. Among modern Sami writers can be mentioned Paulus Utsi, Erik Nilsson-Mankok, Per Idivuoma, and Annok Sarri-Nordrå.

Handicrafts and art

To the Sami, the concepts of handicraft and art are intertwined. Everyday items, some of them still in use today, not only had a practical func­tion but were designed to be aesthetically pleasing. The drum of the noadi was not only a musical instrument, but also an artist's image of the worlds of men and gods. The kolt -the traditional outer garment of the Sami- is not only functional and warm, but is also a beautiful example of textile art, with its embroidery work and bright colors. The shape and appearance of such everyday objects as knives, bowls and harnesses are as important as their func­tionality. Typical Sami materials include reindeer horn, wood and leather.

Most Sami artists of today are bearers of these traditions when they produce handicrafts or visual art works. The Sami folk high school in Jokkmokk offers a special study program where students can learn the traditional craft forms. Duodje -Sami handicraft- is also of great economic importance. A large percentage of duodje now carries a special trademark that guarantees both its quality and authenticity.

The government and the Sami

During the 20th century, Swedish government policy toward the Sami has undergone major changes. Government policy toward the Sami in the early 20th century was based on trying to preserve them as a kind of "primitive people." Traces of this policy are still found in certain laws and in the practices of some govern­ment agencies. One problem, for example, is the fact that the interests of environment pro­tection and the tourism industry arc in conflict with the attempts of the Sami to modernize reindeer breeding.

The right of the Sami to their culture and language did not receive widespread attention until the 1960s and 1970s when many immigrant groups in Sweden began to call for government efforts to help preserve their particular cultures. A Sami seniorlevel comprehensive school was then established and home language teaching became available in schools. But most Sami still feel that the government has no consistent policy for providing adequate support to develop their culture.

The Reindeer Husbandry Law, enacted in 1971 and last revised in 1993, allows the Sami some freedom to organize their own affairs. However, the present Law, like its predecessors, regulates only the rights of reindeer breeding Sami. Only those Sami who are permitted to carry out reindeer herding enjoy special land and water rights in Sápmi. The land and water rights of Sami fishermen or other Sami have never been covered by the present legislation.

During the past 30 years, reindeer breeding Sami have lost large tracts of pasture land due to various kinds of economic encroachment. Modern forestry in particular -including the practices of clear-cutting and plowing- has made it more difficult for the Sami to feed their reindeer in the wintertime. In different ways and via different tribunals, they have tried to improve the protection of those areas they regard as their own, but to date, they have always lost their battles over these areas in the courts. In one 1966 lawsuit that was not finally resolved until 1981, the Sami tried to establish their rights to the reindeer-grazing mountains of southern Sápmi via the Swedish courts. The verdict stated that the Sami had once enjoyed the right of possession of these mountains, but that the Swedish government had subsequently assumed that right. However, the Sami enjoy a continued usufructuary right to the mountains, based on ancient tradition.

In 1993, however, Parliament approved changes in the law governing the right of amateur hunters to hunt small animals and to fish in the reindeer-grazing mountains of Jamtland and west of the cultivation boundary in Norrbotten and Västerbotten provinces. According to the Reindeer Husbandry Law, these lands are year­round reindeer breeding areas and are "exclusively for reindeer herding use.“ The previous exclusive hunting right of the Sami was confis­cated by the government which asserts a parallel hunting right on these lands. Even previous to this, the administration of hunting permits had already largely been taken over by the county authorities, and permits were granted to non-Sami upon payment to the Sami. Now, however, the county authorities administer what the State claims is its own hunting right. This new policy has been criticised both by public opinion and by legal and environmental experts. The issue has been brought to the European Court and is still on the agenda of the Swedish government. Questions concerning rights to land and water in the Sami area are under consideration in a committee appointed by the Swedish government in 1998. The goal of the committee is to investigate whether Sweden can ratify the ILO convention 169 on the protection of the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.

In 1983 the Cabinet appointed a commission of inquiry on Sami affairs, which published its main report in 1989. It recommended that the position of the Sami as an indigenous ethnic minority be underscored in the Instrument of Government (part of the Swedish Constitu­tion). The commission also proposed a law aimed at promoting Sami culture and organizations, along with the establishment of a popularly elected Sami agency (Sametinget) that would represent the interests of this minority in various connections. The panel also recommended amendments to the Reindeer Husbandry Law aimed at strengthening the legal position of Sami in these areas.

The only outcome of the Sami affairs commission's report was that the proposal to establish a popularly elected Sameting was adopted.

The commission's proposal concerning a special law to strengthen the position of the Sami language was rejected, as were other proposals aimed at strengthening the land and water right of the Sami. Aside from the confiscation of Sami exclusive small game hunting which was rolled into the same proposal as the establishment of the Sameting, government policy makers referred all these issues to the Sameting which, in its role as a government agency, will now handle Sami affairs and related planning and research.

From a Sami perspective, the outcome of 10 years of joint research by the Sami and govern­ment representatives was a backward step in political terms, and above all in legal terms. Legally speaking, the position of the Samis was weakened, especially with reference to ownership of hunting and fishing rights and the question of who will administer these resources.


The emergence of modern grass roots organizations among the Sami occurred at the same time as the major "popular movements" made their breakthrough in Sweden early in the 20th century. The Sami popular movement drew both ideas and inspiration from the evangelical, temperance and labor movements of the day. Only after World War II, however, did Sami organizations become really active. A permanent central organization emerged in 1950, when the National Union of the Swedish Sami People (Svenska Samernas Riksförbund, SSR) was established. Its members are the Sami villages and various Sami organizations in Sweden.

In 1945 Sameätnam was formed for the purpose of promoting Sami culture and duodji, or handicrafts. In 1963 the Association of Swedish Sami Youth (Sáminuorra) was established. Under the slogan "the Sami, one people," the main organizations of the Sami in Sweden belong to the Sami Council (Sámiráddi), which has fostered cooperation among the Sami of Sweden, Norway and Finland since 1956. The Sami of Russia are now also members of the Council. The Sámiráddi is listed as a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) in the UN (ECOSOC) system and has committed itself in particular to developing safeguards in international law for the rights of indigenous people to life, culture and economic development.


Lapp, which is not a native term, is gradually being replaced in Fennoscandiavia by the indigenous minority's own name for itself, sábme or dialect variations thereof. In Swedish and Norwegian, the word Same is often used. in Finnish saamelainen. These changes in usage have been brought about largely by pressure from the Lapp community as the term Lapp is felt by them to have strongly negative overtones.
Efforts have been made to seek a suitable equivalent in the English language. Same, it is thought, can be too easily confused with the English adjective same, and two other variations are slowly gaining ground: Saami or Sami. The latter alternative is favoured by the Laplanders and is being introduced in English translations of their institutions and organizations.


Bron: The Swedish Institute (SI)
The Swedish Institute (SI) is a public agency established to disseminate knowledge about Sweden abroad. It produces a wide range of publications, in several languages, on many aspects of Swedish society.




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