The Sami – Europe’s only “Indigenous People”?

The Sami people of northern Scandinavia traditionally inhabit round dwellings made of reindeer skins rested upon wooden beams. They are called lavvu, and at their centre is the fireplace, core of the household and sacred source of heat and food, topped by a vent – connecting the inner world of the family the sky and the wider cosmos outside. Bowing my head to enter the low threshold of a lavvu in the frozen wonderland of the Lyngen Alps of northern Norway, I was immediately reminded of a world thousands of kilometres away: that of Mongolian pastural nomads. Indeed, when entering and exiting a Mongolian felt-lined ger too one is forced, by the low-framed threshold, to deeply bow one’s head. This stands, according to Inner Asian beliefs, to mark a passage between two distinct, but profoundly connected, scared spaces. Entering, one bows one’s head to the head of the family and all its members, as well as to the fireplace; exiting one bows one head to the Sky Lord, its Fire the Sun, and all the spirits that compose the cosmos. Family and cosmos, culture and nature – two faces of the same, profoundly sacred, medal.

There are striking similarities that unite the indigenous peoples of norther Eurasia. These similarities in many ways reflect the continuum of ecosystems that compose the fringes of this immense continent: endless grasslands marked by imposing mountain ranges and touched by mighty forests. Whilst seemingly barren to the southern eye, these grasslands – freezing tundras and windswept steppes – are in truth the bearers of an incredible wealth composed of herds of billions of herbivores, the size of which would be impossible in lusher climates. Horses, cattle, sheep, goats, bison, yak, reindeer: the domestication and exploitation of these animals has rendered life in the northern fringes of Eurasia not only possible, but even thriving. Cattle herding remains the main economic activity in Mongolia, a country that counts almost 70 million heads of livestock for a population of just over 3 million. In the much more restricted spaces of northern Scandinavia, small families of Sami can own and manage flocks of up to 10’000 reindeer. Rooted at the core of the economic systems of both cultures, livestock remains the most fundamental mark of a family’s wealth.

Pastoral Life

A continuous thread unites the boundless spaces of the Eurasian grasslands with the animals that inhabit them and the people that sustain themselves upon them: movement. Confronted with some of the harshest seasonal climatic change in the world, survival in the grasslands is tied to the possibility of moving to where there is abundance of grass in each season. Ice and lack of natural obstacles allows for herds to migrate over hundreds of kilometres every six months. Pastoral life in the Eurasian grasslands is therefore ultimately nomadic – even when summer and winter pastures are strictly pre-determined, the long migration seasons make it more practical for pastoral populations to use movable dwellings, such as the lavvu or ger. This marks another profound similarity between populations so distant from each other as the Sami and the Mongols: a form of incompatibility with the settled nature of agricultural societies.

We the Sami people walk to the future in the footprints of our ancestors. If you destroy the footprints then our future is wiped out.

Stefan Mikaelsson

Despite the wealth harboured by pastoral life, the nomadic peoples of Eurasia have developed at the periphery of the much greater political structures of the great agricultural empires and kingdoms of Europe and Asia. In this sense, nomadism has been a way of live that eluded state constructions and their primary tools of population control: maps and censuses. Rooted mainly around kinship structures, pastoral societies have proven formidable warriors and conquerors, but have created lasting imperial structures only when profoundly intermingling and adopting the cultures of conquered agricultural civilisations. Yet, when the tide turns in the favour of the latter, as it has been globally for the past five centuries at least, then the numeric disadvantage of nomadic populations leads them to a process of subjugation and absorption by settled civilisation.

Sámi Flag

Sámi Wildlife


This has been the case of the Sami, which have, since the intensification of Swedish, Norwegian and Russian settlement in northern Scandinavia from the 18th century, been subjected to the sovereignty of these latter polities. Sovereignty claims by Sweden and Norway have led, from the 19th century, to a drive for assimilation of Sami people, who were thus forcibly deprived of the right to exercise their religious beliefs, use their language in public and state-educational environment, and were subjected to increasingly restrictive policies with regards to land management and the exercise of their nomadic lifestyle. Discrimination of Sami’s in all aspects of social life became the norm, founded on stigmatisation of all that was ‘different’ in Sami customs: from traditional clothing to ritual habits. The practice of the noaidi – important religious figures able to communicate with nature and ancestral spirits in order to heal individuals and ensure the wellbeing of the community – were targeted by state structures and settlers. Already in the 18th century the King of Sweden had dubbed the noaidi, with their captivating singing (joik) and hypnotising drumming (through which, like shamans from traditions all over Eurasia, the noaidi entered a state of sacred trance), as satanic sorcerers. The result by the late 19th century was the conversion of the whole Sami population to Lutheran Christianity, with Sami uses and even language being seen by many Sami as a source of shame, to be avoided and forgotten, until at least the 1960s and 1970s.

Today the Sami, their language and their uses have come under considerable state protection in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Protection is further entrenched in the Sami’s recognition as the only ‘indigenous’ population of Europe. The Sami have become, moreover, a central attraction in the tourist industry, made to figure prominently in festivals, tourist advertisement and other business ventures that aim to sell the Scandinavian north as a land of magic, unspoilt nature and primitive, exotic traditions. Effectively, the Sami have entered, like hundreds of other ‘indigenous’ populations throughout the world, in the discourse of ‘indigeneity’, romantic primitivism and fascination with the ‘noble savage’ figure that fascinates the European imagination since the Enlightenment. The key to Sami success as a tourist attraction and as worthy representatives of a marketable image of the Arctic is the fact that they are conceived as radically different from the European standard. This difference rests, in great part, in a dualism between civilisation and nature, modern and primitive, urban and rural, that underpins, to different degrees, all Western societies. Since the 1980s, the fascination of the New Age movement with Sami ‘shamanic’ practices has further thoroughly rooted the marketable depiction of Sami culture in the rational-emotive, materialistic-spiritual dichotomies, which are also intellectually sourced from the original nature-culture separation. There is something essentially limiting, fossilising and, ultimately, reductive in all such dichotomies, which inevitably do more harm to Sami culture than its Euro-modern correlative; it wants the Sami as necessarily spiritual, irrational, natural, primitive and, to a certain extent, naïve, whilst providing the Western experience-consuming tourist  the ability to hop-in hop-out this fossilised Sami cosmology whenever he or she wants.

Primitive Anarchy

In truth, the development of Scandinavian Germanic culture and society has always been profoundly interconnected with the Sami world, and vice-versa, effectively invalidating any artificial attempt to draw a clear line of separation between ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’. Just like any political, economic or philosophical system, any cosmology must be able to provide a fully encompassing rendition of the world experienced by a population, that allows its members to make sense and act within their world, rather than isolating them in an autarchic, exclusive, and ultimately incomplete vision of what surrounds them. The experience of the Sami through their history of inhabiting northern Scandinavia has been both of interaction with and subjugation to a number of peoples, the Germanic populations of southern Scandinavia constituting the most important and lasting counterpart. The Sami cosmology has integrated this experience to its very core, and a particularly fascinating testimony to this is constituted by the significance of silver in Sami culture.

For centuries the Sami utilise silver ornaments – particularly medallions and belt buckles – as charms and talismans. The Sami confer to silver the power of protecting the individual from evil spirits which can be found in any natural environment. This might be surprising, as the Sami, a pastoral population, were never involved in the mining for silver and were thus forced to trade for the metal with surrounding populations. From the 9th century, silver began increasing in importance, on the other hand, within southern Scandinavia’s Norse (or Viking) societies. From ornament for the elites, silver bullion began to be used in the expanding world of Viking explorers by the great traders that accompanied Norse expansion through Europe and the North Atlantic. Although Norse sovereigns and merchants did mint coins out of silver, what came to be created in medieval Scandinavia was a “bullion economy”; that is, an economy based specifically on the material consistency of a precious metal (in this case silver) and namely its purity and weight. A bullion economy’s reliance on the materiality of a specific currency, rather than the fiat value attributed to it (through coins and banknotes, for instance) by an overseeing authority, is essentially a non-centrally regulated economy. Such an economy necessitates a constant supply of the currency metal in question, and the most efficient way for this to come about is plunder and conquest (as well as the use of slave labour) – something that the Vikings were well renowned for.

A plunder-based bullion economy such as the one present in Scandinavia during the Viking era is similar to what would be witnessed, centuries later, during the Conquista of the American continent. Effectively, warrior leaders would motivate and maintain the loyalty of an armed retinue with the promise of a rich booty of precious metal, which would in turn allow the leader and its retinue to return to their land of origin or construct a colony as feudal lords. Through the wealth acquired, these plundering warriors would create realms for themselves under which they offered protection in exchange of tribute to peasants, subjugated communities and weaker allies.

The early age of Viking expansion is also when the Sami first came into contact with the Germanic power that would, in the coming centuries, strengthen its grip over them and the territory they inhabit. Archaeological and historiographic evidence has confirmed that the northernmost Viking warrior-lords developed close trade relations with neighbouring Sami tribes. Soon, a situation of geographic and economic specialisation came about on the Norwegian coast, with the Norse settling the coasts whilst the Sami would settle the interior, providing skins and meat for a payment in the famous Viking currency: silver.

Immediately the question comes: but why on earth would the Sami invest huge time and energy to receive silver, when they did not use the precious metal as a currency amongst themselves? Well, effectively what the Sami were doing by providing skins and meats to the Viking lords was paying a form of tribute. They thus ensured military protection by the lord from other Vikings and foreign populations. The silver here, come to symbolise, for the Sami, this position of subjugation and protection vis-à-vis their Norse neighbours. All this is easily graspable by re-interpreting these power relations through the Sami cosmology.

Anthropologists have highlighted how pre-colonial animist societies, far from existing in a state of ‘primitive anarchy’ as Enlightenment thinkers and their successors thought for more than two centuries, were in truth characterised by tyrannical hierarchies and power asymmetries. To be able to grasp these power structures, one must however go, once again, beyond the Enlightenment separation between nature and culture. Pre-colonial animist societies find their rulers and kings in the natural worlds: spirits, gods and natural forces requiring deference, able to destroy or provide the wealth of communities. The skins and meat that the Sami provided to the Viking were also the materials that were most commonly used by the Sami for ritual offerings to natural spirits responsible for protecting the community and ensuring its wellbeing. With the entry of the Sami into a relation of power with the Vikings, part of this protection comes to be provided by the tribute demanding lord, who thus places a legitimate claim to the precious materials of divine offerings. In turn, silver enters the Sami cosmology as the symbol of this relation of overlordship and protection between two population that stand in a power asymmetry vis-à-vis each other.

Carolina, our young Sami interlocutor, mentions that her grandmother possesses several medallions made of old silver coins melted together. These medallions are considered by her family, she proudly says, as very powerful charms against evil spirits. I would have loved to see these medallions, I think, with my own eyes. In them, quite literally, one sees how even the very matter of the ‘primitive’, ‘spiritual’, ‘different’ Sami cosmology is constituted by MONEY (!) – an element so familiar to us ‘moderns’, our materialistic way of life, and the violence and pillaging with which our economic reality was created. There is nothing more deceptive and far from truth than the relegation of any culture, and cosmology, to the museum-niche-cum-tourist-souvenir that is the romanticised concept of “indigenous people”. 

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