Where does the story of the Sámi, Finland’s indigenous people, begin? Let’s start about 12,000 years ago, when the thick ice sheets covering Finland began to melt and the earth was once again exposed.
With the ice gone, the sun warmed the ground and plants began to grow. With the plants came animals. And with the animals came humans. Thus begins the human story of Finland and the ancient people who later became the Sámi.
The first evidence of human presence in Finland comes from the southeast and dates to around 10,500 years ago. As the glaciers melted – starting on the coast and progressing inland – the human path followed, coming in from current day Russia and Norway.
Existence was tough in the arctic climate, but these early humans adapted well to their environment. They dressed in animal hides and maintained a mobile lifestyle, living in tepee-like shelters or in dwellings dug into the ground covered with turf, hides or birch bark.
Inland, they hunted reindeer, moose, bear, rabbit, beaver and fowl. Along the coast, they hunted seal, whale and walrus. They fished the seas and rivers for salmon, pike, whitefish and perch. And in the warm seasons, they gathered wild blueberries, crowberries and cloudberries.
The indigenous people of Finland, now called the Sámi, descended from those early inhabitants. Different theories suggest that the origin of the Sámi goes back 4,000 years or more.
The arrival of agriculture represented a new sedentary way of life for some of the early peoples of Finland. Those that took up an existence based on cultivating the land gravitated toward the southern areas. Others, who became what we know today as the Sámi, maintained the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and made their lives in the north.
Reindeer formed perhaps the most important resource for the Sámi, who hunted them in the wild for thousands of years using weapons and traps. Eventually they began to take more control of the herds, protecting them from predators and killing animals as necessary for food.
At the same time they would tame some individuals for milking or transportation. By the 15th century, large-scale, full-fledged reindeer husbandry had developed.
Not only did the Sámi carve a living from the environment, but they also had a spiritual relationship with the natural elements. All entities of nature were conscious, living beings with which they coexisted in an earthly family.
The Sámi lived in this way until the 17th century when the states of Sweden, Denmark and Novgorod began to colonise the northern landscapes. Land grants without taxation were given to non-Sámi people who moved from the southern, more urbanised areas to the remote north country.
One significant aspect of the early colonisation was the taxation of the Sami – in some regions by three different governments. Another one was Christianisation.
Slowly borders were formed, land was divided and the Sámi began to have a more difficult time maintaining their cultural heritage and languages. Assimilation proceeded, and the Sámi became integrated into schools, the economy and the legal system. Many of them lost parts of their own culture in the process.
Language and land
During the latter half of the 1900s, Sámi ways experienced a revitalisation. The people took the initiative to re-create their own nation within the established Scandinavian nations.
Major efforts have gone into gaining official language status and claiming land rights, the latter with the support of the UN. The language efforts have been reasonably successful, with Sámi languages now recognised as official languages in three northern municipalities of Finland.
However, land rights have proven more difficult because of counter-pressure by non-Sámi inhabitants of Lapland who fear losing their own land rights. The issue is currently unresolved in the Finnish Parliament.
Today, the Sámi remain a permanent fixture in Scandinavian society. They mainly inhabit northern regions across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and number upwards of 100,000 people. Approximately 7,500 of them live within Finland’s borders.
Perhaps most importantly, they now have their own parliament, founded in 1996. The Sámi were the first to arrive in Finland – perhaps when the climate cools and great sheets of ice take over the land again, they will be the last to leave.
By Andy Kruse, October 2012