The lives that the Sami lead are so different from the ones that most of the industrialized West lead that we might be inclined to view them as something out of history - a sort of living fossil. But, in fact, their culture is as vital as any of that on earth today and their way of life is both valid and adaptive. This does not mean that they are not currently struggling to adjust to changing circumstances - but this is always true of all cultures as the world changes around us. This paper looks at the challenges faced at this particular historical moment by the Sami people.
We should perhaps begin with a definition of who these people are. For many years called Laplanders, they are now called by the name that they use to refer to themselves. This passage explains the reason that the name of the people has been changed:
Lapp" means a patch of cloth for mending, thus the name suggests that the Sami are wearing patched clothes, a derogatory term and one that needs to be replaced. The word "Laplander" is also problematic since that could mean any person who lives within this region, also those that are non-native. Finally there's a part of the Sami population who always have lived outside the region of "Lapland" such as the Sami's in Swedens, Jemtland and H. rjedalen (http://www.itv.se/boreale/samieng.htm).
The Sami are one of the few remaining indigenous cultures of Europe:
The Sami are one of the indigenous peoples in Europe. A people is considered indigenous if its ancestors inhabited the region at the time of conquest or colonization, or before the establishment of present state boundaries. An indigenous people has its distinct e.g. cultural or social institutions which go back to its history.
In the Nordic countries, the definition of who is Sami is based on language criteria. A person is considered Sami if he consideres himself Sami and either has himself learned Sami or has at least one parent or grandparent who has learned Sami as his mother tongue. In Norway, there are more than 40,000, in Sweden more than 20,000, in Finland 6,500, and in Russia 2,000 Sami. The area inhabited by the Sami reaches in Norway and Sweden south to the level of Vaasa, in the north to the Arctic Ocean, and in the east, to the Kola Peninsula. The southern border of the Sami Region in Finland is situated in the northern part of the municipality of Sodankyl. About a third of the Sami population in Finland lives outside the actual Sami Region (http://www.yle.fi/samiradio/saamelen.htm).
The Sami have lived for centuries as pastoralists, herding their reindeer in the far northern sections of Europe. Pastoralism was at one point a very common human economic activity - historically rising between food collection and horticulture.
While many cultural groups gave up herding as the primary source of economic activity many centuries ago, the Sami did not, in part because agriculture was not a practical alternative for them given the severity of the climate in which they lived and also partly because they were contented in general with their own culture.
Pastoralist societies are always at least semi-migratory for the simply reason that if the people stay with their herds in any one place for too long the herds will degrade the pasturage through over-grazing and it may take years to recover. The Sami, like other pastoralists in the past and in the present, move with the herds to wherever the grazing is best at that time of year.
The society revolves around raising animals for the primary source of their food and they move on a regular migration pattern with their animals, at least most of their society does (http://www.hcc.hawaii.edu/~rob/Anth200Menu/DOCS/5/anth20-2.htm).
Sami society is relatively unchanged from the way in which is was structured hundreds of years ago because their culture is based very much on the needs of their reindeer, which have not changed very much. However, the challenges facing their traditional culture have become much greater during the last two decades for a number of reasons.
The first of these was the nuclear accident at Chernobyl that contaminated much of Northern Europe and affected the reindeer that the Sami had always herded. Even 15 years after the accident, in 2000, there were still very high levels of radiation to be found in the reindeer and in their environment, although the picture is better than many had initially feared it would be:
The final closure earlier this month of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, almost 15 years after one of its reactors exploded, was not the end of the story for Norway's reindeer.
But the man at the Norwegian Reindeer Husbandry Administration was rather jolly about it.
This had been quite a good year, he said: the 20,000 reindeer monitored annually for radiation levels - about a tenth of the total population - had been passed as fit for human consumption without the need for any treatment.
Of course, he added, the situation could vary dramatically from year to year, and there was no likelihood for at least the next 20 years that average rates of contamination would come down.
Absurdly enough, a major factor in the contamination equation is mushrooms - of which reindeer are excessively fond, and which are known to accumulate caesium (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1086547.stm).
It should be noted that not all Sami are reindeer herders, although herding is an important part of their economic structure. However, Sami culture as a whole is defined by its pastoralists core - and this remains true even as the herders incorporate new technologies into their traditional strategies for managing the herds.
The origins of today's reindeer herding can be traced to the hunting of wild reindeer some 1000 years before Christ. During the 1500s, entire herds were domesticated and the Sami became reindeer-raising nomads. Presently, about 10% of the Sami people are engaged in reindeer herding. Despite the use of technical aids like radio communications and snowmobiles, this occupation is still adapted to the herd's annual cycles. The Sami divide these cycles in to eight seasons (http://www.sametinget.se/english/sapmi/erennar.html)
The Sami are also currently fighting against restrictions on the use of their traditional grazing rights, restrictions that are reminiscent of those that were placed on Plains Indians in the 19th century when white settlers began to covet the land that the Indians were using - and had been using for generations - as herdland.
The Sami's greatest challenge comes not from people wanting to farm their land but from people wanting to log it. The Sami are handicapped in their fight with foresting interests by two factors that so often hinder indigenous people in the fight for their rights: They have less money than those that they are fighting against and they are trying to prove their case in a system that is designed to support entirely different kinds of cultural claims.
European courts want written documents - but traditional Sami do not have deeds to the lands that they have herded their reindeer on for centuries. And yet they must argue their case in a court that privileges written records over traditional practice.
The Sami] have a customary right to let their reindeers graze in the forests throughout the winter season - without recompensing the forest owners. This right was legislated in 1886 and is essential in order for the Sami to continue to live from reindeer herding as the reindeer cannot survive in the treeless higher mountain regions in winter.
This right has been challenged by private forest owners around the Swedish mountain region of J. mtland, H rjedalen and Dalarna. They claim that the Sami have not lived long enough in this area to claim the customary grazing right. Reindeer herding took place their for at least a few centuries.
Groups of private forest owners have taken the Sami communities to court. Since no written documentation exists, which can prove long-standing use of the land, the Sami are risking losing their customary right. The Sami can not financially afford these legal processes: just losing the first process charged them with court costs of £ 1,000,000 (http://www.sapmi.se/domen/sami_eng.html).
The Sami, however, are not relinquishing their traditional rights or their traditional culture without fighting for it. Even as they have incorporated snowmobiles into their herding practices, they are using the Internet to raise money for their legal battles, urging children (and adults) around the world to adopt a reindeer to help save the Sami's herds, culture and languages.
Although the Sami are a traditional people, they certainly do not fear technology, and there is something deeply heartening about their use of the World Wide Web to further a way of life that is thousands of years old.
The Sami must adjust to some extent to the 21st century, as must we all, but we can hope that they will not be assimilated, that they will not become like everyone else.