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Just who are the Sami?

Just who are the Sami?


The Sami are the only officially recognized indigenous people of Europe.  The term is equivalent to “Native American” or “First Nations” in that there are approximately 28 Sami tribes with different dialects . . . some of them not mutually intelligible . . . and different physical appearances.  During the past 20 years the Sami have become increasingly inclined to view themselves as sharing cultural aspirations with the Native Peoples of North America.  They are even showing up in North American powwows!   And for good reason . . . while I was in the Swedish province of Lapland,  far north of the Arctic Circle, on several occasions Swedish, Finnish and German tourists stopped their cars to ask me for directions!  LOL  However, most of the time, I lived 900 miles to the south, across the Oresund from Denmark.  Even there, most Swedes thought I was a Norwegian Sami.

Judy Johnson, Secretary and Treasurer of the Ancient Artifact Preservation Society, has kindly forwarded POOF an essay, based on several credible sources about the Sami’s, which will give you a far more comprehensive description of their cultures than available in online references. One thing that I thought was interesting is that anthropologists have identified two regions of Europe in which Homo Sapiens became concentrated during the Late Ice Age, Iberia and the Ukraine.  Also,  please notice the photo of the Sami house made from stacked boulders.  Such structures are also found in New England and eastern Canada.

This is a much longer article than usual,  but it contains the information you need to generally understand the Sami.  This essay is is far more detailed than the discussion of Sami’s in Wikipedia.  A source was listed on the essay that Judy sent us.  It is

But first a little humor . . .



The Incident at Öestergatan 102B – Landskrona, Sverige

Only a couple of weeks had passed since my arrival in Sweden, when early on a Saturday morning I heard a progression of door knocks, followed by doors being slammed, coming down the hallway of my lowrise apartment building.  Finally my turn came. 

Two young men stood smiling at the doorway.  They were about my age with blonde hair and blue eyes . . . but with Anglo-Saxon facial features, not Swedish. They both were wearing identical starched white shirts, black ties and black pants.  Both were carrying brief cases.  NOBODY in Skåne (southwestern Sweden) wears white shirts, except straight-laced government bureaucrats sent down from Stockholm.   But then they started uttering gobblygook.  I had no clue what they were saying.   They weren’t speaking Swedish, so apparently the government officials thought I was from another country.   I was in the international neighborhood of Landskrona, where most immigrants lived.  There were several Turkish and Palestinian immigrant families in my building . . . including a PLO terrorist cell.  It sounded like maybe they were speaking Turkish?

I told them repeatedly in “beginners” Swedish that I was an American . . . could they speak Swedish slowly or better still, English?  They didn’t understand me.  This went on for awhile, until one of the young men pulled out another book from his briefcase and began speaking something that sounded like Russian or maybe, Polish.  “Oh geez . . . they’re Soviet spies and they’ve blown my cover.”  I quickly shut the door.

As the young men walked away, I heard one say in perfect American English, “That was strange. Did you see what he looked like?  . . .  kind of like an Indian.  He must be a Lapp.  They told us that we wouldn’t be in the part of the country, where the Lapps lived.”

I quickly opened the door.  “You’re Americans!  What are you doing here, early on a Saturday morning?  What language were you speaking?”

The two young men jerked to attention.  One announced, ” We are here in Finland to give you a message of hope from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”

I chuckled and interrupted, “Oh, you’re Mormon missionaries . . . but this is Sweden . . . not Finland.  Finland is about 500 miles to the northeast of here.”

Grossly embarrassed, they immediately ceased their often rehearsed presentation.  We had a very friendly conversation as they reverted back to their real personalities.  It started immediately on the topic of all the trim  flickas (young women), riding around Landskrona on their bicycles. They asked me how could I concentrate on work after looking outside my office window.   They were also surprised at seeing churches and how “open and democratic” this country that turned out to be Sweden, seemed.  The policemen didn’t carry guns and all the stores were privately owned!   They were told by their staunch Republican bishop that the Sweden was a atheist, communist country in which the government owned everything.

They told me that they had just graduated from Brigham Young University.  I told them that I had just graduated from Georgia Tech.   Their flight to Copenhagan had been delayed and so they arrived when most of the airport was empty.  They evidently had taken the wrong ferry at Tuborghavn and when they recognized the Finnish flag among other flags, flying at the Landskrona ferry terminal, they thought they had arrived in Finland.  They had walked the streets of Landskrona most of the night, trying to match their map of Helsinki, Finland to the street signs.  Well, actually it was not “night”.  I never saw the stars until August.  This was the Land of the Midnight Sun.   

I told them that they were the first non-Southerners from the United States I had met in Europe, who were not condescending and arrogant toward me.  The Master of Life was preparing for dealing with the faux intellectuals of Georgia anthropology in the 21st century.   On the ferry over from Copenhagen, I had met two recent graduates in Education from the University of Minnesota.  One was on the United States Olympic Team.  They were touring Europe prior to reporting to Munich for the Olympics.  Almost the very first thing that the young teachers-to-be said to me was, “We were wondering what it was like to grow up in a disadvantaged educational system?”  

You don’t want to know what I said back to them.  One of my high school classmates had a perfect score on the SAT.  Most likely, neither one of those not terribly clever,  young ladies could have even gotten into the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech.

The two guys from Utah had not eaten since on the trans-Atlantic flight, so I shared my breakfast of sausages and cheese toast . . . plus a map to get them to the bank in the Tempo Supermarket, so they could exchange their travelers checks for Swedish kroner and Finnish marks.  International credit cards did not exist back then.  I was surprised that they declined cups of hot tea from a kettle on the stove, so they drank water.  I asked them where in the Bible did it say not to drink tea?   

They looked askance.  One eventually answered, ” The Mormon Church teaches us that it is a sin to drink coffee, tea and soft drinks.”  It was obvious that he didn’t want to discuss the issue any further, since I was obviously not remorseful for being a tea and Coca Cola drinker.  Okay! . . . moving on.

I told them that they would be amazed by the technology in Sweden.  This supermarket was bigger than a K-Mart and used a LASER DEVICE to total up the purchases rather than the checkout gals having to look at each item as they did in the United States.  I added, “I know that it is kind of weird having a bank in a grocery store . . . we’ll never see that in the US . . . but this supermarket is so huge that it also has mulitple isles of frozen foods,  a deli AND a buffet restaurant!”  

I have a feeling that when these two friendly guys presented their mission report to the bishop back in Utah, they would leave out the Öestergatan 102B Incident . . .  especially the part of about lusting after the heathen Swedish flickas as they rode by on bicycles!  


An Overview of the Sami People.

The Sami are a relatively small group of indigenous people, the only officially recognized one in Europe. They are scattered and partially nomadic in a territory that falls within the borders of three different nations: Finland, Sweden and Norway. Their numbers are estimated somewhere between 50-100000, depending on by whom and how the census was taken.

In Finland there are about 6000 Sami (Saami), far fewer than in Norway and Sweden. Some Sami rights are recognized commonly in all three countries, such a right to speak their native language and be taught at school in their native tongue (provided that they live in their home territory), the right to follow the migration of the reindeer across international borders (I’m sure there are a number of stipulations on this one.) and each country has a political Sami body for very limited autonomous government (in Finland this body is called Saamelaiskäräjät, or in Sami Sámediggi). The Sami have their own flag -the red circle is the Sun, the blue, the Moon.), which is held in common among the different “tribes” of Sami.

Sami languages

The Sjo-Sami strongly resemble Native Americans

The languages of the Sami are divided (similarly to the Sami themselves) into Eastern and Western “dialects”. There appears to be some debate among linguists over whether Sami languages are one language with many rather different dialects, or several languages themselves. The reason for this is that while most Sami languages can apparently be mutually understood and have much in common, there are strong differences between others.

The most commonly spoken Sami language is Northern Sami, which is spoken by about 30 000 people. It’s one of the five Western Sami languages. The other four have far fewer speakers, though Lule Sami and Southern Sami have more than any of the Eastern languages, 2000 and 600, respectively. Ume Sami and Piti Sami have just twenty speakers each.

Of the eastern Sami languages, the largest are Kildin Sami and Skolt Sami with five -and four-hundred speakers. Inari Sami has three hundred. The three other Eastern Sami language are dead, or as good as. As of 2010 there was only two native speakers of Ter Sami left. Akkala Sami became extinct sometime in the 1800s, with only a few written samples of it in existence. The last native speaker of Kemi Sami died in 2003.

The  Sami languages matter quite a lot for a few different reasons; one is that they denote the different sub-groups of Sami. While the differences seem relatively small to an outside observer, these Sami goups differ in not just language, but dress, customs and interestingly enough, also genetically.

The other reason is that, at least according to Finnish law, in order to determine oneself as Sami either one has learned, or has at least one parent or grandparent that learned, Sami as their first language. One parent also has to have been registered, or eligible to be registered as a voter in Sami elections.

In Finland there’s also a controversial stipulation that anyone who’s immediate ancestor has been registered as a subsistence living hunter, fisherman, or reindeer herder in Lapland can claim Sami heritage, whether or not the registered ancestor was actually ethnically Sami.

Compared to criteria used to “measure” a person’s Native American heritage, for instance, these stipulations are really strict, which I hope is partly because the Sami were not obliterated in the same horrific manner the indigenous populations of the Americas were. Another part is that they have had the good luck of mostly remaining in the same general area for thousands of years. Until the 20th Century they also mingled somewhat less with the dominant population, making ancestry tracing easier.

Still, there’s quite a bit cultural genocide that occurred particularly in the post-World War II years; The Sami went through many of the same trials North American Indians did, from banning of their customs and language, to the children being taken to state school to get “re-educated”.  This makes the stipulation about the language rather interesting since one of the characteristics of re-education is often that it obliterates children’s ability as native speakers by making using one’s indigenous language a punishable offense.

Genetics of the Sami

Just as the languages are divided into Eastern and Western, there is research speculating that the genetic heritage of the two directions of the Sami are also quite different. The Eastern Sami have more Russian, Mongolian and East of Ural characteristics (which in themselves can be contradicting). This allows for some discrepancy in the image different folks have of the Sami. In Scandinavia the Sami are typically portrayed and thought of as either short, but powerfully built, with darker skin and hair, or as blond, more Swedish/Russian looking. 

The latter appears to be the prevailing image of the Sami outside of Scandinavia, along with the more Siberian, Eastern influences. Certainly there are Sami folk today, as well as pictured from the past who seem to bear a strong resemblance to indigenous nomads in Mongolia and Siberia.

One would imagine that as with most nomads, there was a fair bit of gene-pool mixing over time and distance. However, there is some truly fascinating genetic information available on the Sami and this information actually ties into the genetic ancestry of all of us. The Sami are considered to be the most genetically interesting group of people in Europe. As a matter of fact, genetically speaking, there are two groups of people in Europe: the Sami and the rest.

The Sami are considered to have the most “Mongolian influence” from crossing with Siberian cultures, or possibly more specifically the Samoyed (of the tundra forests) People (Which today include the Nenets, Selkup, Enets and other indigenous Siberian people) (It should be noted the there’s some debate of the origin of the word Samoyed and whether it is a derogatory colonial Russian term.) who’s territory at one point bordered their homelands on the Kola Peninsula.

Their unique genetic history makes the Sami the largest constituents of Haplo Group V – the smallest group of our European genetic ancestors. The majority of the maternal lines come from the West and the minority from the East.  The genetic ancestors of the Sami come from two places of ancient dwellers The Iberian Refuge and The Ukrainian Refuge, each one of the few habitable places in Europe at the end of the of the last Ice Age. This division was typical of all European groups as the ice age separated the Eastern and Western lines from one another.

The unifying trait of the Sami ancestors at this point was that they lived in the Northernmost areas of the regions and practiced hunting typical to tundra dwellers. Those in the Iberian Refuge hunted for deer, while their Western counterparts were the Mammoth Hunters, who also share their ancestry with us modern day Finns. Hence the “cousin connection” between us and Amber. (Since both C.’s maternal grandparents have quite a bit of Finn in them, C. and I are actually rather more closely related, I’m sure. Finns are pretty much all related to each other. Go figure.)
Traditional clothing

In addition to language and genetic differences, various tribes of Sami people wear very different costumes. The Eastern Skolt Sami women, for instance, have their own very distinct style of hats and wear different style of scarves from the other costumes. Their costume has a long skirt for women and a blouse, and almost reminds one of Russian dress. The costume more typically thought of as “the Sami Costume”, with its blue felt and Aurora-trim , with the “four winds”-cap for men and a red one (the horn-cap) with beautiful trims for women is the Inari Same costume.

Some influences of the Sami costume have even seeped into the Finnish mainstream. “Lapikkaat” (Lapp Shoes), for instance, fur-lined leather boots with upturned toes were the winter shoe of choice for a everyone around the turn of last century and remained popular up until the 50s. They’re having quite the revival these days with the young folks. Most Finnish national costumes feature upturned pointy-toed leather shoes much like the Sami’s wear. Things like “Aurora Mittens” (as seen on the woman in the first image in this post) are also something most people know, but don’t necessarily associate with the Sami. Since Finnish National Costumes, were somewhat artificially created, it would be interesting to know how much they borrow from the Sami costumes. (I really want a book about Finnish National Costumes.) The scarves, the pins, the striped cloth of skirts, could all be either popular to the time, or on loan. Certainly the colorfulness of the costumes is very similar to Sami-wear.

The Sami have been, and continue in part to be, a nomadic people, who follow the reindeer in their annual migration. Their traditional home the Lavvu (in Finland ‘Kota. There’s some controversy over this on English language sites.) resembles the Tipi of the North American Plains Indians, so much so that there’s been some dispute over whether one culture influenced the other in less distant past than the Behring Land Bridge.

The main thing that makes the Lavvu unique is its three forked poles for ease of setting the Lavvu up. The surrounding poles rest upon the tripod that they form, which makes it possible for a single person to set it up by themselves (I dare you to try the same with a tipi!). Traditionally it was made from reindeer skins and often the poles were stashed in each seasonal camp spot. Wood is scarce in the hyperborean regions, so the poles were really quite precious.

Perhaps because of their relative isolation, the Sami were late-comers to the great boom to move to the United States and thanks to their fairly recent emigration, many of their descendants remain pretty connected to their heritage.

Even thought they’re not active participants in the immigrant Sami community, C’s family’s lore has always maintained that “Grandma Sari/Saari/ (or sadly) Sorry”, C’s grandmother’s grandmother, was of Sami origin. This, of course, is more word of mouth than anything else. Little, or no concrete information seems to have remained in the family archives, but thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I’ve been able to do a little genealogy work online. 

The story of C’s great great grandmother’s ancestry has always been obscured by a family tragedy that virtually erased his great great grandfather from the family tree. Little was, in fact known of him, save for that he was also from Finland, his last name, possible first name, and that he moved across the river from where the family lived, to Oregon, never to be seen or heard from again.

One of the things I was originally interested in, was whether or not this illustrious grandfather was Sami himself. If the family lore on C’s great great grandma was true, then I felt, there was a pretty good chance that his heritage would be the same. First generation immigrants typically married among their own and though from a non-Scandinavian point-of-view, a Sami marrying a Finn might appear pretty natural, it seems more likely that Grandma Saari would have married one of her own in the New World.

The little research I could do based on what we know about her husband made this seem like a real possibility. Though there’s much more research I look forward to doing in the family archives some day, there’s a fair chance that both of C’s maternal great grandparents were of Sami origin. How Sami does that then make C, or even his mother or aunts and uncle? Well in the terms of modern Finnish definition of Sami-not very.

If we could positively prove that both his great great grandparents were Sami, that would make his great grandpa a full Sami. However, as I mentioned before, since the determining factor in defining Sami heritage, at least in Finland, is not ancestry, but language, unless we could prove that one of his parents had spoken a Sami language as their first, the official line of Sami heritage ends with them.

According that criteria, C.’s family’s claim to Sami ancestry is maybe a little more valid than say, Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Cherokee ancestry. But, as Warren’s case illustrates, these matters are more complex than mare ancestral lines might imply.

For one thing, as long as there is no financial advantage at stake (as there sadly often is, due to the incredibly unfair treatment of North American First Nations and convoluted restitution methods employed by the US government. But that is a whole other post, most likely by someone other than me.), or the person claiming indigenous heritage is somehow offensive to that culture, I feel that identifying with a one’s heritage even if its origin is not documented to absolute certainty can only benefit the claimant’s (and then, by proxy, that of those around them) understanding of that indigenous culture.

That is, of course, if they bother to look further into it than simply to claim that their great great grandfather had some Apache blood in them. As a statement for gaining “native cool”, such claims can be offensive, but as incentive to learn about the indigenous history and current state of native culture in one’s homeland, a “Native Identity” can alter a person’s perception radically.

This is, naturally, just my personal opinion, but I feel that if, for instance, one married “into”, rather than “out of” native tribes, there would be a lot more folks who would have something at stake when their history is re-written or glossed over, or their past or current rights are violated.

A scholar of local Coast Salish native heritage that we know here, even compares some of the government driven policies on being “a tribe member by blood” to a selective breeding program that is an extension, or perhaps the latest form of genocide by the US government. The more strident the rules on who’s Native American and who’s not, the smaller the tribal rolls get. Sure, if anyone born to one recognized native parent, or even married to a such an individual had the right to claim tribal membership status, there would be more trouble over fishing rights and insurance, but more importantly, there would be more folks who identified with and had an incentive to learn about the culture.

I’m not an indigenous person myself, or any sort of expert on native culture anywhere, but I would encourage anyone with any native heritage to really learn about their ancestry, for not only a more complete understanding of these people’s past and present, but so that we may all not keep repeating the same vague, romantic notions of indigenous peoples.

I  believe that this is similar our responsibility to learn all we can about the history of the region that we live in. Understanding the people who shaped the region before us, helps our own bond with our chosen home place. This strikes me as being particularly important in a country as permanently transient as America, where people move around from generation to generation, with little history of their own in connection to the land they live on.

Discoveries about one’s ethnicity, home place, or deep ancestry can yield surprising insights into ourselves. Just as understanding why certain cloud patterns augur certain kind of weather, or why certain wild foods were preferred by the original inhabitants of the region, helps us ground ourselves to the place we’ve chosen to live in.

Random, serendipitous or random seeming mental and physical attributes gain new meaning, a place in a long chain of genetic events, when we discover that there may be an ancestral precedent to our artistic prowess, our love of a weather, our emotional life, our unusual looks…

In my mind it stands to reason, for instance, that my husband’s family would come in part from a culture that valued artistry and beauty in their every day objects. C’s interest in native carving and knife-making suddenly presents itself in a new context. His whole family’s artistic flair does. That they are artists and crafters and seem to have a great eye, suddenly makes more sense.

It may seem trivial to try to cast such a light on a person’s artistic ability, but in a world where we are disconnected from such a heritage, where each person picks their own path, starts from scratch, feeling like you’re part of a tradition is powerful thing. We no longer carry on our parents trade, or apprentice to master’s to learn a new one; instead we are tossed out into the world with a vague notion of who we might want to become, an idea that we are here to re-invent the culture.  That sense of being a part of something larger than ourselves, is a good reminder. A reminder that life is short and fleeting and good and exciting, that we should try to make it as fun and beautiful as we can.

It is also comforting to connect to one’s ancestors on a very simple, even material plane: “We are the kind of people who carry their salt and coffee on their person at all times.” “We are the kind of people who love a small riot of color on every one of their possessions.”  The kind of pride I could tell my husband felt looking at these objects, reading these small stories of a vast culture, is the kind of pride that one should have in one’s ancestry: being proud and humbled all at once by the sheer improbability of how many others had to travel through so much time and distance, so that you might exist. And you might as well be proud of who and where you came from. Our ancestry, after all, is part of our inner lives, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I hope you enjoyed this “small” introduction to the Sami, close and distant family history, and some thoughts on ancestry. Here’s some ideas for Sami-related entertainment and I’m currently really enthralled with Amber’s recommendation The Seven Daughters of Eve, and highly recommend it (correct me if I got any of the genetics stuff wrong. Someday, if anyone’s interested, I would also love to dedicate a whole post to the Sami costumes, which are varied, beautiful and utterly unique. Someday.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    a point of order I suppose. the writer challenges putting up a (north America) plains tipi single without the use of forked tripod poles…. well, one can and does. guess the writer has never erected a plains tipi. with a 3 pole support, the three are laid flat , tied at the top, and pulled up with the longer tie down rope. the western tipi that I am aware of have the bottom ends sharpened to a point which helps hold to pull up and also when set, helps keep the poles from “walking” in strong winds. have had mine “walk” in 95+ mi. straight winds.

    in another matter, thanks for your discussions about the “re-writing” of history. now that I am aware , I see it daily, especially in national politics. :o)

    • No joke . . . Richard B. I have gotten where I don’t believe much of anything the network TV talking heads are saying. To them the news has become entertainment.

      Thank you for the information about the teepees. I know absolute nothing about the design and erection of teepees.


    Hey Richard,
    I ran across this interesting article on the Bell Beaker people of England. According to the article the bronze age people of England were replaced by the by the Beaker People. It started about 4500 years ago and no one seems to know what happened to them. There was a 90% turn over of the Islands genome. I wonder where the first group went? With many of the things you have uncovered about the Bronze age connections in the SE have you found any thing referencing a population increase about this time? Here is the link.


    • Absolutely! The first pottery and shell rings appeared on the Georgia coast as the same time that the first people in Ireland and England disappeared.


    I feel more lost than ever after having gone on to trace my family ancestry. I thought I would get more answers than questions. True – I did trace my Norwegian ancestry clear back to a man named Skodrif Berviensen. However, I also learned from a cousin who had mitochondrial DNA testing done that we also trace back to Northwest Russia. This fact, coupled with things my father and grandfather said, such as we had some “Black Norwegian” in the family, have left me wondering if my ancestry includes one (or more) of the indigenous groups of people such as the Saami or Karelian peoples. I gaze at a photo of my great grandparents and wonder, too. It is clear that my great grandfather had light hair and light eyes – but my great grandmother had dark hair and darker eyes and seemed very “Asiatic” in appearance. Certainly, she had what one would call an “exotic” appearance – whatever that means. She certainly didn’t look like the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian people often think of. And we used to make fun of my dad and tell him he looked like a “Laplander”, not knowing at the time that was considered a disparaging term. Nonetheless, we sensed something even then. I wonder how one would go about finding out for sure if they have Saami (or other indigenous) ancestry of that area of the world? Am I relegated to never knowing for sure?

    • Mørk Norsk (Dark Norwegian) is another name for the Saami. People in Sweden, Denmark and Norway thought I was Mørk Norsk, not Nordamerikanska! LOL Northwest Russia could Saami, Karelian or people closely related to the Inuit (Eskimo) . . . or somewhere in between.


      I feel the same way. I can’t find anything past the early 1800s but your description of your grandmother is the same as mine and I am so curious to know if we are part Sami


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