The Sami
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The Sami

Europe’s northern people

Europe’s northern people

The Sami, whose name is believed to come from the Baltic word *žēmē, meaning 'land, have long lived upon the plains of northern Europe.

Travel through the deep valleys and across the great fjords of Sápmi, which spans the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Murmansk Oblast of Russia.


  • Region is Europe

  • Climate here is Polar



Over generations, the Sami have had many livelihoods such as coastal fishing, fur trapping, and sheep herding but today, they are most famous for their semi-nomadic reindeer herding. Only 2800 Sami people, about 10% of the entire population, are still actively involved in reindeer herding, breeding the animals for meat, fur, and transportation.


As some Sami are seasonally nomadic, their settlements can vary from temporary and portable housing to permanent abodes. You’ll often even find this variety of homes together in the same area. In the past, the Sami would build lavvu tents, sod huts and frame dwellings, some of which are still used today. But modern housing is now built to national standards with central heating and running water.


Social Structure

Sami society is open. They have no all-powerful leader and instead choose a mostly egalitarian life with parliamentary democracies where all are equal. Having said that, reindeer-breeding can be seen as particularly prestigious along with the members in that field.


The traditional religion of the Sami people taught that both living beings and inanimate objects had souls. A priest, known as a noaidi, would act as an intermediary between the spiritual and material worlds. They would beat a drum and perform a chant called juoigan (also known as yoik), entering into a trance where they would communicate with the dead.


Sami culture is rich in tradition. They still adorn themselves with brightly colored cultural clothing, usually made of wool or felt and famous for its attention-drawing red and yellow patterns against deep blue.

Traditional Sami food includes a wide range of meats, such as sheep, moose, beef, and of course reindeer, along with vegetables, berries, and herbs. Bierggojubttsa is a popular traditional dish, a soup made from meat and vegetables.


The Sami language is closely related to Finnish, Estonian, Livonian, Votic and a number of lesser-known languages. Given the vast geography that the Sami span, you’ll find that their language varies between regions.


Many Sami engage in utilitarian art but the community has many specialists such as knife makers, basket weavers and silversmiths who create beautiful decorative wears. These crafts are often marked with a special seal to prove they are of Sami origin.

Some Sami have grown to international fame in other art forms such as graphic design and literature. And Juoigan has become a recognized vocal art form.


Like many in Europe, the Sami celebrate the major Christian holidays. But they make each one so individual to them the events really are a wonder to experience.

Little Christmas: Finland’s Pikkujoulu celebrations happen early in December, kicking off the festivities that will last until December 26. The Sami will eat a festive meal to mark the occasion, usually consisting of salmon, ham, vegetables and rice pudding.

Boxing Day: The day after Christmas is filled with traditional games, from sled rides to lasso throwing.

Spring celebrations: These are held each year to mark the end of winter. The Sami celebrate by wearing their best clothes and getting together with friends.

Easter: A huge festival takes place in Kautokeino in the worth of Norway. There’s lots of traditional Sami entertainment such as sled races and Juoigan singing.
Further knowledge

Further knowledge

Journeying with the Sami from September to April can be extra magical as this time of year offers the best chance to witness the Northern Lights.

Photo credit: Family on Reindeer sleigh in Finland

Photos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license:
MS Finnmarken / Larry Lamsa

Photo credit: Sami bags Norway

Photo credit: Northern Lights in Sweden

Photo credit: Reindeers running