The Sami: Wise People of the North

During the 8th century, the wealthy Lombard historian named Paolo Giacono wrote something about mystical people who lived far away on the North. He referred to them as skiers and he noticed their domesticated animals are quite similar to deer. Pretty clearly, he was referring to the Sami people of European Arctic, and their animals are now known as reindeer.

Additionally, he referred to the geographical phenomena of polar nights and days, quite unclear to most of European people at that time. Let’s appreciate this outstanding virtual cultural trip with some typical music:

From the “exotic” to the recognised status

The 19th century children’s books about Santa Claus, the figure derived from the Saint Nicholas, referred to the white bearded man bringing gifts on sledges, driven by reindeer. Back then, artists of all kinds had some kind of obsession with exotic places, people, animals, plants and so on.

Traveling was not nearly as accessible as nowadays, so these works of art helped them getting some virtual travel. Isn’t it pretty similar to these kind of virtual travels and museum visits we are doing now?

In fact, reindeer were considered exotic and little was known about the Sami. Their traditional culture only became widely studied and recognised recently. Finally, over the past 30 years, diverse Sami (or Saami) languages got the recognition of minority languages across the national countries were the Sami live.

The Sami
A Sami Man, Woman, and Child – credits: Wellcome Collection

When a herd of reindeer means life

Most importantly, languages reflect the life of their native speakers. In one of the Sami variations (not sure which one, as the source doesn’t specify), the herd of reindeer is called “eallu”. Subsequently, there is another word with the same root, eallin. It means life. So, for a Sami of some area, a herd of reindeer means life.

Reindeer are quite cute animals when you meet them. They seem very happy with visitors on the farm. The Sami treat them with a big respect. (My #ArtOfDiscovery illustration)

For a comparison, it is not uncommon for words describing life and animals to share the same root. The word animal itself derives from the Latin anima, the spirit or soul. In Croatian, the animal is životinja, while the life is život. Similarly, in Greek ζώο [zoo] is animal, while ζωή [zoee] means life. After all, these Arctic tribes are not that exotic or different from us. The difference is in a detail, as they specify it on a “herd of reindeer”.

A Sami man and his reindeers, receiving our visit
A man carefully receiving visitors on his farm. Wearing his traditional clothes, he makes sure he presents his culture and animals in a respectful way.

Traveling to Inari

Inari is a village of a few hundred of inhabitants, the centre of a wider territory with some smaller settlements. It is far away from anywhere. When I say far away, I mean, truly far away. If you want to travel there from Helsinki, it will last up to 20 hours by road. Alternatives don’t exist at all, as the railway goes to Rovaniemi (still 4-5 hours of road trip from there), and there is an airport near the holiday resort of Levi (still 2-3 hours of road trip).

According to many, Inari is the heart of the Sami culture. One of the living variations of Sami language is called Inari Sami. The Museum of Sami Culture is located in the centre of the village, and it provides all the important answers to your questions. Finally, they have their own parliament in Inari, along with a cultural centre. In conclusion, Inari is a kind of metropolis of the Sami cultural and political autonomy.

Cool fact: The Vučedol Culture had their metropolis of approximately 2000 inhabitants, 5000 years ago, and it was the biggest city in Europe back then. In fact, the Sami are older than Vučedol!

Inside a traditional cabin-house
A Sami woman singing traditional songs inside an old-school house in Inari

The Sami and globalism

In this article, I used English language. a large percentage of world’s population understands it to some extent. Nevertheless, there are thousands of other languages. Most importantly, there is no one single Sami language, but up to 7 living variations, along with several extinct ones.

In the same vein, distinctive dialects between each of the Sami variations exceed all the diversity within English, from Americas to Australia. Not surprisingly, these languages at some point started fading away in favour of more “practical” solutions, such as countries’ official languages. However, nowadays many Sami children learn one of the variations at school, so they know it even if their parents didn’t.

Above all, they are one of the indigenous communities, just like indigenous tribes in Africa, where these “language situations” are pretty comparable. Preserving your own culture, way of life, understanding of nature proves a challenge in a globalist world. I mean, imagine being born in Inari, growing up in dark winters without seeing the sun for two months, and learning that there are parts of the world when the sun rises every day of the year?

Sustainability – what is this? They don’t know.

We can learn a lot from the Sami and other indigenous cultures across the world. In my humble view, there are few thing that define an indigenous culture. One of them is a common identity that is non-national. In other words, they cannot be defined through any borders but mostly ecosystems and climate areas. Secondly, each indigenous culture possesses a set of powerful and old traditions that are in a harmony with nature.

As a result, they are usually unfamiliar with concepts such as “market”, “economy”, “consumption”, “shopping”, or even – sustainability.

For them, sustainability is the core, although the word itself is unclear. They don’t need much, but they need a peace and safety for their homes. They are aware that climate change affects them, but it doesn’t seem they fully understand why is it happening, because they have so little to do with that.

Inari, Finland
Around the place where I stayed during my trip to the Arctic. There is a lot of snow, but also growing concerns about the climate change.

Some sources for further reading:

Sapmi: Saminiatures – exhibition of contemporary arts from or about the Sami, on Google Arts&Culture, retrieved on December 10, 2020

SIIDA Inari Museum – Sami Culture Museum – retrieved on December 11, 2020

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