GRAHAM SIMMONS visits the Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia formerly known as Lapplanders, and finds a proud culture.

Who are the Sami?

The Sami peoples of northern Scandinavia used to be called Lapplanders. However, this name has now fallen out of fashion, with the Sami claiming that the word ‘Lapp’ really means ‘outcast’. However, I suspect it really has more to do with all those jokes about the Sami being the inventors of the Lapptop computer.

Whatever the case, Sami (or Saapmi) communities are currently staging a strong revival in Norway, and indeed throughout Scandinavia. A culture that once seemed doomed is now not just surviving but positively thriving. The manifestations of Sami revival can widely be seen, from the Sami-language signage at the University of Tromsø (the ‘capital’ of northern Norway) to the colourful costumes still worn in everyday life.

In February 2006, the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat revealed the results of new archaeological research, showing that the main group of Sami migrated to Lappland from Central Russia around 8100BC – much earlier than had previously been believed.

Accordingly, much of the 7000 to 9000-year-old rock art of northern Norway (such as you can see at Leiknes, on the shores of Tysfjord) could well be of Sami origin. Until now, these rock art sites have been attributed to unknown ‘prehistoric’ sources.
Sami religion is complex, with the core belief that all life is dualistic on both spiritual and physical levels. No one, even a semi-divine being (such as Horagallis, the god of thunder) is all good or all bad. Consequently, people must live in harmony with these opposing forces, without disturbing Nature.

One of many Sami now living in the US, Gladys Koski-Holmes is a distinguished artist who regularly returns to Tromsø.
People nowadays are looking for a more spiritual connection with the universe,” she says. “They want to connect with the earth and the rocks and lakes and rivers and trees.”

The Sami of Finnmark

Mats Forsberg, a resident of Tromsø, knows a Sami family who are still living a traditional lifestyle on the shores of Lake Galggo (Galgujav’ri in the Sami language), right on the Norway-Finland border. I’m privileged to join in on a trip to the Lake.

Surrounded by the soaring Lyngen Alps just north of Tromsø, we cruise along Lyngenfjord to the little village of Skibotn, then travel up to the border.

On the tranquil shores of Lake Galggo, a reindeer-skin tent announces the presence of Ole-Thomas Baal, Anna Ragnhild and their two daughters. The tent is a reminder of past times, as the family now lives in a brand-new concrete house, complete with satellite dish. The Norwegian Government gives subsidies to those living in remote regions,” says Baal.

The funny thing is that most Sami would prefer to stay in the countryside anyway – subsidy or no subsidy.

Ragnhild gives us a demonstration of the traditional Sami arts of reindeer skinning and footwear making. Her weather-etched face is still radiant and attentive as she scrapes the hides that will form the uppers for a pair of shoes that are much warmer than 21st century technology can manage. Then she pours cups of steaming hot reindeer broth, a brew that would have been delicious had I not had poor old Rudolph on my mind.

The Southern Sami

South of Tromsø around Tysfjord, the southern Sami still practise a way of life little removed from their ancient roots. The sheer-sided Tysfjord, with jagged granite walls cascading down into the sea, seems to have been cut out with a giant rip-saw. The fjord is the homeland of the Lulesami or Southern Sami people, who make up two-thirds of the population of the waterside town of Musken.

These Sami are very different from their northern cousins, their culture being based on fishing and hunting rather than reindeer herding, with young Sami kids trained from an early age to gather wild berries.

There are daily buses from Tromsø, stopping at the Tysfjord Tourist Office. This office can arrange visits to the Lulesami museum at Arran, as well as whale-watching trips.

The Sami of Finland

Near the northern Finnish city of Rovaniemi, I join a cruise along the Ounas River, visiting a Sami community who own a reindeer farm on its banks. In winter, the Sami have more than 200 head of reindeer corralled. When the reindeer moult, their hair becomes a valuable commodity prized for its thickness and the hollowness of the fibres, which allows reindeer-hair cloth to retain heat.

In the far north, you can take tours of Finnish Lapland (centred around the town of Inari, with its fine Sami museum). The best starting point for these tours is the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, which is best reached about one of the famous Hurtigruten coastal ships. See

The Sami homeland

With a low and quiet profile, the Sami peoples seem thoroughly at home in the landscape. Even the nomadic reindeer- herding peoples of the north have their own concept of home – ‘Báiki’ – the ‘home that lives in the heart’.

Today, with the fragmentation of Western society into thousands of ‘cybertribes’, Sami values seem more important than ever. In the words of Gladys Koski-Holmes, “the search for connectedness can now be found not just among indigenous peoples, but amongst all young people throughout the world”.


The major Sami festival is Riddu Riddu, held each year in Kåsfjord, south-east of Tromsø, Norway. The next festival will be held July 12-16, 2006: see for further details. The 2007 Riddu Riddu Festival, meanwhile, will be held in early July: see above website for exact dates.

In Finnmark (Norway, near the Finnish border), the major Sami festival is the Easter Festival, in the town of Kautokeino. The next Easter Festival will run April 6-9, 2007. For more information, see”