Happy Sámi National Day!

Sámi National Day

Sámi Populations Succeed Despite Obstacles

By Stephen Anderson


Although its borders are not outlined neatly on any map, you’ll know by the temperature when you arrive that you are in the land of the Sámi people. Well above the Arctic Circle, this area might seem uninviting to the casual tourist.

Encompassing the most frigid segments of four countries – Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – this geographical anomaly is home to nomadic cultures that seem to thrive despite obvious hardships.

The Sámi people have their own folk costume, the kolt. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström/imagebank.sweden.se

First mentioned historically in the first century A.D. by the Roman senator Publius Tacitus, and noted over time in Norse sagas, the indigenous Sámi have survived for some 8,000 years by hunting, fishing, trapping and herding reindeer.

It was not until February 6, 1917, that Sámi delegates from the four disparate populations met in Trondheim, Norway, to identify ways and means of prospering in concert rather than disparately.

Hence, February 6 is observed annually as the Sámi National Day across this frozen pinnacle of Europe. Wearing colorful garments, the celebrants enjoy and share concerts, culture, food and camaraderie.

Typical of such celebrations is the four-day festival held annually in Jokkmokk, Sweden, for more than 400 years. Northern Europe’s largest winter market, it attracts people from several countries.

Jokkmokk Market is one of the most important social events for the Sámi people in Sápmi. Photo: Asaf Kliger/imagebank.sweden.se

In addition to taking helicopter and snowmobile tours, visitors can purchase elk and reindeer meat, smoked trout, Sámi bread, berries and jams. A reindeer race on frozen Lake Talvatis is a tourist highlight.

By mere coincidence, February 6 also had been the date in the late 19th century when Sámi delegates from Russia’s Kola Peninsula met with Muscovite bureaucrats to iron out any issues of mutual concern.

The Sámi of Norway and adjacent lands consisted of three segments: Mountain, River and Sea. The widespread Mountain population specialized in reindeer breeding; the River segment concentrated on hunting and agriculture; and Sea Sámi, the largest group, lived by fishing and farming.

Not unlike settlers in other lands,the Sámi worshipped the sun and moon as the gods who provided the plants and animals that sustained them. Religious beliefs similar to Shamanism emphasized the importance of natural forces.

A reindeer race during the Jokkmokk Market in the north of Sweden. Photo: Asaf Kliger/imagebank.sweden.se

So who were these Sámi people and where did they come from? Unfortunately, the recorded history of northern Scandinavia doesn’t begin until early in the 9th Century – rather late compared with that of the Greeks, Romans and other European populations.

Some historians believe that the Sámi were original inhabitants of the northern lands. Most of them were short and had Mongoloid features. Perhaps they emigrated from Siberia. Time has yet to tell.


Stephen Andersonis a former Board Member of the Swedish American Museum in Chicago, where a Sámi exhibit took place in 2013. He still serves at the front desk regularly and writes media releases for Museum events almost weekly.