Today is Sámi National Day, an ethnic national day for the Sámi people that falls on February 6th because this date was when the first Sámi congress was held in 1917 in Trondheim. This congress was the first time that Norwegian and Swedish Sámi came together across their national borders to work together to find solutions for common problems. In 1992, at the 15th Sámi Conference in Helsinki, a resolution was passed that Sámi National Day should be celebrated on February 6th. Sámi National Day is a celebration for all Sámi, regardless of where they live, and on that day the Sámi flag should be flown and the Sámi national anthem is sung in the local Sámi dialect.
Through pure coincidence, this date also happened to be when representatives of the Sámi of the Kola Peninsula used to gather annually, meeting with Russian bureaucrats to debate and decide on issues of relevance to them. This body, called the Koladak Sobbar, has been called the ‘first Sámi Parliament’ by the researcher Johan Albert Kalstad. This information did not influence the choice of this date as the Sámi People’s Day, given that the people present did not know about it – the Koladak Sobbar existed during the late 19th century only, and was not ‘rediscovered’ by Kalstad until the 21st century.
Before I continue talking about the Sámi people in general, I want to point out that this celebration is really a model for indigenous peoples who are ethnic minorities, and who are scattered across national boundaries. The Sámi (often called Lapps in English) represent only about 5% of the population in the region where they live which spreads across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Long ago, they were the majority in the region, but they were slowly encroached upon by Scandinavians and Russians. The enduring question is how to maintain some degree of autonomy and unity in the face of pressures to assimilate to national cultures, especially when these nations fragment the region where they live – called Sápmi in Sámi (Lapland in English). The term Lapp (and European cognates) is sometimes seen as derogatory because it is an outsider term. It has no pejorative connotations that I know of, but it is best not to use it. Apparently, the Sámi object less to Lapland than to Lapp.
If we look at language first we can get a sense of the geography and distribution of the Sámi. The Saamic languages are the region’s main minority languages and also, of course, its original languages. They belong to the Uralic language family, and are most closely related to the Finnic languages. Many Sámi languages are mutually unintelligible, but the languages originally formed a dialect continuum stretching southwest-northeast, so that a message could hypothetically be passed between Sámi speakers from one end to the other and be understood by all. Today, however, many of the languages are all but extinct, and thus there are “gaps” in the original continuum.
On the map above numbers indicate Sámi Languages (Darkened areas represent municipalities that recognize Sámi as an official language.): 1. South (Åarjil) Sámi, 2. Ume (Upme) Sámi, 3. Pite (Bitthun) Sámi, 4. Lule (Julev) Sámi, 5. North (Davvi) Sámi, 6. Skolt Sámi, 7. Inari (Ánár) Sámi, 8. Kildin Sámi, 9. Ter Sámi. Of these languages the Northern one is by far the most vital, whereas Ume, Pite and Ter seem to be dying languages. Kemi Sámi is extinct.
Since prehistoric times, the Sámi people of Arctic Europe have lived and worked in an area that stretches over the northern parts of the regions now known as Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Kola Peninsula. They have inhabited the northern arctic and sub-arctic regions of Fenno-Scandinavia and Russia for at least 5,000 years. The Sámi are counted among the Arctic peoples and are members of circumpolar groups such as the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat. Petroglyphs and archeological findings such as settlements dating from about 10,000 BCE can be found in the traditional lands of the Sámi. These hunters and gatherers of the late Paleolithic and early Mesolithic were named Komsa by the researchers because what they called themselves is unknown.
Recent archaeological discoveries in Finnish Lapland were originally seen as the continental version of the Komsa culture about the same age as the earliest finds on the coast of Norway. It is hypothesized that the Komsa followed receding glaciers inland from the Arctic coast at the end of the last ice age (between 11000 and 8000 BCE) as new land opened up for settlement (e.g., modern Finnmark area in the northeast of Norway, to the coast of the Kola Peninsula). For long periods of time, the Sámi lifestyle thrived because of its adaptation to the Arctic environment. Throughout the 18th century, as Norwegians of Northern Norway suffered from low fish prices and consequent depopulation, the Sámi cultural element was strengthened, since the Sámi were mostly independent of supplies from Southern Norway.
During the 19th century, Norwegian authorities pressured the Sámi to adopt Norwegian language and culture universal. Strong economic development of the north also ensued, giving Norwegian culture and language higher status. On the Swedish and Finnish sides, the authorities were less militant, although the Sámi language was forbidden in schools and strong economic development in the north led to weakened cultural and economic status for the Sámi. From 1913 to 1920, the Swedish race-segregation political movement created a race-based biological institute that collected research material from living people and graves, and sterilized Sámi women. Throughout history, Swedish settlers were encouraged to move to the northern regions through incentives such as land and water rights, tax allowances, and military exemptions.
The strongest pressure took place from around 1900 to 1940, when Norway invested considerable money and effort to wipe out Sámi culture. Anyone who wanted to buy or lease state lands for agriculture in Finnmark had to prove knowledge of the Norwegian language and had to register with a Norwegian name. This caused the dislocation of Sámi people in the 1920s, which increased the gap between local Sámi groups (something still present today) that sometimes has the character of an internal Sámi ethnic conflict. In 1913, the Norwegian parliament passed a bill on “native act land” to allocate the best and most useful lands to Norwegian settlers. Another factor was the scorched earth policy conducted by the German army, resulting in heavy war destruction in northern Finland and northern Norway in 1944–45, destroying all existing houses, or kota, and visible traces of Sámi culture. After World War II the pressure was relaxed though the legacy was evident into recent times, such as the 1970s law limiting the size of any house Sámi people were allowed to build.
The controversy over the construction of the hydro-electric power station in Alta in 1979 brought Sámi rights to the political agenda. In August 1986, the national anthem (“Sámi soga lávlla”) and flag (Sámi flag) of the Sámi people were created. In 1989, the first Sámi parliament in Norway was elected. In 2005, the Finnmark Act was passed in the Norwegian parliament giving the Sámi parliament and the Finnmark Provincial council a joint responsibility of administering the land areas previously considered state property. These areas (96% of the provincial area), which have always been used primarily by the Sámi, now belong officially to the people of the province, whether Sámi or Norwegian, and not to the Norwegian state.
The indigenous Sámi population are mostly urbanized, but a substantial number live in villages in the high arctic. The Sámi are still coping with the cultural consequences of language and culture loss related to generations of Sámi children taken to missionary and/or state-run boarding schools and the legacy of laws that were created to deny the Sámi rights (e.g., freedom of beliefs, use of indigenous language, land ownership, and freedom to practice traditional livelihoods). The Sámi are experiencing cultural and environmental threats, including oil exploration, mining, dam building, logging, climate change, military bombing ranges, tourism, and commercial development.
The Sámi have for centuries been the subject of discrimination and abuse by the dominant cultures claiming possession of their lands down to the present day. They have never been a single community in a single region of Lapland, with political autonomy. Norway has been greatly criticized by the international community for the politics of assimilation of and discrimination against the aboriginal peoples of the country. On 8 April 2011, the UN Racial Discrimination Committee recommendations were handed over to Norway. These addressed many issues, including the educational situation for students needing bilingual education in Sámi. One committee recommendation was that no language be allowed to be a basis for discrimination in the Norwegian anti-discrimination laws, and it recommended wording of Racial Discrimination Convention Article 1 contained in the Act. Further points of recommendation concerning the Sámi population in Norway included the incorporation of the racial Convention through the Human Rights Act, improving the availability and quality of interpreter services, and equality of the civil Ombudsman’s recommendations for action. A new present status report was to have been ready by the end of 2012.
Even in Finland, where Sámi children, like all Finnish children, are entitled to day care and language instruction in their own language, the Finnish government has denied funding for these rights in most of the country, including even in Rovaniemi, the largest municipality in Finnish Lapland. Sámi activists have pushed for nationwide application of these basic rights.
As in the other countries claiming sovereignty over Sámi lands, Sámi activists’ efforts in Finland in the 20th century achieved limited government recognition of Sámi rights as an ethnic minority, but the Finnish government has clung unyieldingly to its legally enforced premise that the Sámi must “prove” their land ownership, an idea incompatible with and antithetical to the traditional reindeer-herding Sámi way of life. This has effectively allowed the Finnish government to take land occupied by the Sámi for centuries without compensation.
On Sámi National Day, not only do Sámi throughout Sápmi raise the national flag and sing the national song, they also do a range of activities traditionally associated with Sámi culture, such as wear traditional dress, make traditional dishes and play or listen to traditional music.
A characteristic feature of Sámi musical tradition is the singing of yoik (also spelled joik). Yoiks are song-chants and are traditionally sung a cappella, usually sung slowly and deep in the throat with apparent emotional content of sorrow or anger. Yoiks can be dedicated to animals and birds in nature, special people or special occasions, and they can be joyous, sad, or melancholic. They often are based on syllablic improvisation. In recent years, musical instruments frequently accompany yoiks. The only traditional Sámi instruments that were sometimes used to accompany yoik are the “fadno” flute (made from reed-like Angelica archangelica stems) and hand drums (frame drums and bowl drums).
Traditional foods of the Sámi involve reindeer, fish, and flatbread. Reindeer is absolutely the most characteristic ingredient, because the Sámi for centuries were reindeer herders. Traditionally, the reindeer were not fully domesticated, but the Sámi were nomadic, following the herds on their seasonal migrations. You might have trouble getting hold of some reindeer to roast, but you might be able to make flatbread.
Gáhkko is a traditional Sámi flatbread that has a faint taste of anise. It uses yeast, so it is puffier than other flatbreads, and it is also more complex than most. The most traditional method of cooking is in a dry, cast-iron skillet over an open fire, but a stovetop works as well. This is but one recipe. There are countless styles. You can use a number of sugar syrups in place of Golden Syrup, but do not use corn syrup. If you wish, you can cut fewer breads than described here and make them larger.
3 ½ oz/100 gm butter, melted
2 tbsp Golden Syrup
2 tsp anise
2 pints/1 liter milk
2 oz/50 gm yeast
1 tsp salt
2 – 2 ½ lb/1-1.2 kg flour
Place the melted butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add the anise and syrup and stir well until the syrup has been thoroughly incorporated with the butter. Mix in the milk and heat until lukewarm. Remove from the heat.
Crumble the yeast into milk mixture and stir well until it has dissolved. Pour into a large mixing bowl.
Add the flour and salt to the liquid. Add the flour slowly and mix only until you have a smooth dough. Do not add too much flour. It can be slightly sticky. Turn out on to a flat surface, lightly floured if need be, and knead for about 20 minutes.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and let it rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.
Turn the dough on to a flat surface again and knead it again. Then roll the dough into a long sausage, and cut it into about 40 small pieces. Roll the pieces into small balls with your hands and let them rest for about 5 minutes.
Press the balls flat and pat them between your palms until you have round breads about ¼ inch thick. Let them for about 30 minutes.
Bake the breads in batches in a dry frying pan on a campfire or on the stovetop for about 5-6 minutes on each side. They are cooked when they are golden-brown on both sides.
Let the gáhkko cool, but eat immediately. They can be eaten with soups or stews, or with sliced cheese.