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Sami History and Culture
Presentation to the Annandale History Club
November 4, 2013
Vicki Lantto

Vicki Lantto knew that she had Swedish, Austrian and Finnish heritage.  In 2008 Vicki had her DNA tested by National Geographic and was surprised to find that she is part Sami.  She had never even heard of Sami.  Since that time, Vicki has studied Sami culture and joined Sami genealogy groups.  Chris and Vicki Lantto’s daughter Melissa, after graduating from college, worked for a year as a nanny for a Sami family in Kautokeino, Norway, and learned to speak Sami.  Melissa is now in her second year teaching English in a school on the Finland-Norway border.  Vicki visited Sapmi in June and showed many of photos from her trip.

The Sami people are thought to be the first people to inhabit Northern Europe.  Most of us have heard  about Lapps and Laplanders.  The correct term is Sami (also spelled Saami), and they live in Sapmi.  Lapp is considered a derogatory term by many Sami.

Sami people live in an area called Sapmi that encompasses parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia.  At one point Sami lived further south in Scandinavia and were pushed north when Europeans arrived. 

They were a nomadic people following the reindeer herds and needed to lead an unencumbered life so it would be easier to pick up and move.  The Lavvu, a tent similar to the American Indian tipi, was quick to set up and take down.  The shape is extremely sturdy. 

There is an official Sami flag.  The current flag was designed in 1986 by Sami artist, Astrid Bahl.  The flag is red, green, yellow and blue, the colors used for gaktis.  The Sami flag is now flown with the American and Finnish flags at Cokato Finnish American Historical Society events at Temperance Corner.

Gakti is the word for the traditional outfits worn by Sami people.  Each area has its own gakti.  Sami people can identify each other’s home areas and whether they are married or single by looking at the details of a person’s gakti. There are many different kinds of Sami – Reindeer Sami, Coastal Sami, Forest Sami, Skolt (Eastern) Sami, etc.  Each wears different gakti.

There are nine or ten different Sami languages.  North Sami is the most common.  Most speakers of the different languages don’t understand each other.  All Sami languages belong to the Finn-Urgic language group, as do the Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian languages.  It’s been important to the culture to keep the Sami languages alive, because there are hundreds of words to describe different reindeer or different snow conditions that don’t translate to English or any other languages.  One Sami word we all have heard is “tundra.”

Yoik (also spelled joik) is the traditional music of the Sami.  It’s one of the oldest musical traditions in Europe.  Most yoiks are very personal and express a person’s feelings, emotions, or an issue.  Sometimes they are for an occasion like a birth or wedding.

Duodji is the word for the handicrafts made by the Sami people.  Most duodji are useful objects, such as knives (puuko), cups, eating utensils, baby carriers (gietkas), storage containers, tools, etc.  They are made from reindeer antlers or other parts of the deer (fur, leather, bone).  Birch is also used to make cups and boxes.  Silver is used for forks, spoons and jewelry.

Many Sami people immigrated to the United States.  A photo of a Sami woman from Kautokeino, Norway, is displayed at Ellis Island.  This woman and a group of other Sami took a herd of reindeer to Alaska in the late 1800s to teach Inuits reindeer herding to keep them from starving. 

Most of the Sami immigrants settled in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Alaska, Washington and Ohio.  A large percentage of them were members of a religious movement started in Swedish Sapmi in 1848 by Lars Levi Laestadius, who was part Sami.

Some of the reasons for immigration were starvation, discrimination and war, many of the same reasons other groups of people came to America.  Descendants are only recently learning about this history.  Many of our ancestors kept their Sami heritage quiet to avoid the discrimination they experienced in the homeland.

Most indigenous cultures had drums.  The Sami drum was used to make predictions and help make decisions.  It’s been noted that most cultures still have their drums.  Most of the Sami drums were destroyed. There are only a few old Sami drums in existence in museums in Rome, Copenhagen and Norway.  A drum might picture symbols of daily life, such as reindeer, the sun, a church, a shaman, or spiritual leader.

Reindeer herding is an important part of Sami culture, even though only about one-fifth of Sami people own reindeer.  It has been the reindeer people who have largely kept the language and traditions alive, because so much of the language describes the culture.  Reindeer herding is reserved for Sami people in certain regions of Nordic countries.  Livelihoods include fishing, farming, and other careers.

Sami life has changed over time.  Like the rest of the world, modern technology has brought snowmobiles, four-wheelers, cell phones and computers.  Even helicopters are used for herding.   

Major social events are a big Easter celebration, weddings that last two or three days (some even six) reindeer markets, and Riddu Riddu (Sami cultural festival with international guests).

The Sami Council was created on August 18, 1956.  It is an umbrella organization for Sami people in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.  Its function is to promote Sami rights and to attain recognition as a nation.  There are members from each of the four countries on the Council.  They have seats at the United Nations and meet with world leaders on international issues.  There is also the Sami Parliament of Norway, Sami Parliament of Sweden, and Sami Parliament of Finland.

Notes by Annandale History Club Secretary