While I was watching the Northern Lights outside a Sami farm, with my fingers frozen and my feet aching despite the thermal onesies, snow boots and thick gloves , I thought nothing in the world could be more magical. Later, sitting by the fire, I listened to the farm owner telling stories about the Aurora. And I was amazed at how normal the blue, green and red lights were for him. The dancing curtains light up the winter sky every year, so the people living in the North of Scandinavia are used to seeing them. They’re not a rare show.
Sami have a very interesting history. The land to which they belong, known as Lapland, stretches across different countries, but Sami are still proud of their culture and seek to protect it. If the Sami people live in Lapland, not all Lapps are Sami. But let’s go find out something more about this fascinating people and their traditions, starting from their past.
Saemieth, or Sami
A long time ago Scandinavia was inhabited by the Saemieh, or Sami. This people used to live from hunting and fishing. In the Viking Age there was a great amount of trade, and the Sami merchants started to trade with the Vikings and later with the travelers from northern Europe. So they developed their own monetary system and became highly respected as merchants and craftsmen. People and reindeers existed symbiotically. The animals provided milk and meat in a land that, in the long winters, was covered in ice and snow. Besides, reindeers were used to pull sleds or sledges, they could survive the harshest frosts and their skin could be used for clothes and tools. The herd roamed free on the pasture grounds, but small marks in the ears allowed the herders to recognize their animals. Sometimes a herd belonged to an individual or a family, sometimes to a community.
THE LAND OF SAMI
The land of Sami stretches across three countries, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. The Sami people have never been really independent, as they have been subjects of the Scandinavian countries. In the 15th century, King Gustav I claimed that all Sami should be under his government, but in the end the area was shared between Sweden and Norway. However, Sami were still free to cross all borders, at least until 1826. The conflict between them and the Nordic governments continued, but only in 1986 Sami were able to create their own flag and national anthem. Although they are subordinate to their countries’ governments, Sami have their own parliaments and seek to preserve their culture and traditions.
There are some places in Scandinavia where it is possibile to meet them, but one must know that most of the Sami are now integrated in the modern society and live in big cities. To get at least an idea of their culture, we have to speak with those who still live in farms, herding reindeers. Even though they’ve abandoned their nomadic lifestyle, they’ve not forgotten ancient habits and traditions. Their farms are comfortable buildings where the fire is always lit. Inside, old items are displayed, such as the heavy skis that were once used in winter, the clogs covered with reindeer skin, and the traditional red and blue costumes. On the walls are often hanging the horns of hunted animals. Outside, the stone conic constructions resemble the original tents.
The name “Lapp” was introduced by the Swedish Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries, or so they say. Today, to meet the Sami people in Sweden you need to go to Skellefteå, in the far North. Here is the village of Bonnstan, founded in the 17th century. Time has not changed this little town, which has retained the typical characteristics of Sami culture. Little wooden houses surround the old church, and the Northern Lights light up the winter sky.
All journeys to Finnish Lapland start in Rovaniemi, a modern city I’ve already written about. Unfortunately, the Germans set fire to everything on their path as they retired at the end of World War II. They wanted to punish the Finnish people for making peace with Russia. Not far from Rovaniemi and the world famous village of Santa Claus, built on the arctic circle, there are many reindeer farms and isolated houses where the Sami live.
Norwegian Lapland occupies the region around Tromsø, up to North Cape. In Sweden and Finland the landscape is dominated by the tundra, but Norway is a land of mountains and fjords. The towns of Karasjok and Kautokeino have many Sami residents, and the traditional lifestyle of the Sami people is still alive. In spring there’s the Sami Easter festival, but summer is even more charming with the midnight sun.
Shamanism and the legends about the Aurora
Living close to Nature, the Sami believed in the supernatural forces (halde) of the spirits, keepers of the woods, lakes and rivers. They were said to live in blocks of stone that were considered to be sacred. Shamans were revered figures in all villages. In order to heal the sick, they had to call their soul back from the kingdom of Death by using a particular drum and with the help of a guardian spirit.
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
It is not hard to imagine the ancient people watching in amazement such a vast, wild and mysterious nature. Nowadays researchers have found a scientific explanation for the curtains of green, blue and red lights dancing in the sky above the Arctic Circle, but the ancient inhabitants of the North used to watch them in awe. The Inuits believed they were the shapes of the dead showing themselves to the living, or luminous paths connecting the worlds. The Vikings thought they were the Valkyrie’s armour. According to the Finnish people, the lights were created by the fire foxes of Lapland, whereas the Sami used to listen to them. Yes, they believed the Northern Lights were talking to them, bringing messages from other universes. And they were right. The Aurora makes us feel as if the universe had decided reveal one of his mysteries, showing us that reality is much more complicated and magical than what we think.
Many are the prejudices against Scandinavian and Sami cuisine. But if you are open minded and eager to approach a new culture, we will realize that we’re dealing with fresh and genuine products, prepared in a simple way with local ingredients. Needless to say, reindeer meet is one of the pillars of Sami cuisine. Smoked, baked, broiled, served with fried lichens or warm blueberries and cream. Local fish is delicious. Wild salmon cooked on hot stone, herring, salmon and potato soup, codfish. Blueberries (which grow a little more south), lingonberries and Arctic berries are used for juices, creams, sauces and sweets. Traditional breakfast consists of oatmeal porridge, homemade jam, butter and seed bread.
A DIFFERENT LIFE
A journey through the land of this ancient people changes our way of thinking. Winter temperature makes us aware of our body in a very essential way. All the paranoid ideas which dominates Western society lose meaning when you need to survive the cold winter. The endless skies remind us of how many hours we waste on the social networks, in the cars, in the traffic, instead of enjoying the beauty of nature. Certain food trends and contemporary beliefs make no sense to the Sami people. And it’s good for us to be reminded of what it really means to live in harmony with nature and the universe.