An Introduction to Sámi Culture in Sweden

An Introduction to Sámi Culture in Sweden

Sweden’s Sámi people have a rich culture that’s intrinsically linked to nature. This indigenous group inhabits around 35% of the country and is recognised as one of Sweden’s national minorities. Sámi haven’t had an easy ride – they’ve battled constant threats including displacement due to land seizures and environmental challenges. Nevertheless, their beautiful culture remains a powerful part of Sweden’s past and present. Read on for our introduction to Sámi culture in Sweden.

  1. Who Are the Sámi?
  2. The Basics of Sámi Culture
  3. Sámi Food Culture
  4. Threats to Sámi Culture
  5. Sámi Cultural Experiences


Who Are the Sámi?

Sámi are descended from nomadic populations who lived in northern Scandinavia for thousands of years. They traditionally inhabited a cultural region known as Sápmi, which stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, though Sámi also live in other areas such as Stockholm and Dalarna County. Sápmi overlaps with other regions in each country (in Sweden it encompasses the whole of Lapland) and as a result, Sámi only make up an estimated 2.5-5% of inhabitants in Sápmi. Historically, Sámi were nomadic people who followed reindeer herds as they moved across vast areas of land to graze, but many Sámi today live ‘modern’ lives alongside other inhabitants of Sweden. Some sell traditional handicrafts or run tourist activities to educate travellers about their culture, and those who continue with the traditional practice of reindeer herding usually have a permanent home along with a cabin in the mountains to use during herding season.


The Basics of Sámi Culture

Like all Sámi culture, Sámi culture in Sweden is based around sustainability and a connection with nature. Sámi were originally hunter-gatherers, but in the 17th century most turned to reindeer herding as a means of income. The beauty of Sweden’s natural landscape is testament to the respect that the country’s indigenous people have for nature, having cared for and preserved it for thousands of years. Today, most Sámi are Lutheran, but the group’s indigenous religion was a form of polytheism that emphasised personal spirituality and the connection between the natural and spiritual worlds. Indigenous sacred sites include natural formations such as mountains, springs and Sieidi (cultural items found in nature such as curiously-shaped rocks). Sámi also invented one of the oldest folk music forms in Europe: the Joik. Joik songs typically pay tribute to a mountain, wild animal or even a person, and are also used to express emotion.


Sámi Food Culture

Sustainability also plays a key role in Sámi food culture, and accordingly Sámi cuisine varies depending on regional access to local ingredients. Many food items such as herbs, roots and berries are foraged, while the bulk of protein comes from elk, fish and (of course) reindeer, enjoyed smoked (known as suovas) and as part of stews and sausages. Although we might associate berries with warm summer days and a dollop of cream, berries are particularly important in the Sámi diet because they can survive during long, cold winters unlike many other fruits and vegetables. Cloudberries are the rarest and most prized berries, a nutrition-packed orange fruit that’s similar to a blackberry.


Threats to Sámi Culture

In the 1800s, Scandinavian governments seized Sámi lands to sell to landowners, displacing Sámi communities and posing a significant threat to their traditional way of life. In Sweden, Sámi were not allowed to read or write in their native language in public, and children were punished for doing so in school. The situation has somewhat improved, and in the 1990s the Swedish government passed laws recognising the Sámi as an indigenous people and establishing a Sámi parliament; in 2000, Sweden recognised the Sámi language as a national minority language. Unfortunately, environmental changes also pose a threat to Sámi, namely the unpredictable snow conditions caused by global warming. Snow is paramount in the traditional practice of reindeer herding (fittingly, there are around 360 words for snow in Sámi culture) and changes to this natural environment have forced many Sámi herders to shift to less traditional lifestyles, threatening the decline and erasure of their culture. Purchasing Sámi products, engaging in sustainable tourism and educating yourself on indigenous rights in Sweden are just some of the ways you can support Sámi communities.


Sámi Cultural Experiences

If you’ve been inspired to learn more about Sámi culture in Sweden, we know just where to look. Sweden’s many museums are a great place to start. The Ájtte Mountain and Sámi Museum is both the main museum of Sweden’s Sámi culture and a special museum dedicated to the mountain region, owned and run by Sámi. The Silver Museum documents the significance of silversmithing in the Sámi population, and Nordiska Museet in Stockholm also has a significant collection on Sámi culture. If you’re in search of a more immersive activity, there are plenty of opportunities to soak up Sámi culture within the communities themselves. Spend the night by the fire in a cosy laavu (Sámi tent), enjoy a hearty Sámi meal in snowy surroundings, or get to know a local Sámi family during a day on their reindeer farm.