The Sami

The Sami (alternately spelled Saami or Sámi) are one of Europe's oldest indigenous groups.

They entered northern Europe from what is now western Russia in prehistoric times, before the Scandinavians, Finns, and Russians began to move in as early as the ninth century. Originally nomadic hunters and fishers, some Sami developed a form of domestic reindeer-breeding during this period similar to that practiced by many peoples in Siberia. Domesticated reindeer initially served as decoys for attracting wild reindeer, and as pack and draft animals for hauling (Vorren 1994: 1). Herding also yielded supplies of milk, cheese, meat, and hides for the populations. Over time, however, the herding Sami have lost large areas of pasture due to colonialism, forestry, mining, and other economic activities, and have settled down as farmers, commercial fishers, and industry workers. In fact, there was a long-standing dichotomy between fastboende (settled) and flytte (nomadic) Sami. Additionally, much of the population derives some income from the increasing tourist economy. Today, only about ten percent of the population herd reindeer for a living.

The modern Sami inhabit vast expanses of northernmost Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. According to the Swedish Sami parliament the total Sami population is about 70,000, two-thirds of whom live in Norway. Other Sami live permanently in scattered settlements on the coast and fjords, and many are established in villages at the heads of valleys or on well-stocked lakes.

The frozen tundra in far northern Sweden
Displayed with permission from Mr. Ralf Holström, photographer.


Man in traditional Swedish Sami outfit
Displayed with permission from Angélina Vinciguerra


The Sami webpages were produced by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Anthropology graduate Alexandra Trumbull. Most collection photographs taken by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Anthropology graduate Stephanie Bjork.

Questions? Contact Dawn Scher Thomae.