How would you react if I say that I wore the traditional Sami costume and got framed in the middle of a snow-covered forest with an adorable Sami couple in Finnish Lapland? This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to the winter wonderland and will remain one of the most treasured memories of my lifetime.
Ever since I read about the last remaining indigenous people of Europe, I was truly fascinated by their history, culture and lifestyle. My inclination to meet the Sami people was way higher than seeing the Northern Lights in Lapland. I may sound a little crazy with this statement, but that’s a fact. Local people have always been a high point of interest during my travels as one learns so much about that place by observing and interacting with them.
The temperature dipped suddenly as I touched down the Northern most part of Finland. From cold to the coldest, I could feel the weather transition instantly, the moment I stepped out of the Ivalo Airport. But I still remember the moment when I was greeted with a big smile and a warm tight hug by Mr. Timo, my Sami Guide in Lapland. This was my first meeting with one of the real Sami people I have been so deeply fascinated with. I could not have been happier than this during the rest of my journey in the mystical land known as the winter wonderland.
Who are the Sami People?
The Sami people are Europe’s last remaining indigenous people. After the ice age, the Sami were the first people to come here. If you turn over the pages of history, you will know that the origin of Sami goes back to around 4000 years and it is also said that the first habitants of Finland are documented to have arrived 10,500 years ago. This region is known as Sapmi and covers the Arctic area of Northern parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia’s Kola Peninsula where the Sami population is concentrated. Basically, they live in the tundra (arctic or subarctic treeless plain), taiga (subarctic forest), and coastal zones in the northern end of Europe.
The total population of Sami is approximately 80,000 across these four countries. In Finland, the strength of the population is 9000 and about 2000 Sámi reside in the Inari region of Finland.The ancestors of Sami people were nomadic in nature. They belonged to no particular country as they used to move with their herds in search of grazing lands. The Sami were once called as Lapps which means ‘scraps of cloth’ in Scandinavian language. Many Sami people find it derogatory and that’s why they prefer to be called as Sami. They are also called Laplanders.
Sami & Reindeer
It is considered very rude to ask a Sami how many reindeer he has, since it is equivalent to asking how much money he has in his bank account.
Reindeer are an integral part of Sami lifestyle and culture. It would not be wrong to state that their life revolves around the reindeer. Apparently Sami people have been herding Reindeer since 800 CE and since then it has been a central aspect of their survival. The life of a Reindeer herder is tough as they travel miles after miles with their herds in search of grazing land in extreme arctic weather condition, spending months in the wilderness in the traditional Sami tents known as Lavvu and mostly lead a lonely life away from their families. It’s their deep passion towards Reindeer herding, a pure and emotional connection with Reindeer and deep-rooted love for the nature, which makes them continue their tradition in the toughest terrain.
Every Reindeer in Sapmi region belong to Sami People. Reindeer husbandry is their primary source of income. In earlier days, they used Reindeer for transportation in the harsh winter. The biggest revolution that happened in Reindeer herding was in 1965 when the Snowmobile became the part of their lifestyle . It changed the approach towards Reindeer herding.
Nowadays, no one stays in Lavvu for a longer period as the distance to the wilderness can be covered in a few hours, albeit, the older generation of Sami thinks that it was much better before the new age Snowmobile came into existence.
It is also believed that every Sami is required to carry a knife and match in the forest as they say that one must know how to make fire in the forest. With the changing time, there is only 10% of Sami population is involved in Reindeer herding as the younger generation has moved to cities and got involved in other professions.
Traditional Sami Way of life
Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons
Being nomadic herders, they dwell miles after miles with their herds and hence there is no permanent settlement for them. In earlier times, they used to live in tents, popularly known as Lavvu, which is made out of a circular framework of poles, leaning inwards like an American Tipi, but less vertical and more stable in high winds.
Nordic Sami people Lavvu 1900-1920 (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Lavvu is a temporary dwelling of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia. The tents and huts are arranged around the central fire. Today, most of the Sami people live in a typical Scandinavian house with central heating, though Lavvu is still used by the herders in the deep forest. With the fast changing time, the Sami tents are typically constructed to attract tourists and to give them a glimpse of a Sami way of life in Finland, Norway and Sweden as well.
The Sami languages are Fenno-Ugrian languages, most closely related to Finnish, Estonian,and Hungarian. They are widely spoken by the Sami people settled in Scandinavian countries. There are several dialects within the Sami language, based on the geographical locations, though 10 Sami languages can be distinguished and out of which 6 of them have written standards. Sami language is said to be a nature based language and it is extremely detailed with regards to description of the nature. There are about 300 words to describe snow and ice. Some of the dialects are on the verge of extinction which has become a threat to their rich cultural heritage. In the year of 1973, the Nordic Sami Institute was founded to promote Sami language and culture. Following that, Sami College was established in 1989. Today, the Universities of Tromsø in Norway, Umla in Sweden, and Oulu in Finland have Sami departments in which Sami languages and topics are taught.
Traditional Sami Clothing
I first saw the traditional Sami costume in the Siida Sami museum in the Inari district of Lapland. I found it the most colorful and attractive traditional costume. I was so fascinated by the entire outfit that I decided to wear it. The Sami people look absolutely adorable with their colorful costumes in the white expanse of snow.
Gákti is what they call their traditional costume in general; though in different places people call it by different names. Interestingly, the colors, patterns and jewelry of the costume can signify a person’s marital status and geographical origin.
The length of the Gákti also differs from place to place. Sami men apparently wear a bit shorter Gakti than the one worn by Sámi women. This Sámi piece of jewelry is known as a Risku or Solju and it comes from the Sami wedding tradition.
It is considered one of the important pieces of jewelry which is beautifully decorated with leek flowers. It is a symbol of the Sun.
The Sami wear the traditional furry shoes, made out of reindeer skin and are specially worn during winter to bear the extreme cold weather conditions in the Arctic Circle.
Traditional Sami Food
If you are in Sami homeland, you have to sample the traditional Sami cuisines. I still remember the night when I was taken to the middle of the snow-covered forest to a Lappish wooden log hut – “Kota” where I was welcomed by Mrs. Armi, wearing her Sami costume.
It’s a traditional log hut where they serve authentic Sami dinner to their guests. With a central fireplace in the middle of the hut, symmetrically placed wooden sitting arrangement, and illuminating candles, it was nothing less than a fairy-tale lone hut in the middle of the forest.
Soon I was served Cold smoked reindeer blue cheese soup, Glow fried Salmon with mashed potatoes and salad, Berry pie, and coffee. The Salmon fish is also an essential part of their cuisine.
Though the Sami are associated with Reindeer, but only a small part of their population is solely into Reindeer herding. The majority of Sami survive on hunting and fishing along the coasts, lakes, and rivers. In summer, Salmon fishing becomes central to the dining scene.
Do try the creamy salmon soup, smoked or dried reindeer meat, willow grouse sausage, sautéed reindeer with Lappish potatoes and fried arctic char or salmon or Lappish bread and cheese with cloudberry jam.
It’s been a long journey for Sami People from being nomadic to finally getting recognized and accepted in the Scandinavian countries.
From being the people with no country to getting identified as the only remaining aboriginal people of Europe, having separate Parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden and attaining the right to cultural autonomy, it’s incredible how the Sami people feel utmost pride talking about their rich cultural heritage, how their eyes glitter when they speak about Reindeer and how their yoik (light-hearted, unaccompanied song) celebrates the rich tradition of storytelling. I couldn’t have asked for more in Lapland.
How I wish to wander with the Reindeer herder covering a large area of land in the white expanse of snow in the Arctic Circle. May be someday!
I did not see the Northern lights, but met the Sami People.
How to reach Lapland
You can fly to Finland with Finnair, which has direct flights to Helsinki from Delhi thrice a week. It takes 7 and half hours to reach Helsinki. There are other airlines like Air France, Air India, Aeroflot Russian, and Lufthansa.
To reach the Finnish Lapland, the main gateway is the Helsinki-Vantaa International airport.You have to take a direct flight to Ivalo, the northernmost airport in Lapland, approximately 250 kilometers above the Arctic Circle.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the northernmost spa hotel and holiday home resort in Europe named Holiday Club Saariselkä in a village with the same name. I made Saariselka as my base to explore the Finnish Lapland. I highly recommend this hotel for everyone who is planning to visit Lapland because the hotel is located at the gorgeous location, but also for their world standard services and warm hospitality. Holiday Club Saariselka is a part of Club Mahindra now as the company acquired Club Resorts Oy, Finland and it allows Indians to have their family vacation possible in Europe through their membership.
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