The Saami

The Saami ("sapmelas" in Saami) are one of the indigenous peoples of Europe, just as the Inuit in Greenland. There are approximately 90,000 Saami living in the northernmost regions of North Calotte and Kola Peninsula. Of these, the Norwegian Saami constitute the largest group, numbering approximately 50-65,000 people, followed by Sweden (20,000), Finland (8,000) and Russia (2,000).   The Saami have their own history, language , culture, livelihoods, way of life and identity. The Saami homeland reaches from Central Norway and Sweden through the northernmost part of Finland and into the Kola Peninsula.

A people is considered an indigenous people, if its ancestors have inhabited the area before it was conquered or settled or before the present borders were drawn. In addition, such a people is to have their distinct social, economic, cultural and political institutions and to consider themselves an indigenous people.

Currently (2007), the Saami are recognized as an indigenous people—not only a minority group—in the constitutions of Finland and Norway. In Sweden, there is no constitutional recognition of the Saami and they are treated as an ethnic minority and/or indigenous people. In the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the Saami constitute one of the many indigenous ‘small in number’ peoples of the north. Only Norway has become a party to the ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, the only modern international convention specifically dealing with the rights of indigenous peoples.

In Finland, Norway and Sweden a person is considered a Saami if she or he regards herself or himself a Saami and has at least one parent or grandparent that learned Saami as her or his mother tongue. More than half of the Saami speak Saami. There are several Saami languages and the Saami speaking the different languages generally can not understand each other. In Finland, Norway and Sweden North Saami, or Mountain Saami, is the main Saami language.

In Finland, Sweden and Norway the Saami elect from among themselves a representative body which has advisory status. In Norway and Sweden reindeer husbandry and its affiliated occupations are an exclusive right of the Saami. Finnish law no longer grants the Saami exclusive right to their traditional livelihoods. In Finland and Norway Saami may use their own language with authorities.

Read more from Definition of indigenous peoples.

In the declaration of the 18th Saami Conference is stated for example:

  • We Saami are one people and that national borders shall not infringe on our community;
  • Emphasize that the nation states Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden partly have been established on land and sea territories belonging to the Saami people; areas that Saami have possessed and managed from time immemorial before the formation of the states;
  • Repeat that the Saami of these four states are one people with common history, culture, language, traditions, civic life, trade and visions for the future and that state borders shall not violate our community;

Saami Council and Saami parliaments

The Inari Samis  - history, culture and life of the Inari Samis - in English, Finnish and Sami.

More links

Saami in N-W Russia

Most Saami in Russia live in the Murmansk Oblast. There are also some Saami living elsewhere in Russia but most of them live in the Nordic countries. The Saami are in minority in the Murmansk Oblast, making up only 0.15 % of the whole population according to the all-union census of 1989. They live mostly in the eastern parts of the Oblast, in Lovozero rayon, but there are also some small groups of Saami everywhere in the Murmansk Oblast. The Saami are in minority also in Lovozero rayon, and most of them (66.3°/о) live in rural areas.
Today the Saami have the status of indigenous people at the Russian Federation level as well as at the regional level. The Saami belong to the so-called small-numbered indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East at the federal level. Also in the legislation of the Murmansk Oblast, the Saami are recognised as indigenous peoples.

The ethnic identity of the Saami is very much connected with their language and reindeer herding. Among the Saami people living in the Murmansk Oblast, there are several Saami languages (or dialects): Skolt (Notozero), Akkala (Babino), Kildin Saami and Ter (Iokanga) Saami. Most of the Saami speak in Kildin Saami (800 speakers). Only a few persons nowadays speak Akkala and Ter Saami languages. According the all-union census of 1989, only 42.2% of the Saami considered Saami language as their native language. There is a great danger of language loss among the Saami in the Murmansk Oblast. During the Soviet era no education in the Saami language was provided in schools. Today in the village of Lovozero there are Saami lessons in the school (Kildin Saami), but the language of education is Russian. Many Saami parents do not speak their native language at all at home. There aye also a great number of inter-ethnic marriages among Saami, which also makes it difficult to use Saami language daily at home. There are obligatory Saami lessons in the boarding school in Lovozero, but in the other schools the lessons are voluntary. Also in the vocational school of Lovozero, the students have a possibility to attend Saami lessons. In Lovozero it is possible to listen to Saami language radio broadcasting, but it is not an official language and it cannot be heard everyday. Today there are some books for children in Saami and also a few writers, who write in Saami language. But there are not many books in Saami language and not enough books about local culture and history even in Russian. In other villages, where the Saami live, there are no Saami lessons at schools at all.

The self-confidence of the Saami is increasing today: they have their own organisations, the first of which was organised in 1989 and the second one in 1998. There are also separate organisations for the Saami youth, women and craftsmen. In 1994, an ethno-cultural centre was established in Lovozero village, where Saami and Komi craftsmen work and give courses of handicraft in order to revive old skills and knowledge. The centre also organises Saami language courses. There are also a few Saami folkdance groups, which use the centre as their home base. In the 1990x, the Saami re-established contacts with other Saami living in the Nordic countries, which has had an impact on their awareness of self-identity. During the Soviet times these contacts were not possible at all.

The Saami culture has very much been connected with reindeer herding. At the beginning of this century the Saami people on the Kola Peninsula lived from reindeer herding, fishing and hunting. Soviet collectivisation and industrialisation changed the situation. Reindeer herding is no longer the only livelihood of the Saami, and many of them work in other fields nowadays. However, reindeer herding is still an important livelihood for the survival of the ethnic identity of the Saami, and all of them are concerned about the problems of reindeer herding. The herders still work in co-operatives and have difficulties in organising their work and production under today’s circumstances. The industrialisation of the Murmansk Oblast has decreased available pastureland during the past decades, and this tendency is still continuing. The reindeer herding areas in the Murmansk Oblast aye shown in Figure 17 on page 76.

The Saami have had problems with other kinds of nature exploitation as well, namely tourist fishing, which has meant that the Saami have lost their right to fish in their native territory. Although, according to the regional legislation, the Oblast administration should defend the rights of the Saami, people feel that they have been forgotten.

The unemployment rate is high and the education level low among the Saami. Their number has not changed very much during this century, but the number of Saami speakers has decreased. According to the 1989 census, for example, the death rate among the Saami was 2.4 times higher than among other people in the Murmansk Oblast.

National minorities of Finland - in 1995 the Finnish Constitution was amended in order to provide  stronger guarantees for the rights of the Saami, guaranteeing them cultural autonomy in respect to their language and culture within the Saami Homeland.

Saami languages

Southern Sami (eteläsaame, sydsamiska)
Ume Sami (uumajansaame, umesamiska)
Pite Sami (piitimensaame, pitesamiska)
Lule Sami (luujalansaame, lulesamiska)
Northern Sami (pohjoissaame, nordsamiska)
- sub dialects: Torne Sami (tornionsaame)
                     Sea Sami (merisaame)
Inari Sami (inarinsaame, enaresamiska)
(Kemi Sami (keminsaame /extinct)
(Filman Sami "filmanit) (language extinct 1930s, speakers lived by the costs of Kola Peninsula)
Skolt Sami (koltansaame, skoltsamiska)
Akkala Sami (akkalansaame, , akkalasamiska, last speaker died 2003)
Kildin Sami (kildininsaame, kildinsamiska)
Ter Sami (turjansaame, tersamiska) (about 10 people left speaking the language)


  • Leif Rantala, lector on Saami language, University of Lapland.
  • Geographical distribution of the Uralic Languages. Suomalais-ugrilainen seura 1993.
  • Sami languages and dialects - from