Way before Vikings set sail from Scandinavia it was Sámi people (don't even think about calling them Laplanders or Lapps) who lived above the Arctic Circle in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Sámi populated a region traditionally known as Sápmi (Lapland) which in Norway is made up of the northernmost counties of Finnmark, Nord-Trøndelag, Nordland and Troms.

As nomadic hunters, trappers and fishing folk, Sámi relied heavily on the natural world and followed wild reindeer herds as they migrated across the tundra from Finland into Norway in search of summer grazing grounds along the north coast. Trade was important and skin and furs were offered to Vikings for salt, weapons and coins, which the Sámi valued purely as ornamental objects. Sámi also considered archery an essential skill and used strong bows (juoksa) and arrowheads made from bone as traditional hunting weapons, the use of which would also signal the rite of passage from boy to man.
Towards the end of the 16th century, food, including butter and flour, was traded with neighbouring governments for reindeer products and dried fish. However, more emphasis on financial taxation would force the Sámi to go to greater lengths in order to pay for the right to use Sápmi land. Further taxes and the increased use of firearms led to wild reindeer being hunted to worryingly low levels and although the majority of Sámi migrated to the fjords and river banks bordering the Atlantic, a small percentage chose to stay inland and farm reindeer in order to make a living.

Trading links with Norse communities and Russians gave Sámi people relatively prosperous lifestyles in comparison to many other Norwegians, which inevitably led to conflict, with the Russian invasion of Finland in 1809 complicating issues further. Increased tensions caused by a drive for Norwegian nationalism and increased development in the north of the country led to Sámi culture all but being wiped out, especially as knowledge of Norwegian language was one of the prime means of purchasing or renting farmland.
On February 6th 1917 the first ever congressional meeting between Sámi communities living in Norway and Sweden was held in Trondheim in order to try to resolve issues affecting Sámi on both sides of the border. Although this was seen as a significant step on the road to recognising and protecting Sámi rights there was still some way to go. Norwegian speaking boarding schools for Sámi children, Lutheran church missionaries and stricter border controls did nothing to help protect Sámi interests with post WW2 reconstruction efforts by Finland and Norway placing development above all else to leave traditional Sámi culture in tatters.
It wasn’t until the mid-1960s with the establishment of the Norwegian Sámi Council that the rights of Sámi were represented on a national scale. The Sámi Parliament of Norway, opened in 1989, continues to represent Sámi people and protect indigenous heritage. Karasjok in Finnmark has become the home of Sámi cultural heritage in Norway with the Sámi Parliament building, Sámi broadcasting associations and Sámi cultural institutions all well-established within a town that boasts a population made up almost entirely of Sámi speakers.

Reindeer & joiking

The Sámi relationship with reindeer is extremely important to their cultural heritage with every aspect of the animal used for food, clothing and shelter. Sámi children were once raised on the meat and milk of reindeer with the fat often used as a substitute for butter alongside wild foraged ingredients such as mushrooms, berries and herbs. Reindeer skins would also have been used to create shoes, clothes and the canvas for lavvu tents whilst antlers would have been carved into hunting knives, bowls and cups to ensure nothing from the animal was wasted.

Traditional Sámi costume was also formed from reindeer leather and sheep or goat wool with distinctive red, green, blue and gold colouring combined with buttons, braided patterns and the length of garments to symbolise marital status and standing in the community.

Singing (joik) is also of particular importance to Sámi culture with traditional joik songs performed without instruments often to describe particular events in Sámi folklore including the legendary shape-shifting character of Stállo who was said to be able to turn from animal to man to mountain.

Sami festivals

Sámi National Day, on February 6th, is an annual celebration of the 1917 meeting between Sámi from Norway and Sweden. Events take place across Norway, including Oslo, and include the Sámi flag being raised and their anthem being sung in local Sámi dialect. As a national holiday for Sámi people, communities get together for dog sledding and reindeer races as well as celebrating traditional handicrafts, costume (gákti) and Sámi cuisine such as bierggojubttsa (meat soup), sállteguolle (salted fish) and gáhkko (flat bread).

Riddu Riđđu is an annual music and cultural event which takes place every July in the northeast coastal village of Olmmáivággi. This is popular with young Sámi and includes numerous performances, presentations and interactive workshops over the course of a long weekend.

The annual reindeer migration is an important date on the Sámi calendar and rarely experienced by daccu (outsiders) although small numbers of visitors can witness and even take part in an event that dates back thousands of years. These days, skidoos are used to help herd the reindeer from Kirkenes in Finnmark to pastures along the coast, although Arctic conditions do little to aid the comfort levels of soft southern participants with lavvu tents providing accommodation over the course of a testing five-day journey.

Our top Norway Holiday

Lofoten Islands winter photography holiday, Norway

Lofoten Islands winter photography holiday, Norway

Unique Photography in Norway's beautiful Lofoten Islands

From £3100 8 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2024: 9 Feb
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Norway or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

How to experience Sámi culture in Norway

Finding out more about the cultural heritage of Sámi people in Norway is a fantastic way to ensure indigenous traditions are kept alive. Several villages in Finnmark offer first hand insight alongside exhibitions and authentic Sámi handicrafts. This is an opportunity to embrace the wilderness and the wildlife that reside above the Arctic Circle.

Staying with a Sámi community in an outdoor camp is one such way to begin to understand what it takes to live in these harsh yet beautiful conditions with winter sleeping bags and reindeer skins all that's needed to keep warm and cosy in a 12-person lavvu tent.
Sámi culture is entwined with the natural world and there’s no greater natural phenomenon than the Aurora Borealis to raise spirits and imaginations as you listen to folklore tales and watch the skies for these multi-coloured ribbons. Northern Lights holidays can provide an absorbing balance between cultural insight and natural experience with trips from Tromsø offering almost instant access to the surrounding Norwegian wilderness.

Another way to experience authentic Sámi traditions is by embarking on a husky safari across a frozen wilderness. Imagine clambering aboard a fully laden sled before a team of enthusiastic and attentive dogs kicks into gear and pulls you through the wilds of northern Norway. Step aside Santa, Sámi coming through.

Finally, if you really want to get to grips with Sámi culture then the annual reindeer migration offers one such opportunity with just a few lucky daccu invited to embark on an expedition that's about as close to an authentic Sámi experience as you could ever hope to imagine.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: MicheleVacchiano] [Intro: Larry Lamsa] [Sami people: Photochrom] [Sami parliament: Bel Adone] [Northern lights: V. Belov]