The Sámi people inhabits the vast region of northern Europe traditionally known as Lapland (now increasingly referred to as Sápmi, in the Sami language), located in the far north of Fennoscandia. Without clearly set borders, the Sámi coexist in Sápmi with other peoples such as Norwegians, Swedes, Russians or Finns (including the Kvens and the Tornedalians). With a continued presence in the territory for at least 2,000 years, the Sámi are one of the few peoples in Europe recognized as indigenous by United Nations agencies.
Currently a demographic minority in Sápmi (around 5% of the population), the Sámi demand their own powers for political, economic, and cultural self-government —and, in some areas, they exercise some of them through their own parliaments in Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
From the 10th to the 16th centuries, the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden gradually extended their control over Sápmi and forced the Sámi people to pay taxes. At least from the 17th century onwards, the Scandinavian states began to implement repressive policies against the religion, culture, and languages of the Sámi people, a process that reached its climax in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Sámi were described as racially inferior populations, and Nordic states initiated a policy of forced assimilation that was not reversed until the second half of the century.
From the 1970s, after the mobilization of the Sámi organizations, a policy of recognition of the Sámi people began in the Nordic countries, which has led to a certain degree of cultural autonomy.
The Sámi languages form their own branch within the Uralic languages, a family that also inclues Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian. 12 Sámi languages can be mentioned in modern times. Of them, 8 are living (west to east: Southern Sámi, Ume Sámi, Pite Sámi, Lule Sámi, Northern Sámi, Inari Sámi, Skolt Sámi, and Kildin Sámi), 2 are dying (Ter Sámi and Akkala Sámi) and 2 are extinct (Kemi Sámi and Kainuu Sámi).
All Sámi languages are under threat. By far, the most widely spoken is Northern Sámi, which has between 20,000 and 25,000 speakers, and is the only one used in three states: Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
All other Sámi languages have 1,000 speakers or less each. The most widely spoken are Lule Sámi and Southern Sámi (in Sweden and Norway).
Sápmi’s Non-Sámi inhabitants, and some Sámi, mostly speak the national languages of their states, namely Norwegian, Swedish, Russian, and Finnish. Of the latter, in the Sámi area of Sweden a variety called Meänkieli is spoken, as is in Norway another variety, Kven. An academic debate is ongoing as to whether or not Meänkieli and Kven should be regarded languages on their own, or rather Finnish dialects.
Identity and recognition
The Sámi people’s identity is rooted not only in its own language, culture, and their link to Sápmi’s territory, but also in a repertoire of traditional activities, with reindeer husbandry (estimated to be maintained by about 10,000 Sámi), hunting and fishing among the main ones.
Sámi organizations have proclaimed that the Sámi people are a nation with the right to self-determination. In 1986, the Sámi Conference approved a Sámi national flag and anthem, and in 1992, it declared 6 February as the Sámi national day.
In Norway, the Sámi have been recognized as a people since 1987. Without official data, estimates of their population range from 40,000 to 65,000 people. In the 2017 Sámi Parliament election, nearly 17,000 people were eligible to vote, as registered in the Sámi electoral register.
In Sweden, the Sámi have been recognized as an indigenous people since 1977. The Sámi Parliament in Sweden estimates their number to be between 20,000 and 35,000. Of these, more than 8,000 have registered in the Sámi electoral register.
In Finland, the Sámi are recognized as an indigenous people in the Constitution. The Finnish government estimates their number at 10,000.
In Russia, 1,771 people identified themselves as Sámi in the 2010 census.
Politics and organizations
The Sámi have three parliaments of their own (Sámediggi, in Northern Sami) which exercise the executive powers over cultural autonomy that the states of Norway, Sweden, and Finland have recognized to them. None of the three parliaments has legislative powers.
The one with an older history is the Sámi Parliament of Finland, which despite having been formed in its current form in 1996, traces its existence to a previous institution created in 1973. The Sámi Parliament of Norway was founded in 1989, and finally, the Sámi Parliament of Sweden was born in 1993.
The three bodies have been coordinated since 2000 in the Sámi Parliamentary Council (Sami Parlamentárlaš Rađđi), which serves as an interparliamentary forum.
Sámi civil society organizations were pioneers in their coordination across state borders. In 1956 they founded the Sámi Council (Sámiráđđi), which has since been tasked with defending and promoting the rights and interests of the Sámi people in any of the four states into which Sápmi is divided. Nine Sámi state organizations are part of it. Every four years, the Sámi Council organizes the Sámi Conference, which appoints the members of the Council for the next four years and guides its policies.
(Last updated December 2020.)