May 3rd, 2023

Discover the Sami People, Closer to Nature with Norway’s Indigenous Culture

May 3rd, 2023

Written By

Sire Márjá Wigelius


For us, authentic community-based travel is close to our hearts. We believe engaging with the native Norwegian culture is a way of nurturing appreciation and understanding for those who came before us. This form of cultural exchange creates impactful experiences that Up Norway travellers bring home with them. In this interview you will meet Sire Márjá, a River Sami born in Tana, Finnmark in the extreme northern region of Norway. She currently lives in Karasjok with her partner who is a reindeer herder. Join us while she delves into what it means to be Sami, both historically and culturally. We explore the Sami languages, the tradition behind Sami joik singing, and learn about the crucial role of their close relationship with nature, an eight-season cycle and the art of reindeer herding.

Immerse yourself in Sami culture.


Immerse yourself in Sami culture.

Would you like to learn more about our indigenous people? With both fascination and respect for the samis admirable relationship to nature and animals, we'd be delighted to include sami culture in your curated journey.

Just answer five simple questions so we'll know where to start.

What does it mean to you to be Sami?

Sire Márjá: I am very proud to be a Sami. There was a time in my early youth when I was not so proud. But a lot has changed since then, in myself and in society. Historically, the Sami have experienced many negative things, but it is also important to look forward and to move forward with pride. We almost got wiped out, but look at us now – we couldn’t be more proud of ourselves, our culture is rich, and we’re growing as a people. Things like having 10 different languages, so many different kinds of gákti, our traditional knowledge of nature and how to harvest, and live in harmony and balance with it; the joik, and the handicrafts… all of this is very special.


Can you tell us about the Sami languages?

They are a language group that is part of the Uralic family of languages. Sami languages are spoken in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. There are 10 surviving Sami languages. Norway itself has three official Sami languages: Northern, South and Lule. Northern Sami is what about 90 per cent of Samis speak, and this is also what we speak here in Finnmark, Troms and Kiruna in Sweden and from Sodankyla in Finland and northward.

From central Norway and Sweden there is the South Sami language which is spoken by 500 to 600 Samis. It is on UNESCO's list of endangered languages and is classified as seriously threatened. Lule Sami is also on that list and is spoken by 500 Samis in Norway and about 1500 Samis in Sweden.

Umeå Sami is almost gone, only spoken by a few people on the Swedish side by the Umeå River. Pite Sami is also extremely threatened and spoken by around 30 people in Sweden.

The east Sami languages, Skolt Sami, Tersami, Kildin Sami – spoken by around 700 people – and Akkala Sami, are also under threat.

Each language has many dialects and sub-dialects. Sami languages and dialects flow into each other, so it can be difficult to draw clear boundaries between the different tongues and dialects.

I know I talk a lot about the languages, but it is a very rich and important part of our culture. I hope that those who have lost their language in the Norwegianization process will take it back and start using it, so our Sami languages and culture can grow.


What is the tradition behind Sami joik singing?

The tradition behind joik depends on where in Sápmi you are. Joik is an ancient type of folk song, almost a magical incantation that is dedicated to people, nature, animals or a particular situation. Traditionally, joik is a purely vocal music, sometimes only with a drum, but nowadays joik can also be accompanied by other instruments too.

It is important to remember that you are not joiking about something or someone, instead you actively joik the person, animal, mountain and so on. Joik is very personal; each person can make their own joik and dedicate it to someone special. In some Sami cultures it is common to make joik to their children, or to their loved ones. To get your own joik is a big honour and a great gift to give. It is also common to joik and honour loved ones who have passed away.


How do the Sami live in touch with nature, and why is reindeer herding such an important part of it?

In Sápmi there are eight seasons, each with their own unique charm. For reindeer-herders, the year normally starts when the calves are born, in spring-summer. We follow nature and the reindeer through the year; spring-summer, summer, summer-autumn, autumn, autumn-winter, winter, spring-winter and spring. The reindeer have their own cycle, and the reindeer herder follows the reindeer. Each season is special in its own way: midnight sun, tropical nights and mosquito paradise, to polar nights, northern lights and extreme cold. In the autumn seasons, harvesting, picking berries, hunting and slaughtering are the main tasks, and the winter seasons are more about indoor work, like different kinds of handicrafts.

The reindeer herders are in the winter grazing lands, and some Samis also hunt grouse, in the traditional way with a snare. The spring seasons are the time when we fish through the ice, and spend a lot of time outdoors when the sun is finally back again. The spring migration is an important event for the reindeer-herder Samis, and it’s truly a beautiful journey, followed by reindeer calving in spring-summer, which is the time we all are waiting for, to see the newborn calves.

Tell us about traditional Sami costume, fashion and handicrafts.

The Sami have traditionally made clothes from leather and wool, to protect them from the cold. Gákti is our traditional costume, and the accessories are also meant to be warming garments, such as the traditional shoes called "skaller", belts, scarves, mittens and hats. Nowadays we use it mostly when we want to dress up for special occasions. Some of us also wear work-gákti in the mountains, and some also wear gákti daily, as was common in the past. We have many good Sami designers who create different Sami designs, often inspired by gákti with accessories, nature and Arctic animals, especially reindeer. Nature is where we gather the materials for our handicrafts, which we call duodji. Traditionally, the Samis have always made everything themselves, both clothes and other useful materials from reindeer skins, fish skins, wood and reindeer antlers.


What is important to you for guests to know about the Sami culture?

That there are a lot of different Sami cultures, like Reindeer Samis, River Samis, Sea Samis, Skolt Samis, Northern Samis, South Samis and so many more. That we have 10 different languages, so many different types of gákti, which is an important part of our identity and where in Sápmi we come from. Last but not least, our history, is an important part of us, who we have become and who we are today.


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