Lapland or Sápmi? Lapps or Sámi?

By Andrew Matheson
Most school students in New Zealand learn that the very north of Sweden is part of Lapland, which for thousands of years has been inhabited by reindeer-herding people known as Laplanders or Lapps.  But a resurgence of awareness of indigenous culture has seen attitudes evolve, and even those terms brought into question.

The people who call themselves, and are now generally known as, Sámi live across four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula in Russia.  Traditional life in their homeland, now known as Sápmi, was nomadic and centred around reindeer herding.  They spoke about nine different languages or dialects, some mutually comprehensible and others not.  Now of course most live in towns or cities, many don’t speak their language, and reindeer herding involves snowmobiles and GPS more than snow shoes and spears.

On our tour of Sweden’s interior and Lapland (there’s that word again), we visited the country’s foremost Sámi museum and cultural centre at Jokkmokk.  Known as Ájtte, which in a Sámi language means storehouse, this place was a real revelation to us.

As was our guide, who epitomised many of the issues around modern Sámi life.  We were surprised to learn that Southern Sámi was her mother tongue, and she had learnt Swedish only after going to school (and her English was excellent as well).  Her appearance wouldn’t make her stand out in a crowd of Swedes from all backgrounds.  How many people have only Sámi ancestry, we asked. Probably none, she reckoned.  Definitional issues makes it difficult to know how many Sámi there are, though a common estimate is about 20,000 in Sweden and four times that in total.

There are challenges in defining rights and obligations relating to Sámi.  How is access to special funding, or property rights such as being able to hunt reindeer, to be allocated on the basis of ancestry when peoples have commingled for centuries?  What is the importance of maintaining traditional rural lifestyles and social structures, when the vast majority of Sámi are urbanised and don’t live in their traditional home areas?

Despite, or perhaps because of, the loss of traditional Sámi lifestyles, there has been a resurgence of interest in Sámi culture.  Sámi languages are taught in schools and heard on the airwaves. Since the 1980s there has been a Sámi flag.  In Sweden there is a Sámi ‘parliament’, though it doesn’t make laws or impose taxes but works mainly as a state agency with roles such as allocating special funding and administering reindeer hunting. There are calls for special representation for Sámi in the Swedish national parliament, the Riksdag.

These questions and challenges are very familiar to us.  As in New Zealand, the answers and solutions are not easy or obvious.  But having learnt a little of the Sámi people in their traditional homeland Sápmi, we will watch developments in Sweden with interest.