SAAMIS or Lapps

They call themselves saam´ or saam´lja (on the Kola Peninsula), sabme, sabmelas^ (pl. sabmela at). Other nations have called them Fenn (Finn) and since the 12th century, Lapp (e.g. the form Lop’ appears in Old Russian Chronicles at about 1000 AD). The use of the name Saam has been propagated in Russia since the 1920s and in Scandinavia within the last decades. The Saamis themselves consider the name Lapp pejorative. Saamis have six literary languages: Southern Saami (Norway), Lule Saami (Sweden), Northern Saami (Sweden, Finland and Norway), Inari and Skolt Saami (Finland), Kildin Saami (Russia).


The native territory of the Saamis is situated in the northern part of Fennoscandia, stretching in a semicircle from Dalarna, Sweden, along the coast of the Arctic Ocean over Norway and Finland to the central part of the Kola Peninsula in Russia. This tract of land, extending over four countries, is 2000 km long, covering almost 400,000 sq. km. In the past the Sami territory used to reach farther South, but under the pressure of other peoples they have been forced to move northwards. For example, the Saamis of Kola lived all over the Kola Peninsula (approximately 100,000 sq. km.) as late as 1917, but in 1926 they were located mainly in only four municipalities: Kolsko-Loparskaya, Aleksandrovo, Ponoj and Lujavr (Lovozero). By 1989 the majority of the Saamis had been assembled into the Lujavr (Lovozero) area (37% of the Murmansk Province).


Broadly speaking, the population figures in different countries and all told have been as follows:

Year Norway Sweden Finland Russia (SU) Total
1734-63 7,500 4,500 1,700 1,200 14,900
1850-60 16,000 5,800 1,000 1,700 24,500
1900 19,700 7,000 1,500 1,800 30,000
1930-45 20,700 10,100 1,700 1,900 34,400
1970 30,000 17,000 4,400 1,900 53,300


There are different data about the Saami population, depending on the criteria of determining one’s ethnicity. For example, ever since 1962 the basic criterion in Finland has been language. There those are considered Saamis whose grandparent(s) (at least one of them) acquired Saami as the primary language, or who speak Saami as their primary language. In Norway and Sweden the basic criterion is the relation to reindeer-herding. In these countries citizenship is not separated from nationality, and therefore the number of Saamis cannot be determined unambiguously. According to the Sami Council there are 30,000-70,000 Saamis in Scandinavia.

Of the Saamis living in Finland and Russia there are more exact data. In 1984 there were 11,475 inhabitants in the Saami region of Finland (Lapin lääni), 3,892 of them were Saamis, which makes 32.9% of the total population. In the Saami region of Russia (Murmansk Province) there were 1,115,000 inhabitants in 1989, the 1,890 Saamis constituting 0.15% of them. Within 63 years the Kola Saamis’ command of their mother tongue has decreased drastically (55.8%).

Turning Points in the History of the Saamis

In the whole, the history of the Saamis is the history of their centuries-long withdrawal from other peoples towards the Arctic Ocean.

9th c – a massive northward migration of the Saamis begins, as the Vikings occupy the area around Lake Ladoga. In Norway and Sweden the taxing and trading rights on the territory of the Saamis are granted to the lords; the inhabitants of Häme and Karelia also practise taxation by robbery;

13th c – the Kola Peninsula comes under the Russian influence;

16th c – the Saamis of Kola are baptised into Russian Orthodoxy;

17th c – Lutheran mission reaches the Western Saamis;

1673 – King Karl XI of Sweden begins to consciously direct Swedish and Finnish colonists to the Saami areas; Saamis become a minority in their native territory;

1868 – beginning of the colonisation of the Kola Peninsula with resident settlers, mostly Russians. The promotion of resident Russian life-style has Russified entire Saami villages by the turn of the century;

1930s – formation of collective farms, severe measures of conversion of the nomadic Saamis to resident settlers, expropriation of large tracts of land for industrial and military use, stopping of all educational activities and abolition of the literary language in 1937, destruction of all Saami printed texts;

ca. 1940-60 – the policy of “transforming” Saamis into Norwegians, Swedes, Finns; in boarding schools Saami children are alienated from their people and mother tongue.

Danger Signs

The main problem of the Saamis is their dispersion in four different countries, which has been unfavourable for their consolidation and for the formation of a national administrative unit. The vast territory has contributed to the development of dialects into separate languages. Owing to the rapid modernisation of their way of life in the 20th century, Saamis have problems of adaptation into their new environment (e.g. national industrialisation projects); backed by the high status of the official languages of the respective states, officials have inhibited the functioning of the Saami languages as languages of school instruction and official management. On the Kola Peninsula the reproduction of the Saami population is seriously impaired. Between 1979 and 1987 there were 110 mixed marriages for each 16 marriages of the same nationality in the Lujavr (Lovozero) Region. Of 208 Saami men eligible for marriage, 119 or nearly 60% were single.

Signs of Hope

Within the past few decades there has been a notable upsurge of national feelings and self-confidence of the Saamis. Very important is the growing importance of Saami as the language of instruction at schools. For example, after the Finnish Schools Act of 1985 the curriculum provides up to 240 classes of the Saami language per year. The unified system of orthography of Northern Saami (introduced 1978) enables to link the educational and cultural life of Saamis in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Today there are laws of the Saami language in Norway, Finland and Sweden, which help regulate the functioning of Saami as the language of education and management. The literary Kildin Saami language has been revived on the basis of the Cyrillic alphabet (1982). The Saami language is taught at Lujavr (Lovozero) School on the Kola Peninsula. Linguistic research and regulation of the usage of Saami have intensified; Saami fiction and film have emerged.

The expanding of the rights of Saamis and their language has taken place as a result of their active and organised efforts during the past few decades. Sami Parliaments are convened in Norway, Finland and Sweden as advisory assemblies. The Sami Council (Sámirašši), which earlier represented the Saamis of the Nordic countries, and now represents all Saamis, participated in the formation of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and and is still an active member of the Council.