The Saami (formerly called Lapps, or Laplanders) are the indigenous people living for several thousand years in the northernmost part of what today is Norway, Sweden, Finland, and western Russia. The earliest Saami presence in Arctic Europe, as nomadic hunters, predates that of Scandinavians, Finns, and Russians. During the past four centuries, Saami have ceased their dependence on hunting, becoming nomadic reindeer herders, settled farmers, and ocean fishers. More recently, since World War II, Saami have entered every other occupation and the mainstreams of their national societies as well, and are represented in education, business, tourism, and government.
Altogether, the Saami people number perhaps 80,000, with about half speaking the Saami language, a Uralic-Altoic language, in addition to their dominant national languages. At the present time about 7,000 Saami practice reindeer management, herding 450,000 head of livestock that graze for the most part on public lands.
While it may be unwise to generalize about the Saami condition throughout all four countries, there are overwhelming common features, both intrinsic and extrinsic. Until 1945 most Saami subsisted on traditional livelihoods and lived in nomadic bands or mono-ethnic settlements. They experienced World War II, while theoretically remote, in distinct contexts (Sweden being neutral, Finland being at war at different times with both the USSR and Germany, and Norway being German-occupied even in the Arctic). In each case the infrastructure left by the war changed Saami society as much as did various technological developments and political agendas following the war, including boundary adjustments between Finland and the USSR. Hence, 1945 is a cusp separating an era of autonomous primary subsistence, each community distanced from each other and from state control, and the contrastive contemporary situation of sedentary mixed communities, with fixed dwellings and transportation systems.
Traditionally shamanism was the sole religion, while today these shamanistic practices are overshadowed by Saami participation in their national Lutheran-related churches. Public schooling follows state curricula, but instruction may be in the native language. Publications and media abound in the Saami language. In all countries but Russia, Saami have established parliaments to advise their governments about cultural, economic, and ecological issues. One current crisis concerns the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in Soviet Ukraine, but the patchiness of the fallout has led to local strategies complementing those at national and international levels.
Saami have also cooperated with each other across their national boundaries, and with other indigenous “Fourth World” peoples around the world. The Fourth World movement may be the most significant extranational political development, but the emergence of grassroots political agendas coupled with media linkages affect more persons on a daily basis.