Saepmie – the People and the Land

Saepmie is both the Sami people and a land area in the northern part of the globe. The Swedish part of Saepmie is a rich cultural landscape among vast mountains, villages and towns from the Dalarna region in the south, including Jämtland Härjedalen and all the way up through to the swedish border in the north. But what is a Sameby (Sámi village)? How many Sámi is there? And, what or who actually determines who is a Sámi?

Saepmie is both the Sami as People and an Area

Long-stretched marshes, steep mountain slopes, rolling birch hills, lichen clad forests, dark tarns and roaring streams. Saepmie extends across four countries; Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Spreading across the northern part of Scandinavia and into Russia, from the Russian peninsula Kolahalvön in the east to the Swedish region Dalarna in the south. In this area, the Sámi have lived for as long as one can remember.

Map of Saepmie Sapmi
The region Jämtland Härjedalen is a part of the South Saepmie area. Illustration: Anders Sunesson.

A rich Cultural Landscape for the Eagle Eye

Saepmie is often described as a vast wilderness, but it is a rich cultural landscape. Although the tracks in what may seem a total wilderness, are discreet, they are there. The Sámi culture leaves no major traces and is characterized by everything going back to nature. Traces of huts and other buildings from past times, often require a familiar eye to be discovered. Old enclosures for, and meadows graced by reindeer that have not been used for a long time grow back and are hard to discover. They can be distinguished as a very lush place. First comes grass, then bushes and birches grow up in the old enclosures.

Floodlit Reindeer herding separation. The work continues until done.

Reindeer Herding

The reindeer husbandry is intimately linked with the Sámi culture and has traditions far back in time. For decades, reindeer husbandry has evolved from hunting for wildlife to today’s reindeer husbandry.

Still today, nature controls the rhythm of the reindeer husbandry since they are out gracing year round. In Jämtland Härjedalen, which belongs to the southern Sámi area, there are 12 organized Samebyar (Sámi villages). The Sameby itself is not a village where Sámi lives, but it is an organization for reindeer husbandry companies within a certain geographical area.

The reindeer herder has to take into consideration nature and the reindeer, not the other way around. There are no fixed working hours. The reindeer herder’s task is to be the protector of the reindeer and create good conditions for the animals in order to gain an outcome. During the summer, the reindeer is high in the mountains and in winter, they are looking for food buried under the snow in the lower situated woods.

Today, about one in ten of  Sweden’s Sámi is active in reindeer husbandry. Only members of a Sameby may undertake reindeer husbandry.

Reindeer separation
The young is introduced in the reindeer husbandry at an early stage - every hand counts.

An Indigenous People

The Sámi is an indigenous people with their own languages, own cultural ways and traditions that differ from the majority of the surrounding society. The strong interest in the yoik, the storytelling of the Sámi and culture has led to making it more accessible. The yoik is a way to interpret, convey and remember people, stories and animals. Jon Henrik Fjällgren of Mittådalen Sameby in the region Härjedalen is perhaps the most well known yoiker today in the South Sami area.

Famous Swedish Yoiker Jon Henrik Fjällgren performing "Manne Leam Frijje" | "Jag är Fri" | "I am Free". This song mixed with yoik was performed at the swedish song contest in 2015, the song was written by Tony Malm, Erik Holmberg, Josef Melin and Jon Henrik Fjällgren himself.

How many Sami are there?

A common estimate is that there are 80-100,000 Sami in all of Saepmie. Of these there are 20-40,000 in Sweden. It is simply unclear how many people actually identify themselves as Sami. Some census on ethnic grounds are not made today and therefore these figures are estimates.

What Makes a Person Sami?

The question of what creates an identity is complex. In broad terms, one can say that it is about one’s origins, the way one was brought up, and of course the individual’s own choice. If you have Sámi ancestors but do not perceive yourself as Sami or want to be a Sami, then you are not a Sámi. On the other hand, you can also have dual identities: For example, you can be both Swedish and Sámi, and exchange cultural codes in different contexts.

Reindeer Silhouettes
Silhouettes of Reindeer moving in the closure during reindeer separation.

Östersund is called Staare in Southern Sámi language

Many of the South Sámi today live and work in Staare (Östersund). A city which has been an important meeting place for the Sami since it was established in 1786. Here the first Sami country meeting was held in 1918 and Staare 2018 is to celebrate the 100th Anniversary. Östersund is also a Sami Governance Municipality

The Sámi Parliament has one of its local offices in Östersund as is the case with Gaaltije, the South Sami cultural center which has played a major role for individual Sami and visitors since the beginning of the 21st century. Gaaltije is a natural gathering place, with exhibitions and a small shop with Gaaltijes own books, Sámi handicraft and reindeer meat.