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The Native Perspective, Episode 7: Sámi

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Under the Northern Lights

Sámi are the indigenous people of the Northern European countries of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with a smaller population living in the Kola Peninsula in Russia. They have descended from nomadic peoples who had occupied the northern region of Scandinavia for millennia. [1] They are speakers of the Sámi language, which is part of the Uralic linguistic group, though there are a variety of dialects spoken in different regions and communities. [2] While there is no specific number for the Sámi population, it is estimated to be around 80,000. Norway has the biggest Sámi population, sitting at 50,000, followed by Sweden with 20,000, 8,000 in Finland, and 2,000 in Russia. [3] They live in Sápmi, a large and borderless region located in all four countries. [4] Additionally, the Sámi in Sweden have been given a national minority status, which grants them special rights protecting their culture, traditions, and languages. [3]

Herding reindeer comprises a vital part of the Sámi lifestyle and culture. In Norway, for example, about 2,600 Sámi individuals earn a living from this ancient tradition. [2] In addition to the meat, which itself is a principal ingredient in the Sámi cuisine, reindeers are used for their fur to make clothes and shoes, and their antlers and bones are turned into tools and art. [5] Also included in their food culture are foraged ingredients such as herbs, roots, and berries, as well as elk and fish. The Sámi lifestyle is inherently sustainable, as nothing goes to waste, especially not food, and surplus materials are given a meaningful purpose. [4] Bright and vibrant colors, specifically blue, red, yellow, and green, make up the Sámi flag and the distinctive traditional clothing known as kolt or gákti. Originally worn for work, it is now used for celebratory purposes. [3] The Sámi are also skilled craftsmen and many of their traditional Duoddji (Sámi word for ‘craft’) are reserved and still being carried out, such as tin and pearl embroidery, wood carving, knife-making, jacket seams and more. [2]

Unpredictable Weather

There are more than 100 words in the Sámi language to describe snow, with a word for different textures, density, and depths among others. The distinct names for the different types of snow is a high indication that this natural element is vital to their culture, food, traditions, and now survival. [6] The Arctic regions are warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the world, this means that the plants and animals that live in these regions are at risk since changes in the climate are happening too fast for them to adapt. Animals such as polar bears, arctic owls, and arctic foxes are threatened because foods that are vital to their diets are becoming more challenging to come by. [7] For the Sámi, the most noticeable and impactful change is happening to their reindeers. The warmer and unpredictable weather is causing huge shifts with the herding seasons, as the 8 Sámi seasons have been reduced to 4. Climate change is elongating summers and causing warmer winters. In the winter, reindeers rely on lichen as a main food source. Normally, reindeers use their hooves to dig through the snow and access the lichen growing underneath. However, the warmer weather is causing frequent snowfall, which then melts and refreezes on the ground, creating firm layers of snow that is difficult for the reindeers to pierce through. [8]

Herders have begun using modern technologies to cope with these changes, such as drones and snowmobiles in order to cover greater areas, and some are giving extra nourishment for the reindeer herds to prevent them from starving. [9] [10] Another threatening element are iron mines, with the first iron ore mine opening in 1647 and more than 40 have appeared since then. With these mines, new infrastructure is built, and they collectively affect biodiversity, pollution in waterways, reindeer migration routes, and the increase in deforestation. This also leads to Sámi losing more of their land. What’s more, the introduction of ‘green colonialism,’ a term that “describes how nature conservation and ways of producing renewable energy often come at the cost of marginalized communities,” is adding to the overall pressure of land loss. A wind plant project, for instance, was proposed at Øyfjellet in Norway is a problematic project since it will distress the reindeers and force them out of their grazing lands. [8]

A Culture at Risk

The issues caused by climate change affect the very survival of the Sámi people. The changes in snow alone, its patterns and textures, means that fewer and fewer words would be used to describe it, thus threatening a language that is already at risk of extinction. Climate change also affects the traditions of reindeer herding and husbandry, which would put a limit to the transfer of intergenerational knowledge. Additionally, there are very few Sámi representatives in climate policy. In order to gain from indigenous knowledge, native peoples’ voices have to be elevated, their voices must be heard. Therefore, it would prove useful for Scandinavian governments to include Sámi into climate discussions and the decision-making process, as they possess direct and crucial knowledge on the climate and its changes. As the last indigenous people left in Europe, Sámi are undoubtedly self-sufficient, resilient, and adaptable, skills that ensured their existence for thousands of years.

Author: Rima Qayed


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  1. Sami | People, History, & Lifestyle | Britannica

  2. The Sami People - indigenous people of the North - Northern Norway (

  3. Sami in Sweden |

  4. Learn about Sami and the indigenous people in Sápmi Sweden | Visit Sweden

  5. Experience the Sami culture (

  6. ‘This new snow has no name’: Sami reindeer herders face climate disaster | Arctic | The Guardian

  7. Rights at risk: Arctic climate change and the threat to Sami culture, Available at: EJF-Sami-briefing-2019-final-1.pdf (

  8. Climate Change in the Arctic: How global heating affects Sámi communities | Science Museum

  9. Is climate change threatening the Saami way of life? - WWF Arctic (

  10. Climate change forces Sami reindeer herders to adapt (