Experiential travel: Meeting indigenous Sámi people in the Nordics
Meeting indigenous Sàmi people in Norway, Sweden and Finland is at the heart of meaningful, authentic and experience-rich travel. Take a look at some of our suggestions for how and where to meet and learn more about the only indigenous people of the European Union.
Although coronavirus has accelerated the trend towards experiential travel, it was already gaining huge popularity prior to the pandemic. For a long time now, more and more travellers have been shying away from mass tourism and towards something more authentic, with a real connection to a place and its history, culture, and people.
In the Nordic region, one of the most interesting and unique cultures is that of the Sámi, the indigenous peoples of the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The total Sami population is approximately 80,000 with nearly half living in northern Norway. The Sámi people speak a number of related languages that belong to the Uralic linguistic group along with languages such as Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. However, most Sámi are bilingual, and sadly many have lost the ability to speak their native tongue.
The Sámi are the only indigenous people of the European Union (EU) and the last European population leading a subsistence lifestyle, essentially living off the land. However, increased contact with neighbouring populations has been gradually making the Sámi lifestyle more ‘Westernised’ and many now live in towns and have professions similar to the mainstream populations. Nevertheless, it is still possible to explore and experience the unique culture of the Sámi, particularly in northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. Below are some suggestions for how to do that.
The town of Karasjok is one obvious choice for anyone interested in meeting and learning about the Sámi people in Norway. It is the Sámi capital in Norway and coincidentally also the birthplace of 50 Degrees North’s CEO and Co-Founder, Tietse Stelma! In this town of 3000 inhabitants and 60,000 reindeer, nine out of ten people are Sámi. The Sámi parliament is in Karasjok, and this eye-catching building is shaped as a lavvu – a Sámi tent – which symbolises their traditionally nomadic culture.
While in Karasjok, visiting the Sápmi Culture Park is a great way to experience the Sámi way of life. You can meet local Sámi people in colourful, traditional costumes, try Sámi cuisine by the open fire, and hear the “joik” (traditional Sámi songs), one of Europe’s oldest surviving music traditions.
Visiting the area at Easter time is a great idea since it also gives travellers the opportunity to visit the Sámi Easter Festival in Kautokeino, 128km south-west of Karasjok. The Easter Festival is another focal point of Sámi culture in Norway. It includes numerous events and competitions, such as the World Championships in Reindeer Racing, the World Championships in Lassoing, the Sámi Grand Prix (a music competition termed as the “Sámi Eurovision”) and an impressive concert programme throughout the Easter week. This is a rare opportunity to experience a great deal of Sámi culture in a very short period of time.
You can visit Karasjok (and also Kautokeino should you wish to add that in), for example, as a part of our 8-day self-drive itinerary, Journey through Lapland.
Photo credit: Jørn Tomter
On the banks of the Alta River in far northern Norway lies Sorrisniva, an award-winning nature-based adventure and food business that is open all year round. They have Europe’s largest and the world’s northernmost ice hotel, excellent food, and activities such as accommodation in a Sámi tent (Lavvu), ice fishing, reindeer sleigh rides and other Sámi adventures. You can listen to the joik and learn from local Sámi guides who take you through some key aspects of Sámi history and culture, including reindeer husbandry. You can visit a Sámi family at Sorrisniva, for example, during our 12-day White Winter Expedition.
The Sámi Week in Tromsø in February is an annual week-long celebration of Sámi culture with concerts, talks, language courses, lasso-throwing contests, reindeer racing, and a winter market with traditional food, drinks, and handicrafts. While the 6th of February, the official Sámi People’s Day, is celebrated as an official flag day in all four countries with Sámi populations, in Tromsø it has grown into a week-long festival that is well worth a visit.
Although 50 Degrees North has countless tours that include a visit to Tromsø, the 7-day tour Arctic Wilderness and Auroras combines Tromsø with the Vasara Reindeer Ranch in Kilpisjärvi, another place of interest if seeking to experience aspects of the Sámi culture.
On a slightly different note, the world renowned indigenous folk festival Riddu Riđđu Festivàla is held every July in Manndalen, a 2-hour drive east of Tromsø. This family-friendly festival celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2021 and continues to attract musicians from all over Sápmi (the cultural region traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people) as well other indigenous peoples and visitors from all over the world. Immerse yourself in concerts, films, courses and seminars in indigenous history and culture at Riddu Riđđu.
If looking for a more upmarket base from where to do a lovely day trip to the festival, see for example our 7-day summer tour Tromsø & Lyngen Alps.
Moving across the border to Sweden, our first recommendation is the lovely Sapmi Nature Camp. Founded by the Sámi entrepreneur Lennart Pittja and located in Unesco’s world heritage area Laponia, the Sapmi Nature Camp offers small-scale, sustainable Sámi glamping and wildlife experiences. In 2019, the Swedish Nature and Ecotourism Association awarded the Sapmi Nature Camp an ecotourism prize for their authentic, sustainable, and locally based operations. They characterised the camp as a genuine Sámi experience where you take part in the Arctic everyday life for Sweden’s indigenous Sámi people. Fishing, reindeer herding, food preparation and cooking are all intertwined and framed by storytelling, the northern lights, and experiences in nature.
Located outside Gällivare and Jokkmokk, this is a destination and experience that is easily added to any of our tours featuring the ICEHOTEL or the Treehotel – or both, as is the case with our 6-day tour Aurora Safari in Swedish Lapland.
The Arctic Bath is a new design hotel located in Harads, in the heart of Swedish Lapland. Although mostly known for its unique architecture and floating sauna in the Lule River, it also offers a wonderful Sámi experience. This takes place just outside of Jokkmokk, close to the Arctic circle, where you will meet a young, local Sámi woman whose family are reindeer herders. Sitting in a lavvu (Sámi tent), you can enjoy the warm fire while listening to her stories and joik (traditional Sámi singing). A three-course meal is prepared over an open fire, with locally sourced ingredients, and you will also get close to reindeer while feeding them.
This experience is a part of our new 5-day tour Swedish Aurora Glamping & Arctic Wellness which also includes glamping in a lavvu tent.
Since 1605, Jokkmokk’s Winter Market has been an annual event that begins in the first week of February. While it attracts thousands of visitors from around the world, the market has an exceptional position as a key meeting place for Sámi people across the entire Sápmi region. It is also a key event for cultural and creative industries in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and includes a multitude of events, such as parades, lectures, food-tasting sessions, dances, Sámi joik concerts as well as art and handicraft exhibitions. In many ways, the market is an annual party where Sámi traders network and catch up with old friends. It is also a great opportunity to explore different aspects of Sámi culture.
A visit to the Jokkmokk Market is easily combined with a stay at the Sapmi Nature Camp or the Treehotel, both of which are just an hour away from the market (although in different directions). It is popular with limited accommodation options so plan early for this event.
Last but not least for Sweden, the Nutti Sámi Siida is a Sámi 'camp' in Swedish Lapland that offers Sámi eco adventures led by local Sámi guides. You can hand-feed their reindeer, go reindeer sledding, taste traditional Sámi food, visit exhibitions and explore Sámi arts and crafts. Best of all, you can combine this with a visit or stay at the enchanting, world-famous ICEHOTEL which is only 1.1km away.
In fact, the already mentioned 6-day tour Aurora Safari in Swedish Lapland could easily be modified and lengthened to include every one of our suggestions in Sweden, travelling from the Treehotel to the Arctic Bath, then Jokkmokk Market, Sapmi Nature Camp, and finally the ICEHOTEL with a visit to the Nutti Sámi Siida – a total of 300km adding up to the ultimate Sámi tour of Swedish Lapland.
Photo credit: Lola Akinmade Åkerström
In Finland, the village of Inari hosts the autonomous Sámi parliament and can be considered as the heart of the Sámi homeland. Inari is also the home of the Sámi Museum Siida which is an internationally acclaimed indoor and outdoor museum where you can familiarise yourself with changing exhibitions on Sámi culture, history, art, and nature throughout the year.
If you’re in the region in late January, you can also join the celebrations that mark the end of the polar night by going to the annual Skábmagovat Film Festival which is dedicated to indigenous peoples’ films from all over the world. This is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the Sámi as films are a powerful way to communicate feelings, worldviews, attitudes, challenges and information in general. Also, in addition to films, the event includes workshops, discussions and concerts, and it is a natural meeting place for different cultures, both indigenous and non-indigenous.
Visiting the area during the Sámi National Day celebrations on February 6th provides another unique opportunity to observe numerous Sámi presentations and performances. In contrast, a summer trip in mid-August allows you to visit the music festival Ijahis idja, meaning Nightless Night. The festival celebrates the music of indigenous peoples and is the only music festival in Finland that focuses on Sámi music.
50 Degrees North offers countless pre-existing and tailor-made tours and travel packages to the Inari region and many of them include Sámi experiences and activities. See, for example, our 5-day Midnight Sun in Lapland Tour or the 4-day itinerary Autumn Colours & Aurora Borealis. Many other tours, such as the Lapland Arctic Highlights, can also be modified to include a variety Sámi experiences.
Photo credit: Ville Fofonoff
Finally, in Kilpisjärvi, in the northwesternmost corner of Finland, lies the Vasara Reindeer Ranch. The traditional Sámi lifestyle of reindeer herding is still very much alive here and gives travellers an unparalleled opportunity to mix authenticity with luxury: A stay here allows you to get up close and personal with the life of a 12th generation Sámi reindeer herder while spending your nights in a luxurious glass igloo or log chalet.
You can stay here, for example, during our 7-day tour Arctic Wilderness and Auroras, which also includes a winter visit to Tromsø in Norway.
Image credits: Anders Blomqvist, Jørn Tomter, Tina Stafrén/imagebank.sweden.se, Ørjan Marakatt Bertelsen, Visit Sweden, Visit Norway and Visit Finland.