The Lives and Culture of the Sami People
The Sami (Lapps) are the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia.
Their language and culture is unique to the region. In Norway, the
Sami number about 45,000. There are two main types of Sami –
the nomadic people and the sea people. My mother belongs to a family
of nomadic Sami who have herded reindeer on the northern mountain
plains for centuries. My father belongs to the sea Sami, who lived
off farming and fisheries.
The nomadic Sami have traditionally
moved throughout the region with their reindeer herds. They follow
the reindeer across wide expanses of land in northern Norway, Sweden,
Finland and Russia. The reindeer has been essential to the survival
of the Sami, who have lived in northern Scandinavia for thousands
of years. Their culture is one of hardship, driven by the extreme
survival skills needed to get through the long grueling winters
on the arctic plains, where the temperature can dip below –50
degrees Fahrenheit. The reindeer has been absolutely essential to
their existence, providing the Sami with food, clothing, shelter
Today, only 1,500 Sami are still herding reindeer. Many have moved
to different parts of the country, or lead “ordinary”
modern lives. As they abandon their traditional way of life, the
Sami culture is also rapidly disappearing.
This is the subject of this project, which consists of photographs
shot between 1990 and the present. As with many indigenous cultures,
the increasingly aggressive onset of modernity and technology quickly
supplants the old way of life. Therefore, I want to document this
culture before it is completely gone.
Traditionally, the nomadic Sami herded their animals using dogs
and sleighs. Today, the most modern Sami employ helicopters, trucks
and snowmobiles. The people I photographed still use traditional
methods and dogs, but also some modern tools, such as snowmobiles.
They have a traditional gender system, where the women make clothing,
tools and souvenirs from the reindeer, while the men are the herders.
In more modern families, the women work regular jobs and have university
degrees, because the traditional trade is not sufficient to employ
an entire family.
I have been proud of my Sami identity since I was a child. When
I grew up, I took my mother’s maiden name (Utsi) as part of
Like most indigenous peoples around the world, the Sami were oppressed
and mistreated. They were not allowed to use their native language
in school, but were instead forced to learn Norwegian. My parents
could not speak to each other in their mother tongue even during
recess. Eventually, this resulted in the Sami rejecting their own
culture and heritage. Many Sami emigrated to the United States because
of the persecution they experienced in Norway.
This would also affect my life. My parents did not want their children
to experience shame and inferiority because they spoke the Sami
language and came from a Sami family, so neither my sibling or I
learned to speak Sami.
The situation changed in the 1970s. The Sami regained pride in
their heritage and identity.
The Norwegian government has formally issued an apology to the Sami
I consider my documentation of the Sami to be a continuing project.
I would like to expand the project to include Sweden, Finland and
Russia in the future.