April 28, 2006

The Saami's Story

The Saami's Story

Small Indigenous People of Russia: the Saami

Indigenous peoples in Russia have no fear for the cold climes. Eleven out of 40 peoples officially recognized as Indigenous Small People of Russia (with populations under 50,000) live beyond the Arctic Circle. One of these - hunters and reindeer-herders - are the Saami, also known as Sami or Lapps, in Murmansk oblast.

With a total worldwide population of 85,000, the Saami, who also live in Sweden, Norway and Finland, are one of the largest indigenous groups in Europe. Yet in Russia, just under 1,800 Saami live in the central Kola peninsula, and only one in three of these speaks Saami, a Finno-Ugric language.

Historically, the Saami inhabited all of Northern Scandinavia, Finland, and Eastern Karelia. They made their living by hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. The Saami religion, a pagan faith, was practiced until around the 18th century, and then gradually replaced by Christianity. The Saami in Russia, as well as in North-Eastern Finland, are predominantly Russian Orthodox believers.

Lovozero Settlement, about 124 miles south of Murmansk, is the center of the Saami population on the Kola peninsula - over half of Russia's Saami live there. Most have abandoned hunting and make ends meet by berry-picking and reindeer herding. The Saami have just under 61,000 reindeer, which they lead to tundra pastures in the summer, and back to Lovozero in the winter.

Local Saami had their greatest number of deer in the 1980s (around 80 thousand) - this in spite of the many troubles they survived in the Soviet era: collectivization, closure of pasture lands because of nearby naval bases, and even the flooding of several Saami villages during construction of the Serebryansky hydroelectric power plant. Recent challenges include deer poaching - both military and civilian - by people who pretend they cannot tell the difference between wild and domesticated deer. Most deer meat is exported to Sweden, where gourmet cooks prefer organic deer from the Kola peninsula to local, farm-raised sources.

Young Saami are increasingly reluctant to spend most of their year in tundra pastures with the deer herds, opting for more contemporary occupations and often moving away from the area. A local vocational school still teaches courses in deer "harvesting" and in traditional Saami fur crafts, but to little use in this depressed district with high unemployment.

All that said, locals have high hopes that domestic and international tourism will bring money to the area.

As well, like other places that have indigenous populations, there have been attempts to revive Saami culture in the Kola peninsula, be it through grants or cultural exchanges (with Finland, Norway and Sweden). Recently, a radio station in Lovozero has begun broadcasting in the Saami language. With just two local reporters - one of whom is based in Murmansk, the station assembles a daily 15-minute broadcast, hoping to one day make a profit.

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