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The Sámi Traditional World View through Decline and Ascent

By Emily Barclay


The purpose of this essay is not only to explore the elements of confrontation between the Sámi traditional, pre-Christian worldview and the protestant missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, but also to explore the evolution of Sámi cultural esteem from both an internal and external perspective, and to investigate characteristics of Sámi culture that may have caused them to be more or less susceptible to influence and repression by cultural outsiders. Before I begin in earnest, let me first explain a bit about the context and sources of this essay.

Historical Context

The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed religious confrontations on a global level. In this sense, the experience of the Sámi can be seen as a universal representative for religious minorities as a whole. Fundamental Christianity on an international level had reached a frenzied state wrought with superstitious insecurities toward people of other faiths, culminating in rabid acts of violence against religious minorities so heinous and pervasive that it is still a shameful mark from which theologians recoil to this day. Western school children learn about the atrocities of majority societies committed against the Native Americans, religious reformers and the 17th century witch trials in the name of Christianity in primary school and are therefore well versed in the language of remorse from an early age.

Yet, starting in Germany in the mid-19th century and moving westward, a new perspective regarding indigenous peoples and their traditional customs began to emerge. As the majority societies came to understand their oppression in terms of cultural genocide, those they oppressed were viewed with romantic notions of pity and hopelessness. New schools of science were born to document indigenous customs before they disappeared completely.


The sources suggest that while the Sámi may have fared better in the violent crimes of the 17th and 18th centuries, with little exception, they were not considered at all in the romantic cultural movement until recently. For this reason, the vast majority of information we have regarding the Sámi traditional worldview comes from the Christian missionaries’ viewpoint, whose attitudes toward the Sámi culture cannot be muted even with a modern contextual perspective (Rydving 18). There are several reasons for this narrow body of information that I will expand on later. At this point I merely wish to note that the raw data available to date is biased and incomplete and that all important sources used in this essay have tried to rebuild the proto-Sámi worldview from the elements that are apparent in the historical record. The Christian missionaries that recorded this data were not without a clear agenda. Their efforts were not meant as a means of preservation, but rather assimilation and annihilation.

Elements of the Sámi pre-Christian Worldview

The Sámi scholar, Harold Gaski writes, “—The Sámi way of telling a story is to tell a lot of stories simultaneously – one digression leading into another into another and so on”(2Gaski 199). It is difficult, as a westerner, to write about the Sámi traditional worldview without dissecting it and displaying the myriad parts in geometric fractions, but such a compartmentalization would insult the profound way in which the Sámi applied their worldview to their everyday lives. In order to avoid such an offense, I will use the Sámi method to describe the traditional worldview.

When one speaks of the Sámi as a people, it is easy to think of them as a homogeneous group. However, that is far from the case. Though the fundamental aspects of the pre-Christian worldview are similar throughout the Sámi region (Finnmark), the application varied according to location, occupation and foreign influence. The majority of my information comes from Rydving’s research on the Lule Sámi, a group that populated a region that straddled Norway and Sweden, from present-day Nordland on the Atlantic coast, to the Gulf of Bothnia, near present-day Luleå. However, I will try to limit my discussion to those elements that can be broadly, if not universally applied to Sámi culture in general. Easily, I could write an entire essay on the various aspects of the traditional worldview. However, for the purpose of this essay, I will limit my discussion to those aspects that came into direct conflict with the imposed conversion.

The Sámi, a definitively indigenous people, structured their worldview around the elements and phenomena of their natural environment. The traditional worldview lacks much of the rigid architecture of western religions, which is one of the reasons scholars avoid using the term religion in connection with the Sámi (Rydving 8-9). Perhaps the most fundamental element of the Sámi pre-Christian belief system is polytheism. The Sámi believed in many gods, each with separate roles and responsibilities in the universe. Rydving mentions a “supreme god Värálda ráde”, which roughly translated means either, “spirit of the world” or “the man of the world” (Rydving 87). However, in lectures and other sources, the sun is the most revered. One may hypothesize that this contradiction is due to attitudes and prejudices of the missionaries to the Sámi whom Rydving cites (Rydving 87). As believers in a monotheist religion, one may conclude that they naturally looked for a single deity with which to contrast to their own. The cultural and linguistic barriers between the Sámi and the missionaries only further frustrate the task of trying to ascertain a valuable reconstruction of the worldview before Christian interference.

The Sámi sought to understand the will of their gods through the interpretation of natural signs. An early frost or thaw could have signaled the need to depart earlier or later to the pre-Christian reindeer herder. Though this may seem obvious or common-place to the modern reader, these signs or omens were divinely interpreted by the Sámi as the will or designation of the gods.

To the pre-Christian Sámi, every element had a spirit or soul, a phenomenon modern scholars had termed, animism. Along with a soul, these elements also had a will with which the Sámi tried to align. In this respect, the Sámi belief in animism went a step further than many other indigenous belief systems in that not only were humans and animals imbued with a soul, but also the wind, the terrain and the weather. The Sámi believed in a bisected universe composed of physical and metaphysical parts. From Lehtola, “just as the world was divided into the seen and the unseen, the tangible and the intangible, so human beings were composed of two parts: body souls and free souls” (Lehtola 28). The body soul functioned in much the same way as western religions’ interpretation of a soul; it remained with the individual until death at which time it went to the world of the departed or Saivo.1

The free soul functioned as a transporting soul, capable of travel between “the physical world (this side) and the spiritual world (the other side)” (Lehtola 28). A shaman or noaide was principally responsible for spiritual travel. Though nearly every Sámi community or siida employed the use of a noaide or several noaides, the role and function of these shamans varied considerably. “The most important function of the [noaide] was to maintain contact with the other worlds and foremost the world of the departed [Saivo]” (Rydving 71). However, noaides also functioned as healers and spiritual advisers.

Travel to the “other side” occurred during ceremonies in which a noaide or an assistant would beat a sacred drum and perhaps yoik in order to enter into a trance or state of ecstasy. Unfortunately, I have found no eye-witness documentation of such a ceremony and none of my sources allude to one, so accurate details are lost for the modern reader. However, the lectures propose that neither the drum nor the yoik were imperative, but rather they aided the noaide in reaching his destination both to and fro. Regardless of their necessity, the clergy singled out the drum and the yoik as objects of particular contempt and suppressed them ravenously. Upon retuning from this trance, the noaide would share his observations, often revealing pertinent information regarding anything from the status of a migration to the location of a lost reindeer. Unfortunately, no records exist by which one could ascertain the validity of the information revealed by the noaide. However, one may infer, given the high esteem with which the siida held the noaide (Rydving 61), that their claims had a reasonable level of accuracy.

The Sámi also came to revere certain rocks or rock formations known as sieidis The Sámi believed that helpful spirits or deities lived in or near these rock formations. They made sacrifices to the sieidis at regular intervals and during times of crisis. In some communities, the noaides prepared and made sacrifices on behalf of the siida or individuals’, however this was rare. In most cases, individuals or the head of the household made sacrifices independently. Nearly all Sámi people sacrificed to sieidis; however these deities were particular to a region or family. Sámi families and siidas had sieidis to which they sacrificed that others from outside the community did not know about. Sieidis are not comparable in this way to western religions’ sacred places, in that there was no need to make long pilgrimages to a particular sieidi, because they were unique to each group.

Sámi Attitudes

While the western reader with a modern perspective may be quick to regard the tactics of the missionaries as contemptuous, a great many Sámi regard the Christian evolution of their world view positively (Rydving 77-78). In fact, many of the individual missionaries are today viewed with a certain dichotomy as both savior and destroyer. Today, most Sámi practice Laestadianism, a section of Lutheranism founded by and named for Lars Levi Laestadius, a Christian Sámi.

The Christian movement started along the coast and in the south in the 1100’s and moved slowly and erratically upward and inward (Lehtola 30). This progress led to a religious division between the settled Sámi agriculturalists and the migratory reindeer herders. The coastal Sámi, having contact with outside populations earlier and more frequently, were nearly completely converted to Christianity more than two centuries before the nomadic Sámi abandoned the traditional religion (Rydving 77). This schism led to suspicion and mistrust among the Sámi, causing the traditional worldview and its adherents to become secretive not only with the missionaries, but also with those that lived on the periphery of Finnmark. Many converted Sámi lamented that “many kinsman and women still were ‘idolaters’. Saamis sometimes even complained about the clergymen’s failings in their Christian religion” (Rydving 78). While others saw the clergy as a sort of noaide equivalent, at one time even asking the missionary Peter Högstrom to “read away” the illness of a loved one (Rydving 71).

The division between the Sámi only served to further the missionaries’ aims. The missionaries exploited the Sámis’ fear of punishment to encourage them to betray one another (Rydving 60). Rydving reports:

One of the tasks of these organized informers was to report Saamis who kept to the old traditions and after two warnings deliver them to the county sheriff and the clergyman for instruction. If that did not help, corporal punishment was inflicted (Rydving 60).

Norway abolished the use of the death penalty against the Sámi in 1720 in order to encourage confessions of sins and testimony against other Sámis (Rydving 56). After the abolishment of the death penalty, Sámis found guilty of acts of sacrilege were fined. Because of their poor socio-economic status, Sámis could rarely afford such fines and therefore had to “pay with their body” through corporal punishments (Rydving 58). Often, the Sámis were forced to curse a god or deface a sieidi in order to prove their adherence to the new religion (Rydving 60). Because of the Sámis’ richly metaphoric language and the missionaries’ lack of fluency many Sámis could avoid the acts by mincing their words or omitting important elements, thereby cursing “unimportant phenomena instead” (Rydving 60). Furthermore, Sámis traditionally destroyed sieidis or drums that did not work, and would often do so before the clergy as a show of loyalty to the church or at the churches behest (Rydving 66). Their ruse appeared successful for Rydving, citing Högstrom, relays that “the Saami that burned and destroyed sacrificial sites were regarded as good examples by the missionaries” (Rydving 67). The zealous Sámi Christians were not fooled as easily and would often report such trickery to the local clergymen (Rydving 67).

Swedish law obligated the Sámi to attend church a set number of times a year, regardless of occupation or migration routes. These laws caused the most difficulty among the migratory Sámi as they may have had their herd miles away from the nearest church on a required day. Those who made the long journeys back to the church often reported those who did not. Rydving hints that an undercurrent of resentment between those that followed out of fear and those that boldly rejected the new religion (Rydving 58). This caused many Sámi to fear each other almost as much as they feared the clergy (Rydving 59), which led to the exclusion of women and children from traditional worldview ceremonies (Rydving 60). Without a written language, this exclusion of the next generation spelled almost certain demise for the indigenous customs.

Many Sámi resisted conversion to Christianity because they feared they would suffer economically and socially (Rydving 85). In 1745, a clergyman from Pike reported an argument made by Anders Erson Snadda, a Sámi from Gájddom:

He said that he had heard it said by old people, how happily and in what prosperity the people lived when they freely made use of these sanctuaries [sieidis], and also how…a general poverty had increased since so many obstacles had been lain [sic] in the way of the use of these customs…He feared that [Gájddom] would soon be waste if people continued to discard the old customs” (Rydving 86).

Records do not exist that would allow for a thorough examination of the effect the Christian conversion had on socio-economic status of the Sámi. However, the sources show that the beliefs discussed in the above excerpt were common among the Sámi.

Therefore, it was not the inclusion of the Christian religion into their culture that so threatened the Sámi. Rather, they resisted the systematic abolition of their traditional customs in light of the new religion. As the Christian assault against the traditional worldview spread to include more and more elements, the lines between the religious and the cultural blurred.

Christian Perspectives of the Sámi Traditional Worldview

Oh you confounded Drum, tool and instrument of Satan, cursed are your depicted Gods: cursed your ring and ‘baja’: cursed your hammer and drumstick: cursed anyone who serves you with beating, and anyone who avails himself of it and makes [someone] beat, yes all those who consent to such a beat and divination and have their inclination for it. Each beat that is made on you, is and will be a Satan’s beat in hell for them…” (Rydving 81)

Until the 1680s, missionaries’ official reports to the church on the progress of their work in Sapmi misrepresented the Christianization process as speedy and successful conversions among the Sámi. In 1714, after hearing of the poor conditions of schools and churched in the north, King Frederick IV of Denmark and Norway, directed a mission to the Sámi led and organized by Thomas von Westen (Schaff-Herzog 321). Not until the arrival of von Westen in 1715 did the church officials realize that most of Sámi conversions were superficial at best (Rydving 79). According to von Westen, the Sámi continued to use drums, seek the council of noaides and sacrifice to sieidis, while at the same time they attended church and professed their belief in the Christianity to the clergy. He discovered that the Sámi had even developed a supplemental naming ceremony in order to “wash away” the Christian baptisms of local children and rename them in the Sámi tradition (Rydving 130). Von Westen and those that came to Sapmi after his death in 1727 made it their crusade to rid that Sámi of their pagan traditions (Rydving 87). No longer would church attendance suffice. The effort to convert the Sámi started in earnest with the arrival of von Westen.

Von Westen was a particularly manipulative man. Under his guidance, the clergy devised a system of rewards for “anyone who revealed something about idolatry” (Rydving 60). He was known to interrogate noaides and force them to destroy their drums. He was so feared that a number of Sámi who “went out into the borderlands for several years” in order to avoid crossing him and the risk of having to give up the old customs (Rydving 61). In 1722, von Westen even reported that he had discovered, and presumably thwarted, a Sámi attack planned against him (Rydving 61). Though von Westen’s tactics were harsh, he is noted in contemporary Sámi society as the “Sámi apostle” (Yli-Kuha). Unlike most of his successors, he encouraged the use of the Sámi language among the clergy, even learning several dialects himself.

While von Westen’s motives were clearly theological, later missionaries had to contend with the closing borders and increased pressure from the state to assimilate the Sámi into the majority population. Though many of these missionaries now saw the indigenous worldview in terms of cultural customs rather than religiously significant (Rydving 81), the distinction no longer mattered. Hostile relationships between the states during the Great Nordic War added significance to the process of conversion.

The missionaries focused their efforts on the noaides and the Sámi children. They reasoned that if they could convert the noaides, the rest of the Sámi population would follow suit. Noaides, for their part, put up the most resistance to conversion; however, with no internal organization, their efforts fell far short of the mark (Rydving 72). In Sweden, missionaries launched a program to remove young Sámi boys from their homes and train them as clergymen. The project failed and many of these Swedish-educated boys became known as “great noaides” (Rydving 71). However, missionaries and their respective states continued to push the idea of conventional education on the Sámi, eventually making school attendance mandatory.

With the boundaries still unclear in Sámi territory, states saw the ethnic persuasion of the Sámi as a power struggle for the resource-rich land. The states started to encourage colonization of the northern lands in an effort to guarantee taxation rights. The states struggled with opposite tactics, with one hand trying to win the Sámis’ confidence in order to keep them as tax payers; while systematically suppressing their culture in an effort to assimilate them with the other hand. By the 1800s, all visible signs of the traditional worldview had vanished. Identifying with one nation over another took the lead in Sámi conversion in a process termed “Norwegianization”.

Sámi Cultural Esteem in the face of Confrontation – Sámi Susceptibility

Sámi cultural esteem suffered greatly during the colonizing period. During the process of religious and cultural change, the Sámi were thought of as an affront to the dominant societies’ Christian morality by the church, as backward drunks by the colonists, and as a security threat by the governing bodies. The devaluation of the Sámi continued to escalate and by 1851, Norway officially banned the use of the Sámi language in the Lapland schools (Lehtola 44). For the nomadic Sámi, compulsory school took place in boarding houses. Children were taken from home at a young age and subjected to vicious cultural criticism at the hands of the majority society. While the education policy improved the literacy rate among Sámi, for many it was the touchstone of the decline of their positive self-awareness and the pervasive low cultural esteem that exists to this day. However, this low regard was only part of the reason the Sámi were so readily manipulated.

The Sámi had no defense against the encroaching nations with regard to their worldview or their land. In fact, I could find no documentation of a war of any kind before Christianization. As a peaceful people, the Sámi had no need for kings and military. Even their version of governmental structure, the siida system, was designed around the foundation of pooling resources rather than defensive or offensive campaigns (Lehtola 42). This loose organization that served the Sámi well in a Sámi-majority society left them vulnerable to outside influence.

The lack of a written language until the eighteenth century and the low rate of literacy among the Sámi compounded the problem. Though missionaries translated religious texts in the eighteenth century, a true Sámi grammar did not exist until the mid-nineteenth century. Sámi children in the school system therefore became more competent in the foreign tongue than in their native language. This created a divide between parents and children who felt more comfortable speaking in the language they learned in school. A sense of shame emerged among Sámi who had not received a conventional education. This shame created a longing among the Sámi for acceptance and credibility with the majority society.

The Sámis’ heterogeneous culture may also have worked against them during the processes of Norwegianization and Christianization. Though the Sámi identify themselves as a single people, the cultural attitudes of different regions vary greatly, leading to a general lack of cohesiveness. Compounded with the language barriers among the Sámi, the lack of any clear nationalism or Sámi-ism would have rendered an organized defense against the intruders nearly impossible.

Cultural Revival in Modern Sámi society

The cultural revival among the Sámi today is nothing short of miraculous. Despite nearly four centuries of cultural oppression, the Sámi have managed not only to survive as a people, but to develop a thriving socio-political significance as well. Today the traditional yoik is increasing in popularity and the Sámi are cultivating a unique literary voice. There is increased interest and economic reward in Sámi-made handicrafts among the Sámi and the majority populations.

This revival began after the Second World War and has continued to increase Sámi political influence steadily. In the wake of this new revival, a new sense of Sámi self-appreciation has emerged. In an ironic twist, the very methods of assimilation imposed on the Sámi by their oppressors, i.e. the education policies, served to awaken the Sámi to the elevations of the world’s indigenous peoples. The Sámi recognized new rights afforded to native peoples of other lands and found their voice in order to demand the same. Gaski writes, “The Sámi political awakening was, first and foremost, culturally based. The driving force behind political engagement was directed at insuring rights to Sámi language and culture” (Gaski 17)

The Sámi have become the most written about people in the world, although an increased self-awareness has led to increased resentment toward ethnographers and anthropologists that exploit the Sámi experience in the name of scholarly enterprise. The final irony being that the nations that systematically attempted to rid them of their culture represent the largest body of work dedicated to documenting the Sámi culture, this time, for preservation’s sake.

Much controversy still exists surrounding the condition of the Sámi traditional worldview. Though one interpretation of Paulus Utsi’s poem “Our Life” may imply that the Sámi traditions have disappeared like “ski tracks on the wide open plains” (Gaski 115), I can’t entirely agree. Though the practice may have disappeared, evidence of the traditional worldview’s influence in modern life appears in much of the Sámi art and literature today. Thinly veiled in metaphors, or spoken out right, in light of the poetry of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää or the literature of Ailo Gaup, the revival of appreciation for pre-Christian world view is undeniable.


(1) Gaski, Harald; In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun. Davvi Girji OS: 1996

(2) Gaski, Harald; Sámi Culture in a New Era. Davvi Girji OS: 1997

Lehtola, Veli-Pekka; The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition. Aanaar-Inari: 2002

Rydving, Håkan; The End of Drum-Time: Religious Change Among the Lule Saami, 1670s-1740s. Uppsala: 1995

Yli-Kuha, Kari; The Sámi People. : 1998

Schaff, Phillip; The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. II. Christian Classics Ethereal Library: 2000

1, Saivo was the world in which the “dead continued their lives”. It was believed to be “more whole than – the material world,” and is perhaps comparable to the Christian heaven.