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HOME : Dieda : Sociology : An Examination of the Myth of Rampant Sámi Alcoholism



By Kevin Kunec

Societal use of alcohol was, is and perhaps always will be commonplace.  The history of alcohol, set down across cultures and over thousands of years, shows that the ability to alter our perception of reality is a singularly important and enduring facet of human existence.  Similarly, abuse of alcohol dates back to the earliest written history and great notice has been paid to the deleterious effects of alcoholism on various societies.  Particularly noteworthy is the impact of alcohol abuse on indigenous populations.  Indeed, a prevailing perception about the Sámi, an indigenous tribe in Northern Europe, is that they are simply another example in a long history of native peoples debilitated by an inability to utilize alcohol effectively.  However, a review of scientific and medical literature indicates that widespread Sámi alcoholism and its attendant societal havoc are products of overstatement and misconception, and that abuse of alcohol within Sámi culture is at worst commensurate with alcohol abuse within the dominant populations of Norway, Sweden and Finland in which the Sámi live.  Accordingly, the “myth” of widespread Sámi alcoholism appears to be a vestige of early reporting, a product of religious fervor and a commonly utilized literary device as opposed to a rampant cultural phenomenon.

Before setting out an examination of alcoholism within one people, it is important to examine its significance within a historical framework.  Alcohol use dates back to the beginning of human history.  Many early populations fermented various grains, grapes and other substances to produce alcohol for consumption.  Jean-Charles Sornia notes, “… the Western Mediterranean had at its disposal dates, cereals, grapes and many other fruits.  Egyptian papyri provide evidence of several alcoholic drinks … Ugarit and Sumer also carry allusions to intemperance.”  (Sornia, et al., 4)  Similarly, references to the beneficial effects of alcohol can be found in early literature.  The Hebrew Book of Proverbs contains mention of the palliative properties of alcohol when it states, “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to the sorely depressed.  When they drink, they will forget their misery, and think no more of their burdens.”  (Anonymous, 684)

As with alcohol use, however, descriptions of abuse span history and are found in many world cultures.  A thirteenth century London visitor noted, “The town has only two curses, fire and drunken idiots …” (Sornia, et al., 15)  Similarly, the Chinese developed the aphorism, “First the man takes the glass, then the glass takes the glass, then the glass takes the man.” (Sornia, et al., 15).   Additionally, the Persians noted the physical toll of abuse and the French noted its role in social disturbance (Sornia, et al., 12, 15).  In short, alcohol abuse is a cross-cultural phenomenon which spans mainstream cultures throughout the world.

But while alcohol abuse within dominant cultures has been widespread, a common perception is that indigenous populations suffer a far greater negative impact from, and far greater inclination toward, alcohol misuse.  The abuse of alcohol has been noted as a “serious personal and social problem” among the Eskimo population of Alaska (Honigmann, 272).  Among the Inuit of circumpolar Canada and Greenland, it is seen as a major contributing factor in violence, suicide and other social pathology (Bjerregaard, 9).  Likewise, in Australia, it has been noted as “the greatest present threat to the Aboriginals of the Northern Territory …” (Parliament, 177).  And, in his treatise, “Alcohol and Ethnography: A Case of Problem Deflation?”, Robin Room decries alcoholism as an underreported plague affecting numerous tribal societies (Room, 177).

However, the debilitating effect of alcohol on the Native American Indian is perhaps by far the most familiar presentation of alcohol abuse by an indigenous people.  This depiction is noteworthy in that it presents several characteristics which are common to the majority of reporting on indigenous alcohol abuse.  The first characteristic is that the presentation of American Indian drinking found in early outsider historical reports was almost uniformly negative.  Secondly, during Christianization of the American Indian tribes, the fundamentalist preachers also presented alcohol abuse as a great societal ill.  Finally, the stereotype of the drunken tribesman was perpetuated through stereotypical literary presentation.  Indeed, one need look no further than the American Indian to discover trends in stereotypical indigenous reporting which are paralleled, with disturbing similarity, in manners of perceiving Sámi drinking and alcohol abuse.

As with the case of the American Indian, there exists a common perception that alcoholism is widespread among the Sámi and that the social effects of abuse are devastating.  Reports of such abuse can be found in some of the earliest literature regarding the Sámi.  As far back as the middle of the 16th century, alcohol is described as being well established among the Sámi.  By 1681, outsiders present accounts of Sámi ministers drinking to the point of unconsciousness (Kvist, 187).  Swedish clergy noted that drunkenness among the Sámi was common in the late 1700’s (Kvist, 192) and Joseph Acerbi, a traveler to the area in 1799, penned the following description of his Sámi porters:  “We had now to deal with a set of wretches who cared only for fermented liquors …” (Acerbi, 47).  By 1828, the Swedish government found alcohol to be such an issue among the Sámi that restrictions were sought for the Sami’s own protection (Kvist, 188).  Correspondingly, Sundt, a Norwegian chronicler, in 1859 noted the propensity of drinking problems in Finnmark was greater than elsewhere in the country, particularly among the Sámi (Larsen, 503).  Indeed, outsiders perpetuated a view of the Sámi as weak individuals incapable of handling their craving for alcohol – in 1869 the Swedish Temperance Society presented the belief that the Sámi had an “animal craving for alcohol” and the Swedish Medical Society, in 1880, declared that the Sámi love for alcohol was the cause of poverty as well as physical and moral degeneration (Kvist, 191).  Because of these factors, the late 19th century Sámi related legislation in Sweden was characterized by bans on alcohol within the region (Kvist, 189).  As evidenced through the prevalence and tenor of outsider historical accounts, alcohol abuse appeared epidemic in Sámi society.

But although the early historical reporting plays a role in the impression that the Sámi are a people imbued with significant alcohol problems, of equal impact on prevailing perceptions of rampant Sámi alcoholism is the role played by Læstadianism and its founder, Lars Levi Læstadius.  Læstadianism, a Lutheran pietistic movement, had a pervasive and enduring effect, both positive and negative, on the Sámi (Lehtola, 38).  Of significant importance to the movement was the fact that, while Christian in teaching, it was conducted through the use of the Sámi language and, accordingly, had great impact on the native population.  Formulated against a backdrop of perceived social and moral decline during the mid 1800’s, Laestadianism promoted soul cleansing and other fundamentalist beliefs (Lehtola, 38, 40).  Though there were strictures against most worldly vices, perhaps the most stringent were reserved for alcohol. 
And while these views regarding the ravage of alcohol on Sámi society may have a basis in fact, they are obviously also profoundly influenced by the personal background of Lars Levi Læstadius and his inner circle. Laestadius was the child of an alcoholic, as was the woman, Milla Clementsdotter, with whom he had his historic conversion (Cornell).  A principle disciple of the Læstadian movement, Anders Bær, was certainly influenced in his accounts and preaching by the drunkenness of his father (Lehtola, 39).  Likewise, Juhani Raattamaa was an alcoholic himself and another leader, Erkki Antti Juhonpieti, was, again, the son of an alcoholic (Cornell).  With such tortured family backgrounds, it is wholly predictable to find the vehement moralizing in the following Læstadian sermon:

“The drunkard’s favorite god is the visible flowing liquor, rum, or whatever his name may be, which we call the devil’s shit, for the devil teaches people to ruin God’s grain and to make it harmful to the body and soul.  The people who drink it become animals.  And what is the favorite god of the liquor merchant?  Why nothing other than that round liquor barrel, on which the liquor devil sits astride, as the heathen have painted him in their pictures.” (Weinstock)

In a similar manner, just as alcohol abuse was a common theme of Læstadius, the presentation of alcoholism as epidemic among the Sámi appears to be a common literary device, a prevalent thematic presentation serving to bolster the view that Sámi alcoholism is widespread. 

Ailo Gaup, a modern novelist, utilizes various characters to present problematic drinking throughout The Night between the Days.  Nils, a recurrent part of the story, is presented as an inherently flawed individual – a unpleasant man all but crippled by his chronic drinking.  In a like vein, alcohol is presented as being of central importance during the wedding celebrations between Nils and his new wife.  During the festivities, guests take entire bottles to consume by themselves and two characters, Aslak and Arne, spar about who the worse drinker is, an encounter which culminates in a nonchalant mention of having taken “the cure” as if it were a commonplace event (Gaup, 176-177). 

Similarly, in Frank Jenssen’s The Salt Bin, the character of the quarrelsome uncle, Aron, is presented as little more than a spectacle, dependent upon drink to the point that the highlight of his day is to perform in saloons, consuming the “beer that made him feel brave and smart.” (Jenssen, 65).

But perhaps the starkest portrayal of all is Laila Stien’s presentation of the father in her novella, Antiphony.  Unable to come to grips with the fact that his children will not follow his path in life, he becomes little more than a cipher, a mute ghost moving through the second portion of the piece.  A ruined man, content to spend time passed out, locked in his room, or hauled around like a piece of luggage, he is even unable, or unwilling, to confront the man who beats his daughter (Stien, 51-87).
In such a manner, the commonplace utilization of Sámi alcoholism as a literary metaphor for emasculated rage, impotent defeatism or simple maladjustment fuels widely held perceptions of abuse as epidemic among the Sámi.  However, as can be shown, such views do not appear to be supported.

Despite the early histories, impact of Laestadianism and use as a literary device, reporting of widespread alcoholism among the Sámi appears to be exaggerated and misconceived.  Examining the issue in 1993, Svein Larsen found that the Sámi, as an indigenous minority, would be expected to have higher rates of problem drinking, but that this wasn’t the case.  Instead he discovered that Sámi alcohol use “did not conform to the drinking behavior found in comparable minorities” and that no data existed to support the hypothesis that Sámi drinking was more pronounced than problem use among the Norwegian majority (Larsen, 501).

Likewise, Roger Kvist’s landmark study, “Nomadic Saami and Alcohol: Jokkmokk Parish, 1760-1910”, utilizes the novel approach of examining historical court records to determine that alcoholism among the Sámi was over-reported.  Kvist noted the paucity of Jokkmokk court cases involving alcohol during the extensive period between 1760 and 1910.  After reviewing the documentary evidence, Kvist found that, during the period between 1760 and 1860, only 35 people were sentenced for alcohol-related offences and, during the period between 1860 and 1910, only five nomadic Sámi were sentenced.   Given the prevailing view of the Sámi as hopeless drunkards, this absence of legal records is startling, and led Kvist to the inevitable conclusion that the Sámi were living a “considerably more sober life than the settled population …” (Kvist, 190-191) 

A more recent manner of study employed to shed light on Sámi alcohol use and/or abuse is that of obtaining and interpreting epidemiological data and, within this context, reports of widespread alcoholism appear unsupported as well.  A study tracing trends in Sámi mental health issues between 1970 and 1998 indicates that, while one would expect increased alcohol use due to stress engendered by forced acculturation, in fact Sámi were found to utilize alcohol less than their counterparts in the majority populations (Sliviken, et al., 707-708).   Correspondingly, a 1996 study of Sámi respondents in Finnmark reported less utilization of alcohol than their Norwegian counterparts (Larsen and Saglie).  Likewise, a study tracking adolescents in 1995 and 1998 found that Sámi youth had significantly lower drinking rates and higher rates of parental abstinence than their Norwegian and Kven peers (Spein, et al., 105, 107).  In fact, Sámi fathers were 12% less likely to drink and Sámi mothers were 22% less likely to drink then their Norweigian counterparts and, significantly, 92% of Sámi youth had never or only infrequently seen their parents intoxicated (Spein, et al., 110). Finally, Siv Kvernmo cites evidence from the North Norwegian Youth Study showing that there is “less alcohol use among indigenous Sami adolescents and their parents than among their non-indigenous counterparts.” (Kvernmo, 229)

But if the ethnographic and epidemiological studies are at variance with prevailing perception regarding epidemic alcohol abuse by the Sámi, how can the discrepancy be explained?  Several plausible theories come to mind.  The first is that, confronted with a little understood and vastly different culture, the early outside reporters were quick to construct an inferior “other,” which enabled the European majority to view, with a sense of superiority, the Sámi as dependent, debilitated and degenerate.  As Louis Owens notes, literary reporting, whether it be by outsiders or even indigenous writers, can all too often reinforce “… all of the stereotypes desired by white readers …   bleakly absurd and aimless Indians imploding in a passion of destructiveness and self-loathing …” (Owens, 79). 

Secondly, with respect to Læstadianism, one cannot discount the backgrounds of the principal characters who brought forth the view that Sámi alcohol abuse was both epidemic and a force of evil.  Indeed, it could be argued that, because many founding members shared the emotional havoc of being raised in an alcoholic home, the groundswell of Læstadianism was as much an Adult Children of Alcoholics reaction as it was a fundamental and native Christian movement; and that the nature of Læstadianism’s fierce piety, which demanded renunciation, repentance and conversion (Larsen, 504), was equally an effort to heal childhood wounds as it was a social commentary on the lives of the surrounding Sámi populace.
Thirdly, as presented by Spein, Sexton and Kvernmo: although there is less actual drinking among the Sámi than among their Norwegian and Kven counterparts, the fact that Sámi prefer to engage in public as opposed to solitary drinking contributes to the misconception of the drunken Sámi stereotype.  This misperception exists despite the absence of empirical support (Spein, et al., 113).  And, as Room notes, “The absence of a behavior is always harder to notice than its presence: abstention or near abstention as a private, unmarked behavior would be easily missed unless specifically looked for.” (Room, 172)
Finally, however, the chance of such Sámi abstention or moderate alcohol use being noted is lessened due to factors of cultural bias in ethnography.  In short, the stereotypes of problem indigenous drinking have taken firm hold and scientists studying alcohol use in tribal societies must make a conscious effort to ignore the preoccupation with the problem side of drinking.  Indeed, as the preeminent authority on indigenous alcohol use, Dwight Heath, notes, “… there is, in a very real sense, some bias towards finding problems when one is doing research on alcohol use.” (Heath, 158)

The common view of alcoholism as a rampant epidemic among the Sámi is both exaggerated and unfortunate.  Rather than being supported through serious scientific studies and the medical literature, such a view, upon examination, appears to be hollow and artificial.  Constructed from biased outsider accounts in the early histories, based upon the agenda of Lars Levi Læstadius and promulgated through the thematic presentation of the Sámi alcoholic as a literary device, the perception of the Sámi as yet another wounded indigenous people is a disservice.   The reinforcement of a common and negative stereotype serves only to minimize the regard paid to the Sámi people and to limit the benefit which the Sámi and their culture could have on the modern world.   



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Anonymous.  “Proverbs 31.”  The New American Bible. Catholic Ed.  New York:  Thomas Nelson, 1971.

Bjerregaard, P. “Ethno-cultural Adaptation of the Peoples of the Arctic Region.” AMAP Assessment 2003.  Human Health in the Arctic, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway 2003: 6-9.

Cornell, Viktor. Læstadianism and Its Role in the Loss of the Traditional Sámi Worldview. Online. Available from the University of Texas, Sami Web Accessed 15 February 2007.

Gaup, Ailo, The Night between the Days. Translated by John Weinstock.  2001.

Heath, Dwight B. “Historical and Cultural Factors Affecting Alcohol Availability and Consumption in Latin America.” in Legislative Approaches to Prevention of Alcohol-Related Problems: An Inter-American Workshop.  Washington, D.C.: Institute of Medicine, National Academy Press, 1982: 128-160.

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