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Experiential Knowledge vs. Book/Classroom Knowledge

By Sikka (Filippa Solomon)

From generation to generation the knowledge of language, religion, skills and survival methods has been passed on in the Sami culture. In describing the Sami ideas about knowledge, it is important to include the fact that they put a lot of importance on utility and things that were important on a day-to-day basis. Unlike the formal education in the West, classroom/book learning, which is theoretical, the Sami taught their young through experience. This type of learning is hands-on and very different than formal learning. Written documentation is a relatively new thing to the Sami. For millennia, the traditional knowledge was passed down orally. Storytelling and informal discussions are two examples of how knowledge was passed down. Unlike Western learning, which is primarily theoretical and taught in a classroom or learned from books, the Sami taught empirically, through experiential learning. The young student would join an older person, usually a parent, in doing different tasks. They would observe the older person, listen to what they were saying, ask questions and then proceed to try their own hand. These tasks could include anything from fishing and hunting ptarmigan, to picking cloudberries and sewing a gakti. In the arctic tundra and along the coast where the Sami lived, life was difficult and survival was of the utmost importance. Therefore, the traditional knowledge that was passed down from parent to child was primarily a series of recipes for survival. Young people learned from the life experience of older people who had in turn learned their knowledge from the generations that came before them. Observations were also an integral part of the Sami’s experiential learning. It was important for the young person to observe things for himself and to learn to think for himself. This fits in with the model, as the knowledge that was being passed down to the student was based on thousands of years of observation. The Sami’s close ties to nature were prevalent in every aspect of life. Their spirituality was based on a respect for everything found in nature, believing that everything had a spirit. Being one with nature also meant that they had no desire to destroy it. Instead they wished to live on earth and die without leaving a trace. The Sami’s livelihoods depended on gleaning the necessary resources from nature in order to live.  In the old days they were a hunting and gathering people. In the 1600’s, the Sami in the tundra became reindeer herders. The knowledge needed to perpetuate this way of living would be difficult to learn if one wasn’t actually present to experience how it is done. While the western system of classroom/book learning leans on theoretical learning methods and places a value on how you fulfill the expectations put on you, the Sami way of learning is more of a truth, one that is tested on a day-to-day basis.

            When talking about Sami knowledge, it is first important to look at the essential nature of the language. Communication is survival. For instance, in Sapmi, language would be necessary in order to tell someone how not to freeze to death. Since the language deals with survival, most of the words are life affirming, which goes along with the ideas the Sami have about nature. Even the words possess spirits. The language is also usage-oriented. For example there are a multitude of words for such things as snow, reindeer, and landscapes, but there is only one word for something like a songbird, which is not as relevant to them in day-to-day life. The Sami view of aesthetics further illustrates this point. A Sami person would choose a field of lichen as being more beautiful than a field of flowers because a field of lichen would lend itself to being an ideal grazing ground for reindeer, while a field of flowers serves no useful purpose. Similarly, a female who is bigger and has more meat on her bones would be considered more desirable than a thinner female. The more robust woman would be able to better tolerate the cold.

            In one Sami word, you can express a detailed account of the weather conditions outside. An example of this would be the word joavgga, which means a deep snow, which lies undisturbed, that which is in shelter from the wind and doesn’t get blown away. Suffixes can be added to a root word to completely change the meaning of the word. For this reason, Sami is a very difficult language to learn. The Sami language is also very rich in description. Since much of the language embodies aspects of nature and the surrounding environment, it would be difficult merely to learn Sami in a classroom environment. Due to the language’s rich nature, it is better to learn it through use, experiencing the word through all the senses, as one does when learning a mother tongue. Similar to Sami, the words that are most important to be able to communicate when learning a mother tongue are words dealing with survival. Thirst, hunger, and pain are three examples of feelings experienced that are important to be able to communicate. As for the vocabulary dealing with the environment, it may be necessary to actually be in Sapmi to experience it. For example, while out on a trip hunting, the teacher could point to the ground ahead and say, “lavki” and demonstrate that lavki means that the ground ahead is slippery and to be careful because it’s difficult to get a good foothold. In this way the language is learned. As the student connects observations and experiences, the knowledge is verbalized, systemized, and committed to memory.

            Storytelling was a valuable way to transmit knowledge. The Western world for the most part has devalued storytelling, belittling it to fantasy or useless old wives’ tales. When storytelling, Sami parents or grandparents would be teaching the young person concepts while at the same time interweaving their own personal life experience into the story. Ethics and morals were also passed along in this way.

            When a skill is being taught, technical terms are used. In this way, the professional lingo is passed on to the student. The words and skills are linked. A similar idea to this in the West is when a person is apprenticing to learn a trade. For example, if a person were apprenticing to become a welder, they would learn about the tools and how to properly use them. They would learn the tricks of the trade from the more experienced craftsman and also pick up technical vocabulary along the way. This method of learning is very similar to the Sami way of learning and is one of the only places where the Western learning methods cross paths with the Sami methods. In The Salt Bin, Agnar ventures out on a fishing expedition with his uncle. His uncle promises to teach Agnar to fish in the big seas, where he has never fished before and hasn’t the knowledge of how to maneuver the large nets.

            In Sapmi, since the young student is out all the time, learning words and experiencing different things, they are able later to partake in the household discussions and to articulate their observations and opinions. Having this knowledge and being able to correctly articulate it, makes the opinions of young people valuable in conversation. Through conversing in these informal discussions, the young person is also improving their own vocabulary and terminology. Since learning the language entails such a deep understanding of it, it is considered to be an important part of the cultural identity of the Sami.

            In the 19th century when kids were taken away from their parents in order to be sent to boarding schools, an important part of their cultural identity was taken away from them. They were not allowed to speak Sami and were often punished if they disobeyed. Often teachers didn’t speak Sami and considered it to be dirty. The ridicule the Sami received about their speech made it seem disgraceful and many were ashamed of their language. In this atmosphere, even other Sami made fun of each other for their inabilities to learn the foreign language. This act of assimilation caused many Sami to lose their mother language altogether. While some were ashamed of their mother tongue, others reveled in the fact that they could speak in Sami to each other and not have the others know what they were saying.

            There has recently been a resurgence in Sami culture where more and more young people have the desire to again speak Sami. If people continue to speak Sami, the language will not die out. However for those whose first language is now Norwegian or Finnish, it will be difficult and will require a Sami teacher and most likely some experiential learning.    

            The Sami’s oneness with nature also plays a huge part in their traditional knowledge. Their spirituality started as animism where everything in nature has a spirit and is respected. Certain stones were picked out as sieidi, stones that had a powerful spirit and were considered to be sacred. When an animal was killed for food, every part of its body was used and nothing was wasted. Even though it was accepted that one life form must die in order for another to live, the Sami would still have a ceremony after the killing, out of reverence for the animal’s spirit. Animals were killed out of necessity as opposed to the West, where animals are exploited and parts of animals are wasted.

The old Sami religion was polytheistic, with gods taking the forms of things in nature like the sun, moon, water, and animals. This is in direct contrast to Christianity’s monotheistic beliefs. Unlike the western world, which feels that because of their intellect they are superior to other things in nature and can therefore destroy what they like, the Sami feel a oneness with nature and therefore would be reluctant to do anything to disturb the balance. They didn’t even disturb the earth by burying their dead. Rather, they feel that the earth has been lent to them for a short period of time and they would prefer to live peacefully on the earth, die, and leave no trace that they had ever been there. Unlike the mentality of Westerners who want to live forever and be memorialized after death, the Sami have had these life/death cycle ideas for thousands of years. The idea of ‘no beginning, no end’ enters the picture here because the Sami don’t feel like they are gone when they die. There is an afterworld called Saivo where the Sami go when they die. Saivo is much like life on earth, but better. There are large healthy reindeer herds and abundant cloudberry patches in Saivo. The vision of this afterworld is very different than Christianity’s ideas of heaven and hell.

In addition to the humane treatment of animals, the Sami were also very humanitarian to each other. In Pathfinder, they talk about the air forming bonds between people. The Sami were peaceful and had a connectedness between them. Several families would live together in a siida. The lavvu or portable tepee can be thought of as the Sami University because it is here that many things take place and where much is learned. Children watched while adults did daily tasks, listened to stories and took part in conversations. Also, it was common for relatives or other members of the siida to take on the role of teacher to the young, particularly if there was something that they excelled in.

            Only the most critical knowledge was important to the Sami. They may not know every detail about a certain subject, but they do take into account the behavior that will be important to their livelihood. In Western classroom learning, a vast array of information is learned. This information is not directly imperative to their livelihoods, but is more a prescribed formula for what the board of education thinks students should learn, in order to be on par with everyone else. Everybody is learning the same set curricula. In elementary school, the basic subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic are learned which further enables a student to go on to learning such subjects as history, science, literature, and geometry in secondary school. An extraneous amount of knowledge is learned in class. Students must complete tedious homework assignments and study hard in order to do well on tests. Some of the concepts that are learned are preparatory concepts for learning more advanced subjects, as a high level of education is valued. But with all that information that is packed in and then not ever used on a day-to-day basis, much is forgotten. A student that excels in the classroom may have a high intellect, but may not have many survival skills. The Sami have survival skills and livelihood techniques that have been passed down to them for thousands of years. Hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding are all forms of livelihoods that are learned through experiential methods.

            Observation is also a big part of learning in the Sami culture. At an early age, the Sami are encouraged to observe things for themselves and think on their own behalf, as well as learning things from their elders. Instinct and intuition are also assets that are considered valuable. Their spirituality and ties with nature probably heighten these senses. In the western world, people are taught not to trust their gut feelings. They are taught that it is better to think rationally and logically and rely on the ideas that they have learned in books. Rather than feeling that what is going on inside has importance, people are taught that all the rules that are enforced on us have more clout. Unfortunately, rules are often made by a select few people who are abusing their power in order to suppress peoples’ thoughts and feelings. Rather than to think for yourself, it is better in the West to conform and act like a herd of sheep. The increased intellectual knowledge often corresponds with depleted common sense. The lack of a strong relationship with nature has probably lessened the natural instinctual nature that humans are born with. Also the stress on intellectual knowledge has made us seem to be more separate from what we really are, just another animal. Also, the lack of spirituality or the following of strict organized religion has lessened the value of intuition. Paying attention to one’s intuition in the West would be considered superstitious or hocus pocus, since ‘rational logic’ tells us that it has no value. In the Sami culture, if one has an intuitive dream or a vision, it is probable that it will be taken into consideration, as any other piece of information learned would be. Perhaps this stems from the old religion, where noaidis went into shamanistic trances and could use the sacred drum to travel between worlds to observe other truths. It was even possible to communicate with those who had passed on, who were thought to be living in Saivo. Since these types of shamanistic journeys were known to the Sami, they were quite open-minded about things. They thought that anything was possible, while Westerners in comparison are quite close-minded.

            The Sami had ties to their ancestors, often feeling that their ancestors were a part of them, who they were, and that their ancient knowledge was a part of their own knowledge. There were also feelings among the Sami of genetic memory, where they felt like they possessed knowledge of something that they had never experienced or been told about. In the Western world, ancestral ties are often unknown or severed. With modern transportation, one can easily move to other countries and through things like name changes, ties can be easily lost.

            Since the young Sami were in constant contact with family members, familial ties were strong. Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all teachers and also people to converse with. Siblings were companions since they spent a lot of time together. A cloudberry trip for example would perhaps entail a father taking the kids out for a few days in the swamps. In The Cloudberry Trip by Jovnna-Ánde Vest, the father does just that. Once he is out of the house, he becomes jovial and talkative to the children. This behavior is unlike his usual sullen behavior at home. Throughout the expedition, he tells them an exciting story that his kids can’t get enough of. In the West, it is common for a person to separate from their family as soon as they are possibly able to make it on their own. In the Western school system, children start attending school around the age of four (if they go to nursery school, even earlier) and legally must attend school until around the age of sixteen. This is a minimum of 12 years where five days a week, the child is in a classroom environment for approximately 6-8 hours a day. Parents, needing to support their families, often work a typical 40 hour-a-week (or more) full-time job. This means that they spend a significant amount of time at work, away from the home. Often when a child gets home from school, the parents are still at work. Parents and children often can only share a few hours a day together. And after the stress and exhaustion of school and work, there is no guarantee that it will be quality time. Oftentimes daycares or babysitters are employed to care for the child. Usually these caretakers are of no relation and are essentially strangers. The television has also become a convenient babysitter.

            In Western culture, the nuclear family is most common. Because of modern technology and the commonness of moving long distances, away from the rest of the family, it’s common for extended families to see each other only a few times a year, if that. Ageism, incidentally also devaluing children’s opinions, devalues the elderly. Since elderly people are often considered burdensome, it is rare to see three generations in one household. Instead, the elderly are often sent to live in old folks’ homes, where the setting ranges from decent to very unhealthy in terms of living/social conditions. In the Sami culture, the elderly were highly respected and revered for their years of experience and vast knowledge. They lived with their children and their grandchildren and were very important in regards to the transmission of knowledge. They were often great storytellers, intertwining their own life experiences into their stories. Since they had lived for so many years, they could also tell the children about things from their childhood and about their parents and grandparents, thereby educating the children about history and giving them a sense of who their ancestors were as well. Also, with an extended family living together, there is more love given and children are less likely to have emotional problems. In a Western classroom where a child spends much of his day, there are often 20 students to one teacher. It would be almost impossible for the teacher to give each student any significant one-on-one time. Troubled children often slip through the cracks in school systems.

            The Sami didn’t believe in private property. They didn’t own the earth; therefore, they couldn’t own pieces of land. Land was used collectively. For example, an ideal spot for reindeer grazing would be shared by everybody’s reindeer. In the West, materialism runs rampant. People strive to own private property. For example, the “American Dream” includes owning your own house and your own car. These ideas of individualism lead to a lack of community and a lack of trust. An example would be the concept of trespassing. In Sapmi, it is common to just show up at a siida and be taken in by the people there.

            The Sami’s systems of direction and time are also different from the West’s. In the West, there are four directions: North, East, South, and West, with North and South corresponding to where the two Poles are. In Sapmi, the directions are completely different. North corresponds to the coastal regions and East is nuorta. The Sami concept of time is based on cycles. With the changes of season, things are done. Migration of reindeer, mating times, and the picking of cloudberries are all dependent on the time of the year. There are no finite units of time, such as weeks, months, or years. Things are done whenever it feels right to do them. For this reason, it would seem to an outsider that a Sami person is often late and therefore unreliable. In actuality, the Sami person is just doing things according to a more natural clock. The West’s linear version of time lends itself to the calendar, with weeks, months, and years. Furthermore the day can be separated into hours, minutes, and seconds. There are certain times of day when things are supposed to get done and things are often rushed. In Boarding School by Ellen Marie Vars, it mentions the fact that the children were supposed to eat at certain times of the day, even if they weren’t hungry. Between mealtimes, if a child were hungry, there was no food to be had. For Katja, the main character, a Sami girl, this seemed very unnatural.

            The yoik is an important part of the Sami culture. It is a type of music that is sometimes similar to poetry. Many of the traditional yoiks were just sounds, not words. The yoik is often given to others, whether it be a person, animal, or place. They are used to express feelings of joy, sorrow, anger, etc…and they are often started and finished spontaneously, thus not having a definite beginning or end. Traditionally, it was usually only vocal, with one or more people yoiking. The typical Western style of music follows a pattern with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Most songs are comprised of a singer, who sings words, and then one or more instruments accompanying them. The more modern yoiks by such artists as Mari Boine do contain lyrics, and a message. Issues such as the environment and the oppression of the Sami are vocalized in her music. Also, instruments and sound effects have been incorporated into modern yoiks. When going into a trance, the noiadi would yoik. At the time of missionaries and Christian oppression, the noiadis were burned, sacred drums were destroyed, and the yoik was forbidden as Christians believed them to be Satanic chants.

            Assimilation was another of the many difficult obstacles that the Sami had to suffer through and struggle to overcome. Denmark-Norway, Sweden-Finland and Russia all exploited the Sami by imposing unfair taxes on them. Then they formed boundaries between the nations that were impassible. The Sami way of life, being migratory during different seasons, was disturbed by this change. For hundreds of years, the reindeer herds had traveled between regions in order to get to ideal grazing and birthing spots. With this unexpected change, the Sami feared the threat of starvation. Efforts to make the Sami citizens of these countries were made. Norway was especially harsh in trying to assimilate the Sami into their own culture. One technique of forcing people to become citizens was to offer them government welfare.

            Boarding school was another way to assimilate the Sami. Young children were plucked from their families in order to start them in the Norwegianization process early. Speaking the Sami language was forbidden and often children were disciplined with a beating if they disobeyed. They were forced to speak only Norwegian, which at first, of course, they could not speak or understand. When they did learn to speak it, out of the need to communicate, at least during class, they were ridiculed because they could not pronounce certain letters and certain sounds. Even other Sami ridiculed each other. In Boarding School, Katja was ridiculed by other Sami kids because her family had not owned reindeer. She was even said to not be a real Sami, just poor trash. An environment like this, with its strict schedule, unfamiliar language and food, uncaring teachers, and constant fear of being ridiculed or beaten up, makes for a strong feeling of isolation. A loss of cultural identity is the outcome, developing from feelings of shame about one’s background and identity, and feelings of low self-worth. In Katja’s case, she resisted the assimilation, but as a result of the conditions at school, she became very bitter and violent herself. In self-defense, she became a fighter and others were intimidated by her. Teachers saw that she had become hardened, but they did not care enough to interfere. The boarding school experiences of many Sami were similar to Katja’s. The pain and shame from boarding schools left deep scars in many of the Sami.

            Children were sent to boarding schools until about the 1960’s. Since then, schools have been developed that teach in Sami. Many young people now speak both Sami and Norwegian. Biculturalism seems like the only real solution to the dilemma of the modern Sami lifestyle. In order to be able to live in the modern world, it seems that one must take part in Western systems. Money is now necessary in order to survive. In the old days, the Sami were primarily self-sufficient, trading with foreigners for resources that were unavailable in Sapmi. With the spread of technology, things like electricity and motorized vehicles were introduced to the Sami. Along with this technology comes the need to supply the resources that are necessary to generate the power. So natural resources must be exploited on a much larger level. Many Sami embrace new technology, believing that, by incorporating technology into their lives, they are getting the best of two worlds. For example the multimedia artist, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, encourages incorporating modern technology into daily life, believing that a culture must either evolve or die out.

            The Sami struggle in modern times in trying to break through all the red tape. Bureaucracies make it difficult for the Sami to get the rights that they deserve, being that they are indigenous to the area and were there long before the nations formed. Issues such as protecting the environment and letting only Sami use certain water and land that they have depended on for food and not depleted for thousands of years are at the forefront. Sami schools and other Sami institutions now promote a strong sense of Sami identity. There are classes on the Sami language, in how to make duodji, and about the history of the Sami. It is difficult demanding rights in such a country as Norway, where many Sami are collecting welfare from the government. Being given welfare is almost worse than not getting anything because it makes the government seem caring and helpful, when really there is still a lot of underlying racism towards the Sami. Doling out welfare also gives the government the upper hand.

            The Sami are politically active when it comes to issues of the environment. Their protests against the damming of the Alta River is what first gave them the publicity it took to become a known politically active group. Since then, they have spoken out on their views in regard to respecting nature and protecting the environment and they have gained a voice. Relying on knowledge of survival methods for thousands of years means that the Sami would have a good idea of how to survive if suddenly there was a colder world climate. Environmental disasters that deal with modern technology, they would not be able to solve, however, being that they do not have knowledge in dealing with chemicals and such. One of the many injustices through which the Sami have suffered, was the devastating effects from Chernobyl. The reindeer meat in Southern Sapmi was found to be contaminated, so thousands upon thousands of reindeer had to be slaughtered. The Sami again faced the threat of starvation.

            In addition to speaking out about the environment, the Sami have also joined forces with other indigenous groups all over the world. They are an important influence and inspiration to such groups as the Native American Indians because through it all, the Sami have had many successes, especially compared to other indigenous cultures.  The Sami speak out against racism, having had experienced so much of it, even though they are primarily light-skinned. They also speak about feminism. With the advent of Christianity, suddenly women were not revered as they once had been because Christianity considers the woman to be weak and inferior to her male counterpart. In many cases, especially because of the increase in alcoholism (a substance that was introduced to the Sami)in men, women are holding households together by themselves. Women have always played a strong role in the family and still do today.

            As the environment gets more and more damaged and resources are being depleted, it is hoped that the powerful nations of the world will start listening to the wisdom of indigenous groups. Over the past century alone, industrial countries such as the U.S. and those in Europe have irreversibly depleted much of the earth’s resources. As resources run out and the effects of such negligent behavior becomes apparent, it is hoped that Western countries will turn to the knowledge like the Sami have, to find alternative ways of living. Respecting nature and everything in it, including people, would be a nice change from the rat race that life has become in the West. In the U.S., for example, many people go to college for the main goal of getting a high-paying job. Money is what is valued in this society because it is money that buys things, and material wealth is equated with happiness. People care more about personal gain than they do about the environment or each other. Otherwise, how could one explain the disparity between all the homeless people in one of the wealthiest nations? Corporations are a huge factor in the Western demise. With no regards to nature, they pollute the air, water, and land, just to make a profit. They exploit people in other countries for the same reason, to make a profit. The connectedness between people is not there. Otherwise, how can one explain sweatshop conditions were people work for almost nothing in unsanitary, unsafe workplaces, just so Americans and Europeans can wear designer clothing and big corporations can get even richer? Also, if the Sami can survive through all the horrible obstacles that other people have put on them, and still maintain their peacefulness, it seems that logically countries should be able to refrain form going to war with each other over something like oil.

                        As Western ways seep into such indigenous cultures as the Sami, concepts such as capitalism, materialism, private property, and individualism are sure to follow. It’s now necessary to have money in Sapmi and most people have become accustomed to the convenience of electricity and motorized vehicles. The present day Sami, especially the youth, seem to be developing footing in both Sami identity and modern Western identity. Hopefully, with their version of biculturalism, they will be able to maintain this compromise with a strong Sami identity and also be able to share their views and knowledge with the rest of the world.


1) Gaski, Harald. In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun: Contemporary Sami Prose and Poetry. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997.

2) Gaski, Harald. Sami Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sami Experience. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997.

3) Helander, Elina and Kaarina Kailo. No Beginning, No End: The Sami Speak Up  Canadian Circumpolar Institute, 1998.

4) Jenssen, Frank A. The Salt Bin, 1981.

5) Stien, Laila. Antiphony, 1997.