The Sami: a people that are, in a land that is not

11 January 2021

I long for the land which is not,
For all that is, I am tired of wanting.

Edith Södergran

These lines of poetry appear in the film Sami Blood (2016) by Amanda Kernell, a story set in Sweden in the 1930s, where racism and prejudice towards the Sami people is widespread.

Who are the Sami?

A lot of people have never heard of the Sami, so let’s start with the basics. The Sami (sámit or sápmelaš in their own languages) are an indigenous people with a population of between 80,000-100,000 spread across the northern part of Scandinavia, from the Kola peninsula (Russia) to central Norway, including the northern regions of Finland and Sweden. They have their own history, language, culture, professions, lifestyle and identity.

The Sami were probably the first inhabitants of Scandinavia. They do not have Germanic roots; they were nomads, herders, fishers and sometimes hunters. Survival was dependent on their herds of reindeer, and they practiced a form of shamanism.

In the film we often hear the word lapponi used to describe them, a term of unclear origin but likely offensive, in that it may derive from the Swedish lap, meaning “patch”, or else lape, which means “periphery” in Finnish.

The term sápmi, which is widely preferred by the indigenous people themselves, derives from *žēmē, meaning “land”. 

A historic collaboration

Slow Food has worked for many years in collaboration with the Sami, above all in Sweden. Two of the main projects we’ve built together are the Presidia for Reindeer Gurpi and Reindeer Suovas, with the involvement of the herders and producers.

“It’s the most sustainable meat in Europe,” they tell me. Reindeer meat is both lean and tender, a quality that derives from the diets of the reindeer and the environment they live in. It’s only around 1% fat, and it has notably intense aroma. At the same time, its flavor is delicate and tasty, with hints of sweetness. It’s a perfect meat for a hypercaloric diet or those who practice a lot of sport. It’s also highly digestible.

The meat of the marvelous Nordic reindeer can be eaten both fresh, dried or smoked. It may be prepared as a fillet steak or a grilled sirloin, adding condiments that exalt its flavor like fresh cream, mushrooms, butter, thyme, salt, pepper and leeks, grated carrot, celery, turnips or mashed potatoes. Nothing is wasted: nearly all the interior organs can be eaten, and some of them form the basis of traditional recipes. The heart, for example, is best when dried and cut into strips.

Why is it the most sustainable meat in Europe?

The reindeer live freely in the forest, feeding mostly on lichen, berries and mushrooms. They are not given any antibiotics, as they live in their natural environment and almost never need any veterinary assistance. They were once slaughtered directly in the forest too, but today there are small slaughterhouses that follow EU regulations. The slaughter takes place in the autumn, from the end of October to December, when they are not in their reproductive period and thus their meat is of better quality. The meat is smoked on an open fire inside a lavvu or kota (the traditional mobile, conical tents of the Sami people).

Raising reindeer in a wild environment is important with regards to their slaughter too. The Sami herders build wide fences in the forest, creating areas with a perimeter of several kilometers. Once the reindeer are herded inside the fenced-off area, they choose which animals are ready for slaughter and put them in slightly smaller fenced-off areas, but still large enough for the animals to find enough fresh food as is normally available to them in the forest. This system of managed areas brings the animals step by step closer to the slaughterhouse, minimizing stress as they do not need to be captured or transported.

This lack of stress in the reindeer’s life contributes to the tenderness of their meat. The Sami butchers give thanks to each animal before slaughtering them, as tradition dictates.

Discovering these products means finding a land which is not, as the poem goes, but which has existed through the centuries, with its traditions, its language, its sense of community, long before the Vikings and other Europeans arrived.

by Michela Lenta,

The Sami Presidia of Reindeer Gurpi and Suovas are featured in the virtual showcase of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto. In the Schengen Area only, you can even buy some of these products in our online marketplace.