Beyond the Northern Lights: Stepping Into Finland’s Evolving Sámi Culture

For many, the thought of Finnish Lapland conjures images of reindeer and ancient traditions, but Europe’s oldest living indigenous culture is far from frozen in time.

Beyond the Northern Lights: Stepping Into Finland’s Evolving Sámi Culture

Reindeer herding may be an ancient tradition among the Sámi of Northern Lapland, but the practice today is much more modern than most imagine.

Courtesy of Inari-Saariselkä Tourism Ltd

At midnight on June 26, 2019, during the height of summer in Finnish Lapland, hundreds of reindeer clustered together on the grassy tundra as the sun blazed high overhead. Until that night, the combined herds had been scattered, grazing on lichen throughout the forests of Lemmenjoki in Finland’s far north. But once a year, their Sámi owners round up the reindeer to track how many have disappeared and how many fawns were born in the spring. This tradition, like many of the visible elements of Sámi culture, seems ancient, but really there are new, modern elements in the details.

“When we herd the reindeer, today we can use ATVs, airplanes, and even drones,” says Aslak Paltto, reindeer herder and journalist. “Drones are great tools for herding because they sound a little like the mosquitoes that reindeer hate, so they run from the flying machines.”

Most visitors to this region first encounter the Sámi through the reindeer connection. Inhabiting Sápmi—a homeland spread across the northern reaches of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and a corner of Russia—the different cultural groups of indigenous Sámi number about 75,000 together, and their traditional livelihoods are fishing, gathering, handicrafts, hunting, and reindeer herding. Visiting farms to feed the animals and learn about reindeer husbandry is high on tourist checklists, as is seeking out traditional music and felt craft. But these familiar versions of Sámi culture, neatly packaged for tourist consumption, are often incomplete. In the 21st century, the Sámi are meeting the modern world head on, and there are a variety of opportunities for travelers to experience this evolving culture.


The Duodji Shop at the Sámi Culture Centre Sajos offers travelers a comprehensive look at traditional Sámi handicraft.

Courtesy of Lapland Material Bank, Sámi Culture Centre Sajos

Reclaiming a heritage

Following a cultural reawakening that began in the 1960s, interest in traditional music, craft, and the language itself has increased rapidly within the Sámi community. Of the nine living Sámi languages, three are spoken in Finland: Inari Sámi, Skolt Sámi, and Northern Sámi, and Finland’s “language nest” immersion groups—inspired by those implemented in New Zealand in the 1980s for children with Maori roots—now teach preschool-aged children to speak their ancestral languages.

“My daughter, Siiri, is in an Inari Sámi class,” says Anne Karhu-Angeli, who hosts visitors at Angeli Reindeer Farm in the village of Inari in the far northern part of Finnish Lapland. “The language nest was introduced here in 1997, so those children are having children and Inari Sámi has become their first language.” Older generations too are learning the language, since their kids have become fluent.


The Sámi Culture Centre Sajos is located in Inari, one of the main destinations for travelers to Finnish Lapland.

Courtesy of Inari-Saariselkä Tourism Ltd

This growing pride in their heritage has allowed the Sámi to take ownership of how they share the details of their traditions and modern life with outsiders. Outfitters like 50 Degrees North and Sámi-owned Paltto Adventures offer a deeper way to experience and understand Sámi culture today, whether it’s an overnight in an original Sámi log cabin or a river boat excursion that incorporates stories of the realities of reindeer herding. On a larger scale, the Finnish Sámi Parliament established ethical guidelines for responsible tourism that’s socially, culturally, ecologically, and economically sustainable and that represent the Sámi point of view, giving travelers to Finnish Lapland greater insight into the culture.

Remixing tradition

Travelers often experience joik—a chanting song and one of Europe’s oldest song traditions— briefly, as part of a visit to a reindeer farm. But this ancient practice too is getting new life thanks to young Sámi musicians. Their innovative interpretations delicately blend the old vocal tradition with contemporary genres like pop, jazz, and electronica. The Norwegian Sámi group KEiiNO, for example, combined pop, joik, dance, and electronica to end up sixth representing Norway in the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest. Joik was even included in the opening track of Disney’s Frozen.


Mari Boine was one of the headlining performers at the 2019 Ijahis idja festival and is known for combining jazz and rock sounds with joik music.

Photo by Ville Fofonoff

At the Ijahis idja (“nightless night”) festival, held every August in Inari, attendees can get a sense of how alive and versatile the old traditions remain. A product of the Sámi Music Center within the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos, it’s the only music festival in the country that concentrates on Sámi music and features popular artists like Mari Boine, ISÁK, Sančuari, and Niko Valkeapää.

The Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos is also one of the best places to get a look at authentic duodji (traditional Sámi handicrafts) in the Duodji Shop. The different language and cultural groups of the Sámi people have their own duodji traditions, and decoration and ornament styles vary across the forms of handicraft, which include textiles and beadwork, silver jewelry, and items made of leather, wood, roots, birch bark, bone, and horns.

While duodji designs have been passed down through the generations, like joik, Sámi artists are making the style their own, too. In her Lemmenjoki atelier and studio, Kaija Paltto practices the old artform of felt making using fine, curly, high-quality Finnish sheep wool. She started creating vests and wall hangings but has expanded her work to include beautiful scarves, hats, and bags. She has showcased her work in exhibitions around the world, and at her studio, she offers workshops in which she teaches visitors felting history and helps them try their hand at the craft.

And for a taste of Sámi food traditions, travelers can stop at Restaurant Aanaar in Inari’s Kultahovi Hotel on the banks of the Juutua River. Here, chef Heikki Nikula works with local ingredients like reindeer, whitefish, cloudberries, chaga, angelica, birch leaves, and sweet grass in both traditional dishes and those with a modern spin.


Kaija Paltto creates felted wall hangings, scarves, and bags at her Lemmenjoki studio.

Photo by Aslak Paltto

Back out on the tundra, the reindeer trotted under the midnight sun while their Sámi companions worked together to mark the animals’ ears with a pattern unique to each owner. Even this ancient tracking method has moved into the modern age with a digital document. “If I find someone’s reindeer and I lasso it, I can look up its owner, who can come and get it,” says Karhu-Angeli. And another timeless tradition: “They bring me beer in exchange.”

In addition to the experiences mentioned above, be sure to visit the exhibits at the Siida museum, as well as Ä’vv Skolt Sámi Museum and the Skolt Sámi Heritage House for an extensive look at both ancient and modern Sámi life.

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Jill K. Robinson writes about travel and adventure for AFAR, National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Outside, Sierra, and more. She has won Lowell Thomas, Society of American Travel Writers, and American Society of Journalists and Authors awards for her work.
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