The Sami are an obscure group of semi-nomadic people that come from the far reaches of northern Europe. So if you have stories about Scandinavian immigrant relatives in your family then you might have Sami heritage. But the Sami line isn’t an easy one to follow, so where do you start when it comes to tracing your Sami background?
To find out if you have Sami heritage, use traditional genealogy resources such as local records to find proof of a family link back to Scandinavian records of families with known Sami heritage. A DNA test can also help discover a familial Sami heritage.
If you have a sneaking suspicion that you might have a Sami background we can tell you exactly how to investigate it. Let’s take a look at all the things you need to know about finding your Sami heritage below.
But first, we need to go over some important background information, otherwise, it’ll be next to impossible to find your Sami ancestors.
Who Are the Sami People?
The Sami are native to the Scandinavian regions of Norway, Finland, Sweden and parts of western Russia. This area is traditionally known as Sapmi to the Sami people. But because they’re nomadic, the Sami don’t recognise land ownership.
The Sami are one of the oldest inhabitants of Europe and they have several Finno-Ugric languages. Traditionally, they inhabited tents called Lavvu. And they lived and worked closely with nature.
The Sami are famous for their reindeer herding skills. However, you’ll also find Sami that specializes in fishing, called the Sea Sami, and ones who specialize in hunting called the Mountain Sami.
But there aren’t many Sami still practicing these traditions today. A lot of them have now integrated into non-nomadic, European lifestyles.
The History of the Sami (the short version)
After the ice age, around 7000 years ago, there was a mass migration of people into Scandinavia. Some of these tribes came from Siberia. And researchers believe that this is where the story of the Sami began.
Over time, the Sami people became well established in the area. This is due to the fact that they were skilled and successful reindeer hunters. But the Sami went from hunting reindeer to herding them, and the reindeer became an integral part of the Sami way of life.
For centuries, the Sami continued to live a traditional lifestyle while their lands gradually became colonized around them. These lands eventually became the Nordic countries that we know today as Sweden, Norway, and Finland.
In 1350, the Black Death swept across Europe. And this wiped out up to 80 percent of the Nordic population. But because the Sami lived almost segregated from European societies, they were hardly affected by the plague.
Thus the Sami were invited to accommodate the many abandoned farms of Scandinavia. And with their skills, they helped these countries to rebuild their economies.
Persecution of the Sami
But despite this, the Sami were heavily persecuted by Christians and their sovereignties. Their cultural practices and their languages were banned in many places.
This went on for 500 years, with the 18th and 19th centuries being particularly severe for the Sami. They were ostracised. And the people from the Scandinavian countries considered the Sami to be primitive.
So in the face of this persecution, after the 1800s, many Sami had almost completely dispersed into Scandanavian society.
Is Sami European?
According to research, the Sami are European. Even though they’re genetically different from most modern-day Europeans, they’re thought to come from an ancient subset of Europeans.
What also makes the Sami unique as Europeans, is that they have a small proportion of Asian DNA. Genetically speaking, the Sami are approximately 80 to 90 percent European and 10 to 20 percent Asian.
Is There a Sami Gene?
Because the Sami are an ancient race of people who’ve maintained small populations, they have very specific genes. And the Sami gene is quite easy to identify.
Genetically, the Sami are more closely related to the Finns and Eastern Europeans than the Swedes and Norwegians. This is because, in the past, the Sami lived much further south into Finland.
What Nationality is Sami?
The Sami are nomadic, so technically they don’t have a nationality. Their territory, Sampi, is spread across four different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula of Russia.
The Sami aren’t linked by nationality. Instead, they identify with each other through languages and cultural practices.
What Race is Sami?
The Sami are an indigenous race of people of northern Europe. But because the Sami have a small amount of Asian DNA, sometimes they have physical Asian features. This has often led to racial discrimination against the Sami people.
They also encounter discrimination because they’re an ethnic group. Which means that they’re culturally different from other Europeans.
Why are Sami Considered Indigenous?
An indigenous population is defined as the people who were living in the area before colonization. The Sami were living in the Scandinavian region before it became individual countries, so they’re considered indigenous.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) is an agency of the United Nations and they are advocating the protection of indigenous populations. They aim to help indigenous people preserve and develop their traditional way of living.
Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Finland all recognize the Sami as native cultures. However, only Norway has declared this through the ILO and offered appropriate support and protection to the Sami people.
The Sami of North America
In 1894, the American government set up a project to bring reindeer into Alaska. And to teach the Alaskans about reindeer keeping, the government also recruited a team of Sami. The Sami were contracted for two periods of years, and after this, some went home but many remained in the USA.
There are no longer traditional Sami herders in Alaska. But potentially there may be some Alaskans with Sami heritage. This is worth knowing when it comes to researching your Sami heritage.
The North American Sami Reawakening was set up 25 years ago and is a community of people in the USA who share Sami heritage. Together they help Sami descendants in the USA to reunite and they actively promote Sami culture.
Congratulations, friend! You’ve made it through the abbreviated version of the history you need to know in order to find your Sami ancestors. So next, let’s go through the steps to finding your heritage.
How to Find out if you have Sami Heritage – Steps
When it comes to researching your Sami heritage then sometimes information can be hard to find. This is because the Sami are nomadic people and didn’t have permanent residences or claims to land ownership.
As a race, they were largely unacknowledged by local government institutions. This means that documented references to Sami are rare. As well as this, the Sami didn’t have their own written language until the 19th century.
But this doesn’t make researching impossible, it only makes it more interesting and rewarding. So take a look at the steps below about how to find out if you have Sami heritage.
Step 1 – Build out your existing Family Tree
First, you must establish a standard family tree, and then start your Sami searching from that. Because Sami heritage can be obscure, you might have a hard time creating a Sami family tree from scratch.
Step 2 – Look for Oral and Written Links
From your tree, investigate any Norwegian or Scandinavian links. This could be in regards to common Scandinavian surnames or places of birth. Look for any links to countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
You should also talk to your family and see if there are stories about Scandinavian ancestors.
Investigate any links but be aware that you might not come across the term Sami very often.
Because of their persecution, the Sami may have been mistakenly or even purposely referred to as other ethnicities (such as “Norwegian Jews” for example). So sometimes you’ll have to get creative to find Sami peoples, as their neighbors weren’t always so kind in how they referred to the indigenous people.
Step 3 – Review Local Records
There are around 30,000 Sami or Sami descendants living in North America. Many of them came over in the 1900s. And they formed Scandinavian communities and settlements.
These settlements can typically be found in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa for example. And they have record offices and parish records. So this is a good place to start if you want to investigate local Sami records.
Step 4 – Search Scandinavian Records
If you reveal something in local records then chances are, you’ll have to investigate Scandinavian records to further your search. But be aware that records from before 1900 rarely refer to Sami.
The Sami shared their names with the local people too so it’s also hard to identify them through names. And because the Sami are nomadic, they rarely appear on the land registry.
A useful resource for investigating your Sami heritage is by using a Bgyde book. This is a local history book from Norway that sometimes refers to the Sami. But often Scandinavian resources will be in local languages, and this can create a bit of a barrier if you don’t speak (or read) those local languages.
This would be a time you may want to hire a local genealogical expert to help you – or at least a translator.
Step 5 – Know What to Look Out For
In the past, the Sami went by lots of other names. So even though you might not find a direct reference to “Sami”, there are plenty of other hints you can use to track Sami lineage.
The Sami were mostly referred to as reindeer herders. As well as this they may have been documented as Laps, Lappers, Finns, and Finfolk. So with this in mind, your search might not be so difficult after all.
Step 6 – Use the Internet
Just like any kind of genealogy research, the internet is one of your best tools. Use ancestry and genealogy sites to trace your Sami ancestors. And if you think you have Sami heritage, then connect with Sami groups online.
Groups like this are great for either helping you verify your heritage or at least giving you some new leads to finding the right place to go next.
Step 7 – Do a DNA Test
It’s never been simpler or easier to have a DNA analysis. If you want to know for certain if you have Sami heritage then you should have a test. The Sami gene is very distinctive so it will very likely appear in any results.
Are the Sami Vikings?
Because of the Scandinavian connection, people might assume that the Sami are Vikings. But this isn’t the case. Although the Sami and the Vikings all lived at the same time, they remained separate peoples.
But it was through the Vikings that the Sami started trading with the outside world. And this special trading relationship with the Vikings helped the Sami to develop their modern communities.
But trading wasn’t the only relationship the Sami had with the Vikings. There is evidence to suggest that they fought among each other and may have intermarried too.
What Race Are Laplanders (Sami)?
The Sami are the indigenous race of Lapland. And they call this area Sampi. Sami people consider the term Lapp or Lapplander to be derogatory.
Lapland is a region that covers four countries, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. But it doesn’t have a government. And the few Sami who still practice traditional deer herding are free to roam across the whole area in honor of their traditions.
Modern Day Sami
There are around 80,000 Sami that still live in Scandinavia today and most of them live in Norway. Only around half of these speak Sami languages and fewer still follow traditional practices.
But this is set to change because the Sami culture is being revived. Sami communities are connecting and fighting hard to preserve their languages and cultural practices And even though there’s still a long way to go, the Sami have now have three recognised parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland.
So there’s never been a better time to search for your Sami ancestors. The Sami community is stronger than ever before and it’s never been easier to connect with it.
Summary on Sami Heritage
Neither Breanne nor I have Sami heritage (at least to my knowledge – though I’ve got a lot of family from Sweden).
We’ve done our best to present what we’ve discovered in our research with respect and without bias. If we’ve misrepresented anything, please let us know via our contact us page. We want to provide the best, most accurate information possible so that you can find your roots.
The Sami are a unique race of people that have survived for thousands of years in Europe. They have a small population and a special gene group, so Sami heritage is quite unique. Finding out if you have Sami heritage can sometimes be challenging.
But with all of our modern connections, the task isn’t impossible. It might take a little bit more effort, but if you think you have Sami in your family then it’s definitely worth investigating it further.
Good luck investigating, friend. And if you need help? We’re here for you. Just ask – and we’ll get you pointed in the right direction.
Cite this article as: “How to Find Out if You Have Sami Heritage.” Genealogy Pals, 29 June 2021, genealogypals.com/how-to-find-out-if-you-have-sami-heritage/.
When learning about genealogy, it’s important to learn from a wide variety of reputable sources. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as genealogists.
- “Ancient DNA Shows the Sámi and Finns Share Identical Siberian Genes.” University of Helsinki, www.helsinki.fi/en/news/life-sciences/ancient-dna-shows-sami-and-finns-share-identical-siberian-genes.
- Borgos, Johan. “A ‘bygdebok’ – what is that?” Borgos, http://www.borgos.nndata.no/bygdeen.htm.
- Dankertsen, Astri. I Felt So White: Sámi Racialization, Indigeneity, and Shades of Whiteness. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/natiindistudj.6.2.0110.
- Hofverberg, Elin. “The Teaching Contract That Brought Sami Reindeer to Alaska.” The Teaching Contract That Brought Sami Reindeer to Alaska | In Custodia Legis: Law Librarians of Congress, 6 Feb. 2020, blogs.loc.gov/law/2020/02/the-teaching-contract-that-brought-sami-reindeer-to-alaska/.
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- “Indigenous Peoples.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 July 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigenous_peoples.
- Johansson, Åsa, et al. “Genetic Origin of the Swedish Sami Inferred from HLA Class I and Class II Allele Frequencies.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 14 May 2008, www.nature.com/articles/ejhg200888.
- “North American Sami Reawakening.” North American Sami Reawakening : Sami Cultural Center of North America, www.samiculturalcenter.org/awakening/north-american-sami-reawakening/.
- Oregon History Project, www.oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/scandinavian-immigration/#.YMdgL6gzbIU.
- Origin and Genetic Background of the Sámi, www.laits.utexas.edu/sami/dieda/hist/genetic.htm.
- Pesklo, Christopher. “Pursuing Sami Genealogy.” Lavvu.com, 1999, http://www.lavvu.com/geno/SamiArtical.html.
- “The Sami People – Indigenous People of the North – Northern Norway.” Visit Northern Norway, 12 Jan. 2021, nordnorge.com/en/tema/the-sami-are-the-indigenous-people-of-the-north/.
- “Saami group – About Us.” Family Tree DNA, https://www.familytreedna.com/groups/saami/about/.
- “Sami People.” FamilySearch Wiki, www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Sami_People.
- “Sámi Facts.” Cultural Survival, 1 Dec. 2008, www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/sami-facts.