Sámi and their art

As the temperature continues to plunge this winter, Wolf braves the cold and crosses the Arctic Circle to the town of Jokkmokk for a visit to the Ájtte Sámi Museum. Here, Åsa Sundqvist reveals the secrets of the Sámi people and their craftwork.


Location: Ájtte Swedish Mountain and Sami Museum, Jokkmokk, Sweden

In conversation with: Åsa Sundqvist
Web and Marketing, Program Winter Market

Sámi art – modern thinking and tradition
Nine thousand years have elapsed since the north became free of the inland ice. Since then,

270 generations of Sámi and their forefathers have lived here. The Sámi are the indigenous people of the northernmost part of Europe, a group of people that today is divided in four different countries - Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. At Ájtte museum, we tell you the story of Sápmi, the land of the Sámi, of life and survival in a demanding climate and environment. It is a story set in wetlands, forests and mountains. The Sami have languages of their own that are different from most of the other languages found in Europe. It belongs to the finno-ugric language group and it is therefore completely different from Swedish. Traditionally, the reindeer nomadism had a strong position amongst the Sámi and it is still very important today.

Handicraft – duodji
The sámi word for handicraft is duodji. It has a strong symbolic value for the identity and it is closely linked to the traditional way of living. Duodji can be a profession, a trade, work as a secondary occupation, and a bearer of culture. The word duodji is also being used as a word to mark real Sámi handicraft and some items are marked with a special duodji seal.

The Sámi people have always made most of their own tools and clothes. The material that they used and still use today is from their surroundings in nature. They come from birch, roots, and animals, in particular from the reindeer, to name an example. Many of the traditional items were adapted to a nomadic life, a way of life where most things had a function to fill. Most of the time, men had worked with material such as wood and antlers, while women would have used soft material such as skin, roots and textiles. That divide of work is still common today, although there are exceptions. 

The Sámi costume - a dynamic clothing tradition
The traditional clothing of the Sámi is a part of an ever-evolving and dynamic craft. It is strongly steeped in traditions that go all the way back to the times when there were no textiles available in this part of the world. Only fur and skin where available. Today however, it is also following the changes in fashion. The costumes vary from area to area within the Sámi region. It shows from what part you have your roots and it can even give indications to which family you belong to.

Although there are certain rules you have to follow when making a traditional garment,  it does not mean that it is a uniform. In fact it is quite the opposite - nobody has exactly the same clothing, not even in the same family. Today the whole Sámi costume is very seldom used in everyday life, and it is mainly worn for special occasions. However, it is quite common that you see parts of it, like shoes or hats for example, if you happen to spend time in the traditional Sámi areas. At Ájtte museum, you find a whole exhibition dedicated to the Sámi costumes you find in Sweden. The museum also has a considerable collection of both traditional and modern Sámi garments.

A tradition handed down
The Sámi handicraft tradition has been passed down from generation to generation - mothers have taught their daughters and so on and so forth. Today, this is not necessarily the way duodji is taught - you can learn by taking lessons at schools like the Sámi education center in Jokkmokk, or by private tuition, for example. Both the duodji and the need for it has changed within the Sámi society. The Sámi´s encounters with other cultures and people have made their mark on their craft as well as on their traditional way of life. For example, you can find new materials being used these days. However, a lot of the ancient traditions live on, and mixed up with today’s sources of inspiration, it creates a living climate for craft, with one foot in the past and another in the future.





Words: Sharman Tanny