In Alta in northern Norway you can find fields of rock paintings and carvings made by hunters and fishermen. By the seaside people created these pictures 6 200–2 500 years ago. Photo: Tomas Utsi

With nature as a larder

The Sami have not always been a reindeer herding people. Although the reindeer has long been the most important animal for the Sami, only a small proportion of the population, both historically and today, have based their lives on the reindeer. The vast majority survived by hunting and fishing. The sea coasts, the lakes and the rivers gave the most reliable hauls.

Sápmi was populated soon after the inland ice had melted. Northern Scandinavia was inhabited as long as 9,000 years ago. Small groups of hunter-gatherers colonised the land from different directions. The one thing they had in common was that they settled where there was quarry. When the game or fish failed, they moved on. These were the people who much later became Sami. Hunting for animals such as reindeer and elk required both considerable knowledge and organisation of the hunt.

There are descriptions dating from the late Middle Ages of how the coastal Sami in Norway lived. In the winter they lived right out near the mouths of the fjords, mainly spending their time fishing. In the summer they lived at the head of the fjord. There they could both fish and hunt. They were close both to the forest and the mountains.

Organised hunt
Traces of organised elk and reindeer hunting can be found all around Sápmi. Once they had learned how the animals moved, they dug whole systems of pit traps. When the deer or the elks approached them, they drove them towards the traps. This form of hunting required the involvement of many people. Hunting by means of laying snares close to a reindeer herd in the winter required fewer people. If the hunters were able to make the animals bolt towards the snares, there was a good chance of catching something. Another effective method was to hunt using enticement in the autumn when the reindeer were rutting. A tame female reindeer was tethered and the hunter waited nearby. When the rutting reindeer bull came to the female, he was easy prey.

The most common hunting method was with a bow and arrow. Everyone could use this weapon, and it was possible to catch many different kinds of animal. This included everything from small animals such as martins and squirrels, to larger prey such as reindeer and even bears. As early as the 13th century, the Sami are described as a hunting people who are highly skilled at using the bow and arrow.

Rules and taboos when hunting bear
Bear hunting was closely tied to the Sami society's religion. The hunt was a ceremony, complete with many rules and taboos. In the pre-Christian religion, the bear was considered to be the Sami gods' message carrier and observer on earth, and so it was important for it to be treated correctly. It should be treated with respect, from the method of its killing and slaughter through to the burial of its bones. Each bone should be laid in the earth in the order it had been in the living bear. All of these ceremonies were motivated by the desire to safeguard the bear's continued existence and the belief that after its death, the bear reported what it had seen on earth to the gods to which it was returning.

The fish-rich river valleys were colonised early on. In the relatively fertile lands around the water, it was possible to grow produce. In the summer, for example, salmon fishing provided subsistence for a large number of people. In Tana river, people have been using salmon-trap fences for a very long time. These are a kind of trap for the migrating salmon, and are emptied regularly, often holding a good catch.

Skins in great demand
Surrounding groups of people began trading with the Sami from an early stage. The most common goods the Sami could supply were the skins of squirrels, martins, otters, beavers, foxes, wolverines, lynxes, bears and reindeer. Other common trading goods included grey cuckoo-shrike, capercaillie, black grouse and hazel grouse. The surrounding countries slowly began to demand taxes from the Sami as well. During one period in the 17th century, the tax burden was so high that too much pressure was placed on the forests' animal populations and they were consequently seriously depleted.

Hunting and fishing is not as important today. The coastal Sami, who have long supported themselves from fishing along the north Norwegian coast, have been outcompeted by floating fish factories that vacuum the sea of fish. Fishing in lakes and rivers is seasonal and therefore only a secondary occupation. Hunting for fur-bearing animals is also a secondary occupation that many Sami practise. For many reindeer herding Sami, however, hunting and fishing are still important complements to reindeer husbandry.

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