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Native Sweden Volume 61 Number 4, July/August 2008
by Zach Zorich

Indigenous Saami are rediscovering their long-lost heritage


Smithsonian archaeologist Noel Broadbent and Tim Bayliss-Smith of Cambridge University walk past a line of 1,100-year-old hut foundations at Grundskatan. (Zach Zorich)

Smithsonian archaeologist Noel Broadbent offers me a handful of blueberries he has picked from the shrubs that hug the forest floor. I pop them into my mouth. The pulp and seeds are sugary, rough, and slick at the same time. In early September the leaves change color and the berries ripen on Sweden's Hornsland peninsula. Broadbent crouches by the trail and picks up a hunk of pale gray lichen. "This is what the reindeer eat," he announces before letting it fall to the ground. But the sun is beginning to dip below the treetops and I am too preoccupied with getting to the archaeological site before dark to notice that this is my first lesson in how the landscape fed the ancestors of the Saami people and what meanings the geography held for them. The Saami (formerly called Lapps) have lived in northern Scandinavia and Russia's Kola peninsula since the glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago. Today, they number fewer than 100,000 people, many of whom have assimilated into Scandinavian culture but still maintain ties to their ancestral lands and family reindeer herds.


The black dots on the map show the distribution of places with Saami names, evidence that they had once settled far beyond the borders of "Lapland."

Because the Saami are historically known from the accounts of priests and government officials, they have been stereotyped as nomadic reindeer herders who live only in what was once called "Lapland," an area that extends from the coast of the Arctic Ocean 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Sweden. Except for the work of Broadbent and a few others, Saami prehistory before they adopted reindeer herding 400 or 500 years ago is largely a blank slate. Historic texts identified them as hunters who traveled on skis, but said little else. This lack of history has made it difficult for modern Saami to establish their rights to land that was once used for grazing their reindeer. "It is a common problem of indigenous people around the world," Broadbent says. "People without written histories of their own can be helped by archaeology in asserting their rights to their own history."

A 2002 decision by a Swedish court ruled that archaeological evidence was not admissible in land-rights cases. Nevertheless, Broadbent's work is helping to define ancient Saami history, part of which comes from the site at Hornsland on the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia, 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The Swedish state and landowners are claiming rights to land far north of here, based on the assumption that the Saami never settled this far south. Broadbent doesn't see himself as an activist, but that doesn't make his finds less controversial or less important in helping the Saami establish their cultural identity.

Zach Zorich is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.