Saami Shamanism: Missionized and New Aged
For over 30,000 years, the Saami, a diverse group of indigenous people in northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and uppermost peninsulas of Russia, are reported to live a semi-nomadic way of life, reindeer herding from summer to winter campgrounds, while other groups fish along the rich coastlines bordering the Arctic Circle. They’ve undergone waves of colonization from the 16th century, and in this past half century, have organized, resisted, and found an independent political voice within the governments of Norway and Finland, but not as recognized in Sweden and Russia. As with all indigenous people, once their lands and resources are coveted by the dominant economic-political players, their struggle becomes a series of lost ground and court battles. Some Saami are urbanized, blending and working in all sectors of society. Only a few thousand hold to their herding traditions, although the reindeer are still revered for traditional reasons.
I was fascinated by tales that the Saami form of shamanism was some of the oldest known on the planet, and may have even predated Siberian shamanism. Saami had 11 languages and several dialects within those languages, all stemming from the Finno-Lappic branch of Uralic language. Today about three are in use, I think. Formerly known as the “Lapp” or “Laplanders,” (a derogatory term referring to patched clothing) the Saami shaman used drumming, herbs, songs, and spirit engagement to treat illness and restore the body back to balance. The traditions declined with three centuries of Christian missionaries, forced relocation, government schooling, horrendous pressure and persecution to abandon native languages, naming practices, and religious practice. The reclaiming and re-emergence of Saami language, land rights, ethnic identity and customs with rights to self-determination were sparked in the political upsurge of the 1980s and early 1990s. Norwegian anthropologist Bjornar Olsen studied, advocated for, and protested along with Saami leaders to stop encroachment of dam building in Saami lands, which would have endangered villages.
I’ll always be seeking signs of authentic shamanism among the Saami. Today in Tromso, Norway, there is a tale of a Saami shaman who can heal trauma and stop bleeding through energy emanations of his hands. An overlay of New Age mysticism and some mixing of Christian hands-on healing permeates the stories. What I am intent on opposing is the dismissive attitude that shamans and nonordinary healers are a thing of the past, and that indigenous people have lost their instincts for self-care through alternative means. There really is no “tradition” among traditional healers. Their methods are in constant flux, dynamically experimenting with plants, minerals, foods, and even drugs; pushing the boundaries of oral accounts, what they remember, what they’ve highjacked or co-opted from visiting conventional doctors and New Age energy workers. My research leads me to believe that following the thread of a one healing system will fan out into a wide tapestry, with a mix of threads from a dozen traditions.
Perhaps the wildest Saami tale of all is the one about the hallucinogenic fungi (Fly agaric) that grows in the north country. Plants used in sacred ritual are often ingested to achieve visions for the protection of the tribe. Perhaps this lichen assisted the herding and culling of reindeer herds. If you get visions of reindeer prancing through the night sky, all the better to warm the children on a cold winter’s night.