Pursuing Sami Genealogy
(by Christopher Pesklo)
Copyright 1999

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Note: This artical was printed in the following newsletters in 1999: Advisen (Feb), Arran (July); and Baiki (Sept). Premission for publication on this website has been granted.

The Sami ethnic groups (derogatorily known as Lapps or Laplanders) of north and central Norway share a common history with the Norse but are often left out of the genealogical record. The regional scope of this article includes the counties of Finnmark, Troms, Nordland and Nord-Trøndelag and will describe some of the problems and techniques in carrying out Sami genealogy.

A Short History: Sami/Norse Relations
The Sami and Norse of northern Norway had lived in peaceful coexistence over the centuries, with a long history of intermarriages and only a few open conflicts. Most written and archaeological sources before the Black Death of 1350 describe a definite economic division between the two groups; the Sami exclusively herding reindeer with some subsistence fishing, and the Norse exclusively farming with fishing in exchange for trade in the south. This situation however, changed dramatically in 1350 with the introduction of the plague to north Norway. Compared to the rest of Europe, this region suffered an extremely high death rate with estimates ranging between sixty to eighty percent of the population. Over the following decades, many of the local authorities and church officials were faced with having only a small portion (5-10%) of their pre-1350 revenues (rents, tithes, taxes, etc.) due to the abandonment of most of the operating farms (varying between 50-90% of parish farms). In comparison, the Sami seemed to have suffered little from this epidemic due to their isolation from the main European trade connections, which were the main transportation routes of the plague. As a result, the local authorities offered incentives to the Sami - faced with their own population pressures - to settle on the newly vacant farms. Even as late as the early 1700's, there were many Sami who were still settling on these farms left abandoned from the 1350's. After many years of continuous migration, these 'Coastal Sami' became far more numerous than the original 'reindeer Sami'.

Limitations of the Genealogical Sources
The genealogical records often do not reflect the presence of these 'settled' Sami. For the Sami descendant trying to rediscover their own heritage, it can be quite a daunting task. There are several reasons for this: First, all of the genealogical sources; church records, censuses, tax rolls, etc. were written from the Norwegian perspective and served Norwegian needs. The recording of land title exchanges, taxes, court proceedings, military censuses, vital records, etc. all served the state and local domestic concerns of the parish. Identifying individual Sami was of little importance for the record keepers and only added to their bureaucratic burden. Second, the Norwegian monarchy historically never viewed the Sami as a domestic or military threat so there was little need to record such individuals. Third, if a Sami family knew that they were of Sami heritage, why would Norwegians write down something that was of common knowledge? Fourth - and just as important for the genealogist - was the issue of the perception of who was a Sami.

Two Perspectives: The Sami and the Norse viewing each other.
The Norwegian view of the Sami was defined in economic terms and how they made their living. Figure 1. shows a 'Norwegian view' of how the Sami were defined by economics - not by language or culture as the Sami did. The Sami herded reindeer and fished for their own food, the Norwegians farmed and fished for cash as they were connected to a greater European economy and were recorded as such.

Although this model would have been accurate before 1350, for financial reasons this ethnic definition continued. It mattered little to the local authorities or church officials if the farmer was Sami or Norwegian as long as he paid his taxes.

In nearly all the pre-1900 Norwegian genealogical records the Sami were defined as exclusively reindeer herders. But the conclusion that the Sami resided only in areas that were dominated by reindeer herding, namely the in interior of Finnmark and small portions of Troms counties, would be incorrect. There are countless cases where whole families owned farms whose ancestral past were known to be culturally Sami, yet the parish records did not reflect this heritage.

From the Sami perspective, the definition of 'being' Sami is not as clear cut as the Norwegian perspective. Sharing nine distinct language dialects, exploiting every possible environmental/economical niche of northern Norway following the 1350 plague, and with no clear national consciousness (never having their own government), the definition of being 'Sami' is far less defined. This is an issue that remains controversial to this day within the Sami community. Figure 2, shows an example of the farming/fishing/herding economy of Sami - a result of the post-1350 migrations.

Although the actual percentage of Sami/Norse division has been hotly debated, this model reflects a more accurate description of the cultural demographics of north Norway up to the 1800's. Thereafter, many of these coastal Sami melted into the population and adopted the Norwegian language, so much so that many of their ethnic languages are endanger of disappearing today.

Looking for Sami in the Genealogical Records
The following are examples of the problems when searching Sami genealogy.

Church Records
There were no directives from the government or the higher church authorities to identify individuals of Sami heritage. The recording of individual Sami in the pre-1900 church records depended greatly on the discretion of individual ministers. However, there are several north Norwegian church ministers who on their own elected to state these individuals. An example of which is the minister Peter Blix of Langenes/Øksnes Parish of Nordland county.

Here is shown a portion of an entry recording parishioners who attended a Sunday church service in 1728. The entry: "Mickel Pedersen: og git (and wife); Ole Henricsen og git } Lapper". Blix' entry is interesting for three reasons. First, the word "Lapper" is used in place of the farm name, which was listed for the other non-Sami entries. From this it could be assumed that they (and other Sami) were not permanent residents of the parish as they might follow the annual migrations of their reindeer. Second, the personal names of these individuals would be common anywhere in Norway. Sami naming customs were similar to the Norwegian patriarchal naming system and this would increase the difficulty in narrowing Sami individuals. Third, to list all of the individual parishioners of Sunday church services shows a considerable amount of detail in the record keeping - detail that may include the 'economic situation' (i.e. "Lapper") of the person. Unfortunately, compared to other parishes, this level of detail is quite uncommon for northern Norway. The next minister to hold this post did not include such detail and never addressed the descendants of Mickel and Ole (or any other known Sami individuals) as "Lapps".

Census Records
The Norwegian national census records of 1666, 1701, 1801, 1865, 1875 and 1900 also had no directives to include specifically Sami individuals. Although the 1865 and later records did include a column for foreign nationals, this would not include the Sami who were considered subjects of the King. In the counties of Finnmark, and to a lesser extent Troms, areas that did include reindeer herding Sami, the 1801 census did list these individuals, however known relatives of these herders were not mentioned as Sami.

The listing of Sami in the censuses remained at the discretion of the local recorders (who depending on the year of the census, was also the local minister). Since the 1865 and later censuses did include a list of farm animals which included reindeer, it is here that Norwegian 'definition' of Sami is again shown.

Probate Records
Although probates are of great value for the genealogist, sadly they are extremely poor source for identifying Sami individuals. The main reason for this is that probates record the transfer of wealth, which would include land. The Norwegian definition of Sami - the herders of reindeer - would exclude this group by default since they are involved in a nomadic lifestyle. Like the census and church records, there also was no directive to identify Sami.

So how dose one find Sami ancestry in their heritage?
First do not view the Sami as a separate ethnic group, but as part of a whole northern community. The Sami and Norwegians have intermarried for centuries and lineages have often traveled back and forth between the two groups. The Sami did not have their own written language until the ninetieth century so there is only 'one voice' spoken to the genealogist. However, there are a few universal guidelines that work well when pursuing Sami genealogy:

1) Look within your own oral history. Find if anyone mentioned any ancestors who were 'Lapps', or even unusual ethnic group that historically seem improbable. Many of the Sami who immigrated to North America during the turn of the century hid their heritage in order to blend within the local Scandinavian community as Sami were often considered a lower social class during this period. There are several known cases of Sami immigrants calling themselves 'Norwegian Jews' in order to avoid their ethnic distinction.

2) Do your genealogy - THEN retrace your line to find Sami ancestry. It is far easier to go over your sources after the fact than to set out 'finding Sami'.

3) Look for key word descriptions of individuals such as "Lapp, Lapper, Finn, Finnfolk". On maps, also look for farm or landmark names with the words Lapp- (ex. Lappstad) or Finn- (ex. Finnestad) in them. In this case, the term 'Finn' doesn't denote someone from 'Finland', but rather Sami. The term Sami was not used by Norwegians only until the 1950's and only as a common usage until the 1980's (they've always called themselves "Sami").

4) Sami settlements are often found from the farthest geographical distance from the local parish church, depending on the period of settlement. Because they settled near to the Norwegian desendants of the Black Death survivers, the Sami generally settled on less desirable farmland. The Sami also have their own names for farms and maps are available on the internet.

5) Get to know your local minister! How much detail is there in his logs? Does he mention areas where Sami reside in the parish? He may have made some descriptive comments in his ministerial logs.

6) Check the internet. There are many websites (many in English) that deal with Sami history, ancestry and their own geographical place names.

7) Read your local Bygdebok! Often local historians mention Sami within the parish. or local oral tradition that is not reflected within the church records.

8) Be Patient! You are at a serious disadvantage in doing Sami genealogy but it can be very personally fulfilling to find your true roots.

Christopher Pesklo (Peskiluoma)
Bygdelag Fellisrad, Lapmarklag Genealogist

Copyright 1999

If you have any questions, please feel free to call me for more information. You can me at dinkytown@hotmail.com

Please put the word "sami" in the heading or it will be considered junk mail.

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