The oldest known inhabitants of Finland are the Lapps, who were already settled there when the Finns arrived in the southern part of the country about 2,000 years ago. The Lapps were distantly related to the Finns, and both spoke a non-Indo- European language belonging to the Finno-Ugric family of languages. Once present throughout the country, the Lapps gradually moved northward under the pressure of the advancing Finns. As they were a nomadic people in a sparsely settled land, the Lapps were always able to find new and open territory in which to follow their traditional activities of hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture. By the sixteenth century, most Lapps lived in the northern half of the country, and it was during this period that they converted to Christianity. By the nineteenth century, most of them lived in the parts of Lapland that were still their home in the 1980s. The last major shift in Lapp settlement was the migration westward of 600 Skolt Lapps from the Petsamo region after it was ceded to the Soviet Union in 1944. A reminder of their eastern origin was their Orthodox faith; the remaining 85 percent of Finland’s Lapps were Lutheran.
About 90 percent of Finland’s 4,400 Lapps lived in the municipalities of Enontekiö, Inari, and Utsjoki, and in the reindeer herding-area of Sodankyla. According to Finnish regulations, anyone who spoke the Lapp language, Sami, or who had a relative who was a Lapp, was registered as a Lapp in census records. Finnish Lapps spoke three Sami dialects, but by the late 1980s perhaps only a minority actually had Sami as their first language. Lapp children had the right to instruction in Sami, but there were few qualified instructors or textbooks available. One reason for the scarcity of written material in Sami is that the three dialects spoken in Finland made agreement about a common orthography difficult. Perhaps these shortcomings explained why a 1979 study found the educational level of Lapps to be considerably lower than that of other Finns.
Few Finnish Lapps actually led the traditional nomadic life pictured in school geography texts and in travel brochures. Although many Lapps living in rural regions of Lapland earned some of their livelihood from reindeer herding, it was estimated that Lapps owned no more than one-third of Finland’s 200,000 reindeer. Only 5 percent of Finnish Lapps had the herds of 250 to 300 reindeer needed to live entirely from this kind of work. Most Lapps worked at more routine activities, including farming, construction, and service industries such as tourism. Often a variety of jobs and sources of income supported Lapp families, which were, on the average, twice the size of a typical Finnish family. Lapps also were aided by old-age pensions and by government welfare, which provided a greater share of their income than it did for Finns as a whole.
There have been many efforts over the years by Finnish authorities to safeguard the Lapps’ culture and way of life and to ease their entry into modern society. Officials created bodies that dealt with the Lapp minority, or formed committees that studied their situation. An early body was the Society for the Promotion of Lapp Culture, formed in 1932. In 1960 the government created the Advisory Commission on Lapp Affairs. The Lapps themselves formed the Samii Litto in 1945 and the Johti Sabmelazzat, a more aggressive organization, in 1968. In 1973 the government arranged for elections every four years to a twentymember Sami Parlamenta that was to advise authorities. On the international level, there was the Nordic Sami Council of 1956, and there has been a regularly occurring regional conference since then that represented–in addition to Finland’s Lapps– Norway’s 20,000 Lapps, Sweden’s 10,000 Lapps, and the 1,000 to 2,000 Lapps who remained in the Kola Peninsula in the Soviet Union.