Fur as cultural heritage:

The Sami take advantage of nature’s material

Fur is so much more than just a material. For the Sami, Europe’s only indigenous people, fur is about history, identity and making a living from animal husbandry.

In the northernmost parts of Europe, there is a large geographical area that spans four different nations: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Sápmi is a land area that has been home to the Sami for thousands of years, ever since the ice sheet melted. The people who lived here already 9,000 years ago lived off the land in harmony with nature. It was these people who much later became the Sami.

Reindeer as a symbol

The Sami are Europe’s only indigenous people and, for many reasons, are often associated with reindeer and reindeer husbandry. Reindeer husbandry is very closely linked to the Sami culture and has developed over centuries. Being a reindeer herder means protecting the reindeer while making the industry profitable. Reindeer husbandry is a lifestyle that has characterised everyday life through the ages and that to this day takes place on the animals’ terms and nature’s conditions.

Photo: Doris Risfjell

Crafts with tradition

The use of fur in the Sami culture extends very far back in time and has been an obvious trait of the Sami identity. Already the first time the Sami were mentioned in a written document, it was noted that they wore fur and lived as hunters. The document is from AD 98: 

“They eat herbs, dress in animal skins and sleep on the ground. The only thing they trust is arrows with bone tips. Men and women follow each other and feed on the same hunt,” writes the Roman historian Tacitus in his book Germania about a people he calls the Fenni.

Today, a variety of products are still made from reindeer fur, hides and antlers. The hides are, for example, sewn into sleeping mats, clothes, and shoes. Tanned skins are used for wind and waterproof clothes and bags. The traditional craftsmanship, “duodji” in Sami, requires both patience and skill. In several parts of the Nordic region, you can study specifically Sami craftsmanship, which thus lives on as both culture bearer and identity creation.

Photo: ericabel

Living cultural heritage

Being Sami has not been a walk in the park. The Sami history has had some dark periods, but many Sami still practice and spread their culture and traditions.

For Sven-Åke Risfjell from Vilhelmina in Sweden, it was natural to start crafting. It runs in the family, and he’s very grateful to have been able to work full-time with handicrafts for over 40 years. In addition to manufacturing products, he and his wife Doris also work to spread knowledge about the Sami culture with their store and Sami museum, both situated in their hometown.

– People from all over the world come here to visit, says Risfjell.


The reindeer’s fur

The reindeer’s hair is very dense, and because the fur stands facing up, an air layer with great thermal insulation properties forms at the innermost part of the skin. Moreover, the hairs’ hollowness enhances their insulating ability and makes the reindeer skin a valuable material.

Many Sami still practice and spread their culture and traditions.