Saami Boat Builders

Saami Boat Builders

The Arctic indigenous people of northern Scandinavia are known as the Saami; they live in far northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.  Primarily fishermen, nomads, and reindeer herders in the past, they lived near the northern fjords in heavily forested areas, though they could often migrate as far as 1,000 km a year to the Gulf of Bothnia.  They were gifted shipwrights, focusing their craft on sewn boats that they often sold to their Norwegian neighbors in the past.   Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241), an Icelandic historian, wrote of two 24-oared sewn vessels built by the Saami for King Sigurd Slembadiaekn when he was in the north.   Written sources from the 16th century onwards have referenced the Sea Saamis who regularly constructed vessels for their neighbors in Norway(Westerdah, 1985).

Saami who lived in different regions of Scandinavia had different lifestyles and boat building techniques.  The coastal Saami migrated every year across northern Norway and Sweden to the Gulf of Bothnia in the northern Baltic Sea. The few laced boat finds from the northwest are thus from their summer habitation sites and it is theorized that these Saami transitioned earlier to iron fastened boats than their inland counterparts.  The Forest Saami, who lived farther inland and well into what is now northern Sweden, built a very light laced vessel used on the interior lakes and rivers.  An 18th century account records that the vessels were small but suited to the rapids and currents of the local water; they were so light that they could be carried upon the head of one man who used his birch bark bailer as a cushion.  These vessels were used for a comparatively long time and their dissapearance may have coincided with the collapse of the Forest Saami culture  (Westerdah, 1985).

Scandinavians and Russians began to immigrate to Saami territory in the Medieval period, bringing with them their boat building traditions based on riveted clinker technology.  As a result, the two techniques co-existed for centuries (Jasinski, 1991).

Based upon an analysis conducted of the Scandinavian laced boat finds prior to 1985, Christer Westerdahl published a preliminary ethnic classification of laced boat building traditions.  He determined that the Saami built their light craft between the 9th and 19th centuries AD.  They were different from their Scandinavian predecessors in that they were laced with root fibers and reindeer sinews  (Westerdah, 1985).