Medicines of the land: Sámi Reflections on the Role and use of indigenous medicine today
Medicine Stories ⬿

Medicines of the land: Sámi Reflections on the Role and use of indigenous medicine today

’Show hay’, i.e. sedges were stored in a bundle called ’viera’ – one bundle was taken to be used at a time. All Skolt Sámi photos: Satu Moshnikoff, 2017
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, and , with Oral History Contributions from Niilo Vuomajoki 
December 21, 2017
This article is a part of Medicine Stories, an exclusive series made possible by a grant from the Elna Vesara Ostern Fund.

One of the Sámi traditional knowledge holders of his time, the late Jouni Antti Vuomajoki from the Inari river area in Finland was walking in the forest close to his home community.

He saw a stone object, resembling and being most likely an ancient, pre-historic stone axe, on the ground.

Upon returning to home, he told his son, Niilo, about the discovery.

Niilo suggested that they contact the authorities or the National Board of Antiquities to register this Stone Age archaeological find.

Jouni Antti refused.

Niilo asked: “Why not?”

Jouni Antti replied: “Because one day – he who left the axe there – one day he might come back looking for it at the spot where he left it at.”[1]

The Sámi are the constitutionally recognized Indigenous peoples in Finland. There are three cultural language groups of the Sámi in Finland, each with their own specific territorial engagements to place – the North Sámi numbering the most, the Inari Sámi who only live in the territory of Finland and the Skolt Sámi, who belong to the larger Eastern Sámi cultural sphere. Sámi languages belong to the larger Finno-Ugric group, which also contains Karelian, Estonian, Finnish, Livonian and other local languages of the Eurasian North.

The “iconic” trades of the Sámi have included hunting, fishing and central to the culture – reindeer herding. All of these traditional nature uses are intimately connected to the Sub-Arctic nature and renewable uses of its resources. Sámi Indigenous knowledge has evolved over thousands of years in this harsh northern environment.

We discuss in this invited article the bio-cultural landscapes of the Sámi homeland from the viewpoint of “medicines of the land” – it contains reflections on traditional and sacred places, examples of ethno-botany and attempts to preserve these unique knowledge traditions amongst the Sámi and in the Siberian North, as framed by the Indigenous leaders of that region.

The Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish cultural and science organization, has been working with Sámi communities for the past seventeen years. This partnership has contributed to governmental Arctic Council assessments such as ABA and ACIA in addition to bearing several scientific papers and monographs about the situation in these communities and their bio-cultural knowledge. There are several Sámi leaders in the Snowchange international steering committee.

At Snowchange, the Sámi are co-authors of all the work that happens and own their knowledge. Nothing happens without FPIC – free, prior and informed consent. Snowchange also houses a large archive of oral history and Indigenous and local-traditional knowledge, copies of which have been also placed with partner communities, families and individuals as well as in the Siida Cultural Center in Inari, Finland since 2008.

Scientific reports on the Artctic have made the Sámi situation in Finland more visible; however, many central challenges, which are at the same time the most urgent, remain. They have to do with cultural and linguistic revitalization and preservation of Indigenous medicines and the preservation of the larger biocultural reality of Sápmi, the Sámi homeland. Sámi still to this day have no land or water rights.

The story at the beginning of this article conveys an oral history of the Vuomajoki family, where the old man Jouni Antti sees a stone axe and leaves it alone. Younger generations challenge this, calling for a report to authorities. Jouni Antti, being immersed in the Sámi tradition, decides otherwise.

No matter how we interpret the decisions and choices of the Elder Vuomajoki, we are left with a realization that the Sámi have their own senses of the world, of time, place and events that can be challenging to understand outside the culture.

However, these stories also convey a profound and sensitive engagement with the landscape and all of its elements – seen and unseen – and more importantly, ways of being with it. In essence, they result from decisions flowing from and guided by the Sámi tradition.

More importantly, the Sámi language, traditional mind, livelihoods, culture and life itself is in a deep and holistic engagement with place – each to their own respectively. Revitalization efforts need to reflect this realization – a view that nation-state governments in their compartmentalized categories of decision-making often fail to understand.

Spiritual Ownership of Land: Eastern Sámi Sacred Places

Map 1: General map of the seid sites in Sápmi, Sámi homeland

Concepts of “landscape” and “the environment” are hard to define from within Sámi culture. Traditionally, the Indigenous Sámi saw themselves as a part of the world and nature, not above or outside it. Relationships with the natural world were defined through negotiations, respect and compromises. Magga says that “In the Sámi landscape the unseen, immaterial aspects were strongly present…’Magical landscape’ emerged through sacred and offering places and old gravesites[2]”.

Vuolab-Lohi writes that sacred places have included, for example, rocks and springs. Some of these places have been known in Eastern Sámi languages as “seid, sietj, sit, sejt, sied”. While it is for the Sámi to know the exact meaning of this concept, usually scholars refer to the “seid” as sacred elements of the landscape.

Between 2006 and 2017 the Snowchange Cooperative worked with the Skolt and Eastern Sámi communities to document traditional knowledge and land uses, as well as cultural heritage. The work continues. It emerged from a request of the Sámi Council to respond to the pressures of mining companies in the Eastern Sámi space by mapping land and water uses. The main results were released in the Eastern Sámi Atlas. The Skolt Sámi had to leave their homelands in the aftermath of the Second World War in 1944.

One of the purposes of the Eastern Sámi Atlas was to map the ‘lost’ homelands, in a cooperation of a team of geographers and the Sámi themselves. During this mapping work detailed maps, locations and photos of some specific seid sites were documented. Prior to the release of the Atlas, the Skolt Sámi Council and a Skolt family, on whose homeland some of these seid were located, decided to withhold some of the materials that they wanted to retain in the internal space of the community. They also agreed to release most of the 70 maps that had been produced during the atlas work. This act can be seen as a form of spiritual ownership and governance of the landscape in question.

One of the Finnish geographers involved in the work, however, severely protested this decision. He felt that censorship had taken place, as scientifically produced materials need to be made available to everyone, everywhere. He has since criticized the Sámi decision on a number of forums from his viewpoint. He remains working on these topics.

Sámi Ethnobotany

Sámi ethnobotany is reflective of the sub-Arctic environment and its northern plant life. One of the iconic species of the Sámi world, boska, or rássi, Angelica (Angelica archangelica) is central to the North Sámi uses of plants. It is a two-three year growing plant rich in Vitamin C and other medicinal qualities.

It is found distinctly in the northern fjell areas close to small streams and rivers. All parts of boska were traditionally utilized, both for food and for medicine. In a modern context, the stem of the plant is most widely used. The timing of the use of the plant is around midsummer when the summer light is reaching its maximum in the Arctic. Boska or Angelica is used in soups, meat and fish dishes and smoked as a tobacco in a pipe. It is also dried and preserved for the long-term. Further, it is a traditional food of the reindeer, including the roots.

Medicinal use focuses on the plant seeds, roots and leaves. Dried root would be chewed to avoid catching a cold. It is also applied to treat coughs, low blood circulation, stomach ailments, rheumatism, exhaustion and as protection against infectious diseases. In traditional belief Angelica was associated with fertility magic.

In recent decades, locations of boska–such as Sulaoja in Utsjoki region of the North Sámi territory in Finland–have become contested spaces: Plans to start industrial freshwater production in sacred areas rich with Angelica have been resisted by the Sámi who wish to keep these sites secure.

Another Sámi iconic plant knowledge involves the use of sedges–for example, water sedge, as the insulation material for the traditional winter footwear of the Sámi. They were usually collected from the stream and small river areas in August. Known locally as ‘shoe hay’, these insulators would be crushed using a special tool–in Sámi, šluppot, a birchtree hammer–and then inserted into the Sámi winter boot, made from reindeer skins. Shoe hay also had a role to play in traditional reindeer skin summer footwear.

Winter traditional footwear was well-suited for the sub-Arctic winters, for skiing, the traditional mode of reindeer herding prior to the advent of the ‘snowmobile revolution’ of 1960s and hunting trips. This use has sharply dropped with the introduction of woollen socks and skidoo boots used in modern-day herding. However, the skills to utilize the sedges for the winter footwear are highly treasured among the Sámi as demonstrations of handcrafts skills. The sedge was preserved in a tight bundle.

’Show hay’, i.e. sedges were stored in a bundle called ’viera’ – one bundle was taken to be used at a time. All Skolt Sámi photos: Satu Moshnikoff, 2017

Skolt Sámi Plants Knowledge

The Skolt Sami are often named as the most traditional of the Sámi peoples. Various aspects of their own ethnobotany has triggered renewed scholarly interest in recent years>. Skolts use different berries as a food source:

Traditionally Skolts also use mushrooms, mostly boletus (Boletaceae) and thus they differ from the other Sámi groups in this regard. Cloudberries are used in berry soups and pies. For winter, cloudberries are stored in wooden containers in their own juice and jams and preserves are also made. Nowadays most of the jams are stored in freezers.

Blueberries are often used fresh, in pies and soups since they do not keep well. Today berries are preserved frozen, whole and crushed with sugar. Lingonberries are preserved crushed in wooden containers or glass jars. They keep well in their own juice. Lingonberries are also used in juice making. Nowadays it is a common practice to also freeze lingonberries.

Boletus mushrooms were a special food for cloudberry picking trips. People would take potatoes and salt with them and they would pick small boletus mushrooms since they begin to appear right at the time of ripening of cloudberries. Potatoes and small mushrooms were boiled in salt water and picked from the kettle with the tip of a knife to be eaten. Dried boletus was used in wintertime in reindeer or moose meat stews.

The Skolt Sami have traditionally used the inner bark of a pine tree as an extension of their daily bread. It was considered a great delicacy when fish broth was thickened with the inner bark of this tree (Pinus sylvestris). Crushed, it was also used in bread dough.

Pettu” in Finnish, in Skolt Sámi pie’??, the inner bark of the pine tree was traditionally collected at special times of the year. The inner bark sheets were peeled from underneath the pine bark with a special tool ´pettulutta´, in Skolt vuetkkem made out of reindeer bone. The sheets were then roasted in the heat of an open fire until they were dry.

Dry inner bark sheets were crushed on top of a reindeer hide, on the hairless side. A special tool, two-edged chopper made out of reindeer shoulder bones, was used in crushing the sheets. Ready flakes were stored in a dry place. Shelf fungus / Polyporus (Inonotus obliquus) which grows on the trunks of birch trees was used and is still being used in making tea.

Skolt Medicinal Use of Plants

The Skolt Sámi traditionally inhabited places and areas that are located far away from all modern services and healthcare. Thus they had their own means and medicines to treat illnesses. Today these traditional ways of healing are gaining more and more appreciation.

Another shelf fungus / polyporos growing on birch trees, niiusik?c?äänn in Skolt, tinder fungus (Inonotus fomentarius), was used in a process called taulaaminen, in Skolt toullmõš. Fungus was dried and cut into small pieces that were set on fire. The burning pieces were then set on to the skin of the patient in the area that was in pain. When the burning piece hit the correct spot–where the pain was located–it bounced away from the skin. It has been noted that these points for burning fungus are the same as Chinese acupuncture points.

Aches and strains were treated with compresses and poultices. A poultice boiled from Northern Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), in Sámi olžvuei’vv was used in treating back and foot aches. Birch leaves and the thin, inner part of birch bark was used in treating wounds. For coughs, Skolts boiled tea from the year’s growth of pine needles in order to remove the mucus.

Tanning of Hides and Colouring of Wool

Tanning and colouring of hides was carried out using mostly willow (Salix) bark. Alder (Alnus) bark was also used in colouring, because it gave the skins a more red tone than the willow bark. Traditional ropes were made out of pine roots. They were treated with birch ashes, which made the ropes more durable. Dishes and utensils such as boxes, containers and sugar holders made out of pine root were colored using tree bark. Knitting wool and cloth were colored with solutions boiled from lichen and plants.

Containers and jewellery made from pine roots. The bag from pineroots is used to contain sharp objects to prevent them from penetrating a skin material.

Plants and mushrooms are used to color the woolen strings.

Articles for Daily Use

The Skolt Sámi have traditionally used pine roots for plaiting containers, sugar holders, dishes and pulling ropes as well as lines for fish nets. Young rowan (Sorbus) trees were bent into carrying devices and backpacks (The famous rosna backpack is a Skolt Sámi innovation), which could be used in transporting heavy loads.

Birch bark was used in making boxes for storing for example sewing materials and for picking berries and mushrooms and larger containers for fishing purposes. Birch bark was a very good material in making fish net buoys since it floats. Birch bark was also used in making fish net weights; a stone was set inside a birch bark purse. By connecting birch bark sheets by sewing with leather strings it was possible to make a practical foldable travelling table. It was light and easy to carry when travelling on the land.

Tuohikaara, a birch bark travelling fold out table contains reindeer sinew sewing to keep the birch bark together.

Juniper branches (Juniperus communis) were used in making oven brooms (besoms) that were used in removing the ashes from the oven. Wet juniper branches were used as incense when there was a need to freshen up a house that had been unused for some time. A soft shelf fungus, birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), was used as a pincushion.

Soft shelf birch polypore was used as a pincushion because it remained soft.

Re-building the Traditional Bio-cultural Landscapes Among the Indigenous Nations of the Arctic

How are the Arctic and boreal traditions re-built? How are the medicines, in all of their forms from plant life to living landscapes, re-discovered in an era of unrelenting assault from global culture, mining companies and climate change?

Answers to these questions have been developed by the late Professor Vasilii Robbek, one of the leaders of the Even Indigenous peoples of Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Siberia, Russia who are also reindeer herders like the Sámi. Snowchange staff and researchers had a profound possibility to learn from and discuss the Arctic traditional knowledge issues between 2004 and 2010, prior to his passing.

Much has been said about Professor Robbek’s academic and legal-social legacy before. Less is known about his approach to how Indigenous knowledge and traditions worked. Moving behind the rhetorics and discourses of traditional knowledge, Professor Robbek’s worldview and motivation for the life-long focus on Even and other Indigenous traditions stemmed, first and foremost, from his childhood experiences as a part of a nomadic family on the lower Kolyma area.

In April 2005 we discussed how the old Even herders ‘conceptualized’ their knowledge. Robbek proceeded to answer: “All answers can be seen from nature.” Then he reflected, as an example, how his father had predicted upcoming weather from behaviour of a forest mouse that crossed the river in a certain spot and style. From the ethnological perspective there would be value in documenting the links Even make with their natural ecosystems and traditional weather prediction – a topic that links events of nature with the interlinked weather phenomenon.

The question of Arctic Indigenous knowledge as a vehicle of issues that have not yet been ‘confirmed’ is nothing new. A recent ‘discovery of science’ determines that northern lights do make sounds–an observation known to thousands of Northern hunters, fishermen and herders for millennia, yet disputed until 2016 by natural scientists, until finally proved to be ‘true’. The Arctic is filled with examples such as this.

However, more important than single links or observations was the framing of Robbek’s life philosophy – all answers can be found from nature.

What if this sentence is not in fact a mere romantic reflection of lost civilizations and noble savages?

Professor Robbek meant what he said – that in natural world, and the engagements and belongings Indigenous peoples have with their life-worlds, are reflective systems. The troubles, questions, issues and events of human world are indeed mirrored in their homelands and its beings. This mystical-philosophical realization, profound and yet so simple, seemed to be the driving engine of Robbek’s struggles for his peoples across decades.

We can summarize this effort in the attempt to preserve the ‘traditional mind’. While English or Russian language has no adequate concepts to correspond to the Indigenous terminologies, this concept will have to do.

Robbek’s realization was that the settler societies do not have any realization of the depth and inter-connectedness of the human-nature coupled systems of the Indigenous homelands. He also observed that this link is being eroded due to a number of drivers, including cultural change, land, language and cosmological loss as well as loss of the actual habitats and Indigenous lands.

A mouse crossing a river at a specific time and place has no meaning for those people who are not fully immersed in the ‘system’ of the particular Even nomadic homeland. The event becomes mundane, meaningless.

Later in life, Vasilii Robbek directed much of his energies toward the concept of nomadic schools. This attempt was to immerse future generations of Evens and others in both worlds – the Indigenous cosmologies and the Russian curriculum as a part of the preservation of the nomadic lifestyles of Sakha-Yakutia.

A similar initiative across the Finnish Sámi areas is found in linguistic revitalization efforts. They have been built on the Maori language nests. The idea behind this action is that children, from the earliest age possible, are fully immersed in their Indigenous languages as much as possible. Often parents, who are also (re-)learning the Sámi language, join in the nests while children are learning to boost their own skills.

A struggle that remains is that funds for these language nests are negotiated on a yearly basis. Every year, major cuts are proposed, leaving it to the Sámi Parliament and civil organizations to defend and justify why the annual funds are needed.

The most advanced and deepest reaching effort underway in Finland in terms of cultural and linguistic revitalization among the Eastern Sámi is the Neiden/Näätämö river collaborative management process. It is located, with various manifestations, in the Neiden watershed. This project initiated as a cooperation between the Skolt Sámi and other Eastern Sámi communities, Sámi Council, Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment – IPCCA, United Nations University – Traditional Knowledge Initiative and the Saa’mi Nu’ett cultural organization.

The project has been a part of the international Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA) initiative that is being developed and coordinated by a Peru-based indigenous non-profit organization, ANDES, and supported by UNU. By applying the IPCCA methodology of community-led self-reflection, evaluation, and future visioning based on local worldviews and traditional knowledge, the Sevettijärvi Skolts developed a community-based climate change adaptation plan.

Out of this process a collective consensus has emerged that the climate change challenges faced by the reindeer, while significant, are manageable given the present-day nature of reindeer herding. Instead, the Skolt Sámi identified their customary salmon fishery, the other half of their traditional subsistence and cultural identity, as a much greater concern.

As a result, the Snowchange-Skolt partnership has chosen to focus their climate change adaptation efforts on enhancing the resilience of the Skolts’ traditional salmon fishery along the Näätämö River. Scientists have also identified that the stocks of the Atlantic salmon have diminished in the past 30 years, mostly due to fishing and human alterations in the habitats of the fish; the focus on the salmon is justified by the shared concern among both Indigenous societies and the science community.

Now in its sixth year, the co-management activities have spread to another Eastern Sámi home river, the Ponoi, in the Murmansk region, Russia. A major cultural-linguistic digital database and maps have been developed with international partners across the world. Earlier in 2014, the Skolts released a short film about the all-encompassing efforts underway as a part of the process of registering the Skolt Archives into the UNESCO Memory of the World institution. It was a success. Materials from the river project have been actively used in the language nest work of the Skolts.

Most profoundly, the Sámi have invited others to join. The collaborative management plan and project along Neiden includes local knowledge of the Kven Finnish-minority living on the Norwegian side of the river as well as science, local Finnish peoples and authorities. Therefore it has emerged as a potential vehicle for a ‘peace process’ between the state and the Skolts, to address decades of a colonial rule, leaving it behind and exploring a future of joint river management so that all cultures, ecosystems and landscapes can survive the 21st century.

In September 2014, the Skolts hosted a major international Festival of Northern Fishing Traditions”, another success and a demonstration of how traditional culture, language and peoples can make a powerful comeback when all of these elements work towards the same direction. Magnani documents the Cultural Festivals to be a key method for revitalization among the Skolts.

When Jouni Antti Vuomajoki found the stone axe in the forest, it became a crucial Event for him. This is a key concept in many Indigenous societies of the Eurasian North from the Sámi to the Kolyma River and shores of Chukotka in NE Siberia.

These Events, which often are documented, as “Indigenous observations” should be read in the context of a layered spherical reality. An Event, when it occurs, is often interpreted in the Indigenous culture against the immediate surroundings, but also against the deeper mythical-spiritual layers of Indigenous mind and memory. An Event can be reflected on in multiple ways – it may contain links and repetitions to mythical times, which are passed down as oral narratives and histories. It may even exist simultaneously in Myth-time and present. Robbek was one of the people who fully understood this significance.

Summarizing these efforts, for the Sámi, the lack of land or water rights remains a crucial hindrance in preserving and maintaining their medicinal plant lore and practices. On-going industrial forestry practices in the northern boreal, for instance, wipes out the plants and species characteristic of an old-growth forest and Sámi home areas.

More broadly, by listening to the voices of the Snowchange community work across the Eurasia, from Swedish Sámi to the Skolts, to Murmansk, onwards to the Khanty and Mansi in Western Siberia all the way to the Even, Yukaghir and Chukchi of Sakha-Yakutia, NE Siberia, a common realization is emerging – this is the Event, the hour of change, the moment when the future of these societies, languages and cultures is decided.

If the Indigenous leaders across the world fail now in their efforts, and the nation-states and corporations infringing on their lands continue their relentless assault, we will witness a massive collapse of both natural and cultural diversity in the imminent future. Therefore, the time has come to act today, for the Elders of tomorrow to make sure these peoples—along with their lands, communities and distinct societies–survive into the next century.


[1] The Authors are grateful to Niilo Vuomajoki for passing on this oral history, and allowing it to be published here. The Vuomajoki family reviewed the draft of the article and approved it.

[2] Translations by Tero Mustonen.

[4] Main author of this section is Satu Moshnikoff from Sevettijärvi with contributions from Tero Mustonen. The text has been translated by Kaisu Mustonen into English.


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