For the Sámi traditional clothes have a significance that goes far beyond aesthetic considerations. Clothes make up a symbolic language that contains a great deal of social information about the person wearing them. According to the colours, the fabric, the designs and the signs, the caps or hats, the jewellery and accessories, one Sámi can recognize where another comes from, which group he belongs to, his status, whether he is married or not, his age, occupation, and ancestry, etc. (see next)
For this reason, and although times have changed and it is easier and cheaper to buy Western clothes (which they use on a day-to-day basis and in the outside world), Sámis continue to wear traditional clothes in the most important ceremonies and within the family, their homes and their communities.
When I travelled to Lapland for the first time I was surprised and overcome by how monotonous the landscape was. As someone from the tropics who is used to a very obvious diversity all around me, this subtle landscape seemed extremely uniform. However, this apparent uniformity was simply a product of my limited ability to perceive and identify the subtleties of the surroundings, because the Sámi have more than 144 words to talk about landscape. (see next)
In this sense, landscapes that seem identical to me are different for the Sámi, who are able to perceive them to the extent that they have that quantity of words to refer to them. This wealth of words reveals the Sámi's deep knowledge and understanding of the environment. As a common expression goes, when a Sámi gets lost, he goes home. In other words, because Sámis are so familiar with their landscape, they never get lost.
The Sámi live in a world that is predominantly white: a circumpolar region. For three months of the year the average temperature is just 0° C. The majority of their lives occurs amid frozen water, ground covered by different textures, types and tones of white that dominates the entire countryside. For this reason, the Sámi language has at least 187 terms to refer to snow, ice and frozen water in general.
From the very start of this project I intended to research the number of words used to refer to reindeer because from its origins Sámi culture revolves around taming and herding these animals. During my first visit to Lapland, I was immensely lucky to meet Mika Saijets, a Sámi journalist whose masters thesis was to compile the terms the Sámi language uses to refer to reindeer. (see next)
He found an uncanny 520 words that differentiate between these animals in terms of hair, colour, horns and sex, among other characteristics. Mika, a word herder, is also a reindeer herder and I worked with his large flock and based my work on his research.