Today Saami people mostly reside in arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Their prehistoric trajectories, predating “borders,” are as nonlinear as the antecedent trajectories that implicate more and more, eventually all, of us humans. Saami and other Fourth World peoples share concerns about the survival of their cultures, their languages, themselves. Their “homeland” consists in the rights they claim in their now enveloping nation-states. In contrast, refugees' historic trajectories have entailed the transgression of borders—centripetally and centrifugally, by gradual or urgent leaks and absorptions—sometimes landing them in the same, already contested, spaces. In this essay, traditionally nomadic Saami encounter the most contemporary of global migrants and refugees.

Saami adage: Jođi lea buoret go oru (To move on is better than to stay put)1 


Take One: Dangling a Mind into the River

Migration: It's what we do, it's who we are, it's how we think. I speak of our human species.

The more our collective past reveals itself, as is happening now in the early 21st century, the more rambling our trajectory, no, trajectories, out of Africa, and eventually all the way into the arctic, where almost a half-century ago I encountered the Saami people of Lapland—in a “homeland” of a few thousand years for some tens of thousands of reindeer-herders, farmers, fishing folk, teachers, entrepreneurs, truck-drivers, public servants, politicians. The Saami had migrated here in waves from the east and south, when there were no nation-states, and no label for themselves … that we know of … but also when there were other persisting movements of sparse populations. Now the Saami reside over mostly arctic areas in four nation-states where they are hemmed in by the North Sea: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. There, blocked from further migration, they are united by language, separated by dialects and national languages; united by culture, separated by styles of subsistence and now by other occupations within local economies; united by a sense of identity, separated by nationality; united by region, separated by national and international regulation of trade first and then commerce too.2 

The Saami are moreover united by their shared philosophy about time and motion, illustrated in the adage above and elsewhere. It's an optimistic forward-looking philosophy: embracing opportunity; uncertainty; admitting of curiosity; laissez-faire; risk-tolerant. The other side of this coin might be a complementary skirting of obligation, situational irresponsibility, denial of the consequence of the moment, a postponement of the bottom line. Or not.

But life itself is matter in motion.3 That should be as obvious and noteworthy as Mary Douglas's “Dirt is matter out of place.”4 Sometimes humans in motion are also matter out of place. Sometimes nomads have no place, while they are occupying all places. Sometimes refugees, in motion or stuck in place, are also matter “out of place.” In that case, “moving on” may serve as an antidote, but never a solution.5 

Around the globe, these habits involving human mobility in space and through time varied in scale, periodicity, duration, motivation, even entropy.6 Some migrations, or segments thereof, were largely motivated by the promise beckoning at the impending edge of space and time. Other migrations were more urgently fleeing from hardships suffered under ambient conditions. Until the recent historical period, migration of folk groups took place “without borders,” until and unless they encountered other groups.

Take Two: A Metalogue7 between Centripetality and Centrifugality

Re-wind: The genus Homo first leaked out of Africa, toward Eurasia, 2 million years ago; that's more palpable as 80,000 generations ago. Some populations of our later species Homo sapiens also started leaving Africa 300,000 years ago—that's 12,000 generations ago, swirling over and around the continents. But some groups from these populations also returned to Africa, bouncing back and forth, bumping into each other, even continuing to explore Africa beyond their origin in the Rift Valley of the northeast. Technically the 7 billion of our conspecifics around the earth today have just this one original homeland, which would not then have had a name or borders other than those suggested by local topography as interpreted by its inhabitants. We can't return to that homeland.

Our early ancestors were gatherers and hunters, moving with the seasons of their subsistence needs and with the grain of their curiosity. Our species label of sapiens, for “wise,” might not be as apposite as either “peregrinatious” or “promiscuous.” However, “peregrinatious” and “promiscuous” both boil down to being “curious.” Curiosity: our gift and our “gift,” the latter also something given, but as poison.

By 100,000 years ago, there's evidence that close cousins to Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans, had reached Siberia, and interbred with each other and with Homo sapiens, such that everyone today bears genetic traces of those interactions.8 From 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, much of northern Europe was covered by an ice sheet, with humans traveling northward, or maybe southward (archaeological evidence is still inconclusive), along Scandinavian coastlines as these emerged from ice, and as the landmass rose once freed of the weight of ice.9 We cannot associate these earliest populations with any of the peoples or language families we know about today; Finno-Ugric and Scandinavian migrations arrived later, more or less since 10,000 years ago, like yesterday, 400 generations ago.

Also around 10,000 years ago, in widely dispersed regions on several continents, some nomadic gathering and hunting populations turned to a sedentary lifestyle, largely because of the Neolithic invention (or was it discovery?) of food production, as in agriculture, that replaced or complemented the gathering and hunting lifestyles up to that point.10 On the trajectory leading to the Saami, however, given the climate and topography of their high latitudes, any possibility for the cultivation of domesticated plants did not distract them from their devotion to nomadism, and meat.11 Their analogous Neolithic revolution occurred some millennia later, with the domestication of hunted wild reindeer.12 

Gathering and hunting peoples lived alongside the Neolithic settlements supported by agriculture in temperate and tropical regions, their relationships highly symbiotic. The new urbans not invested in agriculture took on specializations, from pottery and basket-making to occupying roles of priests and kings. No longer “peregrinatious,” but no doubt still “promiscuous,” these new urbanites even ratcheted up their capacity for “curiosity.” The “Neolithic” label captures this curiosity, as it refers to the “new stone” age, although by 5,000 years ago the materials for tools and toys expanded from stone to the metals, with many other materials such as bone, antler, wood, and reeds along the way failing to survive for the archaeologist.

Take Three: Turgidities of Diversities

Back to the European periphery, fast forward to 6,000 years ago to the earliest populations speaking a proto-Indo-European language—these peoples were also curious, peregrinatious, and promiscuous, spreading in waves outward, west to Europe and east to the Indian subcontinent, and also migrating back and forth from the core area (perhaps between the Black and Caspian Seas), surging to satisfy their curiosity, sometimes reporting back to friends and kin, maybe inspiring some of these to venture forth. Other emergent language families were also expanding and contracting, among them the Finno-Ugric. Saami-, Finnish-, Estonian-, and Hungarian-speakers belong to this Finno-Ugric language family, for which we may infer a prehistory comparable to the Indo-European: moving about and/or settling down; encountering other groups; experiencing fusion, fission, confrontation, extermination, flourishing, symbolic boundaries; and variously dominating but also being subjugated.

By 4,000 years ago—that's only 160 generations ago—the migrating populations of similar peoples were being constrained by the occupations of other such groups, and beyond Europe empires emerged, with their peripheries under constant negotiation. Eighty generations later, at the beginning of the “current” or “common” era around 1 CE, in Europe the shape of some future kingdoms could be discerned, to be established after 1000 CE. Twenty generations later, 1500 CE, which is also about 20 generations ago, the map filled out with labels and borders. Only a few generations later did actual nation-states (with a rationality of internal similarity) and countries (recognizing internal diversity) emerge. Nation-states rank as a major invention (again, or discovery) of our species, but one that also is wearing thin.13 

About this time, 500 years or 20 generations ago, the dispersed and dispersing proto-Saami, like Siberian peoples to the east in Eurasia, eventually shifted from a reliance on the hunting of reindeer to the herding of reindeer, but only long after they established their contemporary habitats.14 As wild populations of reindeer thinned from overhunting, the Saami were positioned to enter into a co-domestication (genetic) process with the reindeer, somewhat continuous with the incipient co-taming (social) relationship that they had obtained earlier. The reindeer migrations between seasonal pasturage continued to shape the migrations of the Saami, but eventually only within the circumscribed regions that were to become other peoples' nation-states, where increasingly their livestock had to avoid those later occupiers' presumed usufruct.

Throughout prehistory and now history, interstitial groups persisted. Some, like the Saami, practice a mobility bound to the migrations of their livestock, in this case, reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, the same species as the wild North American caribou). Until recently called by others “Lapps” and living in an amorphous “Lapland,” the Saami now reside across four nation-states but in an equally amorphous “Saapmi” region that does not appear on maps. Any proximate earlier prehistoric or even historic homeland is not crisp and unambiguous from archaeological and genetic evidence; Saami folklore, however, emphatically lays claim to Saapmi and only Saapmi for a homeland, no matter how it may straddle contemporary nation-states.

Other peregrinatious groups include those without four-footed portable wealth like reindeer, but with portable wealth nonetheless in their exchangeable or marketable skills and trades, and in their precious metal ornamentation, like the Roma and Jews. All these populations may migrate with regularized trajectories, or in response to adversities, or, of course, both. Saami nomads favor both genres of portable wealth—on the hoof and, conspicuously, on their outfits—and their migrations today more concern their reindeer than themselves, when only herders rather than whole families are so engaged except for more ritual events.

Saami adage: Gumpe doarvvi ii goassege leat nohka (The wolf's “enough” is never enough.15 


While the deep ancestry of contemporary populations will exclusively consist of people with migration as a lifestyle, in recent history migration comes to be about national borders, across which one emigrates in order to immigrate, to the other side if not onward. For most of the past 20-plus generations since 1500 CE, Saami reindeer nomads and other settled Saami were the prominent folk, or ethnic group, in Saapmi. But since 1800 CE, more and more of the population representing the national cultures have settled in the arctic such that today the Saami are not alone in Saapmi. Since the prosperity and displacements following World War II, and particularly in this 21st century, hundreds of thousands of guest workers and refugees have landed in Sweden and Norway; some recent refugees have found themselves in the arctic, in Saapmi regions.

As an indigenous ethnic minority, the Saami are one of Europe's most conspicuous Fourth World16 peoples that straddle nation-states; the Basques are another. Saami reindeer-herding nomads now constitute a minority, perhaps 10 percent, of all Saami residents in arctic Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Their migrations no longer follow their herds without concern for borders, because the herds themselves have for generations been constrained to separate and specific routes, within the borders of their country. As Europeans, the Saami may cross these borders, but their livestock may not.

Saami not invested in reindeer management are more apt to not just “move on,” but to “move out,” of Saapmi. At the close of the 19th century, and into the 20th century, fewer than a dozen families contracted to relocate to Alaska, Canada, and Greenland as experts on reindeer-breeding, but this emigration does not rate as a diaspora. From the latter half of the 20th century, however, some thousands of individuals have relocated south in their own countries, often to their capital cities. When feasible, most migrants and their descendants continue to “migrate,” returning frequently to the north to refresh their longing to speak their language and relish the berries, fish, and meat most available in Saapmi.

Even today, though, mobility characterizes the Saami lifestyle at every scale. The reindeer migrate seasonally back and forth across the tundra, while the herders may use snowmobiles and their families may approximate these routes by car. Both adults and children move about a lot, in wide as well as narrow orbits, and as individuals more than in groups. Individuals pass through the houses and tents of neighbors, whether they be kin or friends. Once inside a house, both host and visitor move about, and so does the furniture. Even cabins will be relocated from place to place.17 Physical motion—unto downright exertion—is itself admired, especially when observed of the very young, of the very old, and of herding dogs and reindeer. The Saami must sense that humans are designed to be active18—perhaps a souvenir from the deep past when there were no options for our species but for mobility. This is not to say that the Saami are averse to relaxation, only that they know when to do so. I've been reminded of the “hurry up and wait” principle that's commonly associated with an infantry.

My own travels back and forth within Saapmi and between continents since 1971 seem unremarkable to these people, whether they are reindeer nomads or not. I need not give advance notice, yet they are never surprised. For “two generations,” and half of my life, I have been consumed by this ethnography in arctic Norway. I've lived perhaps a cumulative eight of those years in Saapmi, both residing and on seasonal migration. There, most of my friends identify as Saami, some of them only gradually acknowledging this since I arrived 47-plus years ago. That new identity—that “really” their ancestors were Saami and not Norwegian—not only involves a border-crossing of sorts, but also rests on the same unfortunate binary: denying that all humans are amalgams of a many-spangled past. We are not so convincingly “hybrids” as we are “mongrels.”

Many of these Saami, however proud and pleased they may be with their traditional or discovered identities, at the same time acknowledge discomfort and slight feelings of inferiority with respect to the dominant nationality. Texts composed by preachers, teachers, and colonizers in their national languages over the centuries have described the Saami with many of the same terms as recorded elsewhere regarding ethnic, impoverished, or pariah Others: prominent among the terms is “dirty.” Even today, Saami admit to making sure they, and their elaborate and expensive traditional outfits, are not “dirty.” As in the case with other communities, the Saami are sensitive to the possibility that they might also be deemed “lazy,” “sloppy,” “deceitful,” or “dishonest.”

On average, the Saami tend to be more slightly-built than Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, or Russians; this distinction, shortness, takes on the indelibility of a “racial” feature, situating the Saami closer to both earth and dirt. Relative height is never discussed, as it is obvious, but individual Saami may be defensive about their short stature. While taking pride in their colorful traditional outfits, studded with silver and gold brooches, Saami men and women decorate themselves beneath mirrors hanging at an angle above head-height in room or tent—thus checking out how their showcased ethnic best appears to taller folk. Oddly or not, Saami adopt the same judgments—“lazy,” “sloppy,” “deceitful,” “dishonest”—of Roma families as they have themselves suffered from the dominant national society, recorded in documents and experienced in real life. A few Roma families seasonally travel through Saapmi, while today refugees from temperate and tropical climes live year-around in some of the same communities. The Saami tend to be equally judgmental of refugees, somewhat dismissive about their relative height.

The Saami increasingly sense a political kinship with other Fourth World peoples, but not with refugees. Saami organizations routinely communicate with Amerindians in the New World, and Aborigines and Maori of Australia and New Zealand, respectively. The most fundamental concern of these indigenous ethnic minorities with respect to their enveloping nation-states centers on rights to, and respect for, their very culture and language, particularly regarding traditional subsistence, concretely requiring secure land and waters.

A few Saami individuals and a Norwegian anthropologist working with Inuit in Greenland were among those involved in bringing forth the first World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP, 1974–1996) held in 1975 in Port Alberni, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Relying on the web and personal communications from fieldwork at that time, this initial extraordinary assembly, from 27 to 31 October 1975, drew 52 delegates from 19 nation-states, besides 260 participants, 135 observers, 25 press members, and 54 staff members. Despite—or perhaps also because of—the considerable Saami involvement in the planning of this event, with monetary support of their nation-states, some Saami delegates and participants confessed to feeling themselves shunned or discriminated against because they “looked European” rather than being distinctively Other.

The WCIP dissolved in 1996, due to internal differences. The momentum for awareness has not abated, however, and in 2007 the United Nations established the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and, in 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages.


Recent scientific research that increasingly dissolves the categories of earlier assumptions—finding that migrations that had been linear now seem multidirectional and even oscillatory—goes further to question the most basic unit of analysis: the human individual.19 Between epigenetics (organisms' heritability reflecting the experience of earlier ambient conditions, not just genetics) and the microbiome (organisms' constituents reflecting quite separate organisms with their own genetics, particularly in the digestive system), some researchers assert that “we have never been individuals”; rather, like lichens, we are composed of wholly different kingdoms,20 our kingdoms also including “animalia,” however.


Harald Gaski and Aage Solbakk, compilers, Jođi lea buoret go oru—Sátnevádjasat [“To move on is better than to stay put—Saami proverbs”] (Karasjok, Norway: ČálliidLágádus, 2003).
Myrdene Anderson, Saami Ethnoecology: Resource Management in Norwegian Lapland (PhD diss., Yale University, 1978).
Dean Tantillo, “Wiggling and Jiggling,” American Scientist 107, no. 1 (2019): 22–25. But it's not only life that is matter in motion; current research points up that all matter is in motion.
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1966), 36. Note that Douglas herself was unclear as to provenance of the phrase. See also Ben Campkin, “Placing ‘Matter Out of Place’: Purity and Danger as Evidence for Architecture and Urbanism,” Architectural Theory Review 18, no. 1 (2013): 46–61.
Molly Crabapple, “Where Else Can They Go?” The New York Review of Books 65, no. 19 (2018): 14–17 [Reviewing: (1) Olivier Kugler, Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018); (2) Don Brown, The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018); (3) Kate Evans, Threads: From the Refugee Crisis (London: Verso, 2017)].
Myrdene Anderson “Peircean Habit Explored: Before, During, After, and Beneath, Behind, Beyond,” in Consensus on Peirce's Concept of Habit: Before and Beyond Consciousness, ed. Donna E. West and Myrdene Anderson (New York: Springer, 2016), 1–10; Geoffrey West, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies (New York: Penguin, 2017).
See Myrdene Anderson and Devika Chawla, “Reverberating Voices: The Indulgences of Metaloguing,” in Semiotics 2011, ed. Karen Haworth, Jason Hogue, and Leonard G. Sbrocchi (Ottawa: Legas Publishing, 2012), 232–39. Here and in other publications, the authors explore “metalogue,” drawing on Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1972); and Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred (New York: Macmillan, 1987).
Viviane Slon et al., “The Genome of the Offspring of a Neanderthal Mother and a Denisovan Father,” Nature 561 (2018): 113–16.
Torsten Günther et al., “Population Genomics of Mesolithic Scandinavia: Investigating Early Postglacial Migration Routes and High-Latitude Adaptation,” PLOS Biology 16, no. 1 (2018): e2003703,
James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).
Noel D. Broadbent, Lapps and Labyrinths: Saami Prehistory, Colonization, and Cultural Resilience (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2014).
Ørnulv Vorren, “Some Trends of the Transition from Hunting to Nomadic Economy in Finnmark,” in Circumpolar Problems: Habitat, Economy, and Social Relations in the North, ed. Gösta Berg (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1973), 185–94.
See L. Ali Kahn, “The Extinction of Nation-States,” American University Journal of International Law and Policy 7, no. 2 (1996): 197–234.
Vorren, “Some Trends,” 185–94.
Harald Gaski, compiler, Time Is a Ship That Never Casts Anchor: Saami Proverbs (Karasjok, Norway: ČálliidLágádus, 2006).
Nelson H. H. Graburn, “1, 2, 3, 4 … Anthropology and the Fourth World,” Culture 1, no. 1 (1981): 66–70.
Myrdene Anderson, “Space, Time, Motion, Habit, and Saami ‘Nomadism,’” Koht ja Paik / Place and Location: Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics 5 (2006): 119–29.
Herman Pontzer, “Evolved to Exercise; Unlike Our Ape Cousins, Humans Require High Levels of Physical Activity to Be Healthy,” Scientific American 320, no. 1 (2019): 22–29.
David Quammen, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018).
Scott F. Gilbert, Jan Sapp, and Alfred I. Tauber, “A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals,” Quarterly Review of Biology 87, no. 4 (2012): 325–41.