Sami people | the Coastal Sami and their homes | Sapmi

The traditional Sami houses, the goahti, were in use until well into our own time. Anders Larsen tells us how he remembers them from the coastal Sami communities in northern Norway.
LA Dahlmann | talk NORWAY
A coastal Sami family at home in Adamsfjord, Laksefjord, Finnmark in 1909. | Photo: Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen - nb.no cc pdm.
A coastal Sami family at home in Adamsfjord, Laksefjord, Finnmark in 1909. | Photo: Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen - nb.no cc pdm.

Anders Larsen (1870-1949) was born into a Coastal Sami family – in Kvænangen in the region of Troms, Norway. He was a Sami culture champion, historian, author, editor, and teacher. This chapter of Coastal Sami history is a retelling of his work.

The ancient Sami hut

If we go back far enough in history, both the Sami and the Norse population in the northern parts of Norway lived in a goahti, a simple and ancient type of hut built of logs, peat, bark, and other natural building materials. The goahti is also referred to as a gamme. As late as around World War II, some Sami families still lived in these traditional houses.

Did you see this one?
Sami people | sleeping on a bed of glowing embers | Sapmi

The school in Rafsbotn

In 1895 I came to Rafsbotn, in the parish of Kvalsund, Finnmark, to work as a teacher. In those days, only Coastal Sami people lived there, and they all lived in the traditional goahti. The only exception was the schoolhouse, which was a log house. A few years earlier, even the schooling took place in a goahti. The teacher and the pupils regularly had to rush out when the hut filled up with smoke.

How the goahti was built and organised

The goahti floor was often square, and the living quarters were sometimes attached to a similar dwelling for the domesticated animals. The two sections were sometimes separated by a small hallway, using the same entrance door. However, a separate door to the animal shed made it easier to keep things clean and tidy. The door of the goahti – and in more recent times also the window – almost always faced the sea. This made it easier for people to monitor the activities out there on the water.

The earthen floor was usually covered by slates or flat rocks, and slates were also sometimes placed in an upright position alongside the inner wall. The height of the goahti was no more than 2 metres. The door was around 1.5 metres tall, and the doorway leaned inwards. This meant that you had to crouch down to go through it, and that the door automatically closed shut when you let go of its handle. There was no lock, just a simple wooden door-latch. Once, I visited a man in Russelv, in the parish of Måsøy, Finnmark, who had a grand house. The whole inside of the goahti was clad with wooden boards: floor, walls, and ceiling. He was very proud of it, and said it was the finest house in the whole fjord.

The fireplace and the stove

In more recent times, people had a wood stove, for heating and the making of food. A metal pipe acted as a chimney. Traditionally, there was an open fireplace in the middle of the room, and the smoke went through an opening in the roof. Over the fire was the cooking pot, attached to a hook coming down from the ceiling. The animal shed had its own open fireplace.

Did you see this one?
Facts | what does the name Norway mean?

Lighting

For as long as I can remember, people have been using kerosene lamps, except for in the animal shed. There, they used a simple and ancient type of oil lamp; fuelled by cod liver oil, or oil extracted from fat coming from the seal or the whale. Candles were usually only used at Christmas.

People and animals together in the same dwelling

Historically, people and animals sometimes lived together under the same roof. The animals were at the back, and the people closest to the door. The floor at the back was dug a bit deeper, to keep the front section cleaner and dryer.

Not a lot of space

The goahti was the centre of all indoor activities – and it was cramped. Here people slept, had their meals, and worked on their chores. Sometimes, people had a small table under the window, where they drank their coffee. A larger table was often erected during meals, with people sitting on wooden footstools around it. When it was not in use, it was put upright against the wall, or flat on the floor.

A model of a goahti - gamme. | Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt - Norsk Folkemuseum cc by-sa.
A model of a goahti – gamme. | Photo: Anne-Lise Reinsfelt – Norsk Folkemuseum cc by-sa.

Sheds and storehouses

Most of the outbuildings were down by the seafront – skjeltrehusene. There, people kept their fishing gear and other things. These buildings often had a lock. Some people also had a stabbur, mainly a storehouse for food. But it was also used for the storage of winter clothing.

Changes started to happen

I saw many changes when I returned to Rafsbotn only a few years later, in the early 1900s. Almost every goahti had wooden floors, and several families had built log houses. Many now also had horses, where they previously had used oxen.

The log houses

The log house often had two rooms, and the open fireplace was in the front room. This was also where the food was prepared. There was a separate barn for the domesticated animals. People used a small sleigh to pull the muck out from the animals and onto the surrounding meadows. During the summer, most people slept in the outbuildings. This is a custom seen both among the Sami and the Norse population.

A Sami family in front of the fire in their log house home. Not necessarily coastal Sami. From the early 1900s. | Photo: Alf Schrøder co - Finnmark Fylkesbibliotek cc pdm.
A Sami family in front of the fire in their log house home. Not necessarily coastal Sami. From the early 1900s. | Photo: Alf Schrøder co – Finnmark Fylkesbibliotek cc pdm.

Did you see this one?
Sami people | injustice and the king’s apology | Sapmi

Washing the floor and the house

Where people had wooden floors in the goahti, they washed them every Saturday. During the rest of the week, they kept things tidy by using the broomstick. In the log houses, people additionally had a thorough wash of the whole house twice a year: at Christmas and in the spring. Sand was used together with a washcloth, to scrub and make sure that everything was as clean as it possibly could be. In some places, people also sprinkled sand – or wood shavings – onto the floor after it was washed. When the sand was dirty, they swept it all up, and sprinkled clean sand in its place. The sand shouldn’t be too finely grained, as it otherwise would stick to the boots. And it should always be collected from the beach, below the high-water mark. Often, people had a heap of clean sand ready in the corner of one of the rooms.

The sweet smell of Christmas

At Christmas, and in connection with other holidays and festivities, people spread finely cut juniper branches onto the floor. They gave off a wonderful smell.

Close to nature

For millennia, the Sami people lived close to nature, both physically and spiritually. Well into our own time, their way of life was the continuation of the ways of the very early humans in these parts of the world. Soon, we will return with more of Anders Larsen’s tales of the Coastal Sami in northern Norway, and their way of life.

Did you see this one?
Ice export | a booming business for more than a century | Norway

Main source: «Om sjøsamene» by Anders Larsen – translated from Northern Sami to Norwegian by Just Qvigstad – Tromsø Museums Årshefter 1950.

Our most recent posts

My Norwegian heritage

Do you know the name of Norway’s capital city? Test yourself, friends, and family in this 10 multiple-choice questions quiz vol. 1. See the correct answer below each photo.
Ljå is a Norwegian noun that means a scythe - an old agricultural cutting-tool used when mowing the grass to make hay, or when harvesting the grain crops.
The rose painted chests of Norway - a treasure that will live for centuries to come.
Bondegård is a Norwegian noun that means farm. In informal speech and in many dialects, people only use the single word gård or gard.
After a troubled ten-year courtship, the current King Harald V of Norway finally got to marry his Miss Sonja Haraldsen on the 29th of August 1968.
The Heddal stave church - stavkirke - is Norway's largest remaining building of its kind. It is a woodwork masterpiece, with a history that stretches back more than 800 years.
Åre is a Norwegian noun that means an open fireplace, placed on the floor in the middle of a room. The smoke goes up and out through a vent in the roof - the ljore.
With this old photograph in my hand I have set myself a task: how much information can I find in Norwegian online archives based on what the photo tells me?
The majestic Norwegian mountains can be treacherous - and they steal human lives every year. Study the Norwegian mountain code - and be prepared for your next journey.
In a cold country like Norway, warm clothing is essential. This is a refined and old version of a woollen sweater from the district of Setesdal.
Some claim that porridge is the oldest hot dish in the Norwegian diet. Was it to our ancestors what bread is to the modern family of today?
With the High middle ages came expansion and progress. But everything was about to change, in the most brutal way imaginable.
17 May 1814 is regarded as the birth of the modern-day Norwegian state. But it took almost another hundred years before the Norwegians could declare complete independence.
Per O. Rød wrote the history of the Stornæve farm and its inhabitants back in 1968. Decades earlier, several children of Stornæve had emigrated to the US.
1769 was the year of the first complete Norwegian census. Today, Norway has a population of more than 5 million, in 1769 the number was 723,618.
In my childhood, life was simple. And the small joys of Christmas lifted our spirits - and delivered us safely into the new year.
Kløvhest is a Norwegian noun that means packhorse. Well into our own time, the Norwegians used horses to help transport goods through a challenging landscape.
When I was a boy, it was the workhorse that pulled the heaviest weight in agricultural life. And this had been the reality for as long as anyone could remember.
In this post you will find a list of Norway’s 15 main historical eras - from the ice age to our modern day.
With the Bronze age came a new and important phase in human history and development: mankind learned how to make tools and other objects from a metal they called bronze.
Watch some lovely vintage photos of mankinds's many good friends.

Follow us on social media

Norwegian history