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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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