HELSINKI — The indigenous Sami people of Europe's Arctic region on Wednesday celebrated their national day with dance, songs and lassoing displays amid worries that their ancient traditions based on reindeer herding will disappear.
Once oppressed, most Sami now live modern lifestyles, and few still herd reindeer. But many wore their traditional brightly colored costumes as they performed chant-like joik songs and recited poems of their ancient culture at events across northern Scandinavia and Finland.
Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon greeted Sami school children in northern Norway urging them to be proud of their heritage and to remember their nomadic ancestors, who wandered freely through the northern wilderness until country borders were established.
"I think it's important that we are known for where we come from and what our cultural roots are," Haakon said in Kirkenes, 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) northeast of Oslo, near the Russian border.
In Helsinki, a few dozen protesters gathered outside Finnish Parliament to protest delays in laws granting Sami land rights and to demand more Sami language teaching.
Raila Pirinen, a native Sami speaker, who uses the language daily in social media, said she came to show support for the disappearing language that once was banned by regional officials.
There are more than 10 different Sami languages or dialects, with many not understanding each other.
"I think that now, Sami young people and couples and parents ... they understand how important it is to speak the Sami language, and they also dare to demand their rights," she said. "I think that maybe the Sami language will survive. I'm not sure, but I hope."
Nearby, visitors to an indigenous Sami market were served bowls of hot reindeer soup during an afternoon snowstorm as Samis sang traditional songs, some displaying their reindeer lassoing skills.
The reindeer herding tribes – formerly known as Lapps – settled in the region 9,000 years ago and now number about 80,000. Up to 50,000 Sami live in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden and 8,000 in Finland. In addition, an estimated 2,000 live in Russia.
Many Sami areas today have semiautonomous status with regional parliaments, after Norway created the first Sami Council in 1964 which became the Norwegian Sami Parliament in 1989. Sweden and Finland followed suit in 1993 and 1996.
Wednesday's celebrations come nearly 100 years after the Sami met at their first national congress of about 100 herders in Trondheim, Norway.