Gákti and its Role in Sámi Identity-Making

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Editor’s Note: This is the third post in Part III of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

The Arctic in discourse is frequently framed as a mysterious terra incognita, a competition over resource extraction, and as a race for supremacy. Envisioning the Arctic as an unpeopled space downplays the local history, traditions, and cultures of Indigenous people who have lived there and ignores the centuries-long effects of global threats of industrial expansion and settler-colonialism. The presence of Indigenous communities and their roles in the collection of such information often remain unacknowledged, which erases Indigenous agency and knowledge from the cartographic record and further solidifies colonial notions of an Arctic terra nullius. In the context of Sámi people, their culture, identity, and history have been adapted and reformed to fit this Western, romanticized vision of the Arctic. The significance of the visual markers of Sámi identity, notably the gákti, become reduced to little more than fashionable exotica. The gákti is a traditional dress of the Sámi people inhabiting the Sápmi region, encompassing the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula and parts of the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Gákti is a kind of traditional Sámi handicraft (duodji) that was passed down through generations and practiced as a form of Sámi cultural knowledge. Though conceived originally as handicraft, it has gradually become viewed as one of the most prominent and colourful symbols of Sámi identity, artistic and cultural expression, and political self-determination. The use of the gákti by Sámi people reflects an awareness of the self in relation to the other, interweaving the liminal experience of living between and simultaneously in both realities, that of Indigenous people’s own culture and that of mainstream society.

Women’s cardigan from Unjárga or Nessby, made of thick wadding, 1890, Varanger Sámi Museum, Varangerbotn, accession number VSM.00465, https://digitaltmuseum.no/011025210406/gakti. 

The visual elements of the gákti—the design, materials, colours, and patterns—convey messages about its local provenance, region, family, and gender.2 Traditionally worn for reindeer herding and protection against the elements, the gákti was an everyday garment until the 1960s when Sámi people transitioned into more affordable Western clothing that also achieved a thermal function.3 As a symbolically and historically charged piece of clothing, the gákti is a source of cultural pride for the Sámi, and constitutes an integral part of their artistic and cultural heritage and self-expression. However, the gákti does not function as a static identity marker, but rather is a fluid, active entity that can be adapted aesthetically and functionally to indicate the wearer’s socialization or to reflect changes in fashion and the socio-political landscape.

Centuries of cultural colonization and ethnic discrimination have led to a growing ethnographic interest in Sámi people, which manifested itself through the exotification and fetishization of Sámi cultural artefacts. The reproduction and circulation of images quickly became sites of misrepresentation and stereotyping under the guise of authenticity. Thomas Rowlandson’s hand-coloured aquatint and etching Mr. Bullock’s Exhibition of Laplanders (1822) portrays a “living exhibition” of Sámi people, reindeer, and other culturally significant artefacts at the Egyptian Hall, 22 Piccadilly. In 1822, William Bullock, a British naturalist antiquarian brought to London a group of Sámi, namely the South Sámi Jens Thomassen Holm, his wife Karen Christiansdatter, and their young child, as a way to expose “primitive” or “lower” cultures to the European public.4 Ogling spectators gather around the exhibit, chatting amongst one another, looking at the wall displays with curiosity, and interacting with the cultural “props,” like the reindeer, kayak, and lavvu tent. These “habitat displays” treated living Sámi people as a collection of standard-type specimens and their contemporary material culture as natural artefacts to be studied, which perpetuated the notion that Sámi culture was non-modernized, isolated, and frozen in time.

Thomas Rowlandson, Mr. Bullock’s Exhibition of Laplanders, 1822, hand-colored aquatint and etching, sheet: 11 1/4 inches x 15 3/4 inches (28.6 x 40 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, accession number 59.533.1782, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/363419.

Sámi encampments in the late nineteenth century onwards became prominent tourist attractions. In the 1950s, the Finnish tourism industry began to capitalize on the exotic appeal of Sámi people and culture for economic profit by selling the idea of Sámi authenticity as a product.5 Postcards marketed to tourists featured staged images of Finnish actors wearing Sámi traditional clothes with flushed faces, which conformed to popular and stereotypical images of Sámi people, a trope that has likewise been repeated in media.6 These exploitative practices redefined Sámi identity and commodified the performance of Sáminess into something palatable and appealing to the mainstream European public, serving to entertain more than to educate. As a result of its booming tourism industry in this field, Finland has developed an unhealthy economic dependency on foreign consumption, which contributes to an ongoing, vicious cycle of misrepresentation of Sámi people that strips away the right of Sámi people to self-determination.7 

“‘Parti från Lappland” (A Party from Lapland), by Nils Thomasson, 1880-1975, photograph, Tromsø Universitity Museum (tslp10812). In Cathrine Baglo, “Puncturing Parts of History’s Blindness: South Saami and South Saami Culture in Early Picture Postcards,” in The Indigenous Identity of the South Saami, edited by Hermanstrand, H., Kolberg, A., Nilssen, T., Sem, L, 93-119. Cham: Springer, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-05029-0_6

Working within the larger social and historical process of assimilation politics, self-definition, and Indigenous resistance, Sámi artists had to reconcile the aesthetic and functional concerns of the gákti in its contemporary usage and address the ongoing concern over the relevance of duodji.8 In recent decades, the gákti has gained importance and developed a larger presence in politics as a recognizable, visual, and cultural marker of Sámi identity. Gákti can be seen worn at internal political gatherings, by Sámi representative bodies and formal assemblies and for inter-ethnic or external political encounters, particularly for negotiating issues on indigenous rights and Sámi affairs.9 By wearing traditional clothing that was historically demonized, the protestors mark their Sáminess as visually, and thereby culturally, distinct and wear their culture proudly and loudly as an act of resistance. By examining the sometimes contentious associations of the gákti in its meaning-creation, from both a historical standpoint and in a contemporary context, we can critically evaluate its effectiveness in engaging with Sámi history, culture, and identity politics.


[1] Sigga-Marja Magga, “Gákti on the Pulse of Time: The double perspective of the traditional Sámi dress,” in The Sámi World, eds. Sanna Valkonen et al. (London: Routledge, 2022), 41, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003025511-4.

[2] Magga, “Gákti on the Pulse of Time,” 43-45.

[3] Ibid, 39, 45.

[4] Desiree Koslin, “The Way of Sámi Duodji: From Nomadic Necessity to Trademarked Lifestyle,” paper presented at “Textiles and Settlement: From Plains Space to Cyber Space,” Textile Society of America 12th Biennial Symposium, Lincoln, Nebraska, October 6-9, 2010, 2, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264851121; Cathrine Baglo, “Reconstruction as Trope of Cultural Display. Rethinking the Role of ‘Living Exhibitions,’” Nordisk Museologi, no. 2 (1970): 51, https://doi.org/10.5617/nm.3047.

[5] Nuccio Mazzullo, “Issues of Sámi Representation in Finnish Tourism: A quest for authenticity,” in The Sámi World, eds. Sanna Valkonen et al. (London: Routledge, 2022), 198, 200, 202, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003025511-14.

[6] Ibid, 202-203.

[7] Ibid, 203.

[8] Svein Aamold, “Unstable Categories of Art and People,” in Sámi Art and Aesthetics: Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Svein Aamold et al. (Aarhus University Press, 2017), 13-14, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv62hhh7.4.

[9] Tom G. Svensson, “Clothing in the Arctic: A Means of Protection, a Statement of Identity.” Arctic 45, no. 1 (1992): 68, 70 . https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003025511-4.

Feature image: Detail of chest patch of Sámi dress, n.d., photograph from the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm. Inv.nr NM.0118236, accession number NMA.0032187, https://digitaltmuseum.se/011013839253/detalj-av-brostlapp-till-samisk-drakt-lappland-inv-nr-nm-0118236.
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