Finland Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

No one knows how long the Finns have resided within Finland; many believe it has been for over two thousand years. But the Finns are not the only peoples to call Finland home. This lesson examines some of the other groups that also live there.

The Finns

The majority of Finland is populated by an ethnic group know as the Finns or the 'Soumi' in their native language. The Finns speak a language that is part of the Finno-Urgic language family and is related to languages such as Hungarian and Estonian, to name only a few. Many scholars believe that the Finns have lived in Finland for several thousand years, and during that time developed many of the cultural traditions that mark them to this day. The traditional livelihood of the Finns was composed of agriculture and fishing, using a slash-and-burn strategy to open up more lands for farming. Although most Finns belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, traditionally they believed in a form of paganism which survived for centuries in folklore. These traditional stories were often remembered in songs called 'runos'. In the 19th century, these songs were recorded by the scholar and poet Elias Lönnrot who compiled them into the 'Kalevala', the Finnish national epic. Internationally, the Finns are also known for creating the sauna, a traditional steam bath that has been popular for centuries. In recent decades, after gaining their independence from Russia, the Finns have become one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, focusing on electronics with companies such as Nokia.

However, the Finns are not the only ethnic group to live within Finland. Below are some of the largest groups who either live within Finland or are related to the Finns, but live in neighboring regions.


The Sami are a people who live in northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. The Sami have resided in the arctic regions of Scandinavia for roughly 5000 years according to many scholars, and have been known to the outside world for at least 2 millennium; in fact the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about them in the first century A.D. Then, as now, they are a migratory culture engaged in reindeer herding. At one point, the Sami lived on much more land in Finland than they do today, but during the Middle Ages and the Modern period, settlers from the south moved northwards and pushed the native Sami from their lands. Today, the Sami struggle to maintain their traditional culture, while fighting against assimilation into Finnish culture.

The Sami speak the Sami Language. Much like Finnish, it is part of the Finno-Urgic language family. In fact, Sami and Finnish are distantly related to one another. Today, most of the Sami in Finland are bilingual, which means they speak two languages, although they usually prefer to speak Sami in the home. Although the Sami are officially recognized by the Finnish government as a minority, they still suffer many problems in Finland, such as under representation in the government, and they continue to be treated more as a linguistic minority than as a separate ethnic group.


Another distinctive ethnic community within Finland is a group known as the Swedish Finns. This group is a minority that speaks Swedish, and its roughly 260,000 members lives mostly along Finland's western coast. Sweden ruled over Finland from the Middle Ages through to the early 19th century. During this time, some Swedish settlers and administrators came to Finland to live. However, many more of the Swedish-Finn population are actually the descendants of Finns whose ancestors adopted the Swedish language. This is because government was often conducted in Swedish and the tongue became the prestige language of the region; that is, a language one needs to learn to advance in society. For instance, Lutheran ministers from Finland were trained in Swedish-speaking schools and began to adopt Swedish as their primary language. Due to their location along the coast, the Swedish-Finns are a maritime people, and their historically close relationship to the sea is reflected in their literature, songs and culture.

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