Sami history

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A Sami family in Norway around 1900.

The Sami people (also Sámi, Saami) are an indigenous people of northern Europe inhabiting Sápmi, which today encompasses parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The traditional Sami lifestyle, dominated by hunting, fishing and trading, was preserved until the Late Middle Ages, when the modern structures of the Nordic countries were established.

The Sami have lived in relative co-existence with their neighbors for centuries, but for the last two hundred years, especially during the second half of the 20th century, there have been many dramatic changes in Sami culture, politics, economics and their relations with their neighboring societies. During the late 20th century, modern conflicts broke out over the construction of a hydroelectric dam, the reaction of which created a reawakening and defense of Sami culture in recent years. Of the eleven different historically attested Sami languages (traditionally known as "dialects"), nine have survived to the present day but with most in danger of disappearing too.

It is possible that the Sami people's existence was documented by such writers as the Roman historian Tacitus. They have on uncertain grounds, but for a very long time, been associated with the Fenni. However, the first Nordic sources date from the introductions of runes and include specifically the Account of the Viking Othere to King Alfred of England.


The area traditionally inhabited by the Sami people.

The area traditionally inhabited by the Sami people is known in Northern Sami as Sápmi, and typically includes the northern parts of Fennoscandia. Previously the Sami have probably inhabited areas further south in Fennoscandia.[1] A few Stone Age cultures in the area have been speculated to be associated with the ancestors of the Sami, especially in the 18th and early 19th centuries, though this has been dismissed by modern scholars and extensive DNA-testing.

Ice age[edit]

Following the last ice age, parts of the Norwegian coast line became free of ice in about 11,000 BC, which coincides with the formation of the Salpausselkä I ridge system in Finland.[2] But it was not until around 7000 BC that all of Fennoscandia was free of ice. The land mass had been pressed downwards by the weight of the ice and was still partially under water.

Stone Age[edit]

The commonly held view today is that the earliest settlement of the Norwegian coast belongs to one cultural continuum comprising the Fosna culture in southern and central Norway and what used to be called the Komsa culture in the north. The cultural complex derived from the final Palaeolithic Ahrensburg culture of northwestern Europe, spreading first to southern Norway and then very rapidly following the Norwegian coastline when receding glaciation at the end of the last ice age opened up new areas for settlement. The rapidity of this expansion is underlined by the fact that some of the earliest radiocarbon dates are actually from the north.

The term "Fosna" is an umbrella term for the oldest settlements along the Norwegian coast, from Hordaland to Nordland. The distinction made with the "Komsa" type of stone-tool culture north of the Arctic Circle was rendered obsolete in the 1970s. "Komsa" itself originally referred to the whole North Norwegian Mesolithic, but the term has since been abandoned by Norwegian archaeologists who now divide the northern Mesolithic into three parts, referred to simply as phases 1, 2, and 3.[3][4] The oldest Fosna settlements in Eastern Norway are found at Høgnipen in Østfold.

Archaeological finds from Finnish Lapland have led to some re-evaluations concerning the origin of the earliest inhabitants of Lapland. Finds from the Sujala site, on the shores of Lake Vetsijärvi, in Utsjoki, Lapland, include symmetrically shaped tanged points on blades, with symmetrical ventral retouch at the tip. Points of this precise type are very characteristic of the so-called "Post-Swiderian cultures" of Central and Northwestern Russia and the East Baltic – but are absent in Ahrensburgian contexts. The finds also include very fine prismatic blades produced by the punch and pressure techniques, which at this time were also typical of eastern blade cultures. The finds are dated to 8,300–8,200 years BP – slightly later than the earliest Komsa Phase 1 finds – and indicate that the first pioneers of the inland area of northern Lapland came from the south-east. There are indications that the two populations came in contact, but which, if either of them, survived into later times remains an open question.[5][6]


The genetic origin of the Sami is still unknown, though recent genetic research may be providing some clues. Nevertheless, it appears that the Sami are still primarily a blend of two populations known as European Hunter Gatherers and the Ancient North Eurasians.[7] A similar blended population is called Eastern Hunter Gatherer on the mainland and was called Scandinavian Hunter Gatherer when the first ancient remains in Scandinavia were sequenced. Contemporary Sami population also shows some blending with the Indo-Europeans through an admixture of genetics similar but not identical to Near Eastern early farmers, called Caucasus Hunter Gatherers.

Archeological evidence suggests that people along the southern shores of Lake Onega and around Lake Ladoga reached the River Utsjoki in Northern Finnish Lapland before 8100 BC.[8] However, these people did not speak sami. According to the comparative linguist Ante Aikio, the Sami proto-language developed in South Finland or in Karelia around 2000–2500 years ago, spreading then to northern Fennoscandia.[9]

Before the 15th century[edit]

Historically, the Sami inhabited all of Finland and Eastern Karelia for a long time, though the Eastern Sami became assimilated into the Finnish and Karelian populations after settlers from Häme, Savo, and Karelia migrated into the region. Placenames, e.g. Nuuksio on the south coast of Finland, remain as proof of former Sami settlement. However, the Sami people increasingly mixed with Finnish and Scandinavian settlers, losing their culture and language.[10] Placename evidence suggesting a former Sami presence in northwestern Russia (Arkhangelsk Region and the Vologda Region) has also been identified.[11] However, this may alternatively indicate a former population speaking a language related to but distinct from Sami proper.[12]

How far south the area of Sami population in Norway extended in the past, is an uncertain topic, and is currently debated among historians and archeologists. The Norwegian historian Yngvar Nielsen was commissioned by the Norwegian government in 1889 to determine this question in order to settle the contemporary question of Sami land rights. He concluded that the Sami had lived no further south than Lierne in Nord-Trøndelag county until around 1500, when they had started moving south, reaching the area around Lake Femunden in the 18th century.[13] This hypothesis is still accepted among many historians, but has been the subject of scholarly debate in the 21st century. In favour of Nielsen's view, it is pointed out that no Sami settlement to the south of Lierne in medieval times has left any traces in written sources. This argument is countered by pointing out that the Sami culture was nomadic and non-literary, and as such would not be expected to leave written sources.[14] In recent years, the number of archaeological finds that are interpreted as indicating a Sami presence in Southern Norway in the Middle Ages has increased. These include foundations in Lesja, in Vang in Valdres and in Hol and Ål in Hallingdal.[14] Proponents of the Sami interpretations of these finds assume a mixed population of Norse and Sami people in the mountainous areas of Southern Norway in the Middle Ages.[15]

Up to around 1500 the Sami were mainly fishermen and trappers, usually in a combination, leading a nomadic lifestyle decided by the migrations of the reindeer. Around 1500, due to excessive hunting, again provoked by the fact that the Sami had to pay taxes to Norway, Sweden and Russia, the number of reindeer started to decrease. Most Sami then settled along the fjords, on the coast and along the inland waterways to pursue a combination of cattle raising, trapping and fishing. A small minority of the Sami then started to tame the reindeer, becoming the well-known reindeer nomads, who, although often portrayed by outsiders as following the archetypical Sami lifestyle, only represent around 10% of the Sami people.

It is believed that since the Viking Age, the Sami culture has been driven further and further north, perhaps mostly by assimilation since no findings yet support battles. However, there are some folklore called stalo or tales, about non-trading relations with a cruel warrior people, interpreted by Læstadius to be histories of Vikings interactions. Besides these considerations, there were also foreign trading relations. Animal hides and furs were the most common commodities and exchanged with salt, metal blades and different kinds of coins. (The latter were used as ornaments).

Along the Northern Norwegian coast, the Sami culture came under pressure during the Iron Age by expanding Norse settlements and taxation from powerful Norse chieftains. The nature of the Norse-Sami relationship along the North-Norwegian coast in the Iron Age is still hotly debated, but possibly the Sami were quite happy to ally themselves with the Norse chieftains, as they could provide protection against Finno-Ugric enemies from the area around the White Sea.

However, in the early Middle Ages, this is partly reversed, as the power of the chieftains are broken by the centralized Norwegian state. Another wave of Norse settlement along the coast of Finnmark province is triggered by the fish trade in the 14th century. However, these highly specialized fishing communities made little impact on the Sami lifestyle, and in the late Middle Ages, the two communities could exist alongside each other with little contact except occasional trading.

Sami art[edit]

Southern Sami braid design

Traditionally, Sami art has been distinguished by its combination of functional appropriateness and vibrant, decorative beauty. Both qualities grew out of a deep respect for nature, embodied in the Sami's animism. Their religion found its most complete expression in Shamanism, evident in their worship of the seite, an unusually shaped rock or tree stump that was assumed to be the home of a deity. Pictorial and sculptural art in the Western sense is a 20th-century innovation in Sami culture used to preserve and develop key aspects of a pantheistic culture, dependent on the rhythms of the seasons.[16]

An economic shift[edit]

From the 15th century on, the Sami came under increased pressure. The surrounding states, Denmark-Norway, Sweden-Finland and Russia showed increased interest in the Sami areas. Sweden, at the time blocked from the North Sea by Dano-Norwegian territory, was interested in a port at the Atlantic coast, and Russian expansion also reached the coasts of the Barents Sea. All claimed the right to tax the Sami people, and Finnish-speaking tax collectors from the northern coast of the Gulf of Bothnia reached the northern coasts, their Russian colleagues collected taxes as far west as the Harstad area of Norway and the Norwegian tax collectors collected riches from the inland of the Kola peninsula.

Hence the hunting intensified, and the number of wild reindeer declined. The Sami were forced to do something else. Reindeer husbandry started in a limited way. These tamed reindeer were trained to divert wild reindeer over a cliff or into hunting ditches. Reindeer husbandry intensified.

The majority of Sami settled along the inland rivers, fjords or coast. They started augmenting their diet and income by fishing, either sea or freshwater, hunting other game and keeping cows, sheep and goats.

Reindeer and other animals play a central part in Sami culture, though today reindeer husbandry is of dwindling economic relevance for the Sami people. There is currently (2004) no clear indication when reindeer-raising started, perhaps about 500 AD, but tax tributes were raised in the 16th century. Since the 16th century, Samis have always paid taxes in monetary currency, and some historians have proposed that large scale husbandry is not older than from this period.

Lapponia (1673), written by the rhetorician Johannes Schefferus, is the oldest source of detailed information on Sami culture. It was written due to "ill-natured" foreign propaganda (in particular from Germany) claiming that Sweden had won victories on the battlefield by means of 'Sami magic'. In attempts to correct the picture of Sami culture amongst the Europeans, Magnus de la Gardie started an early 'ethnological' research project to document Sami groups, conducted by Schefferus. The book was published in late 1673 and quickly translated to French, German, English, and other languages (though not to Swedish until 1956). However, an adapted and abridged version was quickly published in the Netherlands and Germany, where chapters on their difficult living conditions, topography, and the environment had been replaced by made-up stories of magic, sorcery, drums and heathenry. But there was also criticism against the ethnography, claiming Sami to be more warlike in character, rather than the image Schefferus presented.

Swedish advances into Sápmi[edit]

Since the 15th century, the Sami people have traditionally been subjects of Sweden, Norway, Russia and for some time Denmark. In the 16th century Gustav I of Sweden officially claimed that all Sami should be under Swedish realm. However, the area was shared between the countries (i.e. only Sweden and Norway—at that time the Baltic-Finnic tribes of the region that is now Finland were also subjects of Sweden) and the border was set up to be the water flux line in Fennoscandia. After this "unification", the society, a structure with a few ruling and wealthy citizens called birkarls, ceased to exist, especially with the new king Charles IX who swore by his crown to be the "... Lappers j Nordlanden, the Caijaners" king 1607.[17] Yoiking, drumming and sacrifices were now abandoned and seen as (juridical terms) "magic" or "sorcery", something that was probably aimed at removing opposition against the crown. The hard custody of Sami peoples resulted in a great loss of Sami culture.

The boundary agreement (like a "Codex Lapponia") between Sweden and Norway had an attachment; frequently called Lappkodicillen or "Samic Magna Carta." It has the same meaning for Samis even today (or at least till 2005), but is only a convention between Sweden and Norway and does not include Finland and Russia. It regulates how the land is shared by Sami peoples between the border of Sweden and Norway.

After the 17th century, many Sami families lost the right to use Swedish land since they were poor and could not pay tribute for it like other subjects. The state also took the Sami area in tighter control with specific Lappmark Regulations, enforcing non-Sami settlements on the area. This fostered opposition among Sami groups that wanted hunting, fishing, and pastoralistic areas back. Instead other groups often took over to put more use to the land. It was also at this time the county of Lappland was established in Sweden.

Russian interest[edit]

In the 16th century, as part of a general expansion period for the Russian empire, missionaries were sent to the far reaches of the empire, and several Russian Orthodox chapels were built on the Kola Peninsula. The westernmost advance was St. George's chapel in Neiden/Njavdam near Kirkenes in the Norwegian/Russian borderlands.

Dano-Norwegian policies in the North[edit]

On the Norwegian side, the Sami were converted by force to the Lutheran faith around 1720. Thomas von Westen was the leading man of the missionary effort, and his methods included the burning of shamanic drums. However, economically the Sami were not that badly off, compared to the Norwegian population. They were free to trade with whom they wanted, and entertained trade links with Norwegians and Russians alike. However, the crumbling economy of the Norwegian communities along the outer coast led to increased pressure on the land and conflicts between the two communities.

19th century: Increased pressure[edit]

Three Sami women circa 1890s

The 19th century led to increased interest in the far north.

New borders in an old land[edit]

In 1809, Finland was seized by Russia, creating a new border right through the Sami area. In 1826, the Norwegian/Russian border treaty finally drew the border between Norway and Finland-Russia, where large tracts of land had previously been more or less governing themselves under very light joint control from Russia, Sweden and Denmark-Norway. This meant that reindeer herders who until now had stayed in Finland in Winter and on the Norwegian coast in Summer, could no longer cross the borders. The Norwegian/Swedish border, however, could still be crossed by reindeer herders until 1940.

The Sami crossed the borders freely until 1826, when the Norwegian/Finnish/Russian border was closed. Sami were still free to cross the border between Sweden and Norway according to inherited rights laid down in the Lapp Codicil of 1751 until 1940, when the border was closed due to Germany's occupation of Norway. After World War II, they were not allowed to return. Their summer pasturages are today used by Sami originating in Kautokeino.

For long periods of time, the Sami lifestyle reigned supreme in the north because of its unique adaptation to the Arctic environment, enabling Sami culture to resist cultural influences from the South. Indeed, throughout the 18th century, as Norwegians of Northern Norway suffered from low fish prices and consequent depopulation, the Sami cultural element was strengthened, since the Sami were independent of supplies from Southern Norway.

Economical marginalization[edit]

In all countries, the 19th century was a period of economic growth. In Norway, cities were founded and fish exports increased. The Sami way of life became increasingly outdated, and the Sami were marginalized and left out of the general expansion.

Christianization and the Laestadius Movement[edit]

In the 1840s, the Swedish–Sami minister, Lars Levi Laestadius, preached a particularly strict version of the Lutheran teachings. This led to a religious awakening among the Sami across every border, often with much animosity towards the authorities and the established church. In 1852, this led to riots in the municipality of Kautokeino, where the minister was badly beaten and the local tradesman slain by fanatic "crusaders". The leaders of the riots were later executed or condemned to long imprisonment. After this initial violent outbreak, the Laestadius movement continued to gain ground in Sweden, Norway and Finland. However, the leaders now insisted on a more cooperative attitude with the authorities.

Cultural pressure[edit]

In Norway, the use of Sami in teaching and preaching had initially been encouraged. However, with the rise in nationalism in Norway from the 1860s onward, the Norwegian authorities changed their policies in a more nationalistic direction. From around 1900 this was intensified, and no Sami could be used in public school or in the official church.

The 20th century[edit]

In the 20th century, Norwegian authorities put the Sami culture under pressure in order to make the Norwegian language and culture universal. A strong economical development of the north also took place, giving Norwegian culture and language status. On the Swedish and Finnish side, the authorities were much less militant in their efforts; however, strong economic development in the north led to a weakening of status and economy for the Sami.

The strongest pressure took place from around 1900 to 1940, when Norway invested considerable money and effort to wipe out Sami culture. Notably, anyone who wanted to buy or lease state lands for agriculture in Finnmark, had to prove knowledge of the Norwegian language. This also ultimately caused the dislocation in the 1920s, that increased the gap between local Sami groups, something still present today, and sometimes bears the character of an internal Sami ethnic conflict. Another factor was the heavy war destruction in northern Finland and northern Norway in 1944-45, destroying all existing houses and visible traces of Sami culture. After World War II the pressure was relaxed somewhat.

Prewar hardliners in Norway[edit]

The 20th century started with yet increased pressure on the Norwegian side of the border. In the name of progress, Norwegian language and culture was promoted, and Sami language and culture were dismissed as backward, uncultured, downright ridiculous and even the product of an inferior race. Land that previously belonged to no one, and was used according to age-old principles, was considered state property. Settlers had to prove they could speak Norwegian well before they could claim new land for agriculture.


In Sweden, the policies were at first markedly less militant. Teachers followed Sami reindeer herders to provide education for the children, but Sami areas were increasingly exploited by the then new mines in Kiruna and Gällivare and the construction of the Luleå-Narvik railway.

Later, with the founding of the Swedish Race Biology Institute, Sami graves were plundered to provide research material.[18][19]


In Russia, the age-old ways of life of the Sami were brutally interrupted by the collectivization of the reindeer husbandry and agriculture in general. Most Sami were organized in a single kolkhoz, located in the central part of the Peninsula, at Lovozero (Sami: Lojavri). The Soviet state made an enormous effort to develop this strategically important region, and the Sami people witnessed their land being overrun by ethnic Russians and other Soviet nationalities, including Nenets and other Arctic peoples.

World War II destruction[edit]

The Second World War was fought right in the middle of the Sami area, and the eastern Sami in North Eastern Finland and Russia found themselves fighting on opposite sides. The withdrawal of the German Wehrmacht from Northern Finland and far north of Norway meant that all houses, roads and infrastructure were destroyed. This meant forced evacuation, destruction, an economic setback and the loss of all visible history. The Finnmark province, the north-eastern municipalities of Troms province and all of the northern areas of Finland were but smoking ruins.

Renewed interest[edit]

News in Sami on national radio in Norway started in 1946. At about the same time, experiments were being done with bilingual teachings of the alphabet in the first and second grade, to ease the learning process. However, the presence of a Sami minority in Norway was largely ignored. Education, communication, industrialization, all contributed to integrating Sami communities into Norwegian society at the point of losing identity.

The conflicts between Sami and the Nordic governments continued into the mid 20th century. The proposed construction of the hydro power dam in the 1960s and 1970s contained controversial propositions such as putting a village (Máze) and a cemetery under water.

Only a minor part is today working with reindeer husbandry. There are also minor groups working as fishermen, producing Sami arts and serving tourism. Besides having a voting length in the so-called Sami Parliament or influence in any Sami language, the rest are ordinary citizens, adhering to the Scandinavian culture. In Sweden, major parts of Norrland (and not only Sami villages) are also experiencing major emigration to larger towns.

With the creation of the Republic of Finland in the first half of the 20th century, the Sami inhabiting this area were no longer under the rule of the Russian Empire, but instead citizens of the newly created state of Finland. The Sami Parliament of Finland was created in 1973. One recent issue concerning Sami rights in Finland is the foresting of traditional Sami land by state-owned Finnish companies.

Since 1992, the Sami have had their own national day; the February 6.

In 1898 and 1907/08 some Sami emigrated to Alaska and Newfoundland, respectively, due to requests from the American government. Their mission was to teach reindeer herding to Native Americans. (Source: Nordisk familjebok)

Assimilated Sami[edit]

Map showing area of Scandinavian settlement in
  eighth century
  ninth century
  tenth century
  eleventh century
  denotes areas subjected to frequent Viking raids but with little or no Scandinavian settlement

Kainuu Sami was spoken in Kainuu, but became extinct in the 1700s. Kainuu Sami belonged to the Eastern Sami language group. It died out when the Kainuu Sami assimilated and was replaced by Finnish.

The original inhabitants of Kainuu were Sami hunter-fisherers. In the 17th century, the Governor General of Finland Per Brahe fostered the population growth of Kainuu by giving a ten-year tax exemption to settlers. It was necessary to populate Kainuu with Finnish farmers because the area was threatened from the east by the Russians.

There are only 14,600 Sami living in Sweden today.[20]

Already the ancient Romans knew about the Phinnoi, the people that hunted with arrowheads made from bone. The Scandinavian historical sources from the Middle Ages praise the archery skills of the Sámi as well as their strong bows which a Norwegian “could not string”. The North Sámi called this bow juoksa. A boy turned into a man when he was able to string the bow. At that point, he also had to start paying taxes.

— Siida, JUOKSA – THE SÁMI BOW[21]

Lapland War 1944–1945 in World War II[edit]

Waffen-SS (6. SS-Gebirgs-Division Nord) were fighting in the Lapland War. There were encounters between the Sámi people and the Germans. The assimilated Sámi would have been fighting in the Finnish army.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Samenes Historie fram til 1750. Lars Ivar Hansen and Bjornar Olsen. Cappelen Akademiske Forlag. 2004
  2. ^ Deglaciation chronology of the Scandinavian Ice Sheet from the Lake Onega Basin to the Salpausselkä End Moraines
  3. ^ "Norway" Britannica online
  4. ^ Olsen, B. 1994. Bosetning og samfunn i Finnmarks forhistorie. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget
  5. ^ Survey and excavation at Lake Vetsijärvi, Lapland – Tuija Rankama & Jarmo Kankaanpää, in: PEOPLE, MATERIAL CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT IN THE NORTH, Proceedings of the 22nd Nordic Archaeological Conference, University of Oulu, 18–23 August 2004, Edited by Vesa-Pekka Herva [1]
  6. ^ Rankama, Tuija & Kankaanpää, Jarmo 2008, “Eastern arrivals in post-glacial Lapland: the Sujala site 10 000 cal BP.” Antiquity Vol. 82 No. 318.
  7. ^ map of autosomal DNA in Europe
  8. ^ Uncovering the secrets of the Sámi, a February 2006 Helsingin Sanomat article
  9. ^ Aikio, Ante (2004). "An essay on substrate studies and the origin of Saami". In Hyvärinen, Irma; Kallio, Petri; Korhonen, Jarmo. Etymologie, Entlehnungen und Entwicklungen: Festschrift für Jorma Koivulehto zum 70. Geburtstag. Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique de Helsinki. 63. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique. pp. 5–34.
  10. ^ Aikio, Ante (2012). "An essay on Saami ethnolinguistic prehistory". Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne. Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society. 266: 63–117. Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  11. ^ Matveev, A. K. (2007). "Saami Substrate Toponymy in Northern Russia". Borrowing of Place Names in the Uralian Languages (pdf). Onomastica Uralica. 4. pp. 129–139. ISBN 978 963 473 100 9. ISSN 1586-3719.
  12. ^ Helimski, Eugene (2006). "The "Northwestern" Group of Finno-Ugric Languages and its Heritage in the Place Names and Substratum Vocabulary". In Nuorluoto, Juhani. The Slavicization of the Russian North: Mechanisms and Chronology (pdf). Slavica Helsingiensia. 27. pp. 109–127 of the Russian North. ISBN 952-10-2928-5. ISSN 0780-3281.
  13. ^ Yngvar Nielsen (1891). "Lappernes fremrykning mod syd i Trondhjems stift og Hedemarkens amt" [The incursion of Lapps southwards in the see of Trondhjem and county of Hedemarken]. Det norske geografiske selskabs årbog (in Norwegian). Kristiania. 1 (1889–1890): 18–52.
  14. ^ a b Hege Skalleberg Gjerde (2009). "Samiske tufter i Hallingdal?" [Sami foundations in Hallingdal?]. Viking (in Norwegian). Oslo: Norwegian Archaeological Society. 72 (2009): 197–210.
  15. ^ :208
  16. ^ Grove Dictionary of Art, ISBN 1-884446-00-0
  17. ^ Titles of European hereditary rulers - Sweden Konung Christoffers Landslag. Edictum Regis Caroli IX eius iussu edito textui praescriptum
  18. ^ Museum of Dalarna "The dark legacy" exhibition in Sweden. 2007.
  19. ^ Savage, James (31 May 2010). "University in quest to return Sami bones". The Local: Sweden's News in English.
  20. ^ Languages of Sweden, Ethnologue.
  21. ^ "Juoksa – The Sámi Bow - Siida". Siida 2010. 10.6.2010. Retrieved 30 October 2011. Check date values in: |date= (help)

External links[edit]