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Same, Same, But Different – the Future of the Saami People

(Photo: Manfred Werner)

The Saami are an indigenous people who have lived in an area in the northern hemisphere referred to as Sápmi for about a thousand years. In time this area came to be divided into modern-day Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia. A debate is currently raging among the Saami, on account of the proposal of a Nordic Saami Convention. The official story is that the Convention is supposed to give the Saami peoples of Norway, Sweden and Finland equal rights in all three states – but is that really the whole picture?

Traditionally, the Saami used to practise their own religion and culture, and live off of fishing or the keeping of reindeers (depending on whether they live by the coast or in the inland). The culture took its expression in things like joik (traditional Saami singing), the Saami languages and duodji (traditional Saami handicraft). Today, the number of people identifying themselves as Saami is estimated to be about 110 000, more than half of whom live in Norway. The majority of the Saami people do not live off of the keeping of reindeers in Sápmi anymore, but have instead been integrated into society and live in cities.

The Saami history is one filled with mistreatment by state governments, shame and forced suppression of the Saami identity. In Sweden, the Saami were described as a lower standing race, commonly referred to as lappar. In order to supposedly protect them from extinction, novelties such as electricity and regular Swedish schooling were kept from the Saami. They were also coerced into converting to Christianity shortly after the reformation. In Norway, repression of the Saami language was prevalent and only Norwegian speakers had the right to purchase land in Finnmark (the Norwegian part of Sápmi).

Photo of a Saami child on a reindeer from the 1930s. (Photo: Britt-Marie Sohlström)

The rights of the Saami people have in many regards been restored during the 20th century, starting with the recognition of the Saami as an indigenous people. There are Saami Parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden, which are meant to safeguard the traditional Saami way of life and represent the standpoint of the Saami peoples in political matters concerning them. The Saami Parliamentary Council (SPR) is the cooperative body of the Saami Parliaments, and there is also the international Saami Council, an NGO with a consultative role to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

The situation has certainly improved for the Saami peoples, but the governments of Norway, Sweden and Finland have now decided it is time for a joint effort to give them equal rights in these states. This is taking the shape of a Nordic Saami Convention, meant to guarantee the Saami people’s right to self-determination in questions regarding their economic, social and cultural development as well as their natural resources. It is also stated in the Nordic Saami Convention that the Saami is one people residing across national borders and that it has a particular need to develop its society across national borders, which is why the Convention is to be signed by three governments, instead of just one.

However, amazing as the Nordic Saami Convention may sound, it might be too good to be true. The proposal has met determined opposition among the Saami people. Jörgen Jonsson from the National Union of the Swedish Saami People (SSR) declared in January that the proposal is seriously flawed and does not strengthen the rights of the Saami people in any way. In fact, he argues, it would only strengthen the unilateral right of decision by the states over the Saami people. The Saami Association of Norway (NSR) demands further negotiations of the  Convention, pointing specifically to the parts addressing Saami rights to self-determination and the right to their own lands. They ask that these segments be re-written, before considering accepting the Convention.

Sáminuorra is an independent Saami youth organisation originating in Jokkmokk, Sweden. They have stated that their problem with the convention is that it in several areas gives Saami a lower level of rights than those specified in international standards for indigenous peoples. Another subject for critique from Sáminuorra, is that the Convention will not stop the states from deciding who is Saami or not, while Sáminuorra thinks this should be a question for the Saami to decide for themselves.

A plenum of the Norwegian Saami Parliament in 2009. (Photo: Sámediggi)

Now, only time will tell what lies ahead for the Nordic Saami Convention and the Saami people. The presidents of the Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian delegations in the negotiations are in support of the proposal, but the national Saami Parliaments have yet to cast their vote. The Swedish minister of Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke, thinks the convention will be an important step in consolidating the rights of the Saami, but is open to amendments of the Convention, if that is the wish of the Saami Parliaments. The Norwegian and Finnish Saami Parliaments are both to assemble in June 2017 to discuss the proposal. The president of the Finnish Saami Parliament, Tiina Sanila Aikio, and her Norwegian counterpart, Vibeke Larsen, encourage the Saami civic society to engage in the matter.

This summer, the Saami Parliaments will give their verdicts on the Nordic Saami Convention, be it a positive one or one that will find the Nordic countries guilty of trying to gain further control over the Saami people. Hopefully, the Convention can be a step in the right direction for the rights of the Saami people. The fact that there has been no mention of a Nordic Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which the Nordic governments would make an official apology for their ill-treatment of the Saami people in the past, is notable.

Judit Olofsson

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