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The Saami of Scandinavia and Russia: Great strides towards self-determination since World War II

Lars Anders

The Saami of Scandinavia and Russia: Great strides towards. self-determination since World War II

We are a people from the northernmost part of Europe, with our land - called Saapmi - divided among Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. We are a numerically small people, only about 70,000, but we are a part of the 350 million indigenous people worldwide. Our history is full of the same injustices committed by strangers as the history of many other indigenous peoples. We have not been the object of genocide, but we face discrimination in our everyday life as well as in the laws of the nation-states that deal with us. Our rights have been undermined not only in the name of communism, but also in the name of democracy. We stand to lose our rights to land and water, which we have considered ours for the past several thousand years. We are not making big demands, for we are not many, and our land is large. Like many other indigenous people around the world, we want to control our lives, our culture and our land. Compared with other indigenous people, we have come a long way in this respect.

Saapmi (also known as Lapland or Saamiland) has been divided up during the course of history by Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Our future as a people, our way of living and our culture, are inseparable from our right to land and water. Our land is an absolute requirement for our survival. Our struggle for self-determination and rights to land and water is part of an international movement among indigenous peoples, that affirms the principles of human rights, democratic freedoms, and the fundamental principles of the United Nations.

The Saami are the oldest ethnic group in the Nordic countries and on Russia's Kola Peninsula. The total number of Saami is about 70,000, with half of that in Norway, 17,000 in Sweden, 5,000 in Finland, and 2,000 in Russia. However, the Saami population may be much bigger, perhaps as large as 100,000. It is difficult to estimate the true size, since a census has never been taken. The four involved states have an interest in keeping Saami population estimates low. Saami society, with its unique cultural and religious traditions, is based on adaptation to the Arctic climate and nature. Since pre-Christian times, Saami religion has regarded humans and nature as one integrated totality. The oldest archaeological discoveries in Saapmi, found along the coast of the Arctic Ocean in northern Norway, date back to about 10,000 years ago. For several thousand years the population of Fennoscandia, ancestors of the modern-day Saami, lived as hunter-gatherers. Four thousand years ago some of these hunting and gathering people became sedentary farmers along the Atlantic coast. Their principal contacts were now with the south, and they assimilated southern Scandinavian culture traits and even accepted Nordic language. The people who continued to live non-sedentary lives maintained the old language and culture as well as the contacts with the east. The shape of objects and symbols are ways of marking ethnic identity. Archelogists have found ceramic and bronze objects from 1500 BC in Saapmi (Saamiland). The decorations on these objects are similar to objects found in present-day Russia. They were part of a wider circumpolar cultural sphere which maintained contacts with each other. Evidence of later human habitation has been found throughout Saapmi. It is likely that these are the remains of the people who later came to be called Saami. The most common prehistoric finds are pits for catching moose and wild reindeer. From the beginning, the Saami were hunters and fishermen, whose primary game was the wild reindeer. They caught it in long rows of open pits, traces of which can be still seen in Saapmi.

The Saami language is one of the Finno-Ugric languages, which together with the Samoyedic languages comprise the Uralic language family. Early Saami areas of settlements reached much further south, but just like the American Indians, the Saami had to retreat from the aggressive advance of Western "civilization". Since the Saami were so spread out, living in small communities, they soon became a minority in most areas. However, there are a few exceptions: some municipal districts in northern Finland and northern Norway have a Saami majority.

In the past few decades there has been a substantial migration from Saami areas, resulting for example in the 1,500 Saamis living in Stockholm. Since cultural and social contact has long existed between the Saami and the colonizers (i.e. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, and Russians), a certain amount of interchange has occurred. Many Saami have become assimilated into mainstream society, due to a strict assimilation policy and migration from Saami areas.

A local Saami village was traditionally comprised of one or more sii'da (collective units, not necessarily members of the same family), each with its own council and administration. The Saami community was based on the "principle of the sii'da." Each sii'da had its own hunting grounds and fishing waters, which the entire village used collectively. The sii'da was based on strict democratic principles and had a legal system which functioned both internally and between different sii'das, with its own special courts. The sii'da was responsible for the rights of the collective, "owned" the land and its resources, and decided how they were to be used and distributed.

The colonization of Saapmi and exploitation of its resources began at the dawn of the Middle Ages and grew during the 13th and 14th centuries, when trade with the Saami flourished and taxes were levied on them. Since several states claimed sovereignty, the Saami were forced to pay taxes to several Crowns. Missionaries and Christianization followed in the wake of trade and taxes. The first missionaries worked brutally to gain psychological, and thereby political, control over the Saami. From 1751 to 1826, the nations that claimed Saapmi divided it up among themselves. The last half of the 19th century was the darkest chapter in Saami history. The Industrial Revolution depended on access to raw materials found in abundance in such places as Africa, Latin America and Saapmi. Prior to this Saapmi had been considered a worthless no-man's land. Now it became the source of raw materials for Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia - the role that Africa and India played for England.

Saami ownership of land and waters became an obstacle to exploiting its natural resources: iron ore, timber and water-power. Powerful forces within colonial societies manipulated the law to weaken the Saami's land and water rights and to open its natural resources to exploitation. In 1886, for example, Sweden's first Reindeer Grazing Act reduced Saami land ownership to a kind of usufructuary right to grazing lands, hunting grounds and fishing waters. This act created Swedish supremacy over the Saami, depriving them of their decision-making rights and justifying it on racial grounds. This interpretation by the state concerning Saami land rights was not in the framework of the law.

Colonial policy toward the Saami was justified by racist ideology that found "scientific verification" in Darwin's theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Advocates of Social Darwinism divided the human races into superior and inferior groups. They claimed that the Swedish race and culture were considerably more advanced than the racially primitive Saami people and their backward culture. The logical consequence of this attitude was Swedish supremacy over the Saami. This policy, now considered obviously racist, culminated in the 1920's in the work of Hjalmar Lundborg at the National Institute of Human Genetics in Uppsala. The theory of the inevitable extinction of primitive peoples and the natural expansion of Western civilization justified the inhuman consequences of colonialism.

The Saami's first attempts at political organizing were forcefully opposed during this period. Their fight for their rights is a result of this era.


The end of World War II and the United Nation's Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 meant another turning point for the Saami people. Nazi racism outraged the entire world, and the Nazi defeat affected Swedish policy toward the Saami. Racist attitudes were unacceptable after the War, and after 1948 racist values could no longer find sanction in official Swedish Saami policy. The UN declaration made it easier for the Saami to organize, and in 1950 the National Union of Swedish Saami Peoples was founded.


The primary political goal of the Saami today is the right to self-determination, including the right to control our society and our destiny. We argue that we possess both collective and private rights to our land, and ILO Convention 169 supports this. Our inhabiting and using the land from time immemorial precludes any states from claiming the so-called "right of discovery" or "right of occupation." In accordance with Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and probably also Russian law and legal practice, hereditary Saami land rights are founded on the principle of continual usage, as evidenced by tax records of Saami land titles and other legal documents.

We, the Saamis, have the right to self-determination as other peoples and nations - even to establish our own nation. Our expressed policy so far is that we at least are entitled to autonomy within existing state boundaries. Politically we look upon ourselves as one people and one nation. This means that the Saami Parliaments in Finland, Sweden and Norway now cooperate very closely. The next step in the Saami political agenda is to create a Pan-Saami Parliament.


After many years of political activities, lobbying and demonstrations protesting the decision to build a hydroelectric dam in the heart of Norway's Saapmi, the Norwegian government established a Saami Rights Commission in 1980. Based on its first report, in 1987 the Norwegian Parliament adopted a constitutional amendment to safeguard and develop the Saami language and culture. At the same time it also adopted a bill, called the Saami Act, instituting the Saami Parliament. The Saami register in a special electoral register and elect representatives to their Parliament by direct ballot. They elected Ole Henrik Magga as first President of the Parliament in the first free Saami election, held in 1989.

Under the terms of the Saami Act, the Saami Parliament can take initiative in all matters involving the Saami people, and may also on its own initiative bring matters to public authorities, private institutions, or other bodies. According to the Act, other public bodies should consult the Saami Parliament before they make decisions on Saami-related matters. The experience of the Saami Parliament for its first four years has been positive so far.

After years of hesitation, the Norwegian government submitted a proposal to Parliament to allow the Saami to use their language officially. The Norwegian Parliament adopted the Saami Language Act in 1991. Although the act is not as far reaching as the Saami Parliament demanded, it is a positive step.

Finally, Norway has ratified the ILO Convention 169 on indigenous peoples, becoming one of only five nations worldwide to do so. In the coastal areas of northern Norway, the so-called Sea Saami have claimed certain fishing rights. After demands from the Saami Parliament, the Norwegian government conducted an investigation into Saami rights to fish in the sea. It concluded that the Sea Saami do have coastal fishing rights, based on international and customary law. Customary law - customary praxis among Saamis - has been accepted by Norwegian law to some extent. Countries should take into consideration both international law and praxis customary law.


In Finland, the Saami Parliament - first elected in 1973 - has only advisory capacity and its achievements to date have been modest. Finland's proposed new Saami Act focuses on the authority of the Saami Parliament and on land rights. Finland has not yet resolved the issue of Saami rights to the lands and waters which they have traditionally used. Under the Saami Act - proposed in 1990 by the Saami delegation, a joint body of the Finnish government and the Saami Parliament - the state forests in Saapmi would be turned into communal land in each Saami village. The Ministry of the Interior has not advanced this bill because of political difficulties. Finally last year, the Ministry decided to allow the Saami Parliament to continue preparation of the Saami Act as originally proposed.

Finland has not yet ratified ILO Convention 169 because Finnish legislation on Saami land rights is not in harmony with the convention. But following the recommendation of the Social Commission of the Finnish Parliament, the Finnish Government will remove the obstacles to ratifying the convention. And as mentioned above, last year the Ministry of the Interior asked the Saami Parliament to draft legislation on Saami land rights in harmony with the convention.

The Finnish government is now committed to supporting the vitality of Saami culture and safeguarding Saami cultural administration. Several constitutional amendments and other bills to protect the Saami are now under consideration. Also the Constitutional Commission of the Finnish Parliament has recently emphasized the Saami's right to participate in drafting laws concerning them. Since 1991 an amendment requires the Finnish Parliament to hear Saami representatives before deciding on matters affecting them. When a bill amending the Reindeer Herding Act was not prepared in consultation with the Saami, Parliament stopped discussion on it until the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had an opportunity to hear the Saami representatives.

The Finnish Parliament also recently adopted a new Saami Language Act, which will allow Saami in Finland, Sweden and Norway to use their own language on official business in the Saami Homeland on the Finnish side. However, this act is not as far reaching as the corresponding Norwegian Act.


A 1982 initiative by the Swedish government to investigate Saami affairs resulted in the formation of a Saami Rights Commission, which in 1986 published "The Status of Saami in International Law." This report provided basis for the commission's further recommendations, published in 1990: "The Saami Rights and the Saameting" (or Saami Parliament). The 1986 report concluded that Swedish society acknowledges the Saami as a minority and an indigenous population. The Swedish constitution does not explicitly and an indigenous population. The Swedish constitution does not explicitly recognize Saami rights, but it stipulates measures to enable ethnic groups to preserve and develop their own cultural and social life.

Sweden's recognition of the Saami as an ethnic minority but not as a people places the Swedish Saami in an ambiguous position with respect to international law. Sweden's unwillingness to accord the Saami the status of a people means that in its view, Article 1 of the UN Covenants - which stress the rights of a people - do not apply. It does consider Article 27 applicable, which focuses on ethnic minorities, since the Saami are protected as an ethnic minority by the Swedish Constitution.

The Saami Rights Commission proposed as a compromise that the Saami should be recognized as a special type of ethnic minority, since they are indigenous. But the Swedish government rejected this proposal, believing that ethnic minority status is sufficient for protecting the Saami's rights. The Commission also asked that the "culture" protected in Article 27 should be interpreted in a wider meaning in the Saami's case to include material necessities like reindeer herding. The Swedish government refuses to ratify ILO Convention 169 because its provisions concerning land rights are not compatible with Swedish law.

In 1992 the Swedish Parliament established the Sameting, or Saami Parliament, following the lead of Finland and Norway. The Sameting is mainly an advisory agency, although the government has stated its willingness to transfer more power to it in due time. The inauguration of the first Sameting in 1993 was remarkable more for its tardiness than as a credit to the Swedish government. The government, moreover, has rejected almost all proposals of the Saami Rights Commission to improve and strengthen Saami land and water rights.

Instead of strengthening Saami land rights, the Swedish government is now attempting to nationalize - or as many Saami put it, to confiscate - private Saami hunting grounds and fishing rights. It has opened up the traditional Saami hunting grounds to all Swedish citizens in the name of "public interest." This change of hunting policy in traditional Saami hunting grounds and reindeer pastures is now being enforced, so far without consulting the people involved. Unless an agreement on land rights is reached, the issue will be taken to court, in Sweden and if necessary internationally.

Officially, the Swedish government claims that the bill strengthens Saami rights in its 1993 report to the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. But the 1994 Annual Report on Human Rights by the U.S. State Department notes the new law permitting non-Saami to hunt on designated reindeer pastures as well as the Saami hunger demonstrations against it. The Swedish report mentions neither the changes in hunting policy nor the hunger demonstrations.


On Russia's Kola Peninsula, the Saami are now facing a totally new situation, like many other indigenous peoples in Russia. The questions of land rights and the transfer of so-called public lands to private hands is now in a crucial stage in Russia. The protection of indigenous land rights and the transfer and demarcation of indigenous land will hopefully be included in the framework of the new Russian Constitution.

An exciting development in European cooperation also holds out hope for protecting the Saami, especially in Russia. A conference on cooperation in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region last year included the ministers of foreign affairs or other representatives of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, the Commission of the European Communities, and representatives of the area's indigenous peoples. International observers also attended. The participants expressed their conviction that expanded cooperation in the region will contribute substantially to stability and progress in the area and in Europe as a whole, where partnership is now replacing the confrontation and division of the past.

Significantly for the Saami, the participants reaffirmed their commitment to the rights of the indigenous peoples in the north. They stated their commitment to strengthen the indigenous communities of the region and to ensure that regional cooperation will take into consideration the interests of indigenous peoples.

In the context of this expanding cooperation in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region, the Saami Council has just outlined a development program for Russia's Saami people. They presented it to the Barents Euro-Arctic Council in 1993. The Saami organizations in all four nations are convinced that cooperation in the Barents Region will benefit all the indigenous peoples concerned.

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