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We Don’t Let the Border Stop Us: Aslak Holmberg

Countless Indigenous Peoples have been divided by imposed State borders, their communities and relatives separated by artificial lines, their migration patterns, sacred rituals, fishing and hunting ways altered. Innumerable Indigenous communities have suffered forced displacement due to conservation efforts, extractive industry operations, political strife, and the impacts of climate change. Every day we hear about Indigenous migrants who are forced to leave their home in search of work because it is no longer viable for them to make a living locally. They flee violence; they flee because they can no longer provide for their families, because their resources are depleted or polluted by large scale agribusiness. To tackle migration and immigration issues, we must reverse the impacts of colonization, decades of neoliberal policies, and the current operations of extractive industries, agro companies, and monocropping that have impoverished Indigenous communities. We must respect, protect, and fulfill Indigenous rights, encouraging the decolonization and support of home communities with sustainable economic opportunities so that people do not have to leave. The following are a few Indigenous voices on these issues. We invite you to listen. To hear the full interviews, visit:


Aslak Holmberg (Sami from Finland) Vice President of the Sami Council

I live right at the border between Finland and Norway. I’m from the Deatnu (Tana) River Valley, which is an important salmon fishing river in the world. My home village is called Njuorggán (Nuorgam), which is the northernmost village on the Finnish side of the border. My family comes from both sides of the border, but we don’t really try to emphasize it here because we have been here long before the border was formed.

Finland was still not independent from Russia when the border was closed in 1852. The closing of the border meant the end for our usual migration patterns. It used to be common for the Sami, on what is today the Finnish side of the border, to migrate with the reindeer to the coast, what is today the Norwegian side. After the border was closed, that meant that it was not allowed for us to move across the border with the reindeer. This is quite different from what used to be done when the summer pastures were far away from the winter pastures, so the reindeer herding has changed a lot. Nowadays—in my region at least—it’s part of herding to feed the reindeer at least part of the year because there isn’t as much area for the reindeer to find food as there used to be. The lifestyle has changed because of the border.

Another thing that is important here is salmon fishing. It’s not possible to net fish legally together with my friends or colleagues or relatives from the Norwegian side, although net fishing is the main traditional way of fishing. The State border divides our traditional practice, because by law we should fish only with people who are from the same country as we are. But that’s not how the community is structured. We don’t consider that border…we don’t allow it to dominate the way we live. I believe there is one ongoing court case when two men were fishing with the same boat doing drift net fishing, which requires two people to work together because you cannot do it alone. In this case, it was a man from the Finnish side and the Norwegian side. They were caught and then fined, and they went to court with it.

It also became illegal for us to go pick cloudberries on the Norwegian side and then come back with them across the border. My family is from both sides of the border, and people are very used to going to get their berries or fish on the other side. When there are these kinds of legal regulations, that can impact the way we usually use the surrounding areas. The border has many different levels. For example, Finland is part of the European Union while Norway is not; Norway is part of NATO while Finland is not. There was some new directive recently from the European Union about how you cannot bring vegetables and berries across the border. The consequence of that is that you will lose the product that you have that you’re not allowed to bring across the border.

We are working on starting a project that would look into the hindrances that the borders cause and the requirements to solve those problems. For example, there are some reindeer herders that migrate from the Swedish side to the Norwegian side, and they’ve had problems with the reindeer herding convention that should ensure their right to use their ancestral grazing lands. There is already some cooperation between schools. The school in Ohcejohka (Utsjoki), which is the center village of the municipality here on the Finnish side, and the Sirbmá (Sirma) school on the Norwegian side, have been working together for many years. Once a week the pupils from the school on the Norwegian side go to the school on the Finnish side, and then on another day the pupils from the school on the Finnish side go to the Norwegian side. This school cooperation tries not to let the State border dictate how we can collaborate.

There is an old piece of legislation that is still enforced called the Lapp Codicil, which is a document that was created when the borders were established in the Sami areas in 1751. The goal is to ensure that the State borders don’t negatively affect the way that the Sami live here. In many cases, the border came across what we call our villages, which is the main governance institution—or it used to be. The Lapp Codicil states that the State borders should not negatively impact the way we trade across the border or the way we otherwise interact. I would remind the authorities that even though it is an old piece of legislation from 1750s, it has never been rebuked. It is still legally enforced, but it’s not actively considered as a guiding document when making decisions regarding the Sami in border areas. I would remind them to respect these agreements because the situation is more or less the same regarding the Sami that still live here. We don’t let the border stop us from collaborating, so that should also be ensured in the laws.

Photo by Jamie Malcolm-Brown. 

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