Wednesday, 24 April 2013

One People, Four Countries: The Sami....

There are over 370 million indigenous people in some 90 countries, living in all regions of the world. The Sami are the indigenous people living in the very north of Europe, in Sápmi, which stretches across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula. They are a minority in today’s Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway, but a majority in the innermost parts of Finnmark county in Norway and in the municipality of Utsjoki in Finland. However, although regarded as one people, there are several kinds of Sami based on their patterns of settlement and how they sustain themselves. Furthermore, their rights and general situation differ considerably depending on the nation state within which they live.


In Norway, the Sami have their own parliament which promotes political initiatives and manages missions and laws delegated to them by national authorities. As a political organ, the Samediggi work with issues they perceive as being of particular concern to the Sami people. However, as with many indigenous peoples, the Sami in Norway have suffered a past dominated by discrimination, particularly regarding religion and language. Their traditional animistic/shamanistic way of life was replaced by in the 18th century, and today their characteristic drums can only be found in museums.

According to the School Laws from the end of the 19th century, all education was to be taught in Norwegian, a policy which remained in place until the Second World War.

Today, the situation is much improved, but far from ideal. The Sami experience ten times more discrimination than ethnic Norwegians according to a new study. Furthermore, their language is severely threatened – UNESCO has classified three of the Sami languages which are, or have been, spoken in Norway as extinct, two as severely threatened, and the last one as threatened.

The issue of land rights is also pressing. Norway was the first country to ratify the protection of land rights pursuant to ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries in 1990. However, they have interpreted the phrase “ownership and possession” narrowly, and concluded that a “protected right to use” was also covered by the phrase. As a result of increased Sami activism, the controversial Finnmark Act of 2005 gave Sami and the population in Finnmark rights to the land and water in Finnmark when about 95% (about 46,000 km2) of the area in the Finnmark county was transferred to the inhabitants of the county.


The Sami were recognized as an indigenous people in the Finnish Constitution in 1995. Therefore, the Sami have a right to maintain and develop their language and culture as well as their traditional livelihood. Since 1996, the Sami have had constitutional self-government concerning their language and culture in their homelands. According to Finnish law, the Sámi are entitled to service in their own language in official matters. There are roughly 9,000 Sami living in Finland. More than 60 per cent of them live outside their homelands, which means there are particular requirements for teaching, services and communication in the Sami language.

Just as in Norway, land rights and language issues are the top concerns of the Sami in Finland today. Not enough services are provided in Sami, and even those that are provided are inadequate. The Sami do not have secure land rights in Finland because 90 per cent of the Finnish Sami land belongs to the government. Finland has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169, which makes the land rights issue more challenging to handle. According to Martin Scheinin, a professor at the Åbo Akademi in Turku, Finland, the Sami way of life is threatened by the competing uses of land. If the government decides to cut down forests in the reindeer herding area, it destroys the pastoral areas.

In 2011, the European Council criticized Finland for handling the Sami and other minority issues poorly. They suggested some actions that Finland could take, firstly the ratification of the ILO Convention. Other proposals include a Sami language newspaper and better Sami representation in the political decision making.

The Sami themselves fear assimilation into the Finnish population. This will affect their traditional livelihood, such as reindeer herding. Very often the Sami are treated only as a linguistic minority and not as a people. Johanna Suurpää, Finland’s Minority Ombudsman, has stated that the government does not practice a deliberate assimilation policy. The Sami are not the only ones practicing reindeer herding in Northern Finland, therefore, “there are no simple solutions that would be fair for all parties”, but the language issue, she adds, is becoming a crisis.

A UN report examining the human rights situation of Sami people in Sweden, Finland and Norway calls on the Nordic states to provide Sami parliaments with more funding to help boost general knowledge of the indigenous Arctic people, their language and their culture.

The Sami people, also spelled Sámi or Saami, are the indigenous people inhabiting the Arctic area of Sápmi, which today encompasses parts of far northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Kola Peninsula of Russia, and the border area between south and middle Sweden and Norway. The Sámi are the only indigenous people of Scandinavia recognized and protected under the international conventions of indigenous peoples, and hence the northernmost indigenous people of Europe.[Sami ancestral lands span an area of approximately 388,350 km2 (150,000 sq. mi.), which is approximately the size of Sweden, in the Nordic countries. Their traditional languages are the Sami languages and are classified as a branch of the Uralic language family.

Traditionally, the Sami have pursued a variety of livelihoods, including coastal fishing, fur trapping and sheep herding. Their best-known means of livelihood is semi-nomadic reindeer herding, with which about 10% of the Sami are currently connected and 2,800 actively involved on a full-time basis. For traditional, environmental, cultural and political reasons, reindeer herding is legally reserved only for Sami people in certain regions of the Nordic countries.

The People Who Walk With Reindeer

Two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, near the jagged tips of Norway's crown, the sun does not set for weeks on end during the summer months, and the midnight sun bounces off fields of midsummer snow. The solstice comes and goes, but the Sami reindeer herders are too busy to pay much attention. "We're always in the middle of calf marking at this time," Ingrid Gaup says, referring to the yearly ritual in which the herding families carve their ancient marks into the ears of the new calves. In the Sami's homeland, spread across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, the notion of time is untethered from the cycles of the sun and is yoked instead to something far more important: the movement of the reindeer.

Sami herders call their work boazovázzi, which translates as "reindeer walker," and that's exactly what herders once did, following the fast-paced animals on foot or wooden skis as they sought out the best grazing grounds over hundreds of miles of terrain. Times have changed. Herders are now assigned to specific parcels of the reindeer's traditional grazing territories at designated times of the year. To make the lifestyle tenable, herders need expensive all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles to maintain hundreds of miles of fences between territories and move large herds in accordance with land-use regulations—even when they clash with the instincts of the reindeer. As Ingrid's husband, Nils Peder Gaup, explains, "Reindeer think with the nose, not the eyes. They go with the wind."

Like many Sami of his generation, Nils Peder went to a compulsory boarding school where his native tongue was forbidden as part of the country's "Norwegianization" policies. Sami have been given more autonomy since then, but irretrievable damage was done to their language, now spoken by a minority. The Gaups are among the few Sami—a population estimated at around 70,000—who still herd reindeer.

Each June, after a long journey into the mountainous tundra of northern Norway, the Gaup family waits for the herd in tepee-like structures called lávut. They will spend sleepless nights marking the calves before moving the reindeer to their summer grazing grounds in the fjords.

At the first hint of the herd's arrival, the dogs in the encampment leap to their feet, ears erect. The herd spills over a far ridge, swelling like a stream down the mountainside. Other herders crest the rise on their ATVs, driving hundreds of thundering reindeer into a makeshift stockade. Small children, stiff as starfish in their snowsuits, toddle blithely inside the corral, unfazed by the reindeer stampede around them.

"I teach reindeer work to all of my children," says Nils Peder, as he guides his youngest son in marking a calf. His older children are so adept with sharp knives that they return calves to the mothers with only the faintest traces of blood on their ears. "Children must lift the culture," Nils Peder says, though he acknowledges the pressures of outside cultural influences. Herding families now live in modern homes equipped with Internet and television. Sara, the youngest of the Gaups' five children, spends much of the calf marking texting friends on her cell phone.

As herders face greater challenges, what path will girls like her choose? If reindeer herding disappears, Sami traditions may vanish too. The language itself reflects this powerful bond: The word for "herd" is eallu; the word for "life" is eallin.

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