Archive | January 26, 2011

The UN Asks Europe to Recognize the Sámi!

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Indigenous Nordic People: The UN Asks Europe to Recognize the Sámi!


By Hwaa Irfan


When one thinks of indigenous peoples, one does not necessarily think of Europe. In an attempt to recognize one of the last indigenous peoples of Europe, the Sámi, the UN has called for Europe to support the fading language and culture of the Sámi people of Sápmi… Sápmi? Sápmi is the Sámi name for Lapland: Norway (Sámi population 40,000 – 45,000 approximately), Sweden (Sámi population 17,000 approximately), Finland (Sámi population 5,700 approximately), and Russia (Kola peninsula ((Sámi population 2,000 approximately)). Referring to the Nordic countries, the UN seeks to boost, not only the language and the culture, but the much neglected (by exclusion of existence) education of Sámi children and youth. Written by James Anaya, the report

Sketches of Sámi Culture


The Sámi lived in small communities or siidas with each siida having its own territory similar to the practices of the indigenous Australian clans. They lived by hunting and trapping as a nomadic people to herding reindeer and becoming settled. Now less than 10% of Sámi are herders. The coastal Sámi were boat builders who knew the woods of the pine forests well. They sewed the planks that formed the boats with willow roots, and supplied farming communities with the boats that they needed.

In the sixteenth century there was a gradual transition from the hunting of wild reindeer to the present practice of herding, with the result that the Sami became a nomadic people. Today few are nomads, and in Norway less than ten per cent of the Sami are now reindeer-herders

The European language is a hybrid of many languages besides Latin. The word “sauna,” which has become so common to many of us is in fact a Sámi word with a sacred twist. “Sauna” is the Sámi equivalent to the indigenous American “sweat lodge” that forms a part of a sacred purification ceremony which demands the highest state of mind, body, and soul. It is a way of recognizing the ancestors, their community, and their keepers of wisdom, as well as the Great Spirit, God. This ceremony places the participants outside of the earthbound space-time continuum, in order to connect with all creation. Linguistically the Sámi language is a precise oral language that is metaphorical, descriptive, specific, dependent on the verb, and where kinship ties are preserved.

Like most peoples who experience hostility, the Sámi turned to their own culture for recognition and expression as an internalized form of defense.  The traditional musical form, the yoik became a means of defining and overcoming the demands of colonization, and the struggle to maintain their own identity. Art/ dáidda and craft/duodji are two distinct concepts amongst the Sámi. Craft is connected to everyday use in a practical manner, and is made from organic materials that have been exposed to the elements, and will eventually return to the earth through decomposition. Art is both intellectual and material. Anyone who discovers something new, also has to demonstrate it viability and value.

The People


The popular archaeological story is told that the Sámi like the Finns originated from the Ural Mountains though the Finns are genetically closer to the Germans, English and Italians. The Sámi it has been found by molecular geneticists Antti Sajantila of the University of Helsinki and Svante Paabo of Ludwig-Maximillian University, Munich found that the Sámi carry distinctive genetic motifs which is shared by one 1:50 Finns, and none of the other Europeans. History demonstrates a Finnish colonization 2, 000 – 4,000 years ago pushing the Sámi further north assimilating some of the Sámi tongue of which there are many languages. It has also been found that the male Sámi and indigenous Australians maintain virility longer than other males from other ethnic groups, possessing a distinctive hormone, LH, which remains active in Sámi and indigenous Australians males until they are quite old according to a Finnish team from the University of Abo.

Even more so today, many people suffer the consequences of being different indigenous or not. One is expected to adopt the same lifestyles as promoted by the media. However, this is an experience that indigenous peoples around the world have always known once conquered. Like all indigenous peoples, the Sámi underwent much abuse, ridicule, and invisibility. A Sámi child grows up not being able to talk about who they are, their beliefs, and their ancestry. The following letter written in 1776 by Swedish governor of Nordland to the Royal Chamberlain in Copenhagen demonstrates how the Sámi dealt with their identity in the face of hostility:

“These worthless and destructive wandering Lapps should be uprooted and deported from the country where they are residing without the slightest permission or right.”

“The Sámi suffered loss of their land, abuse of their natural resources of reindeer, fishing, hunting and their nature spirituality.  The noides (Sámi Christianity).  Their children were taken from them and placed in boarding schools, not allowed to speak their language, like the North American Native.

Many Sámi came to North America as Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns, and changed their family names to make it difficult to identify and trace their Sámi ancestry.  Much of Sámi heritage settled in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Upper Michigan, the Seattle area, the Dakotas, Alaska and Canada. My Sámi ancestors, who immigrated here from Sweden,  have been referred to as “Brown Swede”, unlike the blonde hair, light skin associated with the Swedes. My great grandparents, my grandparents, my father (an only child) all have darker skin, brown hair and brown eyes.  My sister (my only sibling) also had brown hair and brown eyes, but inherited the light skin of our English maternal side.

“Those of us with Sámi ancestry may feel the symptoms of the trauma of our Sámi ancestors.  We often feel ourselves as being different and not understood.

“Unable to find reconciliation for my ancestors and my own healing I have sought indigenous healing ceremonies throughout the Americas.  I am grateful for being able to engage in the teachings and ceremonies of theNorth American Native, the Huichol of Mexico, and the indigenous of South America’s Andes and Amazon.  The work of the medicine wheel, fire ceremony, sweat lodges, mesa, energy healing and so much more, has been a blessing from Spirit for me and for all my people.  The time of the Condor and Eagle prophecy is here, now.  It is the leap of evolution and the change of world views.  We now seek the wisdom of the indigenous elders, the noidi, shaman, and medicine people, for they have endured and hold the vision of “All are One”.  Their wisdom holds our future”.

The Sámi of Sweden


”There are attitudes within archaeology in Sweden that can be characterized as ethnocentric, nationalistic and chauvinistic. The reason is to be found partly in the social and cultural climate where archaeology has developed, partly in the paradigmatic settings of the subject and its social-darwinistic view on cultural and social development. The ethnic diversity existing in Sweden is put aside in favor of an almost one-sided high-lighting of ”Swedish” pre-history.”

These are the words of senior lecturer of archaeology Inger Zakrisson demonstrating denial and the invisibility of Sámi presence in Sweden. A growing conflict of interests arose between farmers (Swedish), and reindeer-herders (the Sámi), which resulted in numerous legal proceedings undermining the Sámi’s right to land for grazing on the theory that the Sámi are migrants with no place names or landmarks that can refer to them as being indigenous disregarding the presence of:

  • 6,000 year old rock paintings at Flatruet of the Sámi hunting culture.
  • Early settlements and hunting pits all the way to the South: Värmland and Dalarna.
  • Cemetaries by lakes in Dalarna, Gästrikland and Härjedalen, from the Iron Age.
  • Iron Age cemetery ”Krankmårtenhögarna” by the Storsjön, from 200 BC to 200 AD
  • Settlements and graves at Vivallen, five kilometres north-west of Funäsdalen, from the beginning of 1.000 AD

Swedish Sámi poet, Thomas Marianen:

The seidi [sacred rock] continue to live
although forgotten by the darkness
Its reflection seen on the water’s
telling stories
from a long time ago –
events from ancient times
are still shining.
Now there is hardly anyone
believing in it
since it has been forbidden
and condemned to die.

The Sámi of Norway


The Sámi were referred to as “fenni” by Roman historian Tacitus in his book “De origine et situ Germanorum” written in 98 A.D. Greek historian Procopius referred to the Sámi as “skridfinns”. From the 10th – 13th century, various historians, including the Icelandic sagas described the Sámi as a hunting people who skied, and kept reindeers. They were traded with, especially for animal hides, which were a prized commodity then.

Viewed as pagans, as all indigenous peoples are, churches were built from the 12th century to begin their conversion, as is the case with all indigenous peoples. The Finnefondet Fund was established by the Norwegian government in 1851 to set about changing the language and the culture of the Sámi through language, education, and Christianization as is the case with the Catholic Doctrine of Discovery.

In the book Lapponia” written by Johannes Scherfferus in 1673, he referred to the power struggle over Sámi regions by the Swedish, the Norwegians-Danish, and the Russians during the Middle Ages, during which the Sámi paid taxes several times over to differing states. By the 1600s colonization became more intense with settlers introducing to the region farming as a source of livelihood, houses to live in, and the products of their farming, butter, milk, and wool.

The settlers adapted to the Sámi way of life in terms of customs, dress, and diet. With the introduction of schools in 1850, attitudes towards the Sámi began to change. By the end of the 1800s, the Sámi language was not allowed in the schools, and the 1898 “Wexelsen decree” had it so teachers were to make sure that Sámi children did not speak their native tongue in the school breaks!  By the 1900s it was not permitted to sell land to anyone who could not speak Norwegian, and bye early 20th century, the process of Norwegianization was stepped up to include:

–        Increased building of schools around Finnmark to isolate the pupils from their native environment.

–        The end of courses in Sámi, and tuition scholarships at Tromso

–        Preference for teachers with a  Norwegian background in Sámi areas.

After WWII, more liberal policies were implemented in the schools, albeit that those policies took a while to be implemented. In that duration, there is evidence of ethnic cleansing, and continued humiliation. For example, one woman from Troms who went to school in the 1920s recalled being laughed at and ridiculed, because she only spoke Sámi. However, such is the pain of maltreatment, which is not to be shared with non-Sámi’s/Norwegians that her husband ended the interview with:

“Enough has been said now. Let me tell you, your story has been so thorough and correct that you need add neither A nor B.”’

Chair Brygfjeld of the Director of Schools and chief inspector of the implementation of the Norwegianization process 1923 – 35 believed:

“The Lapps [derogatory name for Sámi] have neither the ability nor the will to use their language as written language… The few individuals who are left of the original Lappish tribe are now so degenerated that there is little hope of any change for the better for them. They are hopeless and belong to Finnmark’s most backward and wretched population, and provide the biggest contingent from these areas to our lunatic asylums and schools for the mentally retarded.”

A Norwegian Sámi teacher, Anders Larsen (1870 – 1949) recalled his early education years in 1917 as follows:

“I cannot remember anything of what my teacher said during my first years at school, because I did not understand him, and I was certainly not among the least gifted. I profited sadly little from school. I was intellectually malnourished. My soul was damaged. These are the most barren and fruitless of my learning years. They were wasted, so to speak, and a wasted childhood can never be made good.”


Through a heavy period of stigmatization, worthlessness, impoverishment, with the liberal era of the 1960s, there was official acknowledgment of the right of the Sámi people to practice their culture and language. It was then possible to have the Sámi language taught in schools.


The wheels of change were set into motion 30 years after WWI.  Sámi culture through education began to gain some attention. In 1965, the Norwegian Cultural Council established a cultural fund to preserve Sámi culture, and the Norwegian Union founded in 1979 protects the Sámi language and interests when the Sámi  are a minority. In 1988 an Article in the Norwegian constitution made it incumbent on the State to allow the Sámi to keep their language and culture. Sámi studies have been available at the University of Oslo since 1848, and are available in other parts of Norway.

The Damming of the Alta River

The damming of any river in any country has never proven to be a balanced decision in the long term environmentally speaking. By disrupting the flow of a river, one disrupts the ecosystem of the environment concerned. As such, when the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament took the 1978 decisions to build a 100 meter high dam to generate hydroelectric power, the anger of the Sámi was raised, and the Alta River became a symbol of cultural resistance, and the endless discrimination the  Sámi experienced. There were demonstrations and protests by not only the Sámi, but also amongst civil society in general. The protests against the damming of the Alta-Kautokeino Watercourse were because:

  • Fears of negative impact on salmon fisheries
  • Sámi land and water rights
  • Animal husbandry (reindeers)

Nonetheless, the power plant and dam were completed in 1987, whilst the Sámi protests got the attention of the Storting, which led to negotiations between Sámi representatives, and the Storting on Sámi cultural issues and legal relations. This led to the Sámi Act of 1987, which in turn led to the establishment of the Sámi Parliament.

The Sámi Parliament


The Sámi Parliament was approved in 1987 and was opened by the late King Olav V in 1989. It is a national body of Norway subordinate to public administration and its field is laid down by the Sámi Act. Representatives are elected by direct ballot by the Sámi. In 2002, the Sámi Parliament discussed a motion presented by the government, to establish a Sámi fund as an act of reconciliation and compensation for the harm that has been caused by the state policy of Norwegianization/assimilation.




“Europe: UN Calls for More Funding to Saami Language and Culture.”

Gaski, H. “Sami Culture in a New Era.”

Helander, E. “The Sami of Norway.”

Labba, N. G. “We Have ‘Always’ Been Here!”

Minde, H. “Assimilation of the Sami – Implementation and Consequences.”

“Sami Genetics: Distinct.”\

Solbakk, J.T. “The Damming of the Alta-Kautokeino Watercourse (The Alta Case).”