Skip to main content

“We Are Still Here”: Sámi Resilience and Resistance

Anders-Sunna-We-Are-Still-Here-2017-_-Foto-Monica-Anette-Svorstøl Trondheim
“We Are Still Here,” Anders Sunna, Tråante/Trondheim, 2017, honoring Elsa Laula Renberg. Image credits: Monica Anette Svorstøl

October 19, 2017

Resilience, resistance, and strength. The history of the Sámi from medieval times to the present is one of not only colonization but also Indigenous survival and resistance, which is sometimes overlooked when the atrocities perpetuated by the Nordic nation-states are piled high. After more than 500 years of colonization, the very diverse and geographically scattered Sámi are still here. This post reviews a few examples of Sámi resilience and resistance.

In contrast to earlier days of forced Christianization, the Christian Laestadian movement was crucial for Sámi unity in the mid-1800s. Its charismatic leader, Lars Levi Laestadius (1800–1861), was a Swedish minister of Sámi descent. Laestadius, a strong proponent of Sámi language teaching, received his calling as a preacher through his acquaintance with a Sámi religious woman called Maria of Lapland. Today, Laestadianism continues to be a critical component of Sámi society, especially on the Norwegian and Swedish sides. Most devout Laestadians are not registering to vote with the Sámi parliaments and are not represented in academia as forms of rejection of engagement with the colonial nation-states.

In the early 1900s, the Sámi began to organize resistance to increasing state colonization and settler presence on Sámi lands. The first organization, the South Sámi Fatmomakka Association, was founded in 1904 and worked to resolve local land conflicts and improve the societal, economic, and political position of the Sámi. Elsa Laula Renberg (1877–1931) was the founder and first chairperson of the association. She was born into a reindeer herding family on the Swedish side and trained as a midwife. Renberg wrote a book in Swedish called Facing Life or Death in which she candidly denounced the increasing Swedish colonization of Sápmi and advocated Sámi unification to struggle together. She married a man from the Norwegian side and then also founded the first Norwegian Sámi association.

The first general meeting of the Sámi was held in Tråante/Trondheim on the Norwegian side on February 6, 1917. Over one hundred people attended this first attempt to gather Sámi representatives across the borders. In her opening speech, Renberg remarked, “Today we try for the first time to unite Sámi from Norway and Sweden.” The meeting was a powerful Sámi manifestation against authorities and oppression. February 6 then became the Sámi national day, commemorated every year. The centennial February 6 was celebrated just this year in Tråante with over 6,500 participants.

During the early 1970s, with increasing organized Sámi resistance against hydropower projects, the concept of ČSV emerged. ČSV is an open term with diverse and ongoing permutations. The three letters, commonly used in Sámi language, form their own concept and have several meanings, including the following: Čájet Sámi Vuoiŋŋa (show Sámi spirit), Čállet Sámi Verddet (write Sámi friends), and Čohkke Sámiid Vuitui (organize the Sámi for victory). The concept symbolized an alternative Sámi self-awareness that promoted pride, language, and culture. During the 1970s and 1980s, ČSV was a non-official organization with the core message, “Show that you are Sámi!” The term manifested the desire to reclaim Sámi land, language, self-worth, culture, and property.

ČSV was a crucial part of Sámi resistance against a planned hydropower project in the Alta River on the Norwegian side from 1978 to 1981. The proposed project would flood large land areas, including reindeer grazing land. Resistance came first from the locals and nature preservation organizations, and developed into a focused Sámi resistance that incorporated Sámi rights as Indigenous rights. During the 1970s, the governments systematically destroyed land in Sápmi without considering the Sámi. The Sámi resistance to the hydro plant was part of a global movement of Indigenous resistance and organization, including the establishment of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.

The Alta conflict represented more than environment and reindeer herding; the core relationship between Sámi and non-Sámi Norwegians was at stake. The Norwegian political and legal system created threats to Sámi interests as a collective. In 1980, some Sámi waged hunger strikes outside the Norwegian parliament in Oslo, and demonstrators in Alta clashed with police and attempted to physically stop work on the hydropower project. These acts of resistance received widespread international and national attention.

The hydropower project eventually proceeded and began operations in 1987, but the Sámi resistance created an addendum to the Norwegian constitution in 1988 that acknowledged Sámi rights, and eventually created the Sámi Parliament. Further, the Alta conflict facilitated revision of the International Labour Organization Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, known as ILO 169, which was ratified in Geneva in 1989.

In 2013, in Gállok/Kallak on the Swedish side of Sápmi, a chain of events that have many similarities to the Alta conflict occurred. British mining company Beowulf Mining wanted to start mining for iron, with the approval of local government, but local Sámi reindeer herders opposed the company because mining would destroy their grazing land. In a struggle where social media was crucial to mobilizing resistance and putting the Sámi in the international spotlight, Sámi and non-Sámi activists attempted to stop the project. International environmental and Indigenous rights activists became involved. The protest camp and road blockade, cleared by police and security and re-erected again and again, gained national and international media attention, and Gállok became an important symbol for exploitation of Sámi land. Similar to the Alta conflict, the use of art, music, and poetry was essential. In 2014, under pressure from all resistance, sinking iron prices, and bankruptcy in other mines in Sápmi, Beowulf Mining decided to stop the mining project, at least temporarily.

Sweden has been a mining nation for a thousand years, but in the new millennia there is a new interest in mining in Sápmi. The Swedish government’s mineral strategy envisions the number of active mines tripling by 2030. Sámi lands are already hosting Europe’s largest iron and copper mines, and providing the majority of Swedish hydropower. In May 2014, the Sami Parliament called for a moratorium on all exploitation in Sápmi, stating that “all natural resources above and below ground within the traditional Sami land areas belong to the Sami people.”

Throughout Sámi history, particularly in the past 500 years, nation-state colonization has been a destructive presence. However, during this same time, Sámi resilience and resistance across four nation-states has been just as constant a presence. Sámi resilience and resistance are increasingly part of global communities of Indigeneity, joined in shared struggles for Indigenous futures.

By Karin Eriksson, University of Washington
The author would like to acknowledge the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and its International Policy Institute Arctic initiative for making the seminar Sámi Role in Arctic Affairs: Politics, Research and Activism a reality.

Karin Eriksson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington. Her dissertation research focuses on Swedish colonial processes in Sámi contexts.