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Sami land rights and policy-driven recognition threats

June 27, 2019


Dawn Heaps

Pride in one’s homeland typically begins with a framework comprised of a storied history, as well as common labor practices through the ages, language and shared personal traditions. Across the world, this fact is true. Yet, we see time and time again governments denying a smaller population the ability to have pride in their culture. The reason typically comes down to economics. Indigenous people in the Arctic face particularly hard challenges, as they may not solely identify or swear allegiance to the ruling governing party. One very unique group of Indigenous people found in the Arctic region is the Sami people (also spelled Saami).  The Sami established themselves as a distinct ethnic group in Scandinavia around 2,000 years ago. Yet, still today, the history of the Sami people is deeply rooted in their way of life. The Sami are the descendants of nomadic peoples who inhabited northern Scandinavia.  Their background is diverse. The origin of the Sami is obscure; some scholars include them among the Paleo-Siberian peoples; others maintain that they were alpine and came from central Europe. The Sami (Sámi) people, who live in the far north of Europe, have never had a sovereign state of their own. Currently, the Sami people live and migrate within four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Approximately 80,000 Sami people live in these four countries; however, around half live in almost all parts of Norway. Although the genetic origin of the Sámi people is complex and difficult to trace, their beginnings link closest with the origin of the Finns. There is a common consensus that the Sámi inhabited the region first, before their Indo-European neighbors; however, the genetic origin of the groups, their natural history and the diversion of the language are issues that are heavily debated. Modern days now see governmental and economic parameters concerning resources redefined.

Should the current governments of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia allow the Sami people an equal say when making legislative decisions concerning lands, resources, water rights, and self-determination? Would this right envelop the Sami people into the already, slightly differing cultures in which they reside? Should current governments understand that past traditions rights in today’s societies?  Recognition is not a new gesture. The first recognition of Sámi rights occurred in 1751 with an amendment to the border agreement between Sweden and Norway, known as the Lapp Codicil. This amendment allowed for the free passage of Sámi between the two countries, and in doing so respected a pre-existing right to access land on both sides of the border. Previously, the Sami’s way of life was a nomadic one. A main staple for their livelihood and economic sustainability has come in the form of reindeer herding. Until recently, the Sami economy relied on this one source to live. This lifestyle saw full-scale nomadism, seeing the Sami living in tents or turf huts and migrating with the animals between five or six Sami families. This situation exists to a degree in modern day, but has subsided as they return to their residences throughout the working year. Herding reindeer and reindeer husbandry provided for the Sami people as, throughout the year, thinning of a herd would provide meat to eat, hides to make into clothing and shoes to wear and sell. Every part of the animal is effectively used. A state of interdependence that serves to keep individuals connected to sharing-networks is maintained through continuous expression of various needs, pressing or not (Duhaime & Bernard, pg. 159). Keeping and maintaining such amounts of reindeer requires swaths of land for grazing and migrating. The major issue is the idea of ownership and rights of lands. The history of the Sami herding reindeer saw them follow their herds through what is now northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland.  It is very difficult to prove the location of “traditional” lands today, seeing many of modern day claims center on “tax lands” taken by the Swedish crown during the mid-1800s settlement of Lapland. Herding reindeer is one element that has shown itself incredibly difficult under the legislation of any country, as at the heart of recognition as a people and land and water rights is the deep connection the Sami people have with Mother Nature. They have used lands but have never claimed land.

There have been many debates undertaken whether the Sami people have rights granted to them as a people. As times change, so too do laws and requirements for corporations to run their businesses. Currently, a major disagreement has grown over Norway going ahead with the largest on-shore constructed wind farm around the region of Storheia, named Frosen Wind, to be constructed on lands the Sami have used for reindeer herding activities.  This economic decision by Norway undercuts livelihood of the Sami and disregards understanding of the Sami as recognized Indigenous people within the country.  Norway’s Petroleum and Energy Ministry, however, said it would proceed with the wind park, which is being developed by the Fosen Wind consortium, owned by Statkraft (the Norwegian State Energy Company) and Nordic Wind Power, a consortium of European investors including Credit Suisse and BKW Energy. This situation has persisted despite a December 10, 2018 letter from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that asked Norway to suspend the project so it could examine a complaint that the project would disturb reindeer herding, a traditional activity of the Sami people. What makes the Sami people’s story so unique is the way their way of life intertwines so completely with nature, animals, as well as how they express their culture and choose to do so and, as they have done, govern their way of life for thousands of years.  Adding as the most prominent work the Sami have incorporated into their livelihoods includes freshwater fishing, trapping, forestry, and also mining. Power plays by governments often include land use or restrictive declarations.  More than ten years ago, Norwegian laws capped sizes of reindeer herds in the name to prevent overgrazing.  One herder, Mr. Jovsset Ante Sara, refuses to abide by these laws that he would need to cull his 350-400 reindeer herd down to 75. He is suing the government. His reasoning?  “I sued because I could not accept to see my culture die,” he states.

The connection the Sami have to their work within the elements that make up their culture runs deep. Their religion, their joik—a representational type of cultural expression, a type of song tradition that is one of the Sami’s distinct cultural features –  (Olsen, pg. 119) ties in with the importance of their religion, their language, traditional clothing, their work practices and sense of community. Customs, religious beliefs, traditional rules and social morality are often better regulators of human behaviour than state law. The laws of Indigenous people are part of their cosmologies, like a circle (Heinamaki, pg. 42).  Their longevity as a people should give them rights to lands to use as they have for centuries. Some governments do not agree. This distinctiveness of culture has come into play in modern times, as the Sami people have asserted their rights for access and usage of natural resources.

In 1956, the Sami Council was founded (Saami Council). The Sami Council, along with five other representative organizations of Indigenous peoples, has Permanent Participant status at the Arctic Council – the most important intergovernmental body in the Arctic region.  Sami policy has never been directed toward the establishment of a separate Sami nation state. Instead, it has concentrated more on establishing rights that will assure the survival and growth of the Sami and their culture in their ancestral areas of settlement. It is stated in the amendment to the Norwegian constitution this desire is “for the Sami to develop their language, their culture, and their communal life.” This idea has concentrated more on establishing rights that will ensure survival and growth of the Sami and their culture in their own ancestral areas of settlement (Girji, pg. 9).

As a result of the Norwegian parliament (Sortinget) passing the Saami Act in 1987, regulations regarding language placed the Sami language on the same level with Norwegian within the designated Sami language administration area. Special regulations were appended to the Saami Act in 1992, one of which confirmed Saami as an official language in Norway (Wheelersburg, pg. 18).  In 1957, the ILO developed and ratified Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 (No. 107), an international instrument dedicated to improving the living conditions of Indigenous peoples worldwide. In 1989, ILO Convention 107 was revised and renamed Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). Convention 169 recognizes Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination within a nation-state, while setting standards for national governments regarding Indigenous peoples’ economic, socio-cultural and political rights, including the right to a land base. The convention is law within the nation-states that have ratified it.  Norway was the first to ratify the International Labour Organization Convention, also known as ILO-convention 169. Finland, Sweden, and Russia have yet to ratify ILO Convention number 169. This makes securing land rights in Finland more difficult as 90 percent of the Finnish Sami land belongs to the government.  But as stated before, the Sami fear assimilation into any particular country’s population. They simply wish to keep their own culture alive. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the seventeenth century, the question about Sami resource rights and their legal status has most often been debated and formulated in relation to the legal systems of the states in which they found themselves. These systems aware increasingly applied to the jurisdiction of the state authorities as a result of colonization and the drawing of borders. Thus, the question of Sami rights must be considered relatively, in relation to which legal system or which set of legal conceptions one refers (Hansen, pg. 277).  Despite the Sami people achieving recognition, there are no Sami reserve lands or title lands, equivalent to those established in Canada, nor any historical treaties with the Sami. Today there are many international documents that secure participatory rights for Indigenous peoples, among which Articles 6 and 7 of ILO Convention No. 169, which are legally binding to its parties, figure prominently. Consultations do not, however, allow for “veto power” over developments. On the whole, it has been difficult for Norway, Finland, and Sweden to acknowledge the legacy of their colonization of traditional Sami areas.

With such a rich history and contributions from the Sami to their relating countries, in addition to having a Sami Parliament represented from Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia, their voice being discredited on a legal scale is an offense to their people and a short sided approach to a bettered national climate. Sweden and Finland first should give legislative recognition by ratifying ILO Convention169, having each of the four governments in question giving the representatives of the Sami people a ‘veto power’ when debate is being had. Governments taking advantage of resources the Sami use is a political economic-grab that places a chokehold on the self-determining Sami people.





Duhaime, Gerard & Bernard, Nick. Arctic Food Security. University of Alberta and CIERA, Universite Laval, CCI Press, 2008.

Girji, Davvi o.s. Sami Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sami Experience. Seattle, The University of Washington Press, 1997.

Hansen, Lars Ivar & Olsen, Bjornar Koninklijke Hunters in Transition. Brill NV, Leiden, the Netherlands, 2014.

Heinamaki, Leena, and Hermann, Thora Martina. Experiencing and Protecting Sacred Natural Sites of Sami and other Indigenous Peoples.  Cham, Switzerland, Springer International Publishing, 2017.

Olsen, Kjell, Identities, Ethnicities, and Borderzones. Latvia, InPrint, 2010.

Wheelersburg, Robert P. CERUM. Northern People Southern States: Maintaining Ethnicities in the Circumpolar World. Sweden Umea University, UmU Tryckeri, 1996.