Past and Present

By Kelsey Frisk

In a landscape of snow, ice, and heavy contrast of light and dark, there exists a smoldering burn for equal rights and recognition. The Swedish majority has continuously alleged the indigenous Sami peoples in Sweden, Norway, and Finland as being inferior and incapable to contribute to the general society. Sami people have become accustomed to the continual encroachment of non-Sami on their land and resources. As a result, Sami have reluctantly relinquished many of their land rights, culture, and religious practices. After centuries saturated under Swedish colonialism, religious and educational assimilation, policies, laws, and taxes that have oppressed Sami, Sweden recently demonstrated a willingness to respect and improve the livelihoods of Sami people through the adoption of the UNDRIP and ILO Convention 169. However, the Swedish government has thus far not followed through on several aspects of this promise, which has sparked Sami to reclaim their linguistic and cultural symbols and implement their own political platforms through the Sami Parliament.

Most Sami people describe themselves as Sami in regards to their cultural practices, linguistic heritage, and societal links.[i] Sápmi, the Sámi homeland of the Finno-Ugric indigenous people, spans across the Arctic-Alpine zone of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Sámi people have inhabited Fenno-Scandinavia for over ten thousand years and had varied occupations such as fishing, hunting and gathering, reindeer herding, and the creation and sale of arts and crafts. An individual’s economic activities often depend a great deal upon their community’s geographic location within Sápmi. In response to colonization and technological advancements, major professions and industries have in the past century recently shifted to tourism, mining, hunting and fishing with a small portion still involved in reindeer herding and handicrafts.[ii]

Colonization, religious and educational assimilation, technology, and cultural and linguistic oppression have affected the livelihoods of these indigenous peoples. Christian missionary workers forced Sami people into religious assimilation, establishing the most profound adaptation response to colonization pressures and subsequently changing Sami culture, values, and beliefs. Major religious assimilation practices started during the 17th century, when missionary workers punished Sami for their animistic, pagan beliefs of multiple gods, connection between the spiritual and material world, and recognition of sacred sites and practices.[iii] They forced Sami to relinquish drums and other religious symbols to be burned and destroyed, and to attend Christian churches. Not only are a significant portion of artistic symbols, historical artifacts, and religious materials destroyed, but also the intangible is lost: a strong form of connection and unification between the Sami people. Today Christianity is now the most practiced religion in Sápmi, yet Sami are reclaiming the artistic and historical significance of religious handicrafts, drums and symbols.[iv]

Boarding schools for Sami children followed the missionaries’ and churches’ efforts and served as another distinguishable form of cultural persecution by the Swedish state over Sami people in the 20th century. Although the teachers working in the boarding schools did attempt to conform to Sami professional and artistic trades, accommodate migration patterns, and adapt to the Sami culture and lifestyle, the language of instruction was in Swedish and usage of their native Sami language was forbidden. Despite the children’s parents’ preference for Sami to be the language of instruction, the Swedish state did not consult opinions of Sami people and made decisions on their own accord. [v] This oppression of language continually occurred throughout Sweden until very recently. Finally, after years of parents fighting for native language education, it is now becoming possible to learn Sami language and culture in a classroom setting. Language and culture are synonymous, and once a language deteriorates, it tends to distance the people from their culture.[vi]

Racial biology, and its influence on Sami policies, led to taxes imposed by the Swedish government. All Sami whose profession is reindeer husbandry are members of a Sameby, one of 51 economic districts in northern and western Sweden that divides taxable land to indigenous reindeer herding families. Since Sami who partake in the profession of reindeer husbandry receive extra rights compared to non-herding Sami, conflict often arises within the Sami communities themselves. These policies and extra rights of use established a deep divide between Sami practicing reindeer husbandry and those engaged in other occupations. According to the government, an individual was not considered Sami unless they owned reindeer. Today, through the Sami Awakening movement, the definition of a Sami is changing. Reindeer husbandry is no longer the only way to be recognized as Sami.[vii]

Today, the rhetoric of respecting and preserving Sami culture and rights is generally accepted within Sweden, although the governmental backing to this notion is heavily lacking.   Where conflicts of interest arise, more frequently the central or local stakeholder’s interests will be addressed before the Sami’s. For example, encroachment from tourism developments, holiday homes, and industrial endeavors are threating traditional Sami reindeer grazing areas and migration paths. Much of the land utilized by Samebys is state-owned land, and has always been available for year-round migration and grazing. Sami are often involved in the planning processes of new development, but the local governments often brush off their concerns and wishes. Due to pressure from Samis, many local municipalities are making efforts to compensate herders by finding them other grazing territory, but at the expense of disturbing traditional Sami land.[viii]

Sami rights to water, land, and access to hunting remains a frequently debated subject in Sweden. The controversial policies, laws, and lack of political authority have stimulated criticism from organizations, such as the United Nations, on the Swedish government’s treatment of Sami people. Currently, Sweden has ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and only recently ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169. Although the ratifications of these documents demonstrates the nation state’s willingness to respect and improve the livelihoods of Sami people, the scope of their effectiveness and passive actions exhibit otherwise. The ratification of these declarations has stimulated excitement within the Sami community, but has mainly resulted in disappointment and a rather gloomy outlook for the future.[ix]

The Sami Parliament in Sweden was established in 1993 and provides political weight to an otherwise inadequately represented people. This wouldn’t have been possible if the Swedish government, sixteen years earlier hadn’t recognized the Sami as an indigenous people, rather than a minority within Sweden. The establishment of the Sami Parliament allowed the Sami to be politically active and have more voice in the policies and laws that affect them. The parliament is still formulated under the Swedish governmental systems and must utilize the procedures, rules, and guidelines they establish. Sami people do not have the freedom to choose their preferred and culturally based form of government. Although their recently acquired government requires further progress, it still serves as a reminder for the positive outlook for Sami people’s rights, language, and culture.[x]

The implementation and exposure to colonization, religious and educational assimilation, hindering policies, and cultural and linguistic oppression upon the Sami people have led to a strained relationship between Sami and the Swedish majority. Sami have made great efforts in recent years to stand up for their rights, gain political weight and work towards self-determination with the Sami Parliament. Through the Sami Awakening Movement, more individuals are taking greater pride in claiming their Sami identity. The overall conditions and treatment of the Sami are improving, in most part due to the increased interest and ability for Sami to participate politically, although there is still more to be done to restore the Swedish government’s discrimination and oppression upon Sami.[xi]



[i] Neil Kent. In The Sámi Peoples of the North: A Social and Cultural History (London: Hurst, 2014), 20.

[ii] Robert Crofts. The Sami - an Indigenous People in Sweden. Stockholm: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Consumer Affairs, 2007.

[iii] Kent. The Sámi Peoples of the North, 79-85.

[iv] "Sami Scientific Facts." Sami Culture, University of Texas, Accessed November 16, 2014.

[v] "Sami Scientific Facts." 

[vi] Crofts. The Sami, 54.

[vii] "The Right to Land and Water." Sametinget. (2014): Accessed November 12, 2014.

[viii] Crofts. The Sami, 30.

[ix] Patrik Lantto and Ulf Mörkenstam. "Sami Rights and Sami Challenges." Scandinavian Journal of History (2008): Accessed November 8, 2014.

[x] "The Sami and the State." Sápmi. Samiskt Informationscentrum Sametinget, (2006): Accessed November 18, 2014.

[xi] Crofts. The Sami.