Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Sami (previously known as Lapps, a name they consider derogatory) are the indigenous inhabitants of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the far north-west and north-east of Russia. In Norway they are concentrated mainly in Finnmark County, where there are some 25,000 out of an estimated 40,000 Norwegian Sami. (1)Within the prevailing unity of Sami ethnic identity exist linguistic, economic and cultural group distinctions.
An estimated 20,000 Sami in Norway speak one of its three Finno-Ugric dialects.(2) Sami is in everyday use in the northern core area and is now an official language in five municipalities in Finnmark County and one municipality in Troms County; it is therefore also an official language in the courts. In coastal and other areas, however, the language is losing ground to Norwegian.
Sami have lived in Samiland since time immemorial. Significant colonization of their areas by southern farmers began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Norwegian government later encouraged this process as part of its Norwegianization policy. At the same time, among Sami there occurred a gradual transition from the hunting of wild reindeer to the practice of herding, with the result that Sami became a nomadic people. The drawing of national borders, for example the 1751 division between Norway and Sweden, made their movement across traditional grazing lands more difficult. Many Swedish northern Sami were forcibly displaced from summer lands in Norway to southern areas of Sweden, and southern Sami were forced to accept them on their territory.
The Norwegian Sami Act 1987 defined a Sami as someone who has Sami as a first language, or whose father or mother or one of whose grandparents has or had Sami as a first language, and who considers themselves a Sami. Part of the Sami Act concerns the status of the Sami language.
Sami organizations have won significant concessions from the Norwegian state. In 1980 the Sami Rights Commission was established to deal with political and economic issues. Although this body has failed to address key legal questions of landownership and resource rights, it paved the way for the establishment of the Norwegian Sami Assembly, the Sameting, which was inaugurated in 1989. The Sameting has the power to take initiatives in Sami concerns and to ensure that Norway fulfils its international obligations. In 1988 an addendum to the Norwegian Constitution declared it ‘the responsibility of the authorities of the state to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life’.
Norway ratified ILO Convention 169 of 1989 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples in 1990. That same year, the government submitted new legislation to give the Sami language equal legal status with Norwegian and to increase the possibilities for using Sami in an official context. Such moves are not entirely popular, however; in 1994, the leader of the far-right Progress Party called a fellow member of parliament an extremist after she made part of her speech in the Norwegian Parliament in Sami, and he asked whether MPs would be forced to listen to debates spoken in Sami, Urdu or any other ‘language incomprehensible to most Norwegians’.
Nordic cooperation among Sami was initiated in 1953, and in 1956 it was decided to establish the Nordic Sami Council. The Nordic Sami political programme, adopted in Tromso in 1980, sets out certain principles: Sami are one people and should not be divided by national boundaries; they have their own history, traditions, culture and language, and an inherited right to territories, water and economic activities; they have a right to self-development; and they will safeguard their territories, natural resources and national heritage for future generations.
The Nordic Sami Council has been known as the Sami Council since 1992, when representatives of Russian Sami joined it. Through the Sami Council, Sami participate in the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and, since 1989, the Sami Council has had consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
The reindeer is central to Sami culture and the continuation of herding is regarded as essential to the survival of Sami identity. While the modernization of reindeer herding may offer new opportunities to Sami, the shrinking of their herding lands, coupled with environmental damage, threatens the continuation of this way of life. The so called ‘East Sami’ who live along the border with Russia and Finland are particularly affected by these developments. Under Norwegian law, the ‘East Sami’ are entitled to herd their reindeer. However, there are few reindeer grazing-sites left for them to use, and those that remain are being encroached upon by the ‘Sea-Sami’. The UN Human Rights Committee has urged the Norwegian government to designate an area along the Neiden River known as Neiden-siida for the sole use of the ‘East Sami’, thus far without effect. Although the ‘East Sami’ are not represented in the Norwegian Sami Assembly, the Sami Assembly is nevertheless responsible for promoting their interests. Yet the Sami Assembly has so far failed to lobby for this proposal or indeed to bring the ‘East Sami’ case before ILO bodies.
1.& 2. Helander, E., Sami of Norway, http://www.reisenett.no/norway/facts/culture_science/sami.html