Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Sámi are indigenous to the northern-most Nordic countries (see also Finland and Norway) as well as Russia. The region comprising their traditional lands is called Sápmi in the Sámi language. Though their exact numbers are uncertain, some estimates suggest that 20,000–40,000 Sámi live in Sweden. The largest concentrations of Sámi live in the northern municipalities of Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Arvidsjaur, while others live in the greater Stockholm area. In 1993, a UNESCO survey (which also covered Norway and Finland) showed that some of the smaller Sámi dialects were either seriously endangered or virtually extinct.
In the seventeenth century, there was an active effort to Christianize Sámi in Sweden. Sámi were forced to attend church services, under threat of fines, imprisonment and even the death penalty for those who did not give up their traditional beliefs. This effort included the burning of sacred drums and desecration of sacred sites, and led to an almost complete destruction of traditional Sámi religious expression. The persecution went hand-in-hand with state encouragement of farmers to settle on Sámi territory in the very far north of Sweden.
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.
As Sámi became better organized they won increased support for the maintenance of their language, including the right to mother-tongue teaching in Swedish schools. The Sámi National Union was founded in 1950. Sámis’ status as an indigenous people received legislative recognition in 1977. In 1992 the Swedish Parliament passed Proposition 1992–93:32 establishing a national Swedish Sámi Assembly or Sameting, which only has advisory status.
On 1 April 2000, Sweden officially recognized Sámi as a national minority language. Legislation enacted ensured the right to use Sámi when dealing with state authorities and the courts. The law applies to municipal, state, regional and local authorities in the Sámi administrative area, which includes Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Arjeplog. This legislation gives Sámi individuals the right to use Sámi in all oral and written communication with authorities concerning official decisions related to them. Authorities are obliged to use Sámi in oral communications and provide information that a written answer can be translated orally into Sámi if the individual requests it. Provision also exists for Sámi-language education within the Sámi area. Within so called ‘Sámi schools’ instruction is given in both Swedish and the Sámi language. Sámi schools can be found in Karesuando, Lannavaara, Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Tärnaby. Some municipalities offer integrated Sámi education, which means that Sámi children attend municipal schools, but a part of their education has a Sámi focus. Sámi children are allowed four weeks a year out of school to participate in reindeer herding.
The legislation was further strengthened in 2010 Act on National Minorities and Minority Languages, which was intended to extend the geographic scope of the protection given, including for the Sámi language. In addition to 45 municipalities specified in the Act as having particular responsibility to promote Sámi, Finnish and Meänkieli, 30 more municipalities have joined the administrative areas for the languages in recent years (these are then eligible for central government grants, depending on the size of the minority communities in each municipality). However, in 2015, a moratorium on that process was imposed. The moratorium was declared without prior consultation. Moreover, only a few of the coordinators in the administrative area for the Sámi language actually speak it.
In 2011, the Constitution of Sweden was amended to recognise Sámi as a people. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, however, has criticised the Swedish government for not legislating on issues of Sámi land and resource rights, and for not recognising their right to free, prior and informed consent.
Despite the efforts made to protect the Sámi language in recent years, major problems still remain. Some analysts say the recent legislation has not had a large impact – partly because of the weakened state of the language before it was introduced (many young people ca not speak Sámi fluently), and there are not enough teachers or officials proficient in the language to allow its widespread use in schools or administrative settings.
Of particular note is Sweden’s failure to ratify the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169. As such, Sweden has received criticism from various local and international sources, including the Swedish Discrimination Ombudsman. In a letter to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Discrimination Ombudsman suggested that Swedish policy failed to adequately account for Sámi status as indigenous people and that it was based on policies developed during the colonization of Sámi.
Issues arise due to a general misperception concerning the multi-faceted nature of Sámi life today. A legacy of 19th century colonial policies and attitudes is that Sámi are still most often identified with their unique reindeer-herding tradition, although the vast majority of Sámi practice other livelihoods. Reindeer-herding, whilst important, represents only a part of Sámi’s rich culture, livelihoods and spiritual traditions – much of them overlooked. Certain pieces of legislation – on standing in cases concerning land use and natural resource extraction, for instance – still privilege reindeer-herding Sámi. Other Sámi land rights are generally ignored, despite the fact that fishing, hunting and tourism are important sources of income for the community as well. The Swedish state allows between 300 and 500 reindeer per family. If a herder depends more upon non-herding sources of income, their membership in the herding collective with accompanying resource rights can be questioned. The herding unit, the sameby (the word means ‘Sámi village’, although it actually refers to a geographic area and an economic association), can engage in no economic activity other than reindeer-herding. Currently, only 10 per cent of Sámi in Sweden belong to a sameby.
Reindeer-herding is regulated in the Reindeer Husbandry Act, where Sámi rights have been collectively referred to as reindeer husbandry rights. The Act gives those Sámi who engage in traditional reindeer grazing the right to use land and water for their own maintenance and that of their reindeer. This right is based on tradition from time immemorial and is protected in the Swedish Constitution. It belongs to the Sámi people and may be exercised by any member of a sameby. There are 51 sameby’s for reindeer herding, whose Sámi members are entitled to pursue reindeer herding. A member of a sameby has the right to hunt and fish on outlying land in reindeer grazing mountains in Jämtland and in the traditional grounds of the Sámi people. This right to hunt or fish applies regardless of who owns the land.
While in theory the Swedish Supreme Court acknowledges Sámi land rights, in practice these rights and Sámi land ownership are controversial and therefore frequently disregarded. As elsewhere in Scandinavia, the growth in extractive industries and tourism poses a threat to herding and the traditional Sámi way of life. For example, because of concerns about damage caused by Sámi reindeer to settlers’ property, herding and farming have ostensibly been kept apart. Problematically, however, a significant area of that territory officially designated as herding land is unusable as pasture. In the hope of resolving this issue, in September 2005 the Swedish government asked the Board of Agriculture to negotiate an agreement on winter reindeer grazing between Sámi villagers and Swedish landowners. In May 2006, the government extended the negotiating period until the end of that year.
Following an extended legal campaign, in 2016 the Gällivare District Court found that Sámi could claim exclusive rights to control hunting and fishing as part of a broadened understanding of land rights. In the case of Girjas sameby versus the state, the court agreed with the sameby’s argument that the state had infringed on their traditional rights by the granting of hunting and fishing licences to non-Sámi. The Swedish state has, however, appealed the decision.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has suggested that there is an ongoing need to enhance the ability of Sámi to influence decision-making, especially in light of the Sámi parliament’s limited role as an advisory body with minimal decision-making power. Furthermore, there are ongoing concerns that the dual role of the Sámi parliament as representative body and government agency undermines its representation of Sámi interests as it is required to implement Swedish state policies. Calls for greater political autonomy of the Sámi parliament exist as part of a broader agenda for Sámi self-determination within the Swedish state.
Updated March 2018.