Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are about 80,000 indigenous Sámi living in northern Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the far north-west and north-east of Russia. Finland is home to about 8,000 Sámi.
Most Sámi continue to reside in their traditional area, which is known as the ‘Sámi Homeland’ (Sámiid ruovttuguovlu). This area is of relevance for the implementation of the Sámi Language Act of 1992 (revised in 2004) as well as the Act on the Sámi Parliament of 1995 (amended up to 2003). The Sámi Homeland stretches across the three northernmost municipalities in the Province of Lapland, namely Utsjoki, Inari, and Enontekiö, plus the northern part of the municipality of Sodankylä. Only in Utsjoki do Sámi constitute a majority of the local residents. The Sámi of Finland are divided into three distinct groups: Northern Sámi (the vast majority), Greek Orthodox Skolt Sámi, and Inari Sámi – each speaking their own Sámi language.
From as early as the seventeenth century, when Lutheran missionaries first arrived in the Sámi Homeland, Sámi have been discouraged from speaking their native languages in favour of Finnish. However, there were no official policies prohibiting the use of Sámi languages – unlike in Norway and Sweden.
Under Finnish law, a ‘Sámi’ is a person who identifies as Sámi and who is either a native Sámi-speaker or has at least one parent or grandparent who learnt Sámi as a first language. Controversially, this linguistic definition was extended in 1995 to include descendants of persons who were identified as ‘Lapps’ (the previously widely-used but derogatory term) in previous land, taxation, or population registers, even if these descendants do not fulfil the linguistic criteria. This decision to privilege descent over language was opposed by the Sámi Parliament, which claimed that the new legislative definition would effectively dilute the Sámi community with persons already assimilated into the majority Finnish population. As a result, in 1999 the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland restricted the scope of the new criterion by excluding persons whose registered Lapp ancestors were more distant than their grandparents.
In 1995, the Finnish Constitution was amended to include stronger guarantees for the rights of Sámi. The new provisions recognized the status of Sámi as an indigenous people and accorded Sámi the right to maintain and develop their own languages and culture. They also guaranteed Sámi cultural autonomy within the Sámi Homeland. These provisions remained unchanged in the new Finnish Constitution which entered into force on 1 March 2003.
The Sámi Parliament was established in Finland in 1973 as the first elected body of Sámi peoples in the Nordic states. The original name in Northern Sámi was the Sámi parlameanta. Following the 1995 Act on the Sámi Parliament and a legislative decree, the name was changed in 1996 to Samediggi in Northern Sámi and Saamelaiskäräjät in Finnish. The Sámi Parliament is entrusted with decision-making powers relating to the distribution of funds set aside in the state budget for Sámi and may also take initiatives in matters concerning the Sámi languages, culture and indigenous status. As a result of the legislative reform introduced in 1995 the Finnish authorities have an obligation to negotiate with the Sámi Parliament in all important matters which may affect the status of Sámi as an indigenous people.
A separate Act on the Sámi Language was adopted in 1991 and came into effect in 1992. It made Sámi an official language. It applies mainly in the Sámi Homeland and was replaced by a new Sámi Language Act which is based on a proposal made by the Sámi Parliament. The new Act entered into force on 1 January 2004. The new Sámi Language Act aims to overcome shortcomings associated with the previous arrangement by strengthening Sámi language use before courts of law and other authorities and improving access to public services in Sámi. The Sámi Language Act is based on principles that are similar to those included in the Language Act setting forth the linguistic rights of the Finnish-speaking and Swedish-speaking populations. However, whereas Finnish and Swedish are recognized as national languages of Finland, the Sámi languages retain the status of regional minority languages. Nevertheless, according to the law, Sámi have the right to use their languages when contacting the public authorities in the Sámi Homeland. In Utsjoki municipality, where Sámi are the majority, Sámi and Finnish have almost the same status.
Disputes over the ownership and use of land in the Sámi Homeland remain unresolved. Sámi do not have the ability to make any decisions regarding land or access to resources in their traditional territory, of which ninety per cent currently belongs to the government. Provisions for land use and ownership were left out of the law establishing the administrative status and cultural autonomy of Sámi. Instead, the Finnish authorities argued that a more detailed examination of the issues relating to land rights was required before any legislation could be adopted. Since then, a number of government bodies, most notably the Finnish Ministry of Justice, have sought to address the question of Sámi land rights. The Sámi Parliament has conducted its own investigation into the land rights question and in September 2002 published a report on land ownership which asserted that Finnish claims to land ownership within the Sámi Homeland were based on judicially untenable grounds.
In discussing the land rights question Finnish officials have said that any solution must be acceptable to both the government and Sámi and suggested that the joint working group of three Nordic countries could provide the basis for such an agreement. However, after 2015 elections the Finnish government became more conservative with the Finns Party (previously True Finns) entering the coalition. In April 2016 the parliament passed a new Forestry Act which – in the face of unequivocal Sámi opposition – circumvents the need for prior consultation and gives the Finnish state-run enterprise Metsähallitus the ability to remove the boreal forest that is vital to Sámi livelihoods.
Unlike Norway and Sweden, Finland does not grant exclusive reindeer herding land rights to Sámi. The Finnish government has not allowed nomadic herding for years, and territory where herding is allowed has been divided into specified cooperatives since 1898. Despite its importance in Sámi culture, reindeer herding is losing its economic viability. In Finland, the average reindeer herder is likely to earn only a third of what a farmer would.
Language rights also remains an important issue, particularly for Sámi children. In overseeing implementation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Committee of Experts feels that some progress has been made with regard to the development of teaching materials and language nests. However, more needs to be done in terms of securing use of the Sámi languages in the provision of public services, including health care. The Committee has also urged the Finnish authorities to extend Sámi language training to areas outside the Sámi Homeland, given that the majority of Sámi now live elsewhere.