There are about 7,500 Sami (or 0.15% of the total population of Finland) in Finland (source: National Minorities of Finland), the country’s only indigenous minority (see Norway for main discussion). Most Sami continue to reside in their traditional area, which is known as the Sami Homeland (Sámiid ruovttuguovlu). This area is of relevance for the implementation of the Sami Language Act as well as the Act on the Sami Assembly. The Sami 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 the Sami constitute a majority of the local residents. The Sami are divided into three distinct groups: Northern Sami (the majority), Greek Orthodox Skolt Sami (about 900) and Inari Sami (about 500) (source: National Minorities of Finland).
Under Finnish law, a ‘Sami’ is a person who identifies himself or herself as a Sami and who is either a native Sami-speaker or has at least one parent or grandparent who learnt Sami as a first language. Controversially, this linguistic definition was extended in 1995 to include descendants of persons who were identified as ‘Lapps’ (the term ‘Lapp’ is now considered derogatory by many Sami) 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 Sami Parliament, which claimed that the new legislative definition would effectively dilute the Sami 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 the Sami. The new provisions recognized the status of the Sami as an indigenous people and accorded the Sami the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture. They also guaranteed the Sami cultural autonomy within the Sami Homeland. These provisions remained unchanged in the new Finnish Constitution which entered into force on 1 March 2003.
In early 1996 the Sami Assembly (Samedikki in Sami, Saamelaiskäräjät in Finnish) was constituted as a representative body for Sami and as the successor body to the Sami Parliament. The Sami Assembly is entrusted with limited decision-making power, relating to the distribution of money set aside in the state budget for Sami, and may also take initiatives in matters concerning Sami languages, culture and indigenous status. As a result of the legislative reform of 1995 the Finnish authorities have an obligation to negotiate with the Sami Assembly in all important matters which may affect the status of Sami as an indigenous people.
A separate Act on the Sami Language was adopted in 1991 and came into effect in 1992. It applies mainly in the Sami Homeland and was recently replaced by a new Sami Language Act which is based on a proposal made by the Sami Assembly. The new Act entered into force on 1 January 2004. The new Sami Language Act aims to overcome shortcomings associated with the previous arrangement by strengthening Sami language use before courts of law and other authorities and improving access to public services in Sami. The Sami 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, Sami retains the status of a regional minority language.
Disputes over the ownership and use of land in the Sami Homeland remain unresolved. Provisions for land use and ownership were left out of the law establishing the administrative status and cultural autonomy of the Sami. Instead, the Finnish authorities argued that a more detailed examination of the issues related 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 Sami land rights but no final decision has been forthcoming. Meanwhile, the Sami Assembly has conducted its own investigation into the land rights question. In September 2002, the Sami Assembly published a report on land ownership. The starting point of this report was that Finnish claims to land ownership within the Sami Homeland were based on judicially untenable grounds. The President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, discussed the land rights question at the opening of the Sami Parliament in 2004. She said that any solution must be acceptable to both the government and the Sami and hoped that the joint working group of three Nordic countries, active at the moment, would provide the basis for such an agreement. As of 2006, however, none has been forthcoming and, consequently, Finland has yet to ratify ILO Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.