THE SAMI: A DISAPPEARING INDIGENOUS MINORITY IN SCANDINAVIA

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By Omkar Mahajan
Editor-in-Chief

Scandinavia, like many other regions of Europe, has faced a plethora of refugees from the Middle East seeking asylum and escaping persecution. While many in Scandinavia are welcoming of the refugees and as Scandinavia looks to a multicultural future with a heterogeneous population, one cannot help but notice the inherent hypocrisy in the history of Scandinavia in regards to the treatment of its own indigenous population, the Sami. This issue is further complicated when one considers the fetishizing of native indigenous cultures by Europeans in recent times. Discrimination of the Sami is a topic that is not adequately addressed and Scandinavian countries will have to confront this issue as they face a possible multiethnic future after the arrival of the refugees.

Discrimination against the Sami has increased in recent months in Scandinavia. In the preceding few months, large government projects have seized land from the Sami in order to build renewable energy projects and politicians have ignored concerns and protests from the Sami. Furthermore, racism and prejudice toward the Sami have risen as their voices continue to remain unheard. On the other side of the globe, the conflicts and chaos in the Middle East have led to a plethora of refugees entering Scandinavia, forcing Northern European countries to look to a heterogeneous population as they welcomes the refugees. Ironically, despite embracing multiculturalism, Sweden and others are shunning their own ethnic indigenous minority, the Sami. This begs the question, who are the Sami?

Who are the Sami?
The Sami are an ethnic indigenous people who primarily inhabit the Arctic areas of Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Based on archaeological evidence and discoveries of early settlements and cave paintings, the Sami are believed to have inhabited northern Scandinavia since at least 11,000 BCE after diverging from other hunter-gatherer groups in northern Russia. Throughout the centuries, the Sami maintained a variation of lifestyles ranging from hunter-gatherers, coastal fishermen, fur trappers and reindeer herders. Since they lived in the far north and had successfully adapted to the harsh and cold climate, interactions with other peoples were rare and the Sami became increasingly isolated. Around the 8th century, which saw the advent and expansion of the Vikings, the Sami were driven further north and interactions between the Vikings and the Sami were minimal. Although some fur trading did occur, communication between the two groups was sparse and rather non-existent. Thus, the Sami were able to maintain their own lifestyle and independence.

Prior to the 15th century, the Sami were independent of outside influences and continued their nomadic way of life. After the 15th century, the Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway expressed an interest in Sami lands and dispatched expeditions to annex Sami lands. The Sami people were mandated to pay taxes in order to continue to reside where they were and overhunting by the dispatchers led to a decline in reindeer herds. This forced many Sami to find new occupations and leave their lifestyles.

In the 1800s, Sami lands were seized by the governments and sold to wealthy landowners. Sami people themselves were forcibly relocated and many died on the journey to new places. Settler colonial projects took place as settlers were encouraged to move northwards. The Norwegian government outlawed the usage of Sami languages and customs and derided them as primitive and backward. Children were taught only in the Norwegian language and were converted to Christianity and renamed and given Christian names. The Swedish government also enacted similar measures. As a result, many Sami languages died out and became extinct.

In the early 1900s, the Norwegian government started an active effort to wipe out the Sami people and culture. Norway later passed a law that any land that was extremely fertile and owned by the Sami had to be given up to the government. Sami people were also rounded up and mass sterilized. Furthermore, many scientists conducted research on the Sami in efforts to support their pseudo-scientific disciplines about race. Because of determinations to erase the Sami culture and mass assimilate them into society, the Sami were segregated and not recognized as full citizens.

The Sami Today
Today, the Sami continue to face discrimination and many history books do not even elaborate on the Sami people. In fact, many in Scandinavia know more about the Native Americans of the United States than the Sami people of Scandinavia. Additionally, many Sami people today do not disclose that they actually are Sami and a large percentage of them have assimilated into mainstream Scandinavian society. While there were efforts to recognize the Sami as a marginalized people and implement programs to help them out of economic poverty, many politicians believe that enough time has passed and that these programs should be removed.

Moreover, many Sami living in northern areas of Scandinavia who try to maintain the ancient lifestyles of their ancestors unfortunately see their lands being taken away by lumber and logging companies. Governments also intervene in some cases seizing land from the Sami and later justifying it on the grounds that it’s needed for environmental green energy purposes. While green energy and alternative renewable resources are very important in this day and age, it is disrespectful to seize land from people and not compensate them for it.

Also, it is unknown how many Sami are currently living in Scandinavia today. Since their numbers are much smaller than before and many died through disease, colonization and forced relocation, there have been parallels drawn between the Sami of Scandinavia and the indigenous people of the Americas. On another note, many Sami people do not actively report that they are Sami and after a number of generations, many have assimilated into Scandinavian society and are now indistinguishable from the rest of the population. While some scholars would be outraged and rightfully should be, it is disturbing to consider that this is a trend that has been seen in various other cultures and places such as Japan and its Ainu people, the United States and its Native American population, the British and the aboriginals of Australia and others.

Governmental Action
In the late 1990s, the governments of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia finally passed laws recognizing the Sami as an indigenous people and granted them special provisions. Norway’s constitution grants the Sami special rights and ensures to protect their culture and language. Furthermore, they also allow the Sami to have their own parliament. While the intentions of these laws are clearly respectable, the unfortunate reality is that the passage of a few laws and little enforcement of these laws will do relatively little to undo centuries of abuse, mistreatment and discrimination. In 1993, a Sami parliament in Sweden was established but this is hardly effective since indigenous rights regarding the Sami are currently banned in Sweden. Although Sweden did apologize for its treatment of the Sami and recognized the Sami language as one of its five official minority languages in 1998, implicit racism and discrimination continue to affect the Sami and little is being done to combat this. Finland recognized the Sami as their own people in 1995 but this hardly means anything since Finland is yet to ratify ILO Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Also, Finland denied aboriginal and land rights to the Sami. In regards to Russia, Article 69 of the 1993 constitution grants rights to the indigenous communities and has the goal of economic development for marginalized indigenous peoples but the government is yet to act on these measures. Clearly, not much is being done to help the Sami.

After a careful and broad overview of this subject, one can evidently see that the discrimination of the Sami is unjustified and that the responses of the Scandinavian governments is rather insufficient. While recognizing and acknowledging past wrongdoing and abuse is helpful and is a direction in the right step, just acknowledging wrong actions from the past is worthless if there are not any significant measures or actions being undertaken to rectify and undo a series of damages. The refugee crisis of Syria and the Middle East has forced countries to foresee a multiethnic and multicultural future with a heterogeneous population. While some in those countries have expressed xenophobia, many have embraced multiculturalism and have expressed a desire to help out with the refugee crisis. However, it is ironic and hypocritical to embrace multiculturalism while overlook a troublesome history and pretend that a few laws passed decades ago are enough to correct centuries of discrimination. This will be an issue that many will have to face as a more multiethnic future materializes.

Photo by Tonynetone

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