By Omkar Mahajan

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


Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 11.15.47 PM
By Omkar Mahajan

I’ve always been fascinated with Vikings since I was little. It was the Norse mythology and religion that piqued my curiosity. The Norse polytheistic religion was widespread throughout Scandinavia and Northern Europe from the 8th to 11th centuries. Afterwards, the religion died out and was replaced by Christianity. Recently, the Norse religion has abruptly seen a resurgence in Iceland. This is due to the efforts of the organization Ásatrúarfélagið, which promotes Asatru, or Norse pantheism.

A Brief History
Of course, it’s essential to ascertain some context and discuss a brief saga of the Vikings and their religion. The Norse religion was a polytheistic religion with numerous deities and the vikings were a seafaring people who lived in what is now modern day Scandinavia. There are stories of gods such as Thor and Odin who fought battles with demons and monsters and legendary heroes like Ragnar Lodbrok and Bjorn Ironside who conquered neighboring kingdoms. The Sagas illuminate the history of the creation of the Norse kingdoms.

While it is debatable whether heroes like Ragnar Lodbrok and Bjorn Ironside actually existed, no one can deny the ferocity of the myths and legends that portrayed them. Later Sagas extrapolate the exploits of real life individuals such as explorers Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson who were were the first Europeans to venture to the Americas. Erik the Red founded the first Norse Settlement on the American continent by establishing a colony on modern-day Greenland. His son, Leif Eriksson, reached as far south as Canada and established minor settlements there although none of them were permanent. The Vikings were efficacious seafaring voyagers.

However, it wasn’t until modern times that history books finally attributed Leif Eriksson with the distinction of the first European to reach the Americas. Until then, most people believed that it was Christopher Columbus who traversed to the Americas before any other European. Nonetheless, religion and mythology played a huge defining rule in the culture of the Vikings. In fact, the decline of the Norse religion is generally considered to be the end of the Viking era as that was when the Scandinavian kingdoms formally adopted Christianity. Despite this, I was astounded and intrigued to learn that recently in Iceland, there has been a sudden revival in the Norse religion coupled with a marked decline in Christianity.

Ásatrúarfélagið Today
Iceland, for the first time in centuries, is now officially worshipping Norse gods again. The last time Norse gods such as Odin, Thor and Frigg were worshipped was 973 years ago when Iceland formally converted to Christianity. Ásatrúarfélagið, an Icelandic religious organization promoting faith and belief in the Norse gods, is the association behind the sudden rise in worship of these deities. It’s high priest, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, was able to raise sufficient funds and permission from the Icelandic government to construct the first Norse worshipping temple in over a 1000 years. As many people in Iceland are turning away from organized religions such as Christianity and are instead approaching atheism or embracing non-Abrahamic faiths such as Buddhism, the Norse religion is expected to see a rise in membership as people leave the Christian church.

I’ve often wondered what the early interactions between the polytheistic Vikings and the monotheistic Christians were. Movies, literature, and media forms have regularly illustrated such interactions between the two groups as violent and gory based on differences in principle. While we can only speculate what exactly occurred during their encounters, some professors believe that misunderstandings and confusions were common and rather the root cause of conflict instead of simply a difference in belief being the catalyst for violence. Indeed, it’s likely that early Christian missionaries and officials who first confronted the Norse religion aptly interpreted the Norse gods as demonic beings and deemed the Vikings as people that needed to be saved.

Professor of Theology from Emory University, Luke Timothy Johnson, highlighted his viewpoints regarding relations between Christians and the Vikings in a statement to the news forum, Big Think.

Christian mission has always positioned itself as a rescue operation, that people were in desperate straits, were indeed under the influence of demons. … It is impossible to read the reflections of Marcus Aurelius … and not recognize a profound mode of religious expression. … It is impossible … not to recognize that [paganism] is the furthest thing possible from the demonic. It is indeed a form of religious expression from which we can learn much, and at the very least we need to respect,” Johnson argued.

Although there is some credence to his argument, I respectfully disagree with some of his points. First, I don’t necessarily agree that Christian mission was always a rescue operation. If you don’t believe me, you can easily flip through a standardized history textbook and discover numerous instances of Christian conquerors forcibly mass converting thousands of native peoples, such as the Native Americans, to Christianity under the pretense that they were being saved. However, I do agree that the Norse religion, or paganism as he refers to it, was not demonic. If we are to believe his statements, it makes sense that some people who witnessed another group of people practicing an ideology that they thought was morally wrong, would try to save them, even though their idea of saving them is drastically and divergently different from our definition today.

Skeptical Viewpoints and Criticism Regarding Ásatrúarfélagið
Of course, as I heard more about this rise of this Norse religion in Iceland, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an actual religion actually being reestablished or if this was just a publicity stunt. I even wondered if it could have been something even worse, such as a cult. My suspicions were later put to rest when I further read that the Norse temple that was completed a few months ago, actually hosts wedding ceremonies and funerals. Additionally, Ásatrúarfélagið has been in existence since the 1970s. If you want more proof, then consider the fact that membership has tripled since its founding and now numbers a few thousand. While that may sound small, keep in mind that Iceland only has a population around 330,000. Furthermore, Ásatrúarfélagið is also a member of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions.[1]

Despite this, there have been sharp criticisms of this new religious movement. First, the religion lacks a fixed theology and dogma and many of the priests and religious officials active in the movement have adopted a pantheistic worldview. Moreover, there is no head religious official and members are not expected to follow any religious authority. Also, it has a checkered history. In the 1970s, some members held white supremacist beliefs and tried to incorporate elements of Nazism into this developing religious movement. One such member, Þorsteinn Guðjónsson, attempted to incorporate his beliefs of racial superiority and advance platforms of antiabortion and immigration reduction into the organization.[2] Additionally, literary folk scholar and Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Chicago, Stefanie von Schnurbein, characterized the group as a “mix of individualistic anarchists, atheistic church opponents, and racist spiritualists.”[3] Thus, one can lucidly see abundant negativities to this program.

Ásatrúarfélagið: A Progressive Movement?
In response to these criticisms, many members describe the organization as a movement with more of a spiritual focus than religious and that it doesn’t necessarily dispute other religious beliefs. The leader of the organization, Hilmarsson, explained in a statement to Reuters how the movement isn’t necessarily religious but rather focuses more on the elements of nature and the human mind instead.“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology,” Hilmarsson said.

Furthermore, in regards to racist individuals being present in this movement, I later found that Þorsteinn Guðjónsson and others like him were actually a minority in this organization and were unable to advance their racial theories and political beliefs in the movement so they subsequently left and formed reactionary far-rightwing fringe parties.[4] Finally, Icelandic anthropologist, María Erlendsdóttir, disputed and called into question Schnurbein’s claims by arguing that Schnurbein’s sample size was too small to reach any conclusion. According to Erlendsdóttir, Schnurbein only interviewed two members of this movement.[5] In her own book about Norse beliefs, she criticized Schnurbein’s conclusions arguing that “the heavy accusations of von Schnurbein contradict certain clues that Ásatrúarfélagið has an open mind to people of other cultures and races.”[6]

Erlendsdóttir does have a point about Ásatrúarfélagið being open minded. In fact, in a drastic contrast to most other organized forms of religion,  Ásatrúarfélagið has often supported and promoted progressive political issues. It has been instrumental in environmentalist protection clauses, has fought for same-sex marriage, and has argued for the separation of church and state. For instance, when Sigurjón Þórðarson, a member of this organization, was elected to the parliament in 2003, he stated his views that religion and state must be kept separate from each other.[7] Evidently, this movement is indeed openminded and progressive which makes it unique when contrasted with other religions.

After reading up on this religious movement, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ásatrúarfélagið carries more of a spiritual focus with a pantheistic worldview that honors the Norse gods rather than utilizing an organized doctrine and theology. Nevertheless, it is very enthralling since its membership increased in recent years, it has promoted progressive causes, has an interesting history, and renewed interest in the Viking sagas. While it is still early to tell whether this will be a lasting religious movement for a long time or just a loosely collected organization that will last only a few decades, it will be fascinating to see its course and progress in the future. Regardless of what path it takes, it has ensured that Norse mythology and Vikings will continue to live in our imaginations.

Photo by Artiom P

[1] Judith Schlehe and Evamaria Sandkuhler, Religion, Tradition and the Popular: Transcultural Views from Asia and Europe (Bielefeld: Verlag, 2014), 270.
[2] Pétur Pétursson, Asasamfundet på Island och massmedia. (Religionssociologiska institutet, 1985), 27.
[3] Stefanie von Schnurbein, Religion als Kulturkritik: Neugermanisches Heidentum im 20. (Jahrhundert: Winter, 1992), 181.
[4] Pétursson, Asasamfundet, 27
[5] María Erlendsdóttir. Pagan Beliefs in Modern Iceland. (University of Edinburgh, 2001), 27
[6] Erlendsdóttir, Pagan, 28
[7] Michael Strmiska, Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (Religion in Contemporary Cultures), (ABC-CLIO, 2003), 170.


North Sea Oil Rigs

By James Kim
Contributing Writer

It is no surprise that gaining independence from the United Kingdom is no easy task. The United States had ten years of anarchy before ratifying the Constitution; India suffered a violent partition that divided her into two (eventually three) separate nations; and several newly formed countries of the developing world underwent and continue to endure civil wars and unstable governments. A referendum for Scottish independence has been scheduled for a vote later this year. Even though Scotland is a well-developed region with the highest per capita income in the whole of the U.K., that fact will not give her an exception from the difficulties of self-determination if the referendum passes in September.

However, there is a commonly held view among supporters of the independence movement and the Scottish National Party that petroleum would ease the troubles in the early days of home rule. Aberdeenshire, where most of the Scottish oil industry is headquartered, serves as a major SNP voting bloc and even forms the constituency for First Minister Alex Salmond, the main proponent for independence. Scotland’s petroleum reserves are located in the North Sea, which it shares with Norway. The Norwegian success with its lucrative resource has become a rallying cry for the independence movement, as unlike their prosperous Scandinavian neighbor, the Scots have no control over the tax revenues of the North Sea petroleum industry. London instead has the final say in wealth redistribution, leaving the Scots with only a fraction of their rewards. Relationship with the Westminster Parliament is becoming more contentious due to the domination of the Conservative Party, a political group long mistrusted by the majority of Scots. The Tories’ move to privatize the British postal service and even the NHS has frightened the socialist leaning Scots, who fear that their taxes would only be used against them. Thus, the rise of the independence movement is a response to the urgency of making sure that Scottish resources stay with the Scots.

Yet, oil cannot be viewed as a panacea to Scotland’s economic woes. OPEC recently released a statement that the discovery rate of new wells in the North Sea is at its lowest in three decades, initiating fears that production may have already reached peak capacity. To make matters worse, the Westminster Parliament stated that it would veto Scotland’s retention of the pound, a significant blow to the region’s financial security since oil is traded in American dollars. Losing a currency that has more value than the American greenback will create more obstacles than solutions for an independent Scotland.

Having a natural resource that everyone needs does not necessarily make a nation independent. While it does lead to a spirit of nationalism due its huge role in the local economy, oil also carries the risk of attracting foreign powers that want to possess all of its rewards. England knows that it will lose its tax benefits if Scotland gains full control over its own resources; a potential loss of billions of pounds forces Westminster to urge both the Conservatives and Labourers to hinder the SNP’s attempts at separation. However, Scotland also realizes that remaining in the union would prove to be a zero-sum game, as the price of the union means gambling with a hostile right-wing political party that has a sour history with the Scottish people. Despite the importance of black gold, it alone cannot break the stalemate between a compromised union and an uncertain independence.

Images by Berardo62