The term “Sámi” refers to the indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia, settled in northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, and on the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Called “Sápmi”, it is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 indigenous people live in this area, among which 20,000 to 40,000 are located on Swedish territory. Since the Sámi identity is based on cultural self-identification, it is difficult to give a reliable estimate. In Sweden, relations with these peoples have developed through history, and are still today an ever-changing political and social issue.
Who are the Sámi?
The origins of the Sámi people date back to around 10,000 BC, when the melting of the ice cap allowed populations of hunter-gatherers to settle in the north of present-day Scandinavia. There are recorded mentions of the existence of nomadic societies in these remote regions as early as 98 BC. At that time, their life was centred on hunting, fishing and duodji, a craft exploiting natural resources (birch wood, bark, leather, reindeer antlers, etc.). Hunting and the development of reindeer herding in transhumance provided them with thick animal skins, which they wore to protect themselves from the cold. In the Viking era, commercial relations with the Nordic populations were established around their know-how; the Sámi peoples were thus gradually integrated into Icelandic and Norwegian tales, poems and chronicles.
The way Sámi cultures have formed over time vary depending on the territories, despite having a common base. In particular, records of a Sámi religion have been preserved, the ancestral practice of which has now disappeared. These beliefs were based on a sovereign nature (earth and water being considered and respected as living beings) and the existence of a spiritual world, linked to the human world by the ecstatic trances of the shamans (the noaide). The Sámi idioms, belonging to the Finno-Ugric language family, have also been maintained to the present day. There are now nine linguistic areas (including those of southern Sámi, Lule, Pite, Ulme and northern Sweden) of 30,000 speakers. Oral stories, costumes of colored skins, traditional yoik singing and many other aspects complete the variety of these cultures.
From the 14th century, the Swedish kings began to claim rights over the Sápmi region, and encouraged its colonisation. Taxes in kind were levied by the Scandinavian states and by Russia on certain populations. In 1526, King Gustav Vasa declared that Swedish law applied also in Lapland; the rights granted to the local inhabitants were however violated by the settlers, while the Sámi living in non-Sami territories were cast out. From the 17th century, the Scandinavian governments also started a process of Christianization. The obligation to attend religious services then went hand in hand with the prohibition to practise traditional rites, in particular the veneration of ancestors, something that was very important to the Sámi. Fines, imprisonment, incineration of ritual drums, ransacking of sacred places: the conversion was violent, and slowly crushed the traditional religion.
Colonisation intensified in the 19th century, with the new challenges of industrialization. The development of hydroelectricity advanced at the expense of the territorial rights of the Sámi, whose environment was deteriorating. The transformation of the landscape had significant consequences for their activities (reindeer herding, fishing, berry harvesting, etc.), while assimilation and discrimination (notably in the « nomadic schools » for Sámi children) continued, in the name of progress and in that of a Scandinavian linguistic and cultural unity.
It was not until the second half of the 20th century, when the first international debates about minority populations appeared, that the treatment of the Sámi peoples in Sweden was really called into question. Their recognition as an indigenous people by Parliament came in 1977; an inquiry into their rights followed (launched in 1982), leading to the creation of a Sámi Parliament in 1993.
Nowadays, what relations do the Sámi have with Sweden?
Interview with Mr. Torbjörn Söder, lecturer in Finno-Ugric languages and teacher-researcher in linguistics of North and South Sámi at the University of Uppsala.
- Do the Sámi people living on the Swedish territory have particularities in contrast to other regions (like the Sámi people from Norway, or Russia)?
This is a difficult question to answer, the Saami culture being quite variegated. In many respects regional Saami cultures have much in common, but since the Saami regions (also defined as dialectal or language areas) do not follow the national borders it is more appropriate to talk about the culture of for instance South and North Saami, which besides language also show different cultural features. South Saami is spoken in Norway and Sweden and North Saami in Norway, Finland and Sweden. It is however possible to discern some differences which pertain to national borders. For instance, the Saami culture in Russia has been strongly influenced by Russian culture which is not the case in Sweden.
- According to you, which factors allowed the preservation of the Sámi culture until today? Nowadays, would you say there is a strong Sámi identity?
Even though there has been a very strong urge from the national states in the region to assimilate the Saami, the Saami identity, which include traditional livelihoods, language and cultural expressions, has been strong enough to preserve and develop the Saami culture. However, the picture is complex, and in some regions the local Saami culture and identity has been severely damaged. It is quite common today that people discover that they have Saami ancestry, and that their forefathers had hidden their Saami identity at some point for the benefit of a more ‘appropriate’ Swedish identity from the state’s point of view. My impression is that in general, people who identify themselves as Saami also have a strong Saami identity.
- Would you consider this people an oppressed minority or not? For which reasons?
From a historical perspective, the Saami have been severely oppressed, especially during the 19th and 20th century, but the oppression started even further back (16th century) when the state forced the Saami to stop practising their traditional religion and become Christians. The long period of oppression on different levels leaves a mark on today’s situation too.
One important thing is the categorization of Saami: in the late 19th and early 20th century, the policy of the Swedish state was that only those who are engaged in reindeer herding should be considered Saami, while those who were engaged in other traditional livelihoods should be assimilated. This is one of the reasons why, today, people rediscover their Saami background. Another important thing is the right to the traditional land, which has gradually (starting perhaps in the 17th century) been taken from the Saami. In some respects, the situation has improved and some court orders have established the Saami right to land. The Saami land is however often threatened by industrial endeavours, such as mining projects, hydroelectric power plants and windmill projects.
- How well are the Sámi people included in the Swedish population? What are your thoughts about it?
One could say that Saami culture and the Saami language have become more visible in Swedish society today. News pertaining to Saami questions are often reported in the media, and there is a tendency that the government and other authorities try to include the Saami perspective in questions which may affect them in some way. There are laws giving the Saami the right to use their language with authorities and to offer it at school for Saami children. This is a step forward, but the implementation of these rights is not yet satisfactory.
- Is the knowledge of Sámi people included in Swedish education?
In the curriculum of the Swedish primary school, it says that these themes are important: “Urfolket samerna och övriga nationella minoriteter i Sverige” (“Saami indigenous people and other national minorities in Sweden”) and “De nationella minoriteternas rättigheter” (“The rights of national minorities”).
The Saami language has been a subject in Uppsala university since the late 19th century, so the subject has quite a long history. Saami is nowadays also (since the mid-1970s I think) taught in Umeå university.
- What is the general opinion of non-Sámi Swedes on this people? Do you wish the perception and knowledge about the Sámi people to evolve in the future?
It is very hard to tell. I mostly meet people who have a positive opinion about Saami, but there are reports of hatred against Saami, especially against reindeer herding Saami. It is of course difficult to tell how many people there are with similar opinions. I think that the overall knowledge about the Saami has evolved to be more profound and less stereotypical, but there is still a lack of knowledge in society.
- Are there books (fiction or non-fiction), websites or other sources you would recommend to a foreign student to learn more about the Sámi?
Here are three books I suggest you read:
- [in French] Fernandez, M. M. Jocelyne (1997). Parlons lapon : les Sames, langue et culture. Paris : L’Harmattan
- [in English] Lehtola, Veli-Pekka (2004). The Sámi people: traditions in transition. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press
- [in English] Hansen, Lars Ivar & Olsen, Bjørnar (2014). Hunters in transition: an outline of early Sámi history. Leiden: Brill
What future for the relations between Sweden and the Sámi people?
Despite recent progress in recognizing the rights of the Sámi, some issues around their place in Swedish society remain. Thus, the protection of activities related to reindeer herding, education in Sámi culture and language, the return of human remains kept in Swedish national collections (some of which have been the subject of controversial scientific experiments), as well as certain rights (territorial right, right to water and natural resources, right to self-determination) are all points that the Sámi Parliament is now making to the government.
The question of indigenous peoples in our modern societies is complex, as it includes social, economic, political and cultural issues. Sweden’s past and present relationship with the Sámi peoples is an example of this; it highlights the challenges represented by the recognition of the rights of indigenous populations in a globalised world, where a balance between the modern world and traditional ways of life is still to be found.