The Forgotten Sámi

Who are the Sámi people and what challenges do they face as the European Union’s only indigenous group? This article dives into the political and legal dimensions the Sámi face in their effort to define and validate themselves as an individual group with their own history and culture, but simultaneously as a part of a changing international community and political climate.

Who are the Sámi people? When confronted with this question, our mind might jump into the stereotypical pictures of reindeers, snowy slopes and colourful indigenous costumes, but what remains void is the deep flourishing history, culture and skill set that has formed this diverse group of people. The Sámi are an indigenous Finno-Ugric people, inhabiting parts of Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. They also happen to be the only indignenous group in the EU, only now via the peak of modern visibility, starting to gain the needed attention to gain the rights and public platform belonging to them.
The political history of the Finnish Sámi offers an insight to a suppressed road, which finally led to the birth of the self-governed Sámi Parliament in 1996. Before the change in Finland’s constitution, providing the necessary conditions for this development, the Sámi representation was handled through the Sámi Delegation throughout 1973-1995, which was founded under a decree. The purpose of this change was to create a tool where the Sámi can genuinely manage their own ideally sovereign society in the North of Finland, but still remain as a part of a larger political totality. The way it works concretely is through the parliament of 21 members and 4 deputies, being their own supreme political body and a legal entity of public law, while working under the supervision and guidance of the Finnish Ministry of Justice. The dialogue and cooperation is supported through the possibility of making initiatives, statements to authorities and proposals over various topics.
Looking at the progress, one’s perception might be positively affected by the changes made, and for a valid reason. Not only is there currently a somewhat autonomous parliament, but there’s a significant amount of attention growing on other important aspects of equality and diversity with the Sámi people, through innovations and aims to level the playfield in language and educational dimensions for instance.The other side however remains as a looming dimension, as the official rights of the Sámi are strongly contingent on the Finnish government and the EU. This power positioning in itself provides a worrisome aspect of an uneven distribution of political forces and therefore opportunities.
[bctt tweet=”The official rights of the Sámi are strongly contingent on the Finnish government and the EU. This power positioning in itself provides a worrisome aspect of an uneven distribution of political forces and therefore opportunities.” username=”eurooppanuoret”]
A current example of this phenomena is the ILO 169- convention regarding the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, and how it still remains to be fulfilled in Finland. The convention was on its way to being processed in 2014, but due to political and legal aspects, was cancelled in 2019, pending another possible process in the future. As it is on one hand understandable that circumstances tend to change in the often stormy political climate, is it on the other hand right for a long awaited validation of a minority group to be dismissed and postponed, yet again?
The convention is vital to the rights of indignenous groups, as it aims to the “Recognising the aspirations of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions, within the framework of the States in which they live, and. Noting that in many parts of the world these peoples are unable to enjoy their fundamental human rights to the same degree as the rest of the population of the States within which they live, and that their laws, values, customs and perspectives have often been eroded. Calling attention to the distinctive contributions of indigenous and tribal peoples to the cultural diversity and social and ecological harmony of humankind and to international co-operation and understanding..”
These objectives hold important objectives, regarding also the internationality of indigeous groups. It is known, that the Sámi people have showed an interest in having a position in the European Union’s decision making, unable to yet secure a official position there and thus a chance to have a stance regarding issues relating directly to them, but also issues they’d have unique perspective and even a responsibility to address as a flourishing part of the union. Not so say there hasn’t been any efforts to include the Sámi, but instead of escalating, the efforts have stayed the same or even diminished as simultaneously the Sámi growingly pursue possibilities to enhance the situation.
Why is it so vital that we talk about the Sámi people? Not only are they the only indigenous group in the area of the European Union, but the way they are treated goes far to determine the nature of our democracy as well. How can a political entity define and value itself, if not through the way it treats others and especially those it holds a larger power over? These larger entities have a chance and as their values dictate a will, to pursue development and innovations. These dimensions however thrive only when they include as many diverse and unique groups as possible, especially these indigenous too often underrated ones, which hold a massive historical and cultural value in the European Union.
The EU’s fundamental values are respect for human dignity and human rights, democracy, freedom, equality and the rule of law. It is said that these values unite all the member states and no country that does not recognise these values can belong to the Union. These values are reflected in the member states, like Finland, and they are regularly evaluated through the given criteria. Finland has received remarks on their lacking behaviour regarding the Sámi, yet an example from the union itself as a strong includor, could be a groundbreaking and necessary step, in ensuring the continuity of these values and democracy and the validity this forgotten group by all measures deserves. As an encouraging fact, the EU has been successful in providing some international and intercultural projects such as the YES6-initiative with the Sámi so far, it remains to be seen if this fruitful cooperation would deepen in the future, providing both sides with a safe space and potential for learning and dialogue.
To briefly end this article, I’ll boldly use myself as an example of a product of the modern society and how it reflects within this theme, to gain a shared perspective on the challenges we have in recognizing indigenous groups as a part of our history and current day. The fact that I am writing this, as a person with a university degree and years of societal and political progress both scientifically as well as personally, and even after a thorough effort of collecting information for this article I still find myself with more questions than answers regarding this historical and significant group of the Sámi people. Is it the lack of education on the matter or in fact, the lack of simple interest deriving from unequal exposure in the media and other platforms?
Frankly, it could be considered as a failure of our society in equal representation and as a smear in the cape of democratic values us Europeans so proudly wrap ourselves in. However, not to make it too harsh and definite, a light can be found at the end of the tunnel, if we agree to step beyond our comfort zone and the often politically correct frames upon us and simply ask with the intention of listening, instead of assuming or fearing the weight of the possible guilt of not upholding the values promised before. History does not in fact define future action, but can work as a guide to the current sphere of societal and political change when considered as a learning experience, instead of a deprived and polarized situation of triumph or failure. The European Union and Finland with all their progress and ideals stand as a proof of the fact that it is never too late.
TEXT Amani Al-mehsen
PICTURE European Union, 2014, Source: EC – Audiovisual Service

The writer is a political sciences masters student from the University of Jyväskylä. Her special interests consist of crisis and conflicts studies, and the human rights perspective on an international political and humanitarian sphere.