“Permission to be unique”: rights of the indigenous Sámi in a welfare state

Assi Askala (Finland AC 09-11)

About a year ago, I met an interesting young woman, who had ambitious ideals of the future of her people. She was an indigene of the Nordic countries, a Sámi woman. She had lived her childhood in the stark landscape of Lapland where the pure nature, old culture and modern world clash together. Now she had come to Helsinki University to study more about indigenous people. She was interested in the relationship of language and identity and how important is it to know your own history in order to create a self-image. The cultural movement has been getting stronger and stronger among the Sámi youth in the past decade.


For those who are not familiar with Sámi people is relevant to know, that they are the ones who have been living in the area that places now in north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Overall nowadays there is about 70 000 Sámi people divided as about 40 000 in Norway, 20 000 in Sweden, 7000 in Finland and 2000 in Russia. Even though there people is divided to these countries, they see themselves as one people. The Sámi council that represents all the Sámi people states: ‘’ we Sámi people are one people and no borders of any country can disconnect us.’’

In the end of 19th century to the first half of 20th century Sámi people faced a so-called ´´integrating politics’’, colonialism and social Darwinism. In that time the modern world saw the Sámi people as people, who had been left behind the developed civilization, as one prime minister of  Norway, Johan Sverdrup, said: ‘’The only rescue for the Laplanders(*name that Sámi people were called) is to get integrated to the people of Norway’’. To make this happen there was several actions made in Norway, for example. School was only in Norwegian and you were punished if using other language. Later on this happened also in Finland, not only the Sámi children were made to use Finnish they needed to travel far away from home and stay away for long periods of time. In Norway, they also established a law that in order to buy land you much be a Norwegian speaker. In Sweden the politics were a bit different, they just isolated the reindeer keepers and left them to live their lives in autonomy. This caused some problems, because it included only the ones in reindeer depended communities, there was other types of Sámi communities, too.

 These actions then again affected their knowledge about their culture and made them shamed about their language and roots. Many of them moved to urban areas and abandoned the traditional life style. There is a generation of grand parents and parents, whose own parents decided not to teach them the language or the culture, because they did not want their children to go trough the same bad experiences as they did. In some point the resistance against the cultural destruction grew rapidly and we can see that the ethnical and cultural awakening happened as a protest.   

The council of Sámi people was created in 1996 and its job is to improve cultural, economical, social and lingual rights. The Sámi were also defined as a indigenous people in the time when Sweden and Finland joined EU. By law one can register himself as a Sámi if he or one of his parents his parents or grandparents is a native Sámi speaker. The most important point is that the person himself feels to be Sámi.

In Finland, the young generation of the samé people attempts actively to revive their culture and language. Nowadays they have music festivals in their own language, writing competitions, right to go trough the kindergarten and school using their native language and overall right to use public services by their own language. In these days there is also a lot of urban Sámi youth who have moved to cities and do not speak Sámi as their mother tongue, but do consider themselves as a Sámi.

The council of Sámi people is fighting for more rights and gaining them too, even though some may criticize that they are not radical enough and questioning why they overall have adapted to the colonialism so peacefully. Rauna Kuokkanen answered to this in his article Saamelaiset ja Kolonialismin vaikutukset nykypäivään (The Sámi people and the effects of colonialism to the present) by the idea of Hegemony, that the sovereign way of thinking and culture models the ways of thinking of the subjugated minds and cultures.

There has been pointed out in some researches, that the politics of welfare state do not consider enough the fact, that the Sámi people may have a different idea of welfare, how to organize public services like school and healthcare. In our societies the idea of wealth is based on the wealth of individual, as originally in Sámi communities the community is basic unit. The common way of thinking in the Western world is narrow and we should do more research in order to understand other culture and it is our responsibility, and the right of native people, to provide the indigenous people a possibility to practise and develop their own culture and way of living. The council of Sámi people is trying to get autonomy when it comes to organizing their communities.

It should be everyone’s right to be unique and even though we have the basic human rights in the welfare countries, we may forget the fact, that other cultures may have other ideas of what the welfare is. My Sámi friend said, that she saw the future in a good light and that she has a lot of expectations towards it. Last month I heard that now she is a member of the council of Sámi people, and when the youth get an opportunity to affect things, changes will happen.

– United Words Student Magazine –

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