Sámi: the only indigenous people in the EU

Miina Hiilloskivi

The Sámi are the only indigenous people the European Union. Inhabiting the Arctic area of Sápmi in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, the total Sámi population stands at around 75,000, of which the majority lives in Norway. Within this diverse group, there exists ten different Sámi languages - all of which are endangered. In spite of the ancient ties this indigenous people has to the land of these regions, there exists a long and sad history of discrimination towards the Sámi, which is marked by active suppression of their language and culture. Despite gradual progress over the past century, systematic oppression by centralised Nordic governments has scarred the Sámi population permanently.

Today Finland, Sweden and Norway have Sámi Parliaments which function as institutions defending the cultural autonomy of the Sámi people. In all these Nordic countries, the Sámi are legally recognised as an indigenous people, giving them the right to maintain their own language and culture. National legislation concerning the right to use Sámi languages in institutions of authority and education has been brought into force. Co-operation has also been established between Sámi organisations in Sámiráđđi, the Sámi Council, which unified the disparate Sámi clans to create a united front fighting for the representation of the Sámi.

The traditional Sámi livelihoods include reindeer husbandry, fishing, hunting, gathering, and handicrafts, and are all based on the sustainable use of natural resources. Their diet and habits are shaped by the environment, resulting in a traditionally nomadic lifestyle with loose and unofficial ties to the land. Indeed, today the core of the disputes with the Sámi is focused on land use rights. The issue lies in the fact that Sámi society is based on an oral culture, meaning that there is little to no written proof of ownership of the land that has been inhabited and used for generations. Even in cases where land use rights are recognised, there is limited legal protection as the richness of natural resources in these areas, such as iron ore, nickel and timber, often lead to Sámi interests being overlooked.

Out of the three countries, Norway is the only one to have ratified what seems to be the most significant international agreement concerning the rights of indigenous groups: the ILO Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Articles 14 and 15 concern the right of indigenous people to own water, land and natural resources. These propose identifying and delimiting the land traditionally occupied by the Sámi in order to protect their ownership of the land. This vital agreement would not only eliminate costly court disputes over land use but also help to preserve this indigenous culture that is based on sustainable use of natural resources.

Indeed, it is shocking that Sweden and Finland are still not showing signs of ratifying the convention, despite overwhelming calls to do so. The role of the EU in particular in pushing for indigenous people’s rights should not be underestimated. The European Council's criticism of Finland in 2011 for not having ratified the Convention aided significantly in increasing the pressure on the Finnish government to revaluate their policy towards Sámi. If the EU continued such measures, the highlighting of the systematic discrimination of an ethnic minority could seriously damage the international reputation of Nordic countries, and the added international pressure could speed up the process of ratification.

The support of the EU has the potential to become significant force in the fight for Sámi people’s rights, of which the calling out the Nordic countries’ failings would comprise just the first step of a long road.