FINLAND TO SET UP TRUTH COMMISSION FOR THE SAMI PEOPLE
By Franck Petit - JI - 11. September 2019
The Sami people have lived since early times in the vast northern territories of Scandinavia, where some still make a living from herding reindeer and from fishing. Like the Indigenous people of Canada and other big democracies, the Sami have been victim of violent assimilation campaigns. In Finland, a truth commission is being set up to shed light on this dark past.
They are the last great Indigenous people in Europe, and they are defending their rights. Considered as one of the first peoples, they represent a tourist attraction for many visitors who come for snowshoeing, the Northern Lights and Santa Claus’s villages. The Sami – often referred to as “Lapps”, a derogatory term meaning “ragged” in Swedish – are an indigenous people of 80,000 to 100,000 people spread over the most virgin territories of four countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia – mainly the Kola peninsula). But the Sami have been and remain discriminated against and they demand recognition, apology and reparation from the States.
Norway has set an example, establishing in 2017 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose work is ongoing. In Sweden, the project is in the making. Russia is lagging behind. It seems likely that the Finnish Sami will have their Truth and Reconciliation Commission before the end of the year.
Canada was a source of inspiration and encouragement for them, as Professor Jean-Pierre Massias pointed out at the summer university organized in France in July by the Institut francophone pour la justice et la démocratie on the theme “indigenous peoples and transitional justice”. Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, travelled to Inari, capital of the Finnish Sami people, in February 2018 to share the experience in her country. It has many similarities, since it is not about managing a transition from war to peace or from dictatorship to democracy, but about recognizing and stopping serious violations in a modern state, including forced boarding school internments, dispossession of land and cultural rights, rape and many forms of individual or collective discrimination against citizens historically considered to be second-class.
Tuomas Aslak Juuso, Vice-President of the Sami Parliament of Finland, participated in the negotiations for the establishment of this truth commission. He says: “I think the Canadian example has triggered political will among Sami representatives. It was the crucial factor for us to take the leap and believe in this kind of process. The South African model is not very relevant for us, in a country that is quite peaceful. Basically, some of the basics human are secured for the Sami people, which is of course different from South Africa [during the Apartheid era].” The initial proposal came from the Sami Parliament, which has existed in Finland since 1974 but has only been recognized by the Constitution since 1995. It is based in Inari.
BUILDING A STRONGER SOCIETY
Tuomas Aslak Juuso, who himself was a reindeer herder before becoming an activist and entering politics, describes a slow and only recent awareness of their rights by the Sami people. He says complaints have only been coming before the courts for less than ten years. So why now? “I wonder about that,” he says. “Information has become more accessible, our people have better knowledge of their rights, a lot of NGOs have come from abroad… and people are starting to use that.”
In Helsinki as in Inani, there does not seem to be any desire to work in a hurry. Negotiations for the establishment of the truth commission have been ongoing for more than four years. “It is about building a bridge between two peoples,” says the Deputy Speaker of the Sami Parliament. “Today, even in a modern democratic society, it is difficult to build up understanding. The minority is always in a different position and its message is drowned out by the majority society knowledge and discussion in the media, etc. It is about creating a tool for communication between two peoples. It is not only about better respecting rights and identifying what are the crisis points, it is a tool for the government to build up a strong relationship with the people in order to have a strong society. When you don’t have conflicts, you have of course a much better society.”
Last year, the Prime Minister’s Office appointed an expert, who conducted consultations with the Sami community in their territories from 2 May to 29 June 2018. A budget of €1.5 million has been adopted by the Finnish Parliament for 2019 to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The official announcement of its creation is expected soon.
“It will be a political decision, not a law, that allocates funds for this commission, and it will most likely be under the responsibility of the Justice Ministry,” says Tuomas Aslak Juuso. The commission will operate on a voluntary basis. It will have access to State archives and may interview former officials, but it will not be able to force them to testify. And the truth component of the commission will undoubtedly prevail over reconciliation, if its commissioners follow the report published at the end of the consultations.
The government had to change its narrative along the way, with many Sami vehemently rejecting the idea that it could be first a reconciliation process. The Sami want the facts to be established first. “An apology from the government to the indigenous Sami people possibly made during or after the process is not expected per se, if the intention is merely to offer it as a so-called symbolic gesture without any concrete content,” the report warns with much transparency. The comments of the Sami interviewed during the consultations – transcribed while preserving their anonymity – are not watered down. “Could it be changed to just be an awareness commission, forgetting reconciliation,” asked one. “I know the old people in our area and, for sure, for these old people this is like the last violation.”
“THE SAMI PEOPLE HAS BEEN ELIMINATED”
One of the issues particularly raised during the consultations was the experiences of boarding schools and the resultant loss of language and culture, says the report. But one of the biggest issues for this traditionally nomadic people is territory, as expressed by one of the people consulted. “Sami area is the Sami area, but the Finns interpret it such that a Sami area is an area in which there are points where Samis live here and there. For example, the Act on Forest Administration, which is based on the fact that everything, the whole region is state owned land, but there are just a few areas where there are Sami dwellings. And such an interpretation has eaten away the foundation of the entire Sami people. The Sami people has been eliminated. In every way.”
The mandate of the commission is expected to go back to Finland’s independence in 1917 from the former colonial power Russia. For the Sami, the writing and recognition of their history is another key demand, as explained by one of those consulted in 2018: “It’s as if our history has been deleted because, when we go to a museum, there are rock paintings but it does not say that they are by the Sami. Then again, the Finns have archaeology and it’s said that they were Finnish, but the Sami are like sparrows that have just landed here. There’s nothing, history on a level of education and science has been taken from us.”
NO TRANSNATIONAL COMMISSION
The issue is both national and transnational for the Sami, some of whose leaders would have liked a truth commission common to their entire territory. A Sami Council exists, which includes representatives of the four countries in which they live. But for States, this would have been tantamount to encouraging the Sami people’s recurrent autonomist tendencies. In addition, the Norwegian Truth Commission is dealing with violations committed against both the Sami and a second minority of Finnish origin, the Kven. Official contacts are planned, however, between the Norwegian and Finnish commissions on issues and violations that have a cross-border dimension.
A major challenge for the Finnish commission, Tuomas Aslak Juuso predicts, will be to communicate its proposals in a form that is “acceptable and understandable” to Finnish society and the Helsinki Parliament, without which they will not work. Another major challenge will be, according to him, to “get the people share their stories in such a way that the Commissioners have access to the truth in a complete and understandable way”. The Sami of Finland speak three different languages, two of which have a small number of speakers, and therefore of translators. The future commission is expected to have five commissioners, three selected by the Sami institutions and two by the government. Its president, who has not yet been named, will have the heavy responsibility of building trust on both sides of society. Its detailed mandate will be made public with the official announcement of its creation, which is expected by the end of 2019.
The situation of the Sami People in Sweden and elsewhere
In the begining of the 1900s, based on ideologies protecting the aryan race theory, a heavy isolation policy was practiced in Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
The lands of the Saami were taken away and they were not allowed to buy new property or land.They were forced to migrate. Until World War 2, the notion of "one nation" got stronger and because of heavy oppression and life conditions Saami population decreased to 10.000
Especialy after 1920, to prevent population exchange, more than 60.000 Saami were sterilized. More than 90% of these were women.
Between 1935-1975 and for the purpose of creating an Aryan Swedish race, 63.000 minority Saami women (some handicapped with epilepsy and many with social problems) were sterilized.
Saami and Tatar women were sterilized, biological experiments were carried out on them and their language was banned.Their numbers dropped to 17.000 and their schools were closed.
Sweden's native population called Saami came again under heavy oppression and assimilation starting from 1950.
Genocide continued until 1980 with deportations to prevent a population increase.
Sweden's name was in the list of genocidal countries of 20th century together with Norway because of the violence against their minorities.
The oppression policies of Sweden against the Saami were proved and accepted.
A heavy assimilation policy until 1990s by Sweden didnt allow Saami people to have peace. Their native language and traditional beliefs were banned and they were forced to convert to Christianity. The new born babies were getting blessed again secretly at homes according shaman traditions after they got baptized by force at the churches.
Saami are an asiatic people.Speaking an Uralic-Altaic language. They migrated to Scandinavia from Russia's Kola island and Northern Asia. They can't be defined as settlers, they are migrating people.
Their main source of income was hunting deers and other animals. Starting from 17th century, Norway and Sweden started to assimilate Saami by forcing them to convert to Christianity. Their social and cultural identity started to get destroyed. Their native language was banned and they were forced to learn Swedish or Norweigan at the schools. All these policies were practiced by the Swedish monarchy and Swedish goverments. All this assimilation policies and sufferings of Saami people were proven and accepted by a court decision in February 1996.
Because of the racist and colonialist nature and mentality of the Swedes, the Saami were called by the Swedes Lapps/Lupons. Means patched dress. A complete humiliation.The region they live is called Sapmi, in colonialist language as "Lappland".
A commission formed in 1983 suggested in a report they finished in 1989 to the Swedish goverment to give a series of economic, ethnic and constitutional rights to the Saami .But none of these recommendations were accepted by the Swedish goverment. Until today even the Saami language is not the education language in Saami schools.
This is according to the law a Genocide with reference to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Sweden appear to obviously have violated article II(b) “cause of serious … mental harm to members of a group”, article II(c) “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”, article II(d) “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”, article II(e) “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.
The Swedish State appears today to be more ready to admit such when it comes to the Samí. For example the Swedish Supreme Court on the 23 January 2020 in case number T853-18 ruled that a Swedish law enacted in the years 1971 and 2000, with the purpose to on a large scale remove and extinguish certain property rights of the Samí people regarding hunting and fishery, to be void and null with regards to Samí earlier recognized property rights.
Still today, the Sami people are often badly treated. Unless they are national heroes of course…
Sami representative Börje Salming, Swedish and NHL hockey legend.
In the 1800s the Sami lived only in the Northern areas of Fennoscandia. The borders between the states hadn’t been defined yet and it often happened that several countries taxed the same Samis. In some areas it was the Norwegians, the Finns and the Russians, Somewhere elseit was the Swedes and the Norwegians etc. The borders between these countries were finally defined in the late 1800s and only then the double or triple taxation ended.
Finnish and Saami had a common ancestor, Proto-Finno-Saamic (a.k.a. Early Proto-Finnic) which split up 3,000 years ago and which was spoken in the area of Baltia and Lake Ladoga. Late Proto-Finnic (the common ancestor of Finnic languages) split up 2000 years ago, and Proto-Saamic began to create separate languages in 700 AD approximately. Thus, Finnic and Saamic languages are not mutually intelligible.
Saami people were nomads, and when Finns and Karelians became agrarians, they pushed the Saami away. Originally, the Saami inhabited the whole of Finland and Karelia.
During this period [More or less (1800-900 B.C.E.) ], Proto-Finnish culture began to spread from its traditional homeland south of the Gulf of Finland to what is now South-Western Finland and the area between the Karelian isthmus and Lake Onega. Proto-Finnish and Proto-Sámi culture had previously started to stray from each other following the spread of the “Battle-Axe” culture in the 3 millennium B.C.E. which spread over the eastern Baltic which created a divide between the Finnic-Baltic pastoralists of the coast and the Proto-Sámi hunter-gatherers of the inland (Siiräinen 2003, 52-54). The subsequent spread of emerging Finnish and Karelian culture continued steadily throughout the Viking and the Middle Ages, especially northwards into what is now Central Finland and the area around the Gulf of Bothnia where it replaced the once-dominant Sámi culture (Frog 2014, 351-352; Aikio 2009, 6-7).
Later, Finns and Karelian practiced taxation of the Saami. In the 16th century, they were still living in Northern Ostrobothnia and Northern Savonia. Some old document tells that Saami people in Jämsä (in the region of Middle Finland) were complaining about Finns' stealing their fishing lakes. They were also assimilated with Finns: especially in eastern Finland, the Finnish language spread along with Saami who shifted their language. Kemi Saami (in the southern part of northern Finland) language died because of assimilation. In the Norwegian side of the North, Finnish migrants called the Kvens (today speaking Kven language) diminished the living area of the Saami.
The close relatedness of the Saami people has not prevented cultural problems either. The Sea Saami have lost their areas because of the migration of all Saami. Northern Saami spread to the area of Lule and Pite Saami (in Sweden and Norwegia). One reason for this was that the Finnish border was closed.
Saami have left their marks in place-names of Finland. They provide evidence that Saami were in the whole of Finland but that does not create any cultural bond between Finns and Saami.
One interesting ethnic name shows the mutual origin. I live in the region called Häme which is the same word as Sápmi (Northern Saami), Sábme (Lule Saami) and Säämi (Inari Saami) meaning the Saamiland (known as Lapland by outsiders). Because of my dialect and living region, I'm called hämäläinen in Finnish meaning 'Tavastian', which is exactly the same word as sápmelaš (Northern), saemie (Southern), sábmelaš (Lule), sämmilaš (Inari), sä´mmlaž (Skolt) and sām̜m̜lenč (Kildin) meaning a Saami person.
Who knows, if Tavastia had been the dominant region when the Finnish written language was invented, maybe the Finns would call their language (now called suomen kieli in Finnish) hämeen kieli (Tavastian language) which, again, would be exactly the same word as sámegiella (Northern and Lule), saemien giele (Southern), sämikiela (Inari), sää´mǩiõll(Skolt) and sām̜ kīll (Kildin) meaning the Saami language.
Saami people emphasise that they are an independent nation. They have their own words for Finns which may have some negative connotation: a non-Saami woman is rivgu and a Finn is láddelaš ('manure person'). The old Finnish word lappalainen ('Laplander') is not liked by them. (The modern word lappilainen means anyone who lives in Lapland and is allegedly politically correct.) My Saami teacher told me that when she was working as a waitress, a drunk Saami man didn't want to obey her because he thought she was a rivgu, but when he heard that she was Saami, his behaviour changed dramatically.
Three Saami languages have an official status in certain Finnish municipalities. Northern Saami is official in Enontekiö (Eanodat in N-Saami), Utsjoki (Ohcejohka), Inari (Anár) and northern parts of Sodankylä (Soađegilli). Inari Saami and Skolt Saami are official in Inari (Aanaar, Aanar). Skolts were relocated there after the Soviet Union had annexed Petsamo. Inari Saami is the only language that is spoken only in Finland. Thus, Inari is the only quadrilingual municipality in Finland. The national broadcasting company YLE broadcasts TV news in Northern Saami and writes them online in Inari and Skolt Saami.
Despite all of this, the relationship between Saami and Finns is still problematic in some aspects. For example the definition of who is Saami is not yet clear and Saami don't have a real political power in Saami region despite of their own parliament. A doctoral thesis about the definition of Saami caused a scandal in Saamiland.
The Saami have a strong feeling of being a nation (leaving outside those who have answered "no" in the blanket of the Saami parliament asking "do you feel you are Saami"). I remember an interview where a Skolt man said (in a native level Finnish) that he is primarily Skolt, secondarily Saami and just tertiarily Finnish.
The Sami people are mostly of the European descent, with a small Siberian share of their genetics, like many European people.
The Sami language spread to the Northern Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway) about 0–200 CE and to the Central Scandinavia about 200–400 CE. Southern Scandinavia was inhabited by the Germanic tribes at least at the same time.
My own drawing, based on the linguist Jaakko Häkkinen’s timing in his article:
“Map of the pre-Roman Iron Age in Northern Europe showing cultures associated with Proto-Germanic, c. 500 BC. The red shows the area of the preceding Nordic Bronze Age in Scandinavia…” Proto-Germanic language - Wikipedia
The question is, whether there was a population change along with the language shift, but I guess we don’t really know. My understanding is that there wasn’t any genocide committed by the Sami people anyway. Most probably the older inhabitants were assimilated to the Sami, like the more Southern inhabitants were assimilated to the Germanic or proto-Germanic people. The Scandinavians know it better, how the population has developed in their countries. I base my thoughts on what I know about Finland: we have genetic layers of all older people that have lived here since the end of the Ice Age.
If it was similar in Scandinavia, all current nations have formed here during millenia, even though cultures and languages have come and gone.
AND IN NORWAY ?
The situation in Norway is significantly better than in Finland and Sweden, but still far from perfect.
There is still an underlying layer of racism and ignorance towards the Sámi in most places and while violence is (thankfully) pretty much unheard of, one can always hear disparaging remarks towards them once in a while.
As far as more major issues are concerned, I’d say that language and land rights are the most critical issues.
In Norway, Sámi, as opposed to Sweden and Finland, is an official language and a number of local governments are bilingual, as are other regional institution such as schools, university (one of the two in North-Norway, Tromsø’s), municipal services and the like. The problem is twofold here: there is a lack of educational material and speakers to fill these positions and operate the administrations, and the state/ local governments threat of limiting funding.
Essentially, initiatives to fund Sámi cultural, administrative and linguistic projects are mostly funded by the central government as a way to take Sámi culture back to its feet following a century of forceful cultural assimilation and attempted ethnocide. However, most politicians, especially in the South, do not give two f*cks about the Sámi (or anyone not residing in the capital and 3/ 4 other big cities as a matter of fact) and have/ will not shed a tear when considering defunding/ closing a Sámi-language kindergarden or a translator position. Sámi see these issues are vital, while the politicians just see this as business, hence the rift.
Regarding land-rights, well, the least one could say is that it’s…complicated. Essentially, this issue is both an ethnic issue, a financial issue, a rural issue and an ecological issue. On the coast, the government has been working hard to make the fishing industry into a more and more monopolistic capitalistic behemoth while pressing hard for fish-farming, both dynamics that drive fishermen and local rural people away from the coastal areas and their livelihood. Some Sámi have argued that there should be ethnic quotas regarding who’s allowed to fish where and when, in parts against this business-friendly dynamic. This is obviously a very edgy question, with many opponents saying that ethnic quotas are not a realistic option.
On land, reindeer-herders (who account for maybe 5 percents of all the Sámi) tend to be very protective of their grazing grounds, most of which they do not own but have used for generations, often way before the arrival of Norwegian settlers. When issues like the building of roads, tunnels or mines arise, you can be sure that the herders will be there fighting tooth and nails against these proposals if they threaten their livelihood. In some cases, such projects can also be opposed by others on ecological grounds, but in other cases not.
CHECK OUT: Sámi politics
Siiräinen, A. (2003). The Stone and Bronze Ages. In K. Helle (ed.), The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Vol. 1 (43-59). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Aikio, Ante (2009). The Saami Loanwords in Finnish and Karelian. Unpublished Doctoral thesis. Oulu: University of Oulu.
Frog (2014). From Mythology to Identity and Imaginal Experience: An Exploratory App roach to the Symbolic Matrix in Viking Age Åland. In Joonas Ahola, Frog and Lucenius (eds.), The Viking Age in Åland, Insights into Identity and Remnants of Culture (349-414). Suomalaisen tiedeakatemian toimituksia Humaniora 372. Hel sinki: Annales Academiæ Scientiarum Fennicæ