Focus on Sámi culture and its legal recognition

Lapland, high European North and popular winter destination for tourists, is home to the largest native people of Europe and the only indigenous people of the European Union, Sámi. There are between 80,000 and 100,000 of them and their territory, called Sapmi, spreads across four countries which are Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Though anthropologists develop several opposing theories on their origin, there is no doubt that they have been in Lapland for thousand years. The first document confirming their presence dates back to the 1st century AD with Tacite’s writings. United by the same history and culture across the borders, they have adopted a common national day, flag and anthem. However, they are also known for their diversity as there are 3 main Sami languages and some 30 traditional regional outfits.

This “Focus on Sámi culture” will first look at its legal recognition. Next ones “Focus on” will be about Sami’s cultural practices.

Fig. 1: Map of Sapmi territory (source: wikipedia).

According to the UNESCO, Lapland is one of the last, and the largest, area in the world where an ancestral way of life based on the seasonal movement of livestock is found. Indeed, Sámi culture relies on traditional techniques of fishing and above all of reindeer herding. Reindeers constitute a key element in Sámi culture as they are used for food, clothing and handicrafts. Faced with colonisation, persecutions and assimilation, the Sámi people sometimes had a hard time to keep their traditions and preserve their culture. Their lands, customs, languages and knowledge have been and still are threatened. Though efforts have been made to protect their status both on national and international levels, they still have to cope with a lack of consideration but also mining exploitation, tourism and climate change that all have a negative impact on their territory. Tiina Sanila-Aikio, president of the Sámi Parliament of Finland, said “We feel the full brunt of the effects of climate change […] if the situation keeps getting worse the native people of the Arctic region, who live in close relation with nature, will be threatened with extinction”

International norms

Several international norms and institutions endeavour to protect indigenous peoples. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1966 was ratified by the four countries concerned by the Sámi question. Especially, article 27 requires that “in those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language”.

The International Labour Organisation Convention No 169 on Indigenous and tribal peoples adopted in 1989 seeks to protect the rights of those people and safeguard the respect of their integrity. It grants them rights of ownership and possession over the lands which they traditionally occupy. It also introduces an obligation for the government to consult the indigenous peoples concerned whenever consideration is being given to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly. Norway is the only one out of the four countries inhabited by Sámis to have ratified the Convention where it entered into force in 1990, though the influence of the convention goes beyond the borders of the State parties.

The European Charter for regional or minority languages adopted in 1992 and monitored by the European Council aims at protecting the historical regional or minority languages which contribute to the maintenance and development of Europe's cultural wealth and traditions. Contracting states commit to facilitate the use of these languages in speech and writing in public and private life, regarding education, justice, medias, cross-border exchanges… It entered into force in 1998 in Finland and Norway and in 2000 in Sweden where it applies, among others, to the Sami language. Russia signed the charter in 2000 but did not ratify it.

The UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples which was adopted in 2007 is definitively the most comprehensive international text on this matter. It is not legally binding for States but it nonetheless has an important symbolic value. It contributes to shaping a framework for the protection of indigenous people and shows the way forward. The preamble of the declaration affirms the principles of equality and diversity of indigenous peoples while article 43 states the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world. The provisions of the declaration include the right to self-determination, equality, participation to the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State, cultural integrity, spiritual, linguistic and cultural identity as well as rights on their lands, territories and resources.

The Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish Sámi parliaments drafted the Nordic Sámi Convention which was signed in January 2017 after several years of negotiations. It harmonizes and strengthens the rights of the Sami people in the three Nordic countries. It emphasizes the right to self-determination as well as rights on their lands and water and contains provisions on culture, education et governance. It has not been included in national legislations yet.

The European Union is also involved in the Sámi question, especially through the Northern dimension action plans. .

Fig. 2 : Lapland in Finland, December 2016 (photo: Marine Roques).

International institutions

Compared to others, the Sámi population is very involved in institutions in which they get a member or an observer status or which they even created. For instance, the representatives of Sami parliaments attend the meetings of the Nordic Council as observers.

The Arctic Council, instituted by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996 is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction between the member states on common issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. The Council recognizes the importance of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic and grant six indigenous organisations a status of permanent participants, just like the status States get. One of these organisations is the Sámi Council. Decisions are made by consensus after a consultation of the indigenous organisations. It is the first time that indigenous people are on the same level as States within an organisation.

The Sámi Council, which thus has a permanent member status in the Arctic Council, was founded in 1956. It is a non-governmental organisation made of nine Sámi organisations from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Its primary aim is to promote the Sámi rights and interests in the four countries where they live. It must not be mistaken for the Sámi Parliamentary Council which is a body established in 2000 by the national Sámi parliaments.

Fig 3: Parliament representatives in Norway with their traditional clothes (photo: Denis Caviglia, 2009).

On the national levels

Indigenous peoples are taken into account in the constitutions of the four States but it does mean that it necessarily grants them rights, especially in Russia. For instance, the Finnish constitution expressly recognizes the rights of the Sámis, “the Sámi indigenous people as well as other groups have the right to keep and develop their language and their culture”. However, the Russian constitution is quite eluding and does not make an explicit reference to the Sámi people.

National Sámi parliaments can be found in Finland, Sweden and Norway. Those parliaments voice the Sámis in public affairs but generally have limited powers. Finnish and Norwegian Sámi parliaments are seen as politically independent institutions and have larger rights than the Swedish one.

Norway – Norway is home to the biggest population of Sámis, about 60,000 of them. It is the only minority of Norway than is recognized as an indigenous people. They have more rights than in the other countries. The Sámi parliament, instituted in 1989, is composed of 39 representatives elected for a 4-year term. Consultations of the population are more thorough than in Finland and Sweden. Norway is the only country, out of the four, that ratified the ILO Convention 169. It guarantees rights on the territories traditionally occupied by Sámis and on the territories that they have used, not always exclusively, and recognizes the spiritual relationship between indigenous peoples and their land. It also safeguards rights on natural resources. What really distinguishes Norway from the other States is the Finnmarksloven, a law from 2005 that aims at facilitating the management of the land, reindeer herding and natural resources in the county of Finnmark. The system is quite complex but it is basically supposed to ensure that the Sámi interests are taken into account by making their collaboration with the State easier. The law transfers the ownership of about 95% of the county’s land to its inhabitants. The land is managed by a special organ, the Finnmarkseiendomen whose board of directors has six members, three of whom are elected by the Sámi parliament. Sámi language and Norwegian have the same value in seven Lapp municipalities. Thus, in those municipalities, all official documents must be available in both languages and each person has the right to express themselves in their own language in their relation with the government, before the administration, judicial authorities or in case of arrest. At school, a Sámi teaching can be chosen. Reindeer herding is an exclusive right of the Sámi people.
Sweden – About 15,000 Sámis live in Sweden. The Sámi parliament, established in 1995 is composed of 39 representatives elected for a four-year term. Sámi children have the right to be educated in their own language and to study in Sámi primary schools. Reindeer herding is strictly reserved to Sámis.

Finland – There are between 6,000 and 8,000 Sámis living in Finland. The Sámi parliament has 21 representatives elected for four years by the Sámi population and approved by the Finnish government. In 1995, the national parliament granted them the indigenous people status in the area they live in (paragraph 14 of the Constitution) and they enjoy a linguistic and cultural autonomy (paragraph 51(a)). Sámi language is taught in schools since 1970. A 1992 law safeguards the official status of their language and allow them to use their language in their official actions, for example at a trial. As opposed to Sweden and Norway, every owner can be a reindeer herder, it is not a right exclusive to Sámi people.

Russia – Only 2,000 Sámis live in Russia. The UN High Commissioner for human rights and several NGO shared their concerns regarding the situation of indigenous peoples in Russia, among which we find the Sámis. Though laws designed to protect the rights of indigenous peoples were passed, they are not applied in practice. Consequently, their lands are exploited without their consent, they are not involved in decision-making on matters that affect them, are discriminated against and neglected by local and federal governments.

Overall, the conditions of the Sámis are getting better as various initiatives at local, national and international levels aim at protecting their status. However, there is still much to do. The Special Rapporteur’s 2016 report on the human rights situation of the Sámi people in Norway, Sweden and Finland highlights the negative impacts of mining industries on the Sámi way of life and the violation of the objectives regarding human rights for the Sámi people. As for Russia, the country pales into insignificance next to its Nordic neighbours that at least tackle the issue.

Fig. 4: Reindeer farming (photo: Charclam, 2009).

This "Focus on" was written by Marine Roques

Sources :

•    The New Developments Regarding the Saami Peoples of the North, Malgosia Fitzmaurice 
•    Human Rights Approach to the Protection of Traditional Knowledge: An Appraisal of Draft Nordic Saami Convention, Kamrul Hossein, 2012
•    Autonomy in Finland: The Territorial Autonomy of the Åland Islands and the Cultural Autonomy of the Indigenous Saami People, Baltic Yearbook of international law online
•    Le statut de la langue et de la culture sâmes en Norvège, Isabelle Guissard
•    Practical Implementation of Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights: A Case Study of the Russian Federation (Comparison with Certain Developments in Africa in Relation to Indigenous Peoples), Malgosia Fitzmaurice, 2011