Some readers of this blog will know a lot about the Sámi people, some will know nothing. I write here for the latter group, as any description of Norway and other northern countries would be incomplete without touching upon this topic, and I’d like to get the basic history across. My source book is The Sámi People – Traditions in Transition by Veli-Pekka Lehtola (2004 edition).
The Sámi are an indigenous ethnic minority, with their own culture, living in the northern parts of four neighbouring countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula of Russia. There are between 60 and 100 thousand of them, 40-50 thousand living in Norway (half of these in the province of Finnmark). Within the Sámi community there are many different groups, each with their own language. Davvi Sámegiella has the most speakers: 17 thousand, with 10 thousand of these living in Norway.
In the past, Sámi were known as “Lapps,” but this term has been rejected because it was given to them by outsiders and came to have a pejorative meaning during the time they were being racially discriminated against. “Lapp” has gone out of use, but if you were not aware of this you should now be careful not to use it, as it can be taken as offensive. “Laplander,” on the other hand, is okay but it means something entirely different: a Laplander is a person of any ethnicity living in Lapland, a Finnish province. The Sámi land, crossing national borders, is known as Sápmi.
One of the downsides of the growth of nationalism in mid-nineteenth century Norway, leading up to independence from Sweden in 1905, was a kind of paranoid strive for national identity, which encouraged homogeny, entirely inconsistent with ethnic diversity. There was an official policy to “norwegianize” the Sámi, banning the use of Sámi language in schools, making proficiency in Norwegian a prerequisite for the ownership of land, etc. There was a Social Darwinist influence, Norwegians believing that an “inferior” (i.e. minority) culture could only survive by being assimilated into the “superior” (i.e. majority) culture. Many of these laws existed until the 1950s. Unfortunately, many Sámi came to be ashamed of their own culture, and believed that they should adopt the culture of the majority, in order to succeed in society.
This situation turned around in relatively recent times. Although the Sámi national day, February 6, celebrates the first cross-border political meeting of Sámi in Trondheim in 1917, Sámi solidarity – and collective identity – really only came into its own during the Áltá protest, which began in 1968. This was a protest against the damming of the Áltá river. This construction threatened both nature and livelihoods in the region, and the original plan even involved flooding a village. The principle at stake was the right for Sámi to decide how their own lands are used. The protestors managed to block construction, but when the government eventually decided to press ahead, permanent protest camps were set up in late 1980. The Prime Minister of Norway ordered 600 police northwards to forcibly clear the camps, which they did in January 1981. The Sámi may have lost the Áltá conflict, but enormous solidarity and a shared sense of identity emerged from the protest movement, and the Sámi flag (pictured above) made its first appearance. The heavy-handed police operation also changed the way Norwegians viewed the minority. Many Norwegians, particularly young people, reacted with horror to the government’s violent action, and wanted to see a reversal of the state’s attitude towards the Sámi. Political reforms followed, protecting Sámi rights and language. From 1989, the Sámi have had their own representative body, the Sámediggi.