Norway’s upcoming parliamentary election isn’t the only one stirring up political campaigns at present: The country’s indigenous Sami are also gearing for an election to their own parliament, Sámediggi/Sametinget in Karasjok, and it stands to attract more voters this year.
A total of 16,958 people over the voting age of 18 in Norway are now registered in what’s called the samemanntall, which determines the size of the country’s adult Sami population and those eligible to vote in the election of representatives to the Sami Parliament. The election will be held concurrently with the national parliamentary election on September 11.
The increase is reflected in the number of those registering a stated declaration that they view themselves as Sami and either use the Sami language at home or have had parents, grandparents or great-grandparents whose first language was Sami. Would-be voters are also eligible if they are children of someone who is registered or has been registered as an eligible voter.
News bureau NTB reports that this year’s Sami electorate has grown by 1,953 people since the last election in 2013. That’s now being viewed as a sign of recognition and acceptance of their Sami heritage.
“I think there are more and more people who feel comfortable being Sami, also among the elderly,” Jørn Are Gaski, plenary leader of the Sametinget, told NTB. That hasn’t always been the case, given years of discrimination against the Sami and former state policies that forced many to assimilate to Norwegian society, adopt Christianity and speak Norwegian. Many Sami lost or cast aside their own language and heritage in the process, for which Norwegian officials including the monarch have since apologized.
More older Sami, and more from Southern Norway
The largest increase in registered Sami voters has occurred among those aged 67 and older. On a geographic basis, the largest increase (29 percent) has also occurred in Southern Norway, far from the northern counties of Finnmark, Troms and Nordland where most Sami have lived. They include 848 people living in Oslo, while the largest concentrations of registered Sami live in Karasjok (1,400) and Kautokeino (1,580), reported newspaper Klassekampen.
More younger Sami have also registered for this year’s election, and Gaski said he hopes that signals a new trend. He noted that many of his own family’s oldest members have not been registered, “and these are folks who have Sami as their mother tongue. They have experienced discrimination and being told that was it was not positive to be Sami.”
The leader of the Sami youth organization Noereh, Dávet Solbakk, is also glad that more Sami are recognizing their Sami roots. “Many of the elder Sami went through the hardest fornorskingen (the state-decreed practice that forced Norwegian culture on the Sami),” Solbakk told NTB. “My grandparents were sent to boarding school (where the Norwegian language and culture were stressed) and it’s a big step for them to register themselves into Sami society and be able to vote.”
In the last election, 66.9 percent of registered Sami voters cast ballots. Both Gaski and Solbakk think many have registered just as much to declare themselves as Sami as to actually be eligible to vote and take part in Sami politics. “In Southern Norway, it’s a way to mark your identity when you sign into the register,” Gaski said. “There have been older Sami who moved south years ago who are signing themselves in now, and then their grandchildren are registering, too.” There hasn’t been enough relocation from Finnmark, for example, to explaing the increase in voter registration in Southern Norway. “This is about taking back your Sami identity and history.”
There’s been little coverage of the Sami election in national media, however, with much of the campaigning taking place in Northern Norway. Frank Aarebrot, a professor and election researcher at the University of Bergen, criticized the lack of coverage and blamed it on a lack of knowledge or interest in Sami politics and issues.
Much of the national coverage is left to state broadcaster NRK’s Radio Sápmi and its portion of NRK’s website. “That’s not enough,” Aarebrot told NRK. He wants to see more coverage of the Sami election campaign, which includes a wide variety of issues including language and land rights. “It’s time for the national media to realize that the Sami election is not a local election, but has national implications,” Aarebrot said.
No lack of conflicts
NRK responded that it planned more coverage closer to Election Day, while other media including TV2 and newspaper Dagbladet, cited a lack of staffing and resources. Newspaper Aftenposten, meanwhile, let go its longtime correspondent in Northern Norway and expert on northern issues, Ole Magnus Rapp, resulting in a noticeable decline of stories from Finnmark and other northern counties. Rapp is now working for Klassekampen.
There’s been no lack of recent political conflicts within the Sami Parliament, where its former Sami-speaking president from the Norske Samers Riksforbund (NSR) party lost her seat in a battle over the parliament’s budget last fall. She was replaced by Vibeke Larsen of the Labour Party, who stirred controversy when she delivered the president’s annual New Year’s address in Norwegian because she never learned Sami. She later got caught in a power struggle within Labour and abruptly left the party, but hung on to her president’s post. The upcoming election will, among other things, decide who’ll take over after September 11.
Many Sami voters must cast ballots by September 8, however, since they need to deliver absentee ballots and vote in advance. Only Norway’s 63 municipalities with more than 30 registered Sami voters are equipped for Sametinget voting on Election Day. Residents of areas with less than that must vote in advance. In Southern Norway, registered Sami can still vote on Election Day in Fredrikstad, Sandefjord, Bærum, Asker, Lørenskog, Skedsmo, Ullensaker, Eidsvoll, Oslo, Drammen, Stavanger and Bergen.