Norway’s indigenous Sami people could finally celebrate not only their cultural heritage but some recent accomplishments on their national day this past weekend. Challenges and frustration remain, however, as their struggle for respect and their battle against discrimination continue.
Celebrations were held from Finnmark in the far north to Oslo in the south. It’s been 30 years since the first Samenes nasjonaldag was celebrated on February 6, to mark the day in 1917 when the first meeting of Sami groups from what’s now Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway was held in Trondheim.
The now-traditional and annual celebration in the Norwegian capital on Sunday was the largest of them all. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and his wife Marit joined Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen and hundreds of others gathered in the Oslo City Hall, where the president of the Sami Parliament (Sametinget) in Karasjok, Silje Karine Muotka, was guest of honour in all her Sami finery.
There were also colourful outdoor festivities on the ice in Masi in Finnmark, for example, along with music and speeches in Bodø’s impressive cultural hall known as Stormen and both outdoor and indoor parties in Tromsø. Sami flags flew from the Norwegian and Sami parliaments and many other public and private buildings around the country. The large outdoor Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo highlighted Sami culture, food, art and history all weekend long. Like Norway’s own national day on the 17th of May, children are at the center of the celebrations.
This year Norway’s roughly 40,000 Sami could also celebrate several accomplishments during the past year. Five years after questioning the progress of Sami rights at their centennial in 2017, there’s been some real recognition at the highest levels.
In October, for example, King Harald not only attended the annual opening of the Sami Parliament in Karasjok as usual but he also arrived early to take part in a special ceremony southwest of Norway’s Sami capital, in Kautokeino. It marked receipt by the Sami Archive there of a precious Sami document entitled the Lappekodisillen dating from 1751. It’s been linked to the age of enlightenment at the time, and declared that the Sami were their own indigenous people with a right to their own existence. That meant they should not be forcibly assimilated into Norwegian or Swedish society, for example, even though that’s what ultimately happened.
“There is such a long history behind this,” King Harald told news bureau NTB during the ceremony marking receipt of what equates to the Samis’ Magna Carta. “We all have quite a bad conscience I think.” The king, who’s shown himself to be a good friend of the Sami and other indigenous people around the world, has earlier officially apologized “for the injustice the Norwegian state inflicted upon the Sami people through a hard policies.”
From 1880, for example, Norwegian policy of fornorskning literally forced the Sami to become Norwegian. It forbid the use of either the Sami or Finnish languages in the schools, and Sami children were not allowed to speak their families’ native language during their free time, either. Many Sami children were sent off to bording schools, far from their families. The fornorskning policy wasn’t lifted until as late as 1959. King Harald’s father, the late King Olav V, had earlier apologized for the cultural offense as well, also to the indigenous Kvensk people who had a language of their own.
In November of last year came more symbolically good news for the Sami from the Danish government, which controlled Norway for several hundred years. The Danes had agreed to let another Sami national treasure remain at the Sami Museum (RiddoDuottar Museat) in Karasjok: a rare 330-year-old drum that had been confiscated by Danish officials in 1691 on the grounds it contributed to the equivalent of witchcraft. It was returned in 1979, but only on loan until December 1, 2021.
With the deadline approaching last fall, Norway’s new government minister in charge of cultural affairs, Anette Trettebergstuen, made it clear to her Danish counterparts that formal ownership of the drum should be transferred to the Sami Parliament. Denmark’s National Museum agreed and a formal agreement to that effect is pending.
The Sami have also scored breakthroughs in the use of bilingual signage at border crossings and on highways in many northern areas, even on a popular roll of chocolate candy in Norway. Sami musicians, singers and artists have also won national competitions and fame, providing lots of inspiration and role models for other young Sami, although the Sami still lack their own art museum.
The biggest victory of the year, however, came also in October, when the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that a highly disputed license granted by the state to build and operate turbines for wind energy on a mountain plateau in Trøndelag was invalid.
The court ruled that construction of the turbines, pushed through and approved at both local and national levels of government in Norway, violated the rights of the Sami as an indigenous people. Their noise and disturbance to the nature inhibited local Samis’ tradition of herding reindeer on the same plateau.
It was a landmark ruling that confirmed how Northern Europe’s largest wind power plant was at odds with the Sami’s grazing rights. Both the reindeer herders directly involved and the Sami Parliament were certain that the Supreme Court ruling would have consequences for such wind power projects, and that the offensive wind turbines would have to be dismantled. Other controversial mining projects on Sami grazing land could also be legally deemed to have violated Sami rights to the land, they thought. “It’s outstanding,” claimed the spokesman for a local reindeer grazing area, “that the Supreme Court came forward with a unanimous decision that Sami rights were broken.”
Three months later, though, not much has happened. The wind turbines are still turning and the government’s Oil & Energy Ministry responsible for settling the dispute spent nine weeks formulating a written response that only seems to further drag it out. Instead of dismantling the windmills and returning the area to its natural state like the Sami and many other opponents of wind turbines in scenic Norwegian mountaintops expected, the ministry has instead opted for yet another study of possible “solutions” that could “secure” the rights of reindeer herders and their animals while letting the windmills keep turning.
Silje Karine Muotka, the president of the Sami Parliament, appealed in her annual New Year’s speech that the Supreme Court decision be respected, and that the Sami finally be allowed to prevail over the “all-powerful” interests that have threatened and violated their rights for years. Even King Harald seemed to support the Sami, but Norway’s new Labour-Center party government still hasn’t done anything to dismantle the wind power project. At a meeting with foreign correspondents in January, Prime Minister Støre promised the Supreme Court decision would be respected. Then the court itself issued a confusing “clarification” of its ruling in January, claiming that it didn’t mean the wind turbines must be torn down, only that they’d been set up on an invalid basis. Now it’s up to the government how to resolve that.
It’s all just another example of an ongoing lack of power over their own fate that the Sami have felt for years. They’ve suffered not only centuries of expropriation of their land but also discrimination, suspicion and harassment. While Norwegian farmers get almost automatic compensation from the state if their sheep are attacked by predators, for example, Sami get far less if their reindeer are attacked.
Støre himself stated at the Sami National Day celebration in Oslo City Hall how 95 percent of Sami responding to a recent survey revealed that they have experienced prejudice against their ethnic group and culture. He promised more support for Sami language and culture programs, but he hasn’t promised to tear down the windmills or halt an especially controversial mining project due to dump tailings in the Repparfjord in Northern Norway. Sami have been camping out at the site for months in protest.
They have included Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, who won a national music competition, has become a highly successful artist and recently wrote a book about what it means to be Sami. There are also several highly successful Sami artists and performers, from Mari Boine to Emil Kárlsen and Kajsa Balto, now serving as role models for other Sami. Isaksen in particular has mixed her musical talents with her social engagement, and used her celebrity to draw attention to Sami issues.
Norwegian commentator Harald Stanghelle wrote last fall that Sami and Norwegian interests are now meeting through both conflict and efforts at conflict resolution. Issues may not be resolved until a state commission set up to investigate the consequences of forced assimilation and systematic discrimination of the Sami over decades presents some conclusions. They were due this fall, but are delayed until June 2023 because of the Corona pandemic. Maybe then there will be some clear concessions directed at the Sami.
King Harald, meanwhile, noted in his address to the Sami Parliament last fall, that “we (Norwegians) can only imagine how difficult” it’s been for generations of Sami to live with discrimination, harassment and either psychic or physical ciolence.
“That’s exactly why we (Norwegians) with humility and respect (should) meet those who tell their stories and those who choose not to tell them,” the monarch said. Wrongs need to be righted, added Svein Harberg, a vice president of the Norwegian Parliament. It remains to be seen, though, whether windmills erected on Sami grazing land will be removed, whether mining projects will be halted and now, whether rivers and other waterways will continue to be protected from hydroelectric development. No one wants another huge confrontation like that over Finnmark’s cherished Alta River several decades ago. The Samis’ message, at any rate, is clear that government ministries involved in such issues need to right earlier wrongs, not repeat them.