Last week it was reported in The Local that government-enforcers in northern Sweden had burned a traditional Sami “kåta” in an attempt to send a message to other indigenous people hoping to stake an historical claim to land. Given the exposure the incident incurred it cannot have made for comfortable consumption for the government who were, it seems, trying to maintain the moral high ground.
The building in question, the ‘kåta’, an impermanent structure “similar to a North American teepee”, was at the heart of a six year battle with the local authority of Västerbotten, “who since 2010 had maintained that the kåta was an illegal new building.” Sweden’s history with its indigenous northern population is contentious and national interest was soon sparked prompting Håkan Jonsson, a representative from the Sami Parliament, to declare it a “pyrrhic victory” for the Swedish government.
Who are the Sami?
The Sami are the EU’s only indigenous population and Sápmi, their ancestral territories, span much of the northern areas of Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola peninsula of Russia and have existed far longer than those countries have in their modern forms. Their population is thought to be around 80 000 to 100 000, with 20 000 to 40 000 thought to be in Sweden, but no comprehensive survey of the people has ever been completed so these numbers are merely estimates. Their languages, culture and heritage are rich and distinct to that of their neighbours and unfortunately, their lands hold huge political and economic significance due to their natural resources. In a region that shares four borders between four powerful European countries, tensions have frequently run very high and this has often been at the expense of the Sami, who until recently have had little to no representation at any legislative level.
In Swedish popular culture there are several key movers and shakers who actively promote Sami rights and interests in their work. Sofia Jannok and Maxida Märak frequently speak about the treatment of their people in their music. In a 2017 interview Sofia Jannok said of her music, “You can break any limits you want to and it isn’t censored. But our history is censored.” Maxida Märak, who recently starred in tv’s Midnight Sun, a high budget crime drama set in Sweden’s Sápmi region, was affirmative in a recent interview on the question of racism against the Sami. “Yes, it’s very divided up in the north. It all comes down to politics, and Sweden has a very dark history when it comes to how you treat your natives.”
In Spring 2017 a campaign was launched to draw attention to “everyday racism” that the Sami encounter by Sameradion and SVT Sápmi and later this year the Sami Parliament will report to the Swedish government on a survey that was completed on “the existence of racism against Sami today, both among adults and children and adolescents.”
A brief timeline
There have been some conciliatory steps in recent years towards recognition, but the history of the people and region remains fraught. Here are a few key dates that give a context for the situation:
● 1928 - Passing of the Reindeer Pasture Law which “limited reindeer ownership and membership in any Sami village to herders and their families.”
● 1979 - Guidelines for the orthography of the Sami alphabet published to bring it into alignment with the Swedish alphabet.
● 1993 - The formation of the Sametinget (Sami Parliament).
● 2000 - Sami language being given official minority language status in Sweden.
● 2011 - Common law rights granted regarding specific areas of land by the Swedish Supreme Court.
● 2017 - Sami Parliament asked to produce a report based on a survey on Sami treatment and racism.
● October 2018 - That report set to be presented to the Swedish government.
This may all sound like progress but it’s a stark picture when you compare it to what Norwegian Sami neighbours get from their government. In a opinion piece from The Local, it is said that Norway provides its Sami parliament with “135 million kronor annually in support of Sami culture, while Sweden gives a paltry 15 million.” By comparison, the Sametinget “controls about one thirteenth of the money Norway's Sami Parliament controls.” Inarguably this is a huge difference and says much about the status of the indigenous people in the eyes of the Swedish government even when you compare the supposed indigenous population sizes of the two countries, 50 000–65 000 Norwegian Sami compared to 20 000 to 40 000 in Sweden.
How long the disparity and division between the state and the indigenous population will last remains to be seen. However there are signs that visibility is increasing as the recent incident in Västerbotten highlights. When national press turns up to the eviction of a lone Sami woman and her ‘kåta’ by burning then perhaps the days of incidents like this being swept under the carpet and dismissed are over. The recent release of the Swedish/Sami film Sameblod (Sami Blood) may represent a cultural turning point, the kind that Sofia Jannok and Maxida Märak have been championing for years. The film casts a brutal and uncompromising eye over Sami history, seen from the eyes of a young woman and her struggle in the early 20th century. According to The Local the cinema chain SF Bio hadn’t intended showing the film in Malmö or Uppsala, instead in SF Bio “had planned to keep it to a small number of cinemas in Stockholm and Gothenburg.” This fact in and of itself speaks volumes about the perception of the Sami in everyday Swedish culture and certainly reinforces the need for a comprehensive and unflinching look at Sami treatment in modern Sweden. It isn’t enough to assume that just because an issue hasn’t been heard about that it doesn’t exist and it should make for an uncomfortable time for a country that has, until recently, held itself to and has prided itself on high ethical standards.
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