Beneath The Snowy Tundra: The Marginalization Of The Sami In Scandinavia And Russia

The nomadic Sami peoples, who have inhabited the northernmost regions of Fenno-Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula in Russia since the Stone Age, endured terrible oppression for centuries at the hands of various regimes. Governments in contemporary Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia remain hesitant to make amends for what historian Kyösti Julku called a genocide.

The Sami’s ordeal began when fanatical Danish missionaries, determined to convert heathen tribes to Christianity, ventured deep into northern Scandinavia in the 17th century. Surviving manuscripts reveal that courts put Sami on trial for practicing witchcraft and possessing sacred drums laden with heretical symbols. Missionaries like Thomas von Westen confiscated Sami drums and artefacts and sent them to Copenhagen.

The Swedish Crown and ravenous Dutch industrialists, upon discovering precious silver mines in northern Sweden, conscripted local Sami into gruelling forced labour. Carl-Gösta Ojala says this era of hardship and exploitation left an indelible mark and haunted Sami memories for generations. Moreover, according to Professor Johan Höglund, Swedish folk tales conflated the pagan Sami with monstrous, unenlightened, and un-Christian mythological creatures like trolls or ogres—effectively laying the foundations for the gradual marginalization and borderline dehumanization of the Sami community in Sweden.

Swedish scientists, geneticists, archaeologists, and ethnographers in the 19th and 20th centuries, undoubtedly inspired by their religious and literary forbears, concluded that the Sami were lesser human beings as well. Physician and alleged Nazi sympathizer Herman Lundborg, who headed the Swedish State Institute of Racial Biology, spent years trying to prove that the Sami posed a serious threat to host nations. The anatomist Nils Von Hofsten even championed social reforms that would have segregated “cognitively impaired” individuals (read Sami) from the rest of society. Medical historian Terry-Lee Marttinen noted that Sami women underwent forced sterilizations because “experts” ordained that the Sami were prone to psychological deficiencies.

Finland is also guilty of minimizing or ignoring historical injustices Finnish settlers committed against the Sami. Numerous politicians and academics have long denied Finland’s colonial past, choosing instead to portray Finns as innocent victims of Swedish and Russian imperialism. Yet this consensus is slowly changing. Scholars like Veli-Pekka Lehtola, Raita Merivirta, Leila Koivunen, and Timo Särkkä now agree that Finns were complicit in the incremental and occasionally brutal erasure of Sami culture in Lapland.

Finnish colonialism was not peaceful, tolerant, or benign. Elias Lönnrot, Finland’s most renowned folklorist, criticized Finnish authorities in 1842 for repressing the Sami. Settlers Finnicized Sami customs, clothing, and even surnames without enacting legislation to protect or preserve Sami heritage and languages. Modern roads and other development projects sliced through reindeer pastures, which disrupted Sami seasonal migration patterns. Additionally, if they had any hope of clinging on to traditional hunting and grazing grounds, many Sami had no choice but to adopt Finnish “values” and became farmers against their will.

Worst of all, Finnish elites in the early 20th century eagerly embraced quack Swedish eugenic theories. Intellectuals, keen to lift Finns out of the lower ranks of Europe’s odious racial hierarchy, legitimized and popularized the notion that the Sami were descendants of Asiatic races—the polar opposite of the white, sophisticated and civilized “ideal Finn”. This belief in the Sami’s inferior status and inherent “racial retardation” unleashed a litany of harmful stereotypes which have yet to fully disappear. Documentarian Suvi West warned the UN last year that Northern Finland is still awash with “hard racism” towards the Sami.

Norway’s assimilation policies, which began in the mid-19th century and persisted until the 1980s, also had devastating consequences. Historians like Henry Minde, Knut Einar Eriksen, Einar Niemi and Ivar Bjørklund demonstrated how Oslo’s overblown fears of a Finnish invasion precipitated the educational and cultural “Norwegianization” of the Sami and Finnish-speaking Kven minorities. Journalist Arthur Ratche even published books and articles railing against treacherous “enemies within” like the Sami throughout the thirties—despite virtually no evidence to back up such outlandish claims. The government mobilized schools, churches, and businesses to counter this fictional “Finnish Menace” for decades, resulting in the non-violent ethnic cleansing of Sami communities. Many Sami were powerless to resist the whims of the state and preferred to suffer the indignity of relinquishing their identity. Censuses revealed that the number of people identifying as Sami dropped precipitously in multiple districts between the 1930s and 1950s. Inspectors who managed the Norwegianization process often struggled to contain their disdain for “degenerated” Sami.

Sami children bore the brunt of this invidious “inner offensive”. Teachers became frontline soldiers in Norway’s uncompromising war on Sami culture: “…we had to make sure the children never spoke Sami or Finnish…not even during breaks or after school hours.” Boarding schools severed students from their home environments, while the Wexelsen decree eventually forbade teachers of Sami and Kven descent from working in schools. Sami activist Anders Larsen lamented that he could not remember anything he was taught during his first years in school because he did not understand his teacher. An elderly woman recalled that one teacher was “a true Norwegian” in that he disparaged and humiliated anyone who dared speak Sami. However, despite the State’s heavy-handed tactics, many Sami never learned how to properly speak, read, or write Norwegian.

As a result of this traumatic integration, prejudice against the Sami and their language lingers today. Historian Bård A. Berg argues that racism is commonplace in Northern Norway. The Sami are subjected to demeaning or insulting remarks on an almost daily basis and are perceived as illiterate or benefit-scrounging alcoholics. Sami residents in Tromsø complain that their children are bullied by Norwegian classmates. Law Professor Carola Lingaas reported that in 2020 a passenger on a bus allegedly scolded a woman and her friends for conversing in Sami: “Sami do not belong anywhere, and certainly not on the bus, where everyone can hear the language.” Authorities have generally been very slow to react to hate crimes, despite the fact that at least 35% of Sami-speakers claim to be victims of discrimination in Norway.

Sami living in Russia’s Murmansk region fared even worse than their kin in Scandinavia. Life in the Soviet Union, especially under Joseph Stalin’s “Great Terror” in the late 1930s, was particularly arduous and perilous. The NKVD (Soviet Secret Police), much like their Norwegian counterparts, were consumed by fears of foreign capitalist agents infiltrating the country. Security services, desperate to find fitting scapegoats to satisfy Stalin’s deranged paranoia, falsely accused Sami notables of plotting nationalist uprisings and promptly imprisoned, tortured, and executed dozens of them. Historian Andrej Kotljarchuk says that out of all the Sami the NKVD arrested, approximately 64.7% never returned home. Gidrun Mironova’s Sami father, who miraculously survived his stay in a detention center, vividly remembered the aftermath of the purges: “Dad came back, his head covered in bumps.”

The Soviet State decimated the Sami’s nomadic lifestyle. Lukas Allemann argues that Soviet technocrats, obsessed with building a centralized and sedentary economy, resettled Sami tribes into collectivized farms: “They just started destroying all of the Sami villages…as many as 30 of them…” Another round of hasty and poorly organized relocations in the fifties and sixties proved disastrous for countless families. Authorities failed to provide new accommodation and jobs as promised. Sami youths, seemingly abandoned by an indifferent state and increasingly alienated from their culture, turned to alcohol or drug abuse to cope with the shame of uprootedness and chronic unemployment—problems which continue to plague Russian Sami. Excessive industrialization, pollution, and the dumping of radioactive material in Murmansk completely eradicated reindeer habitats, contaminated fishing areas, and killed-off forest zones as well.

What must be done to compensate the Sami for this egregious record? Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) tasked with exposing historical crimes against the Sami are currently under way in Fenno-Scandinavia. Regrettably it seems that Russia, a state extremely wary of initiatives likely to awaken nationalist or autonomist sentiments among its many ethnic minorities, will not follow suit with its own TRC anytime soon.

TRC’s are a step in the right direction, but grassroots Sami groups must also try to reclaim total control of ancestral territories. The Girjas court case, which ended in resounding victory for the Sami against the Swedish State in January 2020, set a momentous precedent: the Girjas Reindeer Herding Community (RHC) acquired exclusive rights to traditional small game hunting and fishing areas which the State owned since 1956. The Swedish Supreme Court not only recognized Sami rights to use or lease this land, but also took into account the ILO Convention no.169(Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention)—a convention Sweden refuses to ratify because it would grant Sami rights to enormous areas brimming with minerals, water, and timber. Christina Allard argues this ruling could trigger a domino effect and lead to the recognition of Sami land rights in Finland and even Norway.

Finally, Sami organizations should advocate for the restoration of customary laws. Ragnhild Nilsson says the concepts of Laahkoeh and Maadtoe, which underpin unique legal practices and values that outline a Sami’s responsibilities towards family and nature, would help deracinated Sami reconnect with their way of life.

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