Several individuals belonging to the indigenous group Sami in Sweden have recently spoken out about the hate they have been a target of. Last year a member of the Sami, Jannie Staffansson, told SVT “I have never experienced such hate and threats that exist now, never”. There have also been increased attacks on reindeer owned by Sami communities. Evelina Solsten received a “hate-storm” in June after posting about being a reindeer herder on TikTok. These kind of attacks are a serious problem that can have mental health impacts. Lotta Omma, Mikael Sandlund & Lars Jacobsson found in their research that young Sami that have experienced ethnically motivated “bad treatment” are twice as likely to have suicidal plans. They point out that research consistently finds that experiences of racial discrimination are associated with mental health issues. The hate currently directed at members of the Sami also highlights larger issues revolving around ethnicity and history in Sweden.
The Sami are an indigenous population in northern Scandinavia and eastern Russia. How long Sami have been in the northern regions of Scandinavia remains a matter of debate but it is estimated at somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 years. Parts of the Sami population, particularly those with reindeer herds, are traditionally semi-nomadic. It is estimated that 20,000 to 40,000 Sami live in Sweden currently. Traditionally, the Sami’s way of life has been tied to reindeer herding, forestry, hunting, fishing, and duodji (handicraft and art). Today the Sami population work in a variety of professions but these traditional industries are still an essential part of Sami culture.
The Sami are recognized by the Swedish government as an indigenous population. However, Sweden has refused to ratify the ILO Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. The UN has criticized Sweden several times for the mistreatment of the Sami population, in issues of language, culture, and land rights. One of the significant incongruities between the national legislation protecting indigenous populations and the ILO convention is that the convention recognizes land rights to a larger extent. The Sami land rights that are currently recognized in Sweden tend to be tied to reindeer husbandry. Reindeer herding is only one of the traditional Sami industries and only a minority of Sami has reindeer. The land rights of Sami who have traditionally relied on hunting and fishing is poorly recognized. In fact, Sweden has one of the most intensive forest industries in the world, and historically the forest and timber industry has been very important for both the economy and the development of the Swedish nation-state. The forest industry has infringed on traditional Sami land and today the state-owned forest company Sveaskog is in conflict with the Sami population over logging in Sapmi. The Sami Parliament of Sweden has pointed out that the logging does not only negatively impact the Sami population but the living conditions of mankind in general. Last year WWP released a report about the Swedish forest industry that warned that the biological diversity and ecosystem were in danger. The report stated that 90 percent of the “red-listed” species present were negatively affected by the forest industry and that if there is no change they are expected to die out.
The hate directed toward the Sami population in Sweden increased after the so-called Girjas verdict. Girjas, a Sami village, took the Swedish state to court in 2009 over a dispute over land use. The government previously administered who could hunt and fish in a particular area, but the Girjas was seeking the right to be the sole administrator in this. In 2013 the court in Gällivare sided with the village. However, the state appealed the verdict and the case went to the Hovrätten, the second level of court in Sweden. That court stated that the Girjas had “more right” to administer the hunting and fishing rights than the government, but that the Sami village could not do so without the approval of the state. This verdict was also appealed and the case therefore went to the highest level of court in Sweden, Högsta domstolen. There it was decided in 2020 that the village has the sole right to administer hunting and fishing rights based on “prescription from time.” One of the reasons this case was so important is that it forces us to ask who the land belongs to. The highest court of Sweden recognized the rights of the local Sami people but did not settle the question indefinitely. However, the verdict was celebrated as a victory for the Sami population as it recognizes their right to not only be on the land but to decide by who and how it can be used.
However, following the verdict a sharp increase of hate against the Sami population was reported. During the trial, the government’s representative read a statement from 1884 that described nomadic people as “staying on a less cultured level” and said that they need to “give way to the more civilized people.” It also claims that the nomadic people will “after a fading life, die out.” In an article in Dagens Nyheter researchers have pointed out that this language “could be taken from the race-biology time.” In 1920 Sweden established a race-biology institute in Uppsala that was supposed to produce science about “race-hygiene” and “protect the Swedish race.” Most people in Sweden have probably heard of the institute but are most likely unaware of how the “science” was used to suppress minorities in Sweden. In her thesis, Isabella Agerhäll has pointed out that race-biology theories and the institute contributed to making the Sami population and their needs ‘invisible’, and that this enabled the exploitation of natural resources in reindeer herding areas. The fact that the Institute was a model for the German Kaiser Wilhelm’s Institut für Rassenhygiene is not something that Swedes like to talk about. Many want to believe that the Swedish state’s (and population’s) mistreatment of the Sami is over, but this is not the case. It was not until 2010 that Swedish curricular required schools to teach children about the Sami population. Much of the population are still lacking knowledge of the history and culture of the Sami. In a recent opinion piece in the local newspaper Norrbottens-Kurirens, the Sami population was referred to as an “invasive species.” The Sami parliament in response noted “we have not gotten particular far from the 30’s Nazi and racist thoughts.” They point out that Sweden has not dealt with its racist and colonial past, but has instead swept it under the rug. The parliament also hopes that the forthcoming truth commission process will “cure this ahistoricism.”
The increased hate toward the Sami hurts the Sami community at-large but also the individual members of this community who are targeted. The Girjas verdict might have been the spark for this increase in discrimination, but it was not the only contributing factor. It shows an ugly side of Sweden, a Sweden that seems to willfully have forgotten its sordid history. Sweden’s national branding as a protector of human rights rings hollow when it not only fails to protect the indigenous population from hate, but the state’s representatives use race-biology to argue against indigenous rights. While no date has been set, the upcoming truth commission and report is an important step toward recognizing the mistreatment of the Sami population in Sweden. It can be expected that one of the recommendations of the report will be that Sweden should ratify the ILO convention concerning indigenous rights. Hopefully, it will also lead to new policies designed to educated the Swedish population about their past. It could also serve as an opportunity to acknowledge the Sami population’s resistance and resilience and to refute any race-biology claims that they are bound to “die out.” As the Sami parliament says, “Sweden’s dark history must be brought into the light for real change to be possible,” and those daring to tell it must be protected.
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