Finland’s debate over Indigenous identity and rights turns ugly
- In Finland, a controversial new bill would redefine who is eligible to vote and stand for the assembly of the country’s Indigenous Sámi community, removing a criteria that allows those with distant northern ancestors to participate.
- Critics say the bill will disenfranchise hundreds of people who identify as Sámi, but community leaders, legal experts and historians say these groups fail to meet the definition of an Indigenous community.
- Sámi leaders say the bill will reinforce their right to free, prior and informed consent on any new developments affecting their livelihoods and territories’ ecosystems, but its passage is uncertain in the face of strong opposition.
- The Sámi community across northern Europe is facing increasing pressure from ‘green energy’ developments, such as wind farms and rare earth mines.
This story was produced with the funding support of the Pulitzer Center.
Janne Hirvasvuopio got his first Valentine’s Day card early this year. But the message that came through his front door’s mail slot was anything but loving.
‘I’ve murdered before,’ the back of the card read. ‘Be quiet.’
What attracted this hate to Hirvasvuopio is his advocacy on behalf of Finland’s Sámi minority, an Arctic Indigenous group who by most estimates number barely more than 10,000 in this country of 5.5 million.
‘People have messaged my personal phones, my personal email … They’ve contacted my employer,’ Hirvasvuopio told Times of Nation. ‘In the very darkest corners of the internet, there are racists who are trying to find addresses of our kids.’
In recent weeks, the Sámi community in Finland, part of the only recognized Indigenous group in Europe, has found itself the target of increasing animosity over a controversial new bill that would redefine eligibility to vote in elections for the country’s Sámi Parliament, excluding a share of the Finnish population that claims Sámi identity.
Critics of the bill say this excluded group, comprising hundreds of so-called Inari and Metsä (Forest) Sámi eligible under current rules, risks losing the right to political participation. In a submission to the government committee reviewing the bill, one such group called the bill an attempt at ‘ethnic cleansing.’
But Sámi community leaders, legal experts and historians say these groups fail to meet most internationally recognized definitions of Indigenous people, and emerged only recently in response to efforts to secure Sámi rights to land, water and resources in their homeland.
The bill would strengthen the obligation to negotiate with Sámi leadership on development projects and ensure greater protections for their sustainable, traditional activities, along the lines of international agreements for Indigenous peoples. Some organizations representing Sámi claimants and companies have been explicit in their objection to these expanded requirements and rights.
‘This movement … really is rooted in a fierce opposition to Indigenous rights,’ said Laura Junka-Aikio, a professor of northern politics and government at the University of Lapland. ‘[When] outright opposition wasn’t a good strategy anymore … the same groups that were opposing the Sámi identity started looking for their Indigenous roots.’
Now, facing an increasingly vocal opposition, some parties in Finland’s coalition government have delayed a vote on the bill to the last possible moment. With a spring election fast approaching, the final vote may well be one of the last for progressive Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who, unlikely to win another term, is not expected to run again.
‘If she’s unable to defend the rights of the Sámi people, the only recognized Indigenous people in Europe,’ Hirvasvuopio said, ‘her legacy would be that she threatens to completely assimilate us to the dominant Finnish culture.’
Read more- In the Arctic, Indigenous Sámi keep life centered on reindeer herding
Development projects on the way
For millennia, the Sámi have hunted, herded reindeer and fished across the northernmost reaches of the European continent, establishing communities in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Over that time, the Sámi developed sustainable land use practices, like the rotation of fishing lakes and the cycling of herds to prevent overgrazing, that are now reflected in their language, culture and governance structures.
But since the 16th century, when Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Russians began settling in this northern area — known variously as Finnmark, Lapland and, to the Sámi, Sapmi — their communities have come increasingly under pressure. Though the full scale of forced assimilation in Finland is still not fully known, documents attest to centuries of efforts to suppress Sámi languages and discourage the practice of Sámi culture and religion.
More recently, mass relocations were forced by the construction of massive dams and reservoirs, like one built in the 1960s that forced the relocation of Hirvasvuopio’s ancestral home.
‘Many people were so traumatized that they said their Sámi-ness itself was covered by the reservoirs,’ Hirvasvuopio said, ‘because they were connected to the land.’
Today, more than 90% of traditional Sámi territory in Finland is deemed state-owned, where it’s exploited for timber by the state logging company, Metsähallitus, which operates without clear guidelines on consultations with the Sámi. The company declined an interview with Times of Nation on this topic.
Though large swaths of forest have been protected from clear-cutting, the Sámi say logging activity is reducing the availability of lichen, a key food source for reindeer. Conservationists worry it also endangers untold numbers of species — just last year, researchers described eight insect species completely new to science.
‘We are in a place where the most valuable timber forests, and the last remaining timber forests … are located in the Sami home area,’ said Tero Mustonen, a conservationist with the Sámi-led Snowchange Cooperative. ‘If you remove 200-year-old timber, it will take 200 years to come back.’
Though current legislation requires resource companies to consult with each nation’s Sámi parliament on projects in their territory, experts say, in Finland at least, this has so far been largely a formality.
‘[The current criteria] can be fulfilled by asking the Sami Parliament to write a letter,’ said Áslat Holmberg, president of the Saami Council, a transnational organization that advocates on behalf of Sámi in Finland, Sweden and Norway. ‘Of course, they can withhold their consent, but it doesn’t have much of an impact.’
But that could change with Finland’s new Sámi Parliament Act, the bill at the center of the country’s growing debate over Indigenous identity. Its language on consultation is notably broader than past documents, requiring negotiation with the Sámi Parliament on any measures that may ‘carry particular importance for the Sámi’ with the goal of ‘obtaining its consent.’
‘It brings us closer to that obligation’ — in international agreements like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — ‘to negotiate on the basis of free, prior and informed consent,’ said Tuomas Aslak Juuso, president of Finland’s Sámi Parliament.
But the specter of an Indigenous veto over development in Finland’s north has raised strong objections from many in the Finnish community. The northern municipalities of Enontekiö and Sodankylä, both mining centers, opposed the bill on the grounds that it would overrule municipal decision-making.
The town of Inari, home to more than 2,000 Sámi, went even further, describing the bill as discriminatory and raising the threat of open violence. ‘It is only a matter of time before the pressure between different population groups becomes too high and something irreversible happens,’ they wrote.
Without formal land rights in Finland, to prevent unwelcome developments, the Sámi rely on demonstrating impact to their cultural survival, which is protected by a clause in the Finnish Constitution.
The results have been mixed. While they successfully stalled a state-backed project to build an Arctic railway through Sámi lands, they have failed in reopening conservation areas like the Deatnu River (known as the Teno River in Finnish) to traditional fishing activities.
Still, Finland has largely been spared from the major developments that have impacted the Sámi in other territories.
In Sweden, the Sámi have struggled to prevent a massive new iron mine near Jokkmokk they say will pollute key lands and waters with dust and disrupt their reindeer herds. In Norway, Sámi leaders say reindeer herders were coerced and bribed to accept a swath of new wind farms. One company in question, St1, did not deny offering financial compensation but said a decade-long consultation process had resulted in many revisions to its plans.
As Europe continues its transition to green energy, experts say this pressure on the Sámi is likely to increase. The vast open tundra of the north is attractive property for wind power developments, proposed as part of Europe’s green energy future. Likewise, massive rare earth mineral deposits located on Sámi territory in northern Sweden, used for the production of electric batteries and motors, have been pitched as a key to Europe’s energy independence from China.
Who gets a say?
But the new Sámi Parliament Act will not only increase the onus on developers to negotiate. It will also attempt to resolve a decades-long debate over who gets a say in those negotiations in the first place.
Since the current Sámi Parliament Act was made law in 1996, the state has defined an Indigenous person based on one of two objective criteria- either a person must have a great-grandparent who spoke a Sámi language as their mother tongue, or they must have an ancestor who was registered as a ‘Laplander’ — an occupational label meaning a forester, fisher, herder or huntsman, often applied to the Sámi in the past.
Sámi leaders have long said this definition opens the community to dubious claims of ancestry based on distant past relatives. ‘[Laplander] is a mark of livelihood,’ Juuso said. ‘Just practicing a livelihood does not build an automatic legitimacy to an ethnicity.’
Yet since 2011, Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court has repeatedly sided with those whose claims to Sámi identity have been rejected by the Sámi Parliament itself — a move that has drawn condemnation from the United Nations as an infringement on Sámi rights to self-determination.
The new bill would do away with the so-called Laplander criteria and recreate the electoral roll from scratch — potentially striking as many as 200 people admitted under the criteria — while extending eligibility based on language back to four generations. It would also create an independent Sámi electoral commission, whose decisions would be less likely to be overruled by Finnish courts.
The move has drawn outrage from groups like the Association for the Cooperation of the Original Sámi in Finland, which says it represents the Forest Sámi who would be excluded by the new act.
‘Sámi is my identity, and I will give it to my children too,’ said Merje Mattila, a spokesperson for the organization. ‘If someone takes this identity, I am lost. I am totally lost.’
‘You often hear people claim it is something we just discovered, but it is not so,’ said Taija Sillanpää, another member of the group. ‘As long as they have written the documents, we are in the documents.’
Mattila and Sillanpää trace their ancestry to a group of settled southern Sámi they say have been gradually displaced by more Sámi groups after Finland’s borders closed in the 1950s. Sillanpää said they typically can’t satisfy the language requirement because their communities were forced to participate in the Finnish school system and lost their languages as a result.
And yet, both Mattila and Sillanpää are opposed to special rights for any Sámi, calling equality among neighbors a cultural principle of their group. Both fear recognition of Sámi rights will lead to the Sámi Parliament making decisions about what private landowners do with their own property.
To many experts, the claims of ancestry made by members of groups like these fail to meet international standards for the recognition of an Indigenous community.
‘Almost everyone in Lapland has some Sámi roots,’ said Hannele Pokka, a member of Finland’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a former justice minister. ‘[But] the Sámi are not a historical relic. They are a living society, they have a living language and they have a living culture.’
‘An individual living today has, 250 years ago, 1,000 ancestors,’ Martin Scheinin, a professor of international law, argued during a panel discussion on the new act. ‘It would be unthinkable that any one of us can claim to be Indigenous based on the fact that there is one of our ancestors, 250 years ago, who had an Indigenous way of life and belonged to an Indigenous group.’
In fact, several experts interviewed for this article suggested that many groups now relying on the Laplander criteria originated only with objections to the creation of the Sámi Parliament in 1996, and were part of a concerted effort by ‘self-Indigenizing’ Finns to obstruct Sámi claims within their own institutions.
It is true that organizations representing Sámi claimants have been explicit in their objections to new obligations to negotiate and to the expanded mandate of the Sámi Parliament.
‘It is [already] difficult to get permits for nature exploitation, tourism, fishing, hunting, gathering,’ the Inari Sámi Association, one such group, wrote in a submission to parliament. ‘The effort to … obtain the consent of the Sámi assemblies before making a decision means, in practice, unnecessary delays in projects and, at worst, a veto.’
The group declined an interview with Times of Nation.
Activists say this position has made such groups powerful allies for the extractive industries that wish to operate on Sámi lands. ‘We know from the Sámi villages that there are large industrial companies that have funded these movements,’ said Mustonen, the conservationist.
Mustonen was not specific about this funding, but in a recent paper, Junka-Aikio detailed some examples of this influence- advertising in publications of the ‘Forest Lapp’ association by mining multinationals like Agnico Eagle and Anglo American, and Finland’s association for mining entrepreneurs.
Approached by Times of Nation, both Anglo American and Agnico Eagle said the ads were part of routine local advertising efforts, and denied any other financial relationship to the organization. Both companies said they had no official position on the revisions to the act.
Mattila and Sillanpää likewise dismissed the suggestion of collusion with resource industries. ‘We are not connected to any kind of political, economic, or business interests,’ Sillanpää said. ‘We don’t get any kind of funding from anywhere. We do this [advocacy against the bill] as volunteers.
‘It is always very frustrating, one time after another, to have to prove that you are not up to something, that you are only standing for your own rights,’ she said.
With such an acrimonious debate still raging, even the support of the Sámi Parliament and the prime minister may not be enough to see the bill pass.
Parliamentarians from the rural-backed Center Party, part of PM Marin’s coalition, have already refused to back the bill, meaning her party must rely on opposition votes to see it pass. If it fails, it will be the third time in two decades similar reforms have failed. That fact alone has many of those on the frontline of the public debate feeling worried and despondent.
‘Our voices are not heard,’ Hirvasvuopio said. ‘The majority of the Finnish population still believes the lies and disinformation that has been thrown against us for 30 years.’
But if the bill does pass, Hirvasvuopio said, the Sámi might finally be able to turn their attention to the conservation issues that trouble them most, rather than fights over identity.
‘We as a people, we would finally have peace,’ he said, ‘and we would have time to discuss the things that matter to us the most.’
John Last is a Europe-based correspondent. Prior to reporting from the continent, he covered Arctic and Indigenous issues for CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster.
Junka-Aikio, L. (2022). Whose settler colonial state? Arctic railway, state transformation and settler self-indigenization in Northern Finland. Postcolonial Studies, 1-23. doi-10.1080/13688790.2022.2096716
Banner image- Celebration of the 2020-2023 election period of the Sámi assemblies in 17 June 2022. Image by Kevin J. Francett / Kajastus Creative / Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät (the Sámi Parliament) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Related listening from Times of Nation’s podcast- We speak with Tero Mustonen about Snowchange Cooperative’s program that is rewilding Arctic and Boreal habitats using Indigenous knowledge. Listen here-
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