Sunday, 17 January 2021

UN in your language

The Sami of Northern Europe – one people, four countries

Sámi UN Photo - John IsaacThere are over 370 million indigenous people in some 90 countries, living in all regions of the world. The Sami are the indigenous people living in the very north of Europe, in Sápmi, which stretches across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula. They are a minority in today’s Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway, but a majority in the innermost parts of Finnmark county in Norway and in the municipality of Utsjoki in Finland. However, although regarded as one people, there are several kinds of Sami based on their patterns of settlement and how they sustain themselves. Furthermore, their rights and general situation differ considerably depending on the nation state within which they live.


In Norway, the Sami have their own parliament which promotes political initiatives and manages missions and laws delegated to them by national authorities. As a political organ, the Samediggi work with issues they perceive as being of particular concern to the Sami people. However, as with many indigenous peoples, the Sami in Norway have suffered a past dominated by discrimination, particularly regarding religion and language. Their traditional animistic/shamanistic way of life was replaced by in the 18th century, and today their characteristic drums can only be found in museums. According to the School Laws from the end of the 19th century, all education was to be taught in Norwegian, a policy which remained in place until the Second World War.

Today, the situation is much improved, but far from ideal. The Sami experience ten times more discrimination than ethnic Norwegians according to a new study. Furthermore, their language is severely threatened – UNESCO has classified three of the Sami languages which are, or have been, spoken in Norway as extinct, two as severely threatened, and the last one as threatened.

The issue of land rights is also pressing. Norway was the first country to ratify the protection of land rights pursuant to ILO Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries in 1990. However, they have interpreted the phrase “ownership and possession” narrowly, and concluded that a “protected right to use” was also covered by the phrase. As a result of increased Sami activism, the controversial Finnmark Act of 2005 gave Sami and the population in Finnmark rights to the land and water in Finnmark when about 95% (about 46,000 km2) of the area in the Finnmark county was transferred to the inhabitants of the county.



The Sami were recognized as an indigenous people in the Finnish Constitution in 1995. Therefore, the Sami have a right to maintain and develop their language and culture as well as their traditional livelihood. Since 1996, the Sami have had constitutional self-government concerning their language and culture in their homelands. According to Finnish law, the Sámi are entitled to service in their own language in official matters. There are roughly 9,000 Sami living in Finland. More than 60 per cent of them live outside their homelands, which means there are particular requirements for teaching, services and communication in the Sami language.

Just as in Norway, land rights and language issues are the top concerns of the Sami in Finland today. Not enough services are provided in Sami, and even those that are provided are inadequate. The Sami do not have secure land rights in Finland because 90 per cent of the Finnish Sami land belongs to the government. Finland has not ratified ILO Convention No. 169, which makes the land rights issue more challenging to handle. According to Martin Scheinin, a professor at the Åbo Akademi in Turku, Finland, the Sami way of life is threatened by the competing uses of land. If the government decides to cut down forests in the reindeer herding area, it destroys the pastoral areas.

In 2011, the European Council criticized Finland for handling the Sami and other minority issues poorly. They suggested some actions that Finland could take, firstly the ratification of the ILO Convention. Other proposals include a Sami language newspaper and better Sami representation in the political decision making.

The Sami themselves fear assimilation into the Finnish population. This will affect their traditional livelihood, such as reindeer herding. Very often the Sami are treated only as a linguistic minority and not as a people. Johanna Suurpää, Finland’s Minority Ombudsman, has stated that the government does not practice a deliberate assimilation policy. The Sami are not the only ones practicing reindeer herding in Northern Finland, therefore, “there are no simple solutions that would be fair for all parties”, but the language issue, she adds, is becoming a crisis.

A UN report examining the human rights situation of Sami people in Sweden, Finland and Norway calls on the Nordic states to provide Sami parliaments with more funding to help boost general knowledge of the indigenous Arctic people, their language and their culture.



Joona, 2005, “The Political recognition and Ratification of ILO Convention No. 169 in Finland, with some comparison to Sweden and Norway”. Nordic Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 23 (3), pp 306-321;task=view&id=71&Itemid=104

3 Questions to Denise Zmekho Director of the film "Children of the Amazon"


  • Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following:
    o Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
    o Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
    o Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
    o Distinct social, economic or political systems
    o Distinct language, culture and beliefs
    o Form non-dominant groups of society
    o Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

  • It is estimated that there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide. Practicing unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.

  • Most indicators of well-being show that indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately compared to non-indigenous peoples. Poverty rates are significantly higher among indigenous peoples compared to other groups. While they constitute 5 per cent of the world's population, they are 15 per cent of the world's poor.

  • Of the some 7,000 languages today, it is estimated that more than 4,000 are spoken by indigenous peoples. Language specialists predict that up to 90 per cent of the world’s languages are likely to become extinct or threatened with extinction by the end of the century.