The Sámi in Finland

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Today, February 6, is the Sámi National Day. The Sámi are the only indigenous people of the European Union. We already explained why December 6th is the Finnish Independence Day. In this blog post, we tell you what is the significance of February 6 for the Sámi and give you a short introduction to the Sámi in Finland. 

Indigenous people

The term “indigenous people” here is extremely important. Although the term doesn’t have a single definition, it does have a commonly used meaning. It refers to people that 

  • self-identify as indigenous peoples;
  • have a historical continuity with societies that existed prior to the colonialization of the area in question or prior to the establishment of the current state boundaries;
  • have a strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources;
  • retain at least some of their own distinct social, economic or political systems;
  • have their own distinct language, culture, and beliefs;
  • form non-dominant groups of society; and
  • maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

The most important aspect of this definition is the self-identification as an indigenous people.

The Sámi in Finland

Around 75 000 Sámi live in the modern states of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. The majority of them live in Norway. In Finland, there are about 10 000 Sámi. In Finland, the Sámi Homeland comprises of the counties of Enontekiö, Inari, and Utsjoki. About 60 % of the Sámi in Finland live outside of this Homeland. 

In Finland, the status of the Sámi was written into the constitution in 1995. As an indigenous people, the Sámi have the right to maintain their own language, culture, and traditional livelihoods. Since 1996, the Sámi in Finland have had constitutional self-government in the Sámi Homeland within the areas of culture and language. The Sámi Parliament, elected by the Sámi, manages this self-government. 

The Sámi National Day

The Sámi in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia celebrate February 6th as their National Day. You might see the Sámi flag flying although in southern Finland this is quite a rare sight. 

The Sámi haven’t celebrated their national day for very long although the date itself signifies an event that took place already in 1917.

On February 6 in 1917 there was the first general meeting of the Sámi. It was in Trondheim, Norway. Participants of the first meeting came from Sweden and Norway. They mainly discussed issued related to mobility, land use, and reindeer herding.  

This first meeting wasn’t yet a start of permanent and continuous cooperation of the Sámi across all four states, but it was the start for the political awakening of the Sámi.

The Sámi Languages

The Sámi languages belong to the same FinnoUgric language family as for example Finnish and Estonian. There are several different Sámi languages, three of which are spoken in Finland. These are North Sámi, Inari Sámi, and Skolt Sámi. Inari Sámi is exclusively spoken in Finland. North Sámi is the biggest of these languages. It’s spoken by about 10 000 people in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Skolt Sámi is spoken in Finland and in Russia. 

The Sámi languages are distinct enough from each other so that a speaker of one Sámi language doesn’t understand that of another unless he/she has studied the language. 

Due to decades of active and at times aggressive assimilation policies, the Sámi languages were in danger of getting extinct. Since the Sámi ethnic awakening in the 1960s and particularly after 1992 when the Sámi Language Act was enacted, there have been systematic efforts to revive and maintain the Sámi languages.

In the Sámi Homeland, the Sámi languages are official languages. This means that the Sámi speakers can receive government services in their mother tongue. Here, the Sámi speaking children can receive their entire schooling in the Sámi languages. 

A practical problem for the survival of the Sámi languages is presented by the fact that the majority of Sámi live outside the Sámi homeland. Anyone living in a linguistic environment that is different from one’s mother tongue can appreciate how difficult it is to maintain one’s mother language, let alone pass it along to the next generation. Imagine how difficult it is when that linguistic and ethnic identity has been discriminated against for centuries. 

History of oppression

The Sámi have been subject to different types of oppression for centuries. Already in the 1600s the traditional social structure of the Sámi began to be replaced by that of the dominant Nordic type of structure. 

The rise of the Nordic nation-states also meant erecting borders between the countries. Closed borders hindered the Sámi’s ability to practice their traditional livelihoods. 

In Finland, the majority of the land located in areas that had traditionally belonged to the Sámi was annexed by the state in the 1800s. It is unclear how this happened, but today about 90 % of the land in the Sámi homeland is owned by the state. 

In addition to this type of political and economic oppression, the Sámi have been subject to different types of cultural, linguistic, and religious oppression as well. These nearly resulted for example in the loss of the Sámi languages. 

Sámi Culture

The traditional Sámi livelihoods are handicrafts, fishing, gathering, hunting, and reindeer herding. All of these livelihoods have evolved over time and the modern ways of practicing them differ from those in the past. With the majority of Sámi these days living outside the Sámi homeland and nearly a third living in large urban centers in Southern Finland, only a minority of Sámi nowadays engage with them. Nevertheless, they are an integral part of the living Sámi culture.

To us on the outside, perhaps the most visible sign of Sámi culture is the traditional Sámi dress, the gákti (in North Sámi). These days it is worn mostly on special occasions, but traditionally it was an everyday outfit. To those on the know, the dress reveals the family to which the wearer belongs. Dress traditions within particular areas often resemble each other but the main determining factor of the dress style is family, not the geographical area. Family here can also mean the family into which a person is married. This article is in Finnish but shows the splendor of different kinds of Sámi dresses.

No matter where in Finland you visit souvenir shops, you’ll see items that take advantage of the visible aspects of the Sámi culture and traditional livelihoods. In most cases, those don’t have any connection with the living Sámi culture or with the Sámi people whatsoever. If you do want to purchase handicrafts that do, look for the trademarked Sámi handicrafts. That’ll guarantee that the product is an authentic Sámi handicraft made by Sámi. 

The Sámi Duodji trademark

Know what’s going on with the Sámi today

Although the status of the Sámi was written into the Finnish constitution in 1995, it’s clear that their rights to maintain and develop their culture, languages and traditional livelihoods are still not self-evident to the dominant culture. 

A recent example is the Arctic rail plan. You can read about the governmental plan here in English. And here is the statement by the Saami Council related to the original plan. The government abandoned the plan as economically unviable in mid-2019, but it is clear that the plan hasn’t been completely forgotten.

If you want to learn more about the Sámi, we’ve listed a couple of good resources below. 

If you are in social media, there are several prominent Sámi politicians, journalists, researchers, artists, and influencers that are worth following. They are, for example, Tiina Sanila-Aikio (President of the Sámi Parliament in Finland), Pirita Näkkäläjärvi, Petra Laiti (Ásllat-Mihku Ilmára Mika Petra), Jan Saijets (Máhte-Per-Jovnna-Janne), Outi Länsman (Uhca Máhte Kerttu Outi), Linda Tammela (Junna-Márjá Ávnni Marja-Liisa Linda), Mikkel Näkkäläjärvi, Niina Siivikko (Hirvas-Niilan Oilin Väiskin Niina), Hilda Länsman (Ánn-Ovllá Káre Jari Hildá), and Anni Koivisto (Koivu-Jusse Ánne) to name just a few.     

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