The Saami of Norway

Editor: Winfried K. Dallmann

edited and compiled from various sources (Elina Helander, Nordic Saami Institute 1992; Wencke Brenna, Ministry of Local Government and Labour’s Section for Saami Issues 1997); amendments and updates by the editor

The Saami

The Saami people form the largest indigenous minority in the Scandinavian countries – not considering  minorities of main populations from neighbouring countries, like Swedes in Finland , etc. Their traditional territory stretches from the northern part of South Norway and the middle part of Sweden across the northern parts of these countries, northern Finland and into the Kola Peninsula in Russia . Originally, they migrated northward through southern parts of Finland and Karelia , but have been absent there at least since the beginning of historical recording.

The name Saami stems from the word sápmi which denotes both the geographical territory of traditional Saami settlement and the people themselves. The size of the Saami population is somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000. Estimates vary in accordance with criteria used (genetic heritage, mother tongue, self-identification, etc.). A cautious estimate would be about 70,000. In Norway there are believed to be between 40,000 and 45,000 Saami, of which 25,000 live in the northernmost county, Finnmark. In Sweden live about 17,000 Saami, in Finland around 6,000, and in Russia approximately 2,000. Official censuses have not given reliable counts, and there are no official documents – except for in Russia – stating a person’s ethnic identity other than nowadays the registration list for elections to the Saami Parliaments of the three Scandinavian countries. But, because of the long assimilation process, not all Saami have wished to acknowledge or declare their ethnic identity. In Norway , only ca. 12,000 of the estimated 40-45,000 Saami have so far registered.

Saami societies were formerly organized in siidas, which were а form of practical cooperation between several family groups, primarily regarding management and sharing of natural resources and game. The individual siida had а collective right to hunting and fishing within its area. The siida’s head, the siida­isit, led the siida council. Among other duties, he oversaw the siida’s regulations for use of natural resources. Remains of the siida system still exist in various places.

Similar to most indigenous peoples, the Saami have developed an economy based on а direct relationship to nature and natural resources. This is exemplified by their following reindeer herds and the exchanges between agriculture and fishing practised by Saami coastal societies. Traditional Saami economy was based on a lot of different occupations for each family, while reindeer herding for the inland Saami developed as a dominating subsistence first from the 1700s, when competition for natural resources with other peoples demanded this.

The Saami noaide, a form of shaman, was а person with strong mental and spiritual power. He was а strong spiritual leader for his society in moral matters and could resolve disputes. He was also а healer, social worker and storyteller. The Saami used both animal and vegetable products in their folk medicine. In cases of where а diagnosis was uncertain, the noaide sought advice by means of his shamanic drum. He was capable of transcending states of consciousness and could travel to other spiritual realms to cure sickness or prevent death. The traditional Saami music form yoik and beating on а shamanic drum contributed to such spiritual travels.

This use of yoik is probably the reason why this song form was banned by Christian missionaries and priests, a condition that lasted until just a few decades ago. Yet healers continue to operate in several Saami communities today. It is not uncommon for local health personnel and healers to work in unison. А healer’s knowledge and authority can have а supplementary function to modern medical practice.

The conditions of Saami social and economic life have changed greatly through the decades. However, growing focus has been given to the potential of combining а develop­ment of business activities and developing traditional ways of life as а material basis for Saami culture. Marginal resources in the Saami areas seldom give sufficient economic nourishment for single occupations. Combinations of jobs yield а more balanced utilization of natural resources, and additional economic support.

History of colonization and Norweginazation

The first contact the Saami had with other peoples in historical times were meetings with explorers, adventurers, missionaries and merchants. State taxation followed. The Saami had furs etc. which were valued as trade goods. The colonization of the Saami territories occurred step by step. From the Middle Ages and onwards, settlements of Norwegians arose along the coast and the outer fiord areas. To begin with, the spreading of Norwegians to the north was generally at the initiative of rich farmers and merchants, who were also engaged in fishing. The new settlement areas in the north came successively under the control of state authorities. For a long time, Norwegian colonization was concentrated along the outer coastal areas where the fishing villages were established.

The Church had representatives in these fishing villages and extracted values through trade and the issuing of fines.       Churches were built as early as the twelfth century. In 1716 the Pietist Thomas von Westen was chosen to lead missionary work among the Saami. Von Westen preached throughout the entire Saami area in Norway from 1716 to 1727. He strongly opposed the Saami practice of shamanism and initiated the desctruction of all religious relics like shaman drums. However, he encouraged the use of the Saami language among the missionaries and clergy, а policy which met with growing opposition after his death in 1727.

Norwegian authorities stressed rational agriculture and private ownership of property. This did not harmonize with the traditional Saami way of life. The ownership of reindeer herds began in the 1700s and replaced earlier cultures’ hunting of wild reindeer and with stationary ownership of tame animals. А new pattern developed involving the nomadic herding of large numbers of animals with the shift between autumn, winter and spring grazing lands.

No clearly defined state boundaries within the Saami settlement area were found until the peace treaty between Sweden and Norway of 1751. The area became strategically important and the economic potential was realisd by the alien nations. From time to time, the Saami were taxed by several nations simultaneously. When national borders were staked out, the Saami’s way of life had to be taken into account. This was done in an amendment to the peace treaty of 1751, the so-called Lappekodicillen. It was intended to protect the Saami’s grazing rights in the frontier areas, and it comprised a recognition of existing rights to herd reindeer.

From around 1850 а number of regulations were made to bolster the teaching of Norwegian languange to Saami people. The goal was to establish Norwegian as their school language. It was not until the 1930s that Saami was again allowed as а secondary language in some school districts to augment teaching. In practice, the Saami language was banned in many Norwegian schools until well into the 1950s.

The “Norwegianization” policy eventually moved into other social spheres. Following language, it became dominant in agricultural policies, defence, education, communications and media. For instance the Land Act of 1902 stipulated that property could only be transferred to Norwegian citizens who could speak, read and write Norwegian. Agriculture was viewed as essential to culture; only people who farmed the land could take part in the development оf society. Reindeer herding was а prerequisite for those who lived off the land, but it was also doomed. The only way to “save” the Saami was to integrate them completely into Norwegian society.

The development of such assimilation policies occurred hand in hand with increased interest in the Saami territories by the main­stream population because of discoveries of ores and due to national security considerations. Assimilation policies were also substantiated by growing nationalism.

The Norwegianization policy continued to influence Saami life after World War II, although conditions gradually changed.

Toward а new basis for Saami policy

The major step forward came in the 1960s, when the Saami’s right to preserve and develop their own culture was officially acknowledged. Saami was taught in the schools, and new institutions were established. But time has left its indelible traces on the Saami through а loss of language, traditions and а fading perception of their history and background – and these values are difficult to regain.

In 1956 a Saami Committee was established to discuss principles and concrete measures for Saami. Its conclusions, issued in 1959, included numerous initiatives to facilitate the Saami’s retention of their culture within the framework of Norwegian society. This was the first time that Saami issues were put to the Norwegian National Assembly, for debate on а wide-scale and principle basis. Among the intentions was а wish to create positive special advantages for Saami. Opposition to the committee’s ideas was initially vigorous. When put to the National Assembly in 1963 the strongest agreement involved proposals for social and economic development. In the following decades, Saami policies were particularly oriented toward the social sphere and regional development.

Saami are organizing themselves

Local Saami organizations had existed for а long time but there were no national ones until after World War II. Those who were actively involved with the Saami cause were viewed as dreamers and idealists, or in some cases as extremists. Saami cultural symbols flourished and the development of Saami organizations began to have an impact.

Nordic[1] cooperation among the Saami of Norway, Sweden and Finland was initiated in 1953. Three years later, a Nordic Saami Council was established. The Nordic Saami Council passed а common cultural policy programme in 1971 and а Saami policy programme in 1980. It sets out the following principles:

The oldest surviving Norwegian Saami organization is the Saami Reindeer Herders’ Association in Norway (NRL), which was formed in 1947 with the goal of promoting the interests of the reindeer­herding Saami. Еру Saami Association in Oslo has existed since 1948. The National Association of Norwegian Saami (NSR) was established in 1968. The Norwegian Saami Union (SLF) broke off from the latter as а moderate alternative in 1979. The SLF attracted many Saami from coastal areas into Saami politics.

Saami were active in the founding of the World Council for Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) in 1975. An international perspective found its way into Saami politics, and human rights arguments were adopted in relation to Norwegian authorities.

The Alta controversy

The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Administration issued comprehensive plans in the 1970s to develop the Alta­-Kautokeino water system on the Finnmark Plateau for hydroelectric power production. Plans involved to build a dam, which would flood the Saami village of Masi . after severe protests these plans were reduced, but а major hydroelectric power project remained was eventually build. It involved а smaller, 100-metre high dam across а river canyon and the construction of а road across reindeer grazing lands and calving areas.

The reindeer owners who were affected by this and the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature took the state to court to prevent the development in 1979. The case gained symbolic value. Saami and environmentalist interests joined forces in demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. Demonstrations were staged at the construction site which was combatted by a ridiculously large police force. Saami activists started а hunger strike in front of the National Assembly. А group of Saami women contributed with а sit-down strike at the Office of the Prime Minister.

The dam was completed, but the issue became the final turning point for modern policies towards the Saami people from the 1980s. In general, North Norway was high on the political agenda at this time, also because of regional policy concerns, relations with the ЕU, oil prospecting, etc. Saami consciousness was also affiliated with increased attention to North Norway .

The debate about the Saami situation grew heated and emotional in Finnmark county in particular. Both Norwegians and Saami began to fear ethnic extremism and rumours spread about Saami who wished to secede territory from the state of Norway . This was not so difficult to imagine when viewed in light of the former era of oppression, but in reality it became never a significant issue.

The Saami Act and Saami Parliament

The legal status of the Saami improved considerably during the 1980s. In 1980 two committees were appointed, one to look into cultural issues in relation to the Saami, and the other to study legal aspects.

The major result of the first one was the Saami Language Act which came into force in 1992. Saami language was declared equal to Norwegian with special rules for the official use of Saami language in certain Saami core areas.

The committee dealing with legal matters had а wide mandate. It focused on the question of constitutional rights for the Saami people and on the establishment of a body of representatives for the Saami. The reporting of this committee had significant consequences. The “Act Concerning the Saami Parliament and Other Legal Matters Pertaining to the Saami” (the Saami Act, 1987) laid down the main rules for а representative body of the Saami, the Saami Parliament.

In 1988, Saami rights received national recognition when the National Assembly adopted an amendment to the Constitution, Article 110а, which for the first time states: “It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Saami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.”

The Saami Parliament was opened in the Saami village of Karasjok in 1989 by King Olav V. The Saami Parliament deals with аll matters considered to be of special importance to the Saami people and counsels the Norwegian authorities. It may on its own initiative submit issues to public authorities and private institutions etc. It also administers the Saami Culture Fund, a governmental fund allocated to the development of Saami culture.

The representatives to the Parliament are elected once in four years by Saami who are registered in the Saami electoral register. To be registered, a person must:

The Saami Parliament’s plenary body consists of 39 elected representatives from 13 electoral districts. The parliament convenes four times а year for week-long plenary sessions. The Saami Parliament Council leads the legislative body’s day-to-day political activities. Various professional advisory organs have been established subordinate to the Saami Parliament: these are the Saami Cultural Heritage Council, the Saami Culture Council, the Saami Business Council, and the Saami Language Council. They function as professional organs for the Saami Parliament and assist in the management of allocations and subsidies.

Further progress was made in 1990 when Norway ratified the ILO Convention No. 169 (1989), which deals with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.             

Since 1990 there was also а special political adviser for Saami issues at the Ministry of Local Government, and in in 1997 the position of State Secretary for Saami issues was created.

There has been a constant wish by Saami politicians to give the Saami Parliament a veto right concerning unwanted activities in Saami areas, which is not accepted by any Norwegian government. Instead, there is nowadays a tendency that companies voluntarily decline from planned projects if they have a massive Saami opinion against them. This cannot be said of the military forces, which continually get into clashes with the official Saami opinion when they establish new training areas with the consent of the authorities.

А number of questions involving the Saami Parliament’s position in the Norwegian political system have yet to be resolved. After more than 20 years of activity, the Saami Legal Rights Committee forwarded a draft law about Saami rights to land and water resources in Finnmark County , the Saami core area in Norway , the so-called Finnmark Act. It was accepted by the right-wing Norwegian government in early 2003, but then stopped due to severe protests from the Saami Parliament, many Saami organisations, and a number of  Norwegian lawyers. The low would not solve the issue it was menat to solve, continue state paternization, favourize alien exploitation of the country and contradict the ILO Convention No. 169, which is ratified by Norway . Legal investigations concerning this law are still underway.

Still in the absence of a general law on ownership of resources in Saami areas, the Supreme Court made a historical verdict in early 2004. There had been a dispute with the Norwegian State for more than a hundred years over a mountaineous forest area of 116 square kilometres in the community of Gáivuodna (Norw.: Kåfjord), the so-called Svartskogen (“Black Forest”). The Supreme Court decided that the area was common Saami property according to established right and was collectively owned by the inhabitants of the community, regardless their ethnic identity. This decision was highly celebrated by the Saami people as a whole, and it will work certainly be used as a precedent for future cases.

The Saami lаnguagе and its use

The Saami language belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family and is closely related to Finnish. There are several Saami dialects or languages, roughly subdivided into East Saami , Central Saami and South Saami , the two former containing both several dialects. North Saami , a Central Saami dialect, is the most spoken. The Saami language boundaries dо not coincide with the state borders of the Nordic countries, but run perpendicular to the coast line.

In Norway about 20,000 people speak the Saami language, in Finland around 3,000, in Sweden 10,000 and in Russia 700. In the core area, the inner part of the Finnmark Plateau and adjacent areas in Sweden and Finland , Saami is in everyday use and has by far gained an official status there. Much of the coastal area has traditionally been Saami-speaking but in competition with Norwegian, Saami has lost ground there. Locally it is gaining ground again as a result of the new pro-Saami, official language policies.

In the rest of the Saami area the population is spread, and settlements often have little contact with one another. Although Saami is not discriminated today, the pervasive influence of Norwegian has made it difficult to revive it as an everyday language. There are, of course, scattered pockets in the two latter areas where interest in preserving the language is especially strong.

Saami children are now legally entitled to be instructed on and in their own language.                Saami as a beginning language in certain elementary schools was initiated in 1967. Later legislation extended the use of the Saami language in schools. Adult courses in Saami are held and paid leaves of absence are granted to teachers who take university courses in Saami. Since 1975, school districts with а mixed language basis are permitted to establish Saami school districts at parental request. This provides an opportunity for the use of the Saami language as а means of education as well as instruction in the language itself. А new curriculum in Saami education was created in connection with educational reforms in 1997. This primarily applies to pupils who reside in areas which are admin­istrated according to the Saami Act’s language regulations. Furthermore, basic material about Saami matters have been added to the national curricula.

Three newspapers, a women’s, a children’s and a youth magazine, as well as a religeous periodical are published in Saami language in Norway . Radio broadcasts in Saami language were first started by the state broadcastind corporation, NRK, in 1946. Since then, the programmes have been expanded and given а more varied content. The number of TV programmes in Saami is growing. Even in Norwegian news programmes, news about the Saami areas are often commented in Saami language with Norwegian subtitles. The state broadcastind corporation has its own Saami language division, NRK Saami Radio, in the village of Karasjok .

А blooming of Saami literature has occurred since the 1970s. The first children’s book in Saami was printed in 1976. Saami authors have founded their own organization, Saami Writer’s Association. Today there are two publishing houses for Saami language books.

Higher education and research

The Nordic Saami Institute at ­Kautokeino, established m 1974, is а Saami research institute funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers. Its purpose is to assist the Saami population of the Nordic countries in theoretical and practical matters through research, reports, instruction and the provision of services. The activities of the Institute are organized into three sections: language and culture, education and information and economic activities, the environment and rights.

In the autumn of 1989 the Saami College in Kautokeino was established, with Saami language teachers’ training as its main offer. The Saami College ’s goal is to adapt this education to the needs of the Saami society.

The University of Tromsø has а clear profile involving the main­tenance of North Norwegian and Saami interests in education and research. Its Centre for Saami Studies plays а coordinating role, assures that Saami issues are considered in all relevant disciplines at the University, and conducts a Master Study Programme on Indigenous Issues.

Women organize themselves

Following the Nordic Council’s women’s conference in 1988, Saami women founded their organization Sáráhkká. Sáráhkká is affiliated with the World Council of Indigenous Women which was founded in 1989. The organization points out that indigenous women are subject to different conditions than their men. As long as there is little public work aimed at the continuation of Saami culture, such efforts are among the responsi­bilities of families – particularly the women, who carry the heaviest load in child upbringing and the passing on of culture.

It has also been pointed out that the point of departure for Norwegian laws and regulations on gender equality is a Norwegian and Western European perspective. This is foreign for the Saami society, where women have had а different, but strong position.

The state of Saami traditional occupations

Reindeer-herding, fishing, agriculture, trade, small-scale industry, handicrafts and to some extent the service industries are important sources of livelihood among today’s Saami population in Norway .

Reindeer industry

Reindeer-herding is an essential element in the preservation of the Saami culture. In recent years, it has undergone а modernization process, which threatens its position as а central force in the struggle to preserve Saami culture and identity. Reindeer-herding has become а capital-intensive industry. Modern technology has become the central element in а new type of reindeer-herding where the chief aim is to produce as much meat as possible. Herding areas have shrunk and grazing lands have deteriorated as а result of industry and environmental disturbances.

About 40% of Norway ’s land mass is used for reindeer grazing. The economic value of this industry is minor on а national scale, but it is important financially and culturally on the local level.

Saami have an exclusive right to reindeer herding, based on traditional, established right. It is а right of usage, independent of who owns the land. The trade has its own management system, in which the Saami Parliament now has increased influence.

Reindeer herders have now the possibility to receive formal education, which is supervised by the Education Office for Reindeer Herding. This office was established in 2002 and is financed with public funds distributed in accordance with the biannually renewed Agreement on Reindeer Herding between the State and the reindeer herding associations.

The Saami and fisheries policies

А combination of coastal and fiord fishing and farming – or other trades – is the most common livelihood for the coastal Saami coastal population and could thus be called а cultural hall­mark. In the 1980s and 90s the former practice of unregulated coastal fishing was stopped because of increased exploitation of sea resources and the establishment of international and national quota regulations. Because the coastal Saami combined fishing with farming and other trades, they were placed lower on the lists when quotas were distributed. This was an unintended side-effect of changes in fisheries policies, and the Saami Parliament notified national authorities that the quota system threatened а traditional Saami means of making а living. This led to special administrative initiatives for such fishermen, raised consciousness about the material basis of Saami culture, and а special Saami fisheries committee was established.

Agricultural policies in Saami areas

Most of the farms in Saami areas are run in combination with other trades and businesses. Agriculture has traditionally been open and flexible. It has provided employment for periods to persons who have lacked а permanent connection with the trade, and it has given farmers an opportunity to utilize other niches in the labour market. In keeping with Saami tradition, but contrary to а key premise for Norwegian agricultural policies, agriculture in Saami areas has not been organized toward а goal of full-time employment. The Saami Parliament ordered a comprehensive agricultural plan which was completed in 1995. Norwegian agricultural authorities and the Saami Parliament developed а common viewpoint that employment in agriculture and other primary industries will continue to be essential to the rural social life which ensures Saami culture, and which provides the basis for its transfer to future generations. Ways of bolstering combinations of trades according to traditional Saami ways received administrative recognition.

Duodji (Saami handicraft)

Products of Saami handicraft (duodji) were originally intended only for domestic use. Today, they are produced and sold in large numbers. Duodji provides а livelihood for many Saami, and an important extra income for those engaged in the more traditional occupations. It has gradually become an important industry, embracing not only the traditional crafts but also art and art wares. Production and sales have become more and more organized.

Epilogue for the Russian language edition

When reading about the situation of the indigenous Saami population of Norway , many native people in Russia will feel deep despair. It’s so much different from Russia , there seems to be so much more hope for the future of indigenous people here in Norway .

But there is something that must not be forgotten. 60 years ago, when today’s grandfathers were small children, allmost the entire Saami core area of Norway – the county of Finnmark – was burned down by the retreating German Army when flying from the Soviet Red Army. The entire population was evacuated. Some – Norwegians and Saami – fled into the mountains and survived or died. After the war there was nothing at first. Then by and by, when the villages were rebuild again and people moved back home, there was no understanding for Saami issues at all. It was in the middle of the worst time of ethnic discrimination. Many Saami lost the believe in their future, unless they would “convert” and adopt a Norwegian way of life. They stopped to talk their language, to educate their children in traditional ways. Many Saami, especially those living in coastal areas with a large Norwegian population, became ashamed of their ancestry and developed racist attitudes against those Saami – mostly reindeer breeders living inside the country – who wanted to maintain their lifestyle.

The situation changed first very slowly, almost undetectable, during the 1950s and 1960s. Then in the 1970s the development became noticeble for many. The Saami came slowly out of their depression, engaged in politics, learned how to deal with the modern political society. The Alta controversy in 1979/80 (see above) was a significant event, when many Saami awoke and understood that they had to take their destiny into their own hands. The subsequent 25 years made all the difference.

Norway was a  very poor country in 1945. Now it is a rich country. Official attitudes towards indigenous peoples were negative. Today they are in general positive. While many expectations have not yet been complied with, many others have. And Saami people in general lead a decent life today, a mixture of traditional ways and modern life, which seems to work well for many of them.

Even though things seem to be hopeless for many indigenous communities in Russia today, things will change. They have always changed. Russia is a big country, heavy to move. But it has moved before, and it will again. Heavy things are difficult to accelerate, but once they are in motion, they are not easy to stop. I am convinced that the grandchildren of today’s grandfathers will live in a completely different world from what can be imagined today. It is up to today’s generation not to give up hope, but to stake out the path for the future, no matter how desparate things may seem.

[1] “Nordic” is not an equivalent of “Northern”, but refers to the political association of West European, Nordic countries, which are Norway , Sweden , Denmark (with Faroe Islands and Greenland ), Finland (with Ahvenanmaa ) and Iceland .