keskiviikko 11. maaliskuuta 2015

Short review of the Finnish Sámi political situation 2011-2015: Why is there so much conflict over Sámi identity and belonging in Finland?

Being recognized as a Sámi in Finland means that you are registered in the Sámi Parliament’s electoral roll. This means that you are granted status as an indigenous person i.e. Sámi status in Finland. The Sámi Parliament has, thus far, used a strict interpretation of the criteria for being registered as a Sámi. This has generated conflict in Finland because part of the population of Sámi identified people’s electoral roll applications are being denied based on this strict interpretation of the criteria. These people are Sámi, but have essentially been excluded from the Sámi electoral roll, hence the term non-status Sámi.

There is ample evidence to support that the Sámi Parliament’s decisions regarding many individual applicants’ identity and status have been arbitrary. For example, there are families where some of the family members have been accepted into the electoral roll, while other members have not been accepted. The reasons that the decision-making body gives for such discrepancies are often contradictory and baseless. Like many indigenous societies the world over, and especially in post-colonial, Western democracies with highly variable local histories, the group that has been left out of the electoral roll is fairly heterogeneous. There are language revitalizers or people who have reclaimed one of the Sámi languages, there are Sámi speakers who speak Sámi as a home language, there are culturally competent people and people with clear and demonstrable cultural continuity. They could be understood to be different kinds of Sámi who bring different resources to the greater Sámi community; but what they share in common is that all of them have a Sámi background and a living Sámi identity.

The Criteria from 1995

In Finland, the definition of a Sámi is codified in the Act on the Sámi Parliament and the criteria that has been emphasized when interpreting the law is based mainly on the Sámi language. This Sámi law came into effect in 1995, and was written in collaboration with the Finnish Sámi Parliament and the government of Finland. The basic rights of the Sámi were first legislated with the amendment to the constitution in 1995. A self-governing body, the Sámi Parliament, was legislated in 1995 for realising cultural self-government. In 1993, the Ministry of Justice established a working group in order to recognise in constitutional law the Sámi status as indigenous people. The working group had three members: counsellor of legislation Eero J. Aarnio (Ministry of Justice), officer Paavo Pirttimäki (Ministry of the Interior) and legal secretary Heikki J. Hyvärinen (Sámi parliament). One of the most controversial questions at that time was how to define who is Sámi. For example, Tuomas Magga’s opinion was that the Sámi definition should be liberal and open, which would mean that more Sámi people would have the right to be registered as Sámi. On the contrary, for example, Nils-Henrik Valkeapää’s opinion was to shape a more restrictive definition, because it was believed that after the Sámi parliament gained more power, there might be more people interested in Sámi status. Finally, the definition was formed with one subjective criterion and three objective criteria. The second criteria “Sámi descent” meant that the Sámi definition would also cover those Sámi whose ancestors had lost the language earlier due to coercive strategies of assimilation by the state and Church. Some powerful members of the Sámi Parliament didn’t support this open definition. Hence, they and their supporters started to interpret the law--to some extent circumventing the law-- by ignoring the second criteria entirely. We discuss the criteria in detail below.

Unlike the other Nordic Sámi Parliaments, the candidates/politicians do not represent any political parties or groups with a democratic process.  Hence, the representatives in the Finnish Sámi Parliament do not have to be held accountable to a membership-based party or organization, where membership has a popular vote in policy platforms and choice of candidates. The elections are purely individual in nature, where, "Family, friends and neighbours seem to be the electoral basis” (Eriksson 1997: 140; see also Josefsen 2007). Another important distinction: the Sámi Parliament election committee is the political body which interprets the definition of who can register as a Sámi in the electoral rolls in accordance with the Sámi Act from 1995. It is this body that processes the applications for the electorate. The election committee has five (5) members, and they are chosen by the Sámi Parliament. In 2014-2015, the election committee was: Janne Näkkäläjärvi, Inga Guttorm, Birit Anni Magga, Jouni Aikio and Veikko Feodoroff. The election committee also implements the indigenous people’s group identification, which is mentioned for example in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).  As a result of the interpretation by the committee, it either accepts the applicant as a Sámi or rejects them. 

Since the enactment of the law in 1996, the Sámi Parliament has habitually interpreted the criteria in a very rigid way. Here is the current criteria, and the criteria that was upheld by the Finnish Parliament on March 10, 2015, which has led to the political upheaval we see today. The definition is based on the subjective criteria that an applicant has a Sámi identity, that is, the applicant sees themselves as a Sámi. Then, the applicant must meet one of three objective criteria in addition to the subjective criterion:

A Sámi is a person who considers him- or herself a Sámi, and

1)    The first qualifying criterion is: has learnt Sámi as his or her first language or has at least one parent or grandparent whose first language is Sámi, or

2)    The second qualifying criterion is: “the person is a descendant of someone who has been registered as a Fell, Forest or Fishing Sámi in the land, taxation or census register.” This means that you are considered to be Sámi if you descend from a Sámi family. In order to fulfill the second criterion, one has to prove Sámi ancestry with official documentation which shows lineage from an ancestor that has paid the Sámi tax and is hence marked in official tax ledgers, or

        3)  (similar to the Norwegian criteria), at least one of his/her parents has or
could have been registered to vote in the elections of the Sámi Parliament.

When the election commission rejects a person’s application, the person has the right to appeal the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) of Finland. (


What has consistently been the case since 1995, is that if someone applies for the Sámi electoral roll according to the second criterion, without exception, one always gets rejected. The commission interprets the law such that only the language criterion is valid. This is a paradox because of the assimilation history of the Sámi: the State and Church aimed to weed out the Sámi language, and pressure the Sámi to give up Sámi in favour of Finnish. Further, there are highly variable local histories in Finland, many of which involved land dispossession, profound pressure to assimilate, and even cases involving violence. Now, rather than recognizing this harsh past, the Sámi Parliament itself has deliberately excluded people with the demands of the 3rd generation having the Sámi mother tongue language. Crucially, the families where the language shift has occurred earlier, are left outside even though they have cultural continuity and Sámi identity. Further, many of the people who meet the second criterion have reclaimed one of the Sámi languages and are actively working to save and develop them. 

Even though the Sámi Parliament electoral roll can be seen as only an expression of political identity, it does have both practical and symbolic significance due to power and collective recognition. Consequently, Sámi status legitimates individuals’ indigenous identity, political recognition and sometimes access to resources and services.

Sámi Parliament’s Demand for a new Sámi Definition (the Sámi Law)

In 2011, four (4) Sámi people applied to be in the Sámi electoral roll. The Sámi Parliament rejected those applications, as they have consistently done with all applications that do not meet their strict interpretation of the Sámi status. However, these four applicants, some of whom came from Inari, made appeals to the Supreme Administrative Court (henceforth SAC). As a result of the strict interpretation used by the Sámi Parliament on these four applications, SAC expanded the interpretation of a definition of a Sámi for the electoral roll in its 2011 decisions. Namely, the Supreme Administrative Court decided that the Sámi Parliament had to accept the four Sámi applicants into the Sámi Parliament’s electoral roll, which the Sámi Parliament’s election commission and the government of the Sámi Parliament had previously rejected. When SAC was making their decision, they emphasized the following three criteria: (1) Sámi family lineage, (2) Sámi identity, (3) Sámi cultural competence. This meant that they interpreted the second criterion as needing these additional factors to be valid.

The SAC decision led to strong, fear-based reactions within four Sámi organizations: the Finnish Sámi Parliament, the Sámi Council (Sámiráđđi), Finnish Sámi Center Association (Suoma Sámiid Guovddášsearvi) and the Sámi Youth Council (Suoma Sámi Nuorat). They made statements such as “indigenous peoples should have the right to decide for themselves who belongs to indigenous peoples and who doesn’t.” The organizations were afraid that the SAC decision would be a precedent. They made numerous, unreasonable and exaggerated claims that because SAC ruled that these four Sámi people were accepted into the rolls, that suddenly 100,000 non-Sámi people would flood the Sámi parliament with applications in a concerted effort or conspiracy to take over all of Finnish Sámiland. (There were many such statements made in both official and unofficial discourse, especially in social media). Those four applications and the SAC decision was the impetus for the Sámi Parliament to start working towards a renewed, stricter, Sámi Act in order to prevent a possible new liberal interpretation of the Sámi definition (Aarnio 2012).

However, according to recent news, when the Sámi Parliament opened up for new applications, approximately 800 people applied, a far cry from the baseless and exaggerated feared 100, 000 applicants. The committee accepted 483 people into the roll, in which 295 people were children of people who are registered in the roll and who had turned 18 years old. In total, 450 applications were rejected; of which as many as 150 applications were rejected outright with the questionable claim that they were received in the mail ‘too late’ to be considered, according to committee president Janne Näkkäläjärvi (YLE SÁPMI 4.3.2015.) This rather small number of applicants raises the question as to why the Sámi Parliament felt the need to make drastic statements referring to “100 000 aggressive non-Sámi applicants seeking Sámi status for exploitative reasons” and four years of intensive work and lobbying for a stricter definition.

One example is telling. There is an applicant who has recently applied according to the subjective criteria and the second objective criteria, the “Sámi descent criteria.” In addition, like many non-status Sámi in Finland, the applicant has reclaimed the Sámi language, Sámi cultural competence, and has a Sámi identity. This applicant also included a detailed account of their cultural connection, knowledge and continuity. The application was rejected by the electoral committee, and the applicant received fourteen (14) pages of argumentation as to why the applicant “was not a Sámi.” In addition, many applicants who meet the strict language criteria are still being rejected. Even one of the children of the four applicants that the SAC ordered had to be admitted was also recently rejected. The Sámi Parliament election commission is clearly violating the human rights of legitimate members of an Indigenous society. 

Historical transformation in the political situation of the Sámi in Finland

The Finnish Sámi Parliament has been fighting for four (2011–2015) years to achieve changes to the Sámi definition. Apparently, this was their most important political goal within this election period. However, at the same time there have been powerful Sámi identity and revitalization movements in Finland, which are aiming to gain acceptance in the already codified Sámi definition in Finland (f. ex. Vuovde-, guolásteaddji- ja duottarsámit rs).

Yesterday (10.3.2015) was the final day of the Sámi Parliament's efforts to get the group identification into the law. However, the Finnish Parliament voted to uphold the current definition, which can be described as a more liberal definition which takes into account the complicated, polyvocal, history of Finland and diversity of Sámi identity and experience. The vote had an overwhelming majority in favor of upholding the current definition, 162-28. This meant, that the Finnish Sámi Parliament didn’t succeed in its four (4) years of work to get a more restricted Sámi definition in Finland. When the media only hears the views of members of the Sámi parliament who support the stricter definition, the rest of Sapmi is not hearing the voices of the entire Sámi population in Finland. In short, there is a one-sided view that does not account for the multiple voices of all Sámi society in Finland. It should also be stated that not all members of the Finnish Sámi Parliament are in agreement with the definition, there are current members who support the liberal definition and the decision by the Finnish Parliament to keep the liberal definition.

Members of the Finnish Parliament have concluded and stated publicly that the reason they voted to uphold the original definition is because they question the validity of a stricter definition in the rubric of human rights. In other words, they view a strict definition of Sámi status as a violation of the human rights of part of the Sámi population in Finland. They also state that they want to see a constructive solution to the conflict surrounding the definition of a Sámi in Finland. This challenges the consistent discourse of “the univocal victimized Sámi parliament” versus the “oppressive Finnish regime.” Legal scholars have stated that most governments seek to restrict the numbers of Indigenous peoples in their borders as it is not in the state’s interest to have indigenous peoples in their territories who might make land and resource claims. It should be regarded as revealing when a conservative government, presented with evidence and arguments from various opinions on the matter, engages in questions of the human rights of members of the Indigenous population. In other words, rather than taking a highly romanticized view of the Sámi people, they took the time to use their critical judgement. This is an example of a statement by a member of the Finnish Parliament:

Nyt tapahtui historiaa. Tämä luo toivoa sille, ettei vähemmistöjen vähemmistöä enää sorrettaisi ja kaikki saamelaisuuden kriteerit täyttävät pääsisivät vaalirekisteriin ja tulisivat siten tunnustetuksi saamelaisiksi.
“Now we made history. – This (referring to voting result) creates hope that minorities within the minority will no longer be oppressed and all the Sámi that meet the criteria will gain access to the electoral roll and would thus be recognized as Sámi.” (Markus Lohi, Centre Party 10.3.2015 Public Facebook Page.)

Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi played with high stakes when he combined the ratification of the ILO 169 convention with seeking approval to have a more restricted Sámi definition. He lost the battle and there was nothing else that he could do but to resign as the president of the Sámi president.  The background for this is that Näkkäläjärvi had certain conditions he wanted to see fulfilled before the ratification of ILO 169. According to his conditions: if the Sámi definition gets restricted, than he would support the ratification of ILO 169. But if the state were to keep the current definition, then he would not support ratifying ILO 169. On March 10th, the state decided to keep the current definition, so that meant that Näkkäläjärvi did not support ratification anymore. However, part of the representatives of the Sámi Parliament continued to support ratification, so Näkkäläjärvi did not have the support anymore within the Sámi Parliament. In other words, he lost power. He was met with two significant defeats within one day: the failed mission of restricting the definition and loss of support within the Sámi Parliament.     

Final words

On behalf of this organization, we want Sápmi to know that we are not a threat, but a resource to Sámi society. Our dream is that we can move forward and all work together to build a more healthy, inclusive Sámi society. This includes to a great extent, the work of revitalizing and developing the Sámi language(s) and culture and to protect the human rights of ALL Indigenous people. We have the inherent right -- as legitimate bearers of our ancestors’ indigenous culture -- to be fully accepted for what we are: we are Sámi.

Vuovde-, guolástaddji- ja duottarsámit rs. Metsä-, kalastaja- ja tunturisaamelaiset ry.
Forest-, Fishing- and Mountain Sámi Association

Eriksson, J. 1997. Partition and Redemption, A Machiavellian Analysis of Sámi and Basque Patriotism, Umeå University, Sweden.

Josefsen, E. 2007. The Saami and the National Parliaments – Channels for Political Influence. Gáldu Čála – Journal of Indigenous Peoples Rights No. 2/2007. Gáldu - Resource Centre for Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino.

Lehtola, V.-P. 2005. Saamelaisten parlamentti. Suomen saamelaisvaltuuskunta 1973- 1995 ja Saamelaiskäräjät 1996-2003. Inari: Saamelaiskäräjät.

YLE SÁPMI. 3.3.2015.

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