The Sámi Parliament in Finland will hold elections between 7.September- 4. October. In order to be eligible to vote, one has to have Sámi status. There has been conflict over the eligibility requirements for gaining Sámi status in Finland for decades (see the article in this blog before “Short review of the Finnish Sámi political situation 2011-2015: Why is there so much conflict over Sámi identity and belonging in Finland?” http://vgdsamit.blogspot.fi/2015/03/short-review-of-finnish-sami-political.html). Currently, there are 200 Sámi descended individuals in the process of applying for Sámi status.
What follows is an example of how the Sámi parliament has argued for the rejection of one applicant’s Sámi identity. 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 fulfil 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. (http://www.kho.fi/en/)
Language revitalization not accepted
Here is one part of the rejection, which also had other arguments for rejection. The person has Sámi ancestry from both their mother and father. A language shift has occurred in the family during the 19th and early 20th centuries, so they didn’t learn the Sámi language at home. Rather, this person took the language back in school. The applicant learnt the North Sámi language, which was spoken in their family on their mother’s side of the family. In addition, the other side of their family spoke the Kemi Sámi language; it is significant to note that the Kemi language went extinct because of linguistic assimilation policies of the Church and State. This person totally identifies as a Sámi, and like the other applicants, seeks expression of their Sámi identity through the right to vote in the Sámi parliament and be acknowledged as belonging to the Sámi people or nation, both historically and today.
The board of the Finnish Sámi parliament had a meeting to determine the outcome of the 200 applicants. All 200 applications were rejected. The following is the translation of the rejection of Sámi status by the board of the Finnish Sámi Parliament, with comments:
The Board of the Sámi Parliament states, that the diverse ability to speak Sámi and learning the (Sámi) language as an adult are not the same thing as learning the language as a first language.
The Sámi languages are considered seriously endangered. According to revitalization researchers, the most important action to take to reverse language shift is to increase the number of speakers. Here the Board claims that there is no value in language revitalization, but rather learning the language as a first language is the only route to a “pure” and legitimate Sámi identity. If this line of reasoning were used when developing policy for Indigenous peoples’ globally, then countless numbers of Indigenous peoples would be disenfranchised of Indigenous status. This direction sets a dangerous precedent in the development of Indigenous peoples’ rights in view of language loss due to colonialism. Further, consider the additional reasoning given by the Finnish Sámi parliament board:
According to the understanding of the Board of the Sámi Parliament, the applicant speaks the North Sámi language, which is not the applicant’s documented Sámi ancestor's home area original language.
Here, the Board is referring to the Kemi Sámi area where the Kemi Sámi language has disappeared due to linguistic assimilation and forced language shift. The Board claims that the person should have learnt the distinct language of the area of the person’s ancestors instead of North Sámi. There are left three Sámi languages in Finland (North, Inari and Skolt), when at least three languages have gone extinct (Kemi, Kuolajärvi, Kittilä). This demand can be seen as in keeping with colonial ways of oppressing the applicant; that is, to inundate the applicant with baseless administrative roadblocks, rather than in view of general linguistic competence in a neighbouring Indigenous Sámi language. It should be noted, that the applicant has North Sámi speaking ancestors, but due to the demands of finding legal documentation, the applicant was not able to “prove” that her ancestors spoke North Sámi. Nonetheless, documentation was provided for the Kemi side of the family. On the other hand, if the person didn’t have North Sami ancestry, and she/he learnt another Sámi language: Why is there a problem for the Sámi Parliament Board to accept that? If such a policy were to take hold in all Sámi areas, it would effectively limit the Sami identity of all Sami from areas where there has been language loss due to colonial pressures.
Indigenous peoples worldwide have experienced language loss. Revitalization is the key word for empowering indigenous peoples. Solidarity, sharing and hope are values that are commonly found amongst Indigenous peoples, however, this claim that one must speak a distinct language that was lost due to pressures outside of local control, reflects that the Finnish Sámi Parliament holds opposing values. Rather than work to revitalize and undo colonialism, their policies will ultimately lead to further language loss, loss of Sami identity and demographic decline.
It is also a paradox and raises serious questions of legitimacy when three (3) of the members of the six (6) member council did not learn Sámi as first language. (The Board members are the following: Sanila-Aikio Tiina, Paltto Heikki, Magga Ulla-Maarit, Länsman Asko, Magga-Vars Petra, Morottaja Anna, Tapiola Ilmari)