The “others within »: Sami people, nation-building and the myth of a homogenous Sweden

  1. Introduction:

Indigenous peoples stand at the intersection of complex social issues. From climate change to cultural preservation as well as social discrimination, indigenous voices give us powerful and holistic insights on our contemporary globalized societies. Indigenous communities have far too often been oppressed by centralizing nation states, or labelled as backwards by other communities. In many cases, they have been denied access to political rights while their ancestral lands have been confiscated. European colonial projects have resulted in the massacre of hundreds of peoples as well as their categorization according to “ethnicity”. Furthermore, native peoples often nurture a very tight relationship with nature and climate change is affecting their traditional ways of life. On top of that, indigenous peoples are calling into question the very ideas of the nation-state as well as homogenous cultures.

Sami people, allegedly the “last indigenous people of Europe” (UNRIC, 2021) have been living “since immemorial times” (OHCHR, 2008, p. 18) in an Arctic area they refer to as “Sapmi” (IGWIA, 2021). Their traditional homeland stretches from the north of the Scandinavian Peninsula to the Kola Peninsula, thus traversing the borders of four nation-states: Sweden, Finland, Norway as well as Russia (IGWIA, 2021). Nomadic fishermen and hunter-gatherers (Mattson, 2014, p. 327), Sami people “do not believe in land ownership”(Perry, n.d). They have traditionally been moving across borders for reindeer grazing (Gerdner, 2020, p. 4). Reindeer-husbandry has indeed constituted one of their main occupations. Reindeer-herding, moreover, has been one of the distinctive features of Sami way of life (Cultural Survival, 2007) and remains, even today, of particularly importance for Sami culture (Council of Europe, 2014, p. 11).

While the number of Sami people remains unclear, partly because of a lack of disaggregated population data in their countries of residency (OECD, 2019, p. 58), it is estimated that between 50 000 and 100 000 Samis are living both within and outside Sapmi (IGWIA, 2021). An increasing number of individuals, however, are leaving their traditional homeland (Council of Europe, 2014, p. 9). There are nine distinct Sami languages (Council of Europe, 2014, p. 10), sometimes divided into three categories: Eastern Sami, Central Sami and Southern Sami (Le Journal International, 2020). The “most widely used language”, North Sami, is spoken “in all the four countries” (Council of Europe, 2014, p. 10). Despite efforts by communities and (in some cases) states to maintain Sami languages, loss of mother tongue has been of particular concern to the Artic indigenous communities (Fjellgren, 2019, p. 6). Most languages are considered “endangered” (Gerdner, 2020, p. 6) and Akkala Sami has already “died out” in Russia in the 1990s (Council of Europe, 2014, p. 10).

Lestringant (2014, p. 3) explains that it is believed that the arrival of the Germanic farmers led some of the hunter-gatherers living in southern Finland and on the Norwegian coast to choose to adopt Germanic ethnicity, while others decided to keep their traditional way of life, thus giving rise to the Saami ethnicity. Such theory is inspired by Barth’s (1969) ideas that ethnic boundaries arise from the interaction between groups.

Approximately 20 000 Sami people live in Sweden, making up around 0, 20% of a total Swedish population comprising nearly 9 million people (IGWIA, 2021). Sweden has been elevated as a model of peaceful and tolerant society in the world (Gardell, 2015, p. 92). The constitutional monarchy has been praised for its progressive policies as well as its very developed welfare state, making it a “top performer on well-being” globally (World Economic Forum, 2019). Swedish alleged harmonious social relations have been mistakenly assumed to stem from the country’s ethnic, religious and cultural homogeneity (Gardell, 2015, p. 93). Yet, Swedish homogeneity is a myth (Gardell, 2015, p. 93). Gardell (2015, p. 115), quoting Anderson (1983), talks about an “imagined community” of blond, blue-eyed, “Swedish Swedes”. Moreover, the country is traversed by social conflict revolving around issues as identity, as the recent rise of anti-immigration far-right extremism illustrates (Global Risks Insights, 2021). Furthermore, Sweden has a lot to answer for in the treatment of its so-called “national minorities” (Ministry for Integration and Gender Equality, 2007, p. 1). In particular, the country still has a long way to go to address “the legacy of aggressive forced assimilation in the name of sovereignty” between southern-dwelling Swedes and northern-dwelling Sámi populations throughout the 1800s (Chatterjee, 2021).

  1. Literature review:

Elements of Sami culture:

The Saami are traditionally organized into “siidas” (or “villages”): cooperative herding groups originally based on kinship (Naess et al, 2021, p. 1). Solidarity and a search for the common good are primordial to survive in boreal extreme weather conditions. Sami people nurture a very close relationship with their land. More than a geographical area, Sapmi is also “a cultural belonging” (Malmqvist, 2021, p. 7). Sami’s ecological worldviews and deep attachment to their land is reflected in the expression “maadtoe”. While the word may mean “origins” as well as “ancestral land”, it also describes a complex social system of relationships between “humans, animals, land and spirits” (Nilsson, 2019, p. 6). As Nilsson (2019, p. 6) explains, “maadtoe describes the entire network of mutual rights and responsibilities that an individual possesses through biological and social relations with both living and dead”.

In addition, Sami people have developed a number of “shamanistic and animistic beliefs” (Perry, n.d). The Sami shaman, called “noaidi” were a spiritual guide and mediator” of each Sami siida (Meyer, n.d). The noaidi was capable of “travelling through the three realms of spirituality in which the Sami believed” (Perry, n.d), namely “the underworld, the real world and the celestial world” (Sametinget, 2005, p.5). The shaman could do so by getting into trance states during rituals, “with the help of sacred drums” (Sametinget, 2005, p. 5). Much research has sought to describe the paintings found on noaidi’s drums, which form “veritable cognitive maps” (Pentikäinen, 2010, p. 12) and “systems of embedded knowledge” (Joy, 2018, p. 1). As a result of evangelization attempts by the Lutheran Church, Sami beliefs have been desacralized, turning from religion to tradition (Cornell, n.d).

Another important aspect of Sami traditions is the yoik, a musical expression close to singing that performs social functions (, 2019). The yoiks express emotions and celebrate the memories of places, happenings and beings. Different melodies are tied to different individuals, species or spaces (Aubinet, 2020). “Identity markers” (, 2019), yoiks perform spiritual and social functions but also practical ones, such as calming reindeers. Sámi people, moreover, have an extensive traditional knowledge about natural phenomena, in particular when it comes to the state of snow and pastures (Unesco, 2019). Rather than seeking static exactitude, Sami wisdom takes a sensible and holistic approach to events and processes. As Roue puts it: “Sami science is the science of immanence” and impermanence (Unesco, 2019). Over the years, Sami culture has been “commoditized” (Cohen, 1988, p. 2) as the state is using their “primitive,” “authentic,” “unspoiled,” and “colourful” (Prasit, 2005, p. 2) images to attract tourism in Lapland.

Swedish state-building and the construction of the Saami as the other reindeer herder

As the Swedish ombudsman for ethnic discrimination explains, colonization of the Sami started in the 14th century, when the Swedish Crown began to conquer northern lands (OHCHR, 2008, p. 18). Swedish Kings then started levying taxes on Sami populations. The Sami were first classified according to their livelihoods rather than cultural or linguistic characteristics, as their nomadic hunting-gathering practices “posed challenges taxation for the proto-kings of Scandinavia and Russia” (Mattson, 2014, p. 9). Levy gradually increased over the centuries, as the state became more and more interested in “the riches of the Lappmark” (or Lappland, the Swedish designation of Sapmi) (OHCHR, 2008, p. 19). In the 1600s, Samis were forced to work in silver mines (Mosca, 2018, p. 39) as the state started exploiting minerals. Wages were very low and it was difficult for the indigenous populations to survive under their “heavy tax burden” (OHCHR, 2008, p. 19).

The 17th century marked a period of “more active colonization” during which the state “tried to attract settlers from the South and the Coast” (OHCHR, 2008, p. 19). State institutions such as the judiciary gradually became more favourable to the settlers than to Lapland’s primary habitants.  As settlers were “forcing the Sami out”, another type of actors began arriving on the Artic lands: Christian missionaries were mandated to evangelize the “pagan savages” (Mattson, 2014, p. 10).

In the 19th century most of the Swedish Sami policy aimed at defining what good reindeer husbandry was, in order to manage conflicts of interest between the reindeer herders and the rest of the populations, “on the assumption that deer were causing damage to the property of resident populations” (OHCHR, 2008, p. 20). The 1886 Reindeer Grazing Act thus granted special rights to full-time reindeer herders on lands that were now considered Crown Property (Nilsson, 2019, p. 9). The Act introduced the conception that “genuine Saamis” were nomadic herders only. As Lindqvist (2009) explains, non-reindeer herders thus lost their rights as an indigenous people. The 1928 Reindeer Grazing Act added to the definition that one should belong to a Sami village in order to be defined as such. Even today, “only a person who is member of Sámi reindeer herding village (also known as “sameby” in Swedish) has reindeer herding rights” (, 2021). In addition, the 1886 law and subsequent legislation introduced gendered inequalities, by making Sami women’s legal status dependent on the men’s (OHCHR, 2008, p. 21) Such laws, engrained in conceptions of Sami cultural inferiority, were taken about them, without including them in the debates (OHCHR, 2008, p. 21) As Mattson puts it: “the iconic feature of Lappishness – nomadic reindeer pastoralism – was the product of contact with the Swedish state”.

In the state’s understanding, reindeer herding, which was to be preserved as a unique culture, was “incompatible with civilisation” (OHCHR, 2008, p. 20). The school system was thus reorganized to separate children of nomadic Samis from the rest of the population (including children of sedentary Sami families).The former did not enjoy as high a level of education as other children. In addition, they were not taught certain subjects, which barred them from accessing higher education (Gerdner, 2020, p. 5). Forest and domiciled Sami, for their part, were not considered genuine Sami and therefore “had to attend the same schools as Swedish children” (OHCHR, 2008, p. 21). The situation of the Samis in Sweden illustrates how ethnicity is the product of social engineering: it is created through state institutions, in particular education (Mukdawan, 2021). Furthermore, such developments created the conditions for non-reindeer herders to be assimilated into Swedish society (Morkenstam et al, 2020, p. 10; Gernder, 2020, p. 6). At the turn of the 20th century, the Swedish Empire definitely fell. Finland had been lost to the Russian Empire in 1809 and the Union between Sweden Norway was dissolved in 1905, each party becoming its own independent state (Royal House of Norway, 2021). Sami people were thus divided according to nationalities but they retained the right to follow their herds irrespective of borders. However, such rights were not respected and herd transfers between countries were banned (Gerdner, 2020, p. 4). In 1919, Samis of the north of Sweden were forcibly relocated between 600 and 1000 kilometers south, creating tensions between newcomers and the already present South Sami (Gerdner, 2020, p. 4).

The 19th century also saw the rise of the modern nation-state (Mattson, 2014, p. 3). As multiethnic empires (such as Swedish former “multiethnic Baltic conglomeration”) collapsed, states developed central institutions that would assimilate parts of their population to achieve a desired homogeneity (Mattson, 2014, p. 3; Anderson, 2006, p. 4). To ensure its survival, the nation had to be united under a unique culture (Anderson, 2006, p. 4). One of the means to construct such homogeneity was through science. Nation states started classifying their populations according to biological features, under the assumption that “the observable world consisted of discrete elements whose essential characteristics could be identified and then used for systematic classifications” (Keyes, 2002 p. 4). Ethnic classifications were therefore an integral part of nation-building projects: national governments would take the majority group’s identity to build the national identity (Prasit, 2021).

This national identity, shaped, among other things, by history and language, has often excluded other groups. Until the 20th century, Samis were referred to as “Lapps” by scientists and the general Swedish population (Mattson, 2014, p. 8). Swedish scientist Carl von Linnaeus played a key role in the development of human biology (Keyes, 2002, p. 4) and theories of race. Race biology was popular in Sweden in the late 1800s – early 1900s and the discipline earned it international academic prestige (OHCHR, 2008, p. 20). Swedish racial identity was crafted through its Lapp minority (Mattson, 2014, p. 3). As Samis posed a threat to a racially homogenous Sweden, they were subsequently conceived as a separate and genetically inferior race. Some even saw Lapps, due partly to their short height as “a degeneration that occurred in climatic extremes” (Mattson, 2014, p. 12). “Lappology”, the study of Lapps defined Swedes a contrario: they were not “nomadic, superstitious, uncivilized, wretched, weak…” Samis thus represented the indispensable “other” through which the self is defined. Scientists’ exoticist gazes have viewed Samis with a mixture of suspicion, admiration and disdain. The Lapp race was placed, if not at the very bottom of the racial, cultural and social hierarchy, at least below “modern” and “cultured” Swedes (Idevall Hagren, 2020, p. 9). “Defining the Lapp”, therefore, “was the foil against which to imagine a homogenous Sweden” (Mattson, 2014, p. 4).

Discrimination, oppression, identity and self-determination

All four countries on which territory’s Samis are living have failed to fulfill Sami people’s human rights (IGWIA, 2021). The northern people have faced centuries of colonization, discrimination and forced assimilation into national cultures. Sami people have lost their lands and are struggling to gain recognition of their land rights (Keskinen et al, 2019). Industrial projects, in particular in the mining industry, are also having an impact on reindeer herding and Sami broader lifestyle) (A Stoor et al, 2015, p. 5). Wind farms have been implanted on Sami sacred sites without their free prior informed consent (FPIC) (IGWIA, 2021). FPIC is a specific right, part of the universal right to self-determination, recognized to indigenous peoples. It allows them to give or withhold consent to a project that may affect them or their territories and renders their consultation and approval obligatory for a project to be carried out. On top of that, climate change is further threatening Sami livelihoods, “cultural practices” and “very survival” (Chatterjee, 2021).

Decades of negative stereotyping of Sami people are resurfacing as they experience structural discrimination. They, for instance, have a harder time accessing the housing or employment market than Swedes (OHCHR, 2008, p. 34). Moreover, it is not uncommon for the Artic peoples to receive abusing comments and experience harassment connected to their ethnic background. On top of that, Samis find themselves “in positions of dependence” vis-a-vis state authorities (OHCHR, 2018, p. 28). Bans of Sami languages in schools have resulted in great losses of mother tongue fluency (OHCHR, 2008, p. 40). Despite Swedish authorities’ attempts to fulfill Sami language rights stemming from their national minority status, many “experience difficulties in mother tongue teaching” (OHCHR, 2008, p. 24). The gradual diminution of Sami languages speakers participates in the perception that Sami identity as endangered. According to Malmqvist (2019, p. 20), Sami identity, while representing a great source of pride, is seen as a fragile heritage put at jeopardy by climate change and modernization (Malmqvist, 2021, p. 40). Such “social suffering” (Cohen & Lyttleton, 2008, p. 1) and a sense of identity loss can have deadly consequences. The two phenomena are among the main causes of suicide in Sami communities, who have higher suicide rates than the rest of the Swedish population (A Stoor et al, 2015, p.2). The youth – who is developing a sense of double-ethnicity and may to define itself in a globalized world – as well as reindeer herders, are particularly vulnerable to suicidal attempts (A Stoor et al, 2015, p. 4).

While human rights violations can be the result of both commissions and omissions, (AIPP, 2015, p. 22), it seems that, in the case of Sweden, most human rights arise from the state’s inability or unwillingness to take sufficient measures to ensure Sami people’s well-being. Sweden has recognized Sami people as both a national minority and an indigenous people (in 1977). However, it has not ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, where most of indigenous peoples’ rights are enshrined (, 2021). Besides, Swedish policies related to the Sami people are based on their status as a national minority rather than an indigenous people with the right to self-determination (OHCHR, 2008, p. 16). With the development of human rights law, United Nations entities focusing on issues of importance to indigenous peoples as well as the constitution of a transnational indigenous movement, the world has witnessed an increasing Sami poltical self-consciousness (Mattson, 2014, p. 17). Greater Sami self-definition was reflected in language, as “Samis” came to replace “Lapps” in the media and official publications (Mattson, 2014, p. 17). Moreover, Sami people have been winning legal cases related to their land rights and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is in the process of being set up, on the model of Norway’s (IGWIA, 2021). Sami political institutions also emerged at the end of the 20th century. A Sami Parliament (“Samediggi” in Sami languages) has been instituted in Sweden in 1993.The popular elected body was set up so that Saami people can take care of certain matters independently (, 2021). However, critics denounce its status of state agency placed under Stockholm’s control that lacks real political influence (Nilsson, 2019, p. 10). The Sami Parliament is not an organ for self-determination, but rather for the promotion of Sami culture ( Moreover, there have been debates as to who should be able to vote in the Sami Parliament (Nilsson, 2019, p. 6). Two criteria are usually invoked: reindeer herding as well as the ability to speak Sami as native language (Nilsson, 2019, p.6). This raises questions about what constitutes ethnic identity. It also revives discussions about indigeneity and what constitutes it: Geertzian “primordial attachments” (Geertz, 1983); the practice of certain aspects of traditional culture; a set of core norm and values (Ke Jung, 2021)? In addition, a transnational Nordic Sámi Convention has also been drafted between 2005 and 2017, with the aim of “safeguarding and developing the autonomous bodies, livelihoods, culture, languages and way of life of the Sami population with the lowest possible interference of the imposition of national borders” (IGWIA, 2021). The Convention, however, has not yet been adopted by the concerned states.

  1. Research questions and objectives:

This paper aims at examining the conditions of Sami people in Sweden. How have Sami communities historically been treated? If, even in the context of a democratic society with high levels of social welfare, indigenous peoples are experiencing discrimination, how does it manifest in the Swedish case? In addition, how do Sami people currently conceive their identity and right to self-determination? Lastly, how do Sami people challenge the myth of a homogenous Sweden?

  1. Key findings

Even a state erected as a model for the well-being of its population has its share of human rights violation and harmful practices towards indigenous peoples. Sami people in Sweden have undergone centuries-long colonisation, oppression and discrimination. The Artic Peoples have been framed as the inferior other enabling the constitution as a Swedish national identity. In an ambiguous process, the state has made sure to separate Samis from Swedes, while also attempting to assimilate and “swedify” the former. That is, because Sami people challenge the myth of the homogenous nation many modern states are built upon. Besides, saminess has been constructed by the state, mostly in connection with reindeer herding. Despite relatively recent political and legal developments, Sami’s right to self-determination is still far from being fulfilled.

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