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One last chance (Part 2)

Part Thirty-five of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.

There are between 14,600 and 36,000 Sami in Sweden. Most Sami live in the north, but there are Sami all over Sweden. Today, only ten per cent of Swedish Sami earn a living from the reindeer industry, and many combine their family businesses with tourism, fishing, crafts and other trades.

Changes in grazing rights and logging territories have historically been a dispute between reindeer herders and landowners in Sweden. In 2011 the Swedish Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Sami, recognising them common law rights to a specific area of land – possibly the most important modern verdict regarding Sami issues of law.

A sameby – ‘Sami village’- is not a traditional village but a complex economical and administrative union created with the intention of keeping reindeer. It is regulated by a Swedish law called the Reindeer Husbandry Act. Members of a sameby are entitled to engage in reindeer husbandry in a particular area, including building and setting up whatever facilities they need for their reindeer, in addition to fishing and hunting rights.

Towards the end of the 19th century, many Sami permanently kept both farms and reindeer – mixed husbandry. The previous nomadic lifestyles of some, however, led the authorities to make some contentious decisions, the repercussions of which extended well into the twentieth century. The reindeer pasture law of 1928 limited reindeer ownership and membership in any Sami village to herders and their families. The new restrictions forced mixed husbandry farmers to choose between reindeer herding only or other forms of agriculture.

Today, younger generations are finding other professions, and the Sami are trying to ease the regulations so people can belong to a Sami village without having to own reindeer.

Sami is one of five national minority languages recognised by Swedish law.

The Sami’s own languages stretch across Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. Sami is divided into three main languages: Eastern Sami, Central Sami and Southern Sami. These languages are further divided into nine distinct variants.

The Central Sami language comes in two varieties: North Sami in the northernmost area, and Lule Sami around Jokkmokk, Gällivare and parts of Tysfjord in Norway. The North Sami variety has the most speakers with an estimated 15,000-17,000 native speakers across the Sápmi region. Of that estimate, roughly 5,000-6,000 are based in Sweden. Over time, North Sami spread into areas where Lule Sami and Southern Sami are spoken as a result of governmental relocation of the Northern Sami people to these areas during the 1930s.

Southern Sami and Lule Sami are spoken on both sides of the Swedish–Norwegian border from Arjeplog-Saltfjäll in the north to Idre and Røros in the south. Southern Sami and Lule Sami are both estimated to have around 500 speakers each in Sweden.

The Sami languages are rich. There are, for instance, more than 300 different ways of saying ‘snow’ – from describing sticky snow to snow which looks like powdered sugar. Yet, despite its abundance of descriptive words, the language is genderless; for example, the personal pronoun son can mean her and him, as well as an animal or an object.

Written Sami was not linked to the Swedish alphabet until 1950. It was then also given an additional seven letters, pronounced with lisping sounds not found in Swedish. Sami became a subject at Swedish schools as late as 1962, and guidelines for the language’s orthography were not printed until 1979. These are some reasons why many older Sami today can neither read nor write their own language.

In 2000 the Sami language was recognised as an official minority language in Sweden, and the government has given the Sami parliament (Sametinget) greater influence and financial resources to preserve the Sami language.

The Compulsory School Ordinance provides that Sami pupils are entitled to be taught in their native language; however, a municipality is obliged to arrange mother-tongue teaching in Sami only if a suitable teacher is available and the pupil has a basic knowledge of Sami.

For schoolchildren up to the age of 12, there are five Sami schools in Sweden, in Karesuando, Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Tärnaby in southern Sápmi. Sami childcare also helps maintain the Sami language and pass it on to the younger generation, and is offered in some municipalities.

In Sweden academic courses in the Sami language can be taken at Umeå and Uppsala universities. The Centre for Sami Research, CeSam, in Umeå coordinates research into Sami culture, language, history and communities, and initiates new research.

The Sami political struggle for increased influence and autonomy began in the 1950s with the establishment of Sami associations.

Sweden recognised the existence of the ‘Sami nation’ in 1989, but the I.L.O. Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169 has not been adopted. In 1998 Sweden formally apologised for the wrongs committed against the Sami.

The Sameting Law (Sametingslag) set up the Swedish Sami Parliament as of 1 January 1993. At present there are eight political parties within the Sami Parliament of Sweden (Sametinget) and the Sami are largely represented through four stakeholder organisations: the Sami Council (Samerådet), two national federations (R.S.Ä. and S.S.R.) and a youth organisation, Saminuorra. These focus on different areas of interest and might best be described as lobby organisations.

As of 1993 the Sami have elected their own parliamentary body, Sametinget, by popular vote. Its task is to safeguard, develop and coordinate all matters concerning Sami areas of interest.

Elections to the Sami Parliament are held every four years. The parliament has 31 members who gather three times a year in different locations around Sweden. The parliament also serves as a government agency with 50 civil servants. Over the years, the political parties have changed, both in policy and number. The Sami Parliament is financed by grants from the Swedish Government and has one full-time politician, the assembly chair.

Those on the Sami electoral register – open to those who speak Sami and define themselves as part of Sami society through cross-generational connections – are eligible to vote. The numbers registering to vote have increased in recent years, not least because of a growing interest in political issues among young Sami and a growing willingness among older Sami to embrace their ethnicity. (Sametinget, Giron/Kiruna, kansli@sametinget.se).

The Sami Parliament has expressed its wish to build a Sami-influenced parliament building in Kiruna. Among the various issues, one goal unites all the political parties: greater autonomy. At present, the Parliament is empowered only to deal with matters concerning hunting and fishing, reindeer herding, compensation for damage caused by predators, and Sami language and culture.

The Sami Parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden have drawn up a joint Nordic convention to strengthen their position as a minority people and influence decisions on Sami-related matters. The convention has not yet been approved by the Nordic governments.

A government bill, Strategy for the National Minorities, proposed in 2010, has created opportunities for the Sami people to care for their culture, traditions and language by designating certain municipalities as administrative centres. Minority reform is important because it also provides financial resources to help preserve minority languages. Nineteen municipalities have been selected to protect, promote, retain and develop Sami culture, and to form consultative groups.

Since 2010, and after 14 years of negotiation, Laponiatjuottjudus, an association with Sami majority control, governs the U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Site Laponia. The reindeer-herding law will apply in the area as well.

* * * * *

There are about 2,000 Sami in Russia. In Soviet times the inhabitants of the Kola tundra were forcibly relocated to kolkhozes (collective farms) by decision the state; most Saami were settled at Lovozero: in Russian (in Northern Sami: Lujávri; in Finnish: Luujärvi), which is a selo, rural locality, and the administrative centre of the Lovozersky District in Murmansk Oblast – region, some 164 kilometres southeast of Murmansk, the administrative centre of the Oblast.

An 1822 Statute of Administration of Non-Russians in Siberia decreed the state ownership over all the land in Siberia and then ‘granted’ possessory rights to the natives. Governance of Indigenous groups, and especially collection of taxes from them, necessitated protection of Indigenous Peoples against exploitation by traders and newcomers.

Russia has not adopted the I.L.O. Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169.

The 1993 Constitution, Article 69, provides: “The Russian Federation guarantees the rights of small indigenous peoples in accordance with the generally accepted principles and standards of international law and international treaties of the Russian Federation.” For the first time in Russia, the rights of Indigenous minorities were established.

The Russian Federation ratified the 1966 U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Russian Parliament has adopted partial measures to implement it.

The Russian Federation acknowledges that distinct Indigenous Peoples have special rights and protections under the Constitution and federal laws and decrees. These rights are linked to the category known since Soviet times as the malochislennye narody (“small-numbered peoples”), a term which is often translated as “indigenous minorities”, and which includes Arctic peoples such as the Sami, Nenets, Evenki, and Chukchi.

In April 1999 the Russian parliament passed a law which guarantees socio-economic and cultural development to all Indigenous minorities, protecting traditional living places and acknowledging some form of limited ownership of territories which have traditionally been used for hunting, herding, fishing, and gathering activities. The law, however, does not anticipate the transfer of title to Indigenous minorities. The law does not recognise development rights, some proprietary rights including compensation for damage to the property, and limited exclusionary rights. It is not clear, however, whether protection of nature in the traditional places of inhabitation implies a right to exclude conflicting uses which are destructive to nature or whether the Indigenous minorities have the right to veto development.

The Russian Federation’s Land Code reinforces the rights of Indigenous minorities to use places they have historically inhabited and to continue traditional economic activities without being charged rent. Such lands cannot be allocated for unrelated activities, which might include oil, gas, and mineral development or tourism, without the consent of the Indigenous Peoples. Furthermore, Indigenous minorities and ethnic groups are allowed to use environmentally protected lands and lands set aside as nature preserves to engage in their traditional ways of land use.

The Code of the Murmansk Oblast calls on the State organs of the Oblast to facilitate the native peoples of the Kola North, specifically naming the Sami, “in realisation of their rights for preservation and development of their native language, national culture, traditions and customs.”

Throughout the Russian North, Indigenous Peoples have suffered difficulties in exercising control over resources upon which they and their ancestors have depended for centuries. The failure to protect indigenous ways, however, stems not from inadequacy of the written law, but rather from the failure to implement existing laws. Unfortunately, violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples continue, and oil, gas and mineral development and other activities – such as mining, timber cutting, commercial fishing – and tourism which bring foreign currency to the Russian economy have prevailed over the rule of law.

Way of life and economy of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North rely upon reindeer herding, fishing, terrestrial and sea mammal hunting, and trapping. Many groups in the Russian Arctic are semi-nomadic, moving seasonally to different hunting and fishing camps. These groups depend upon different conditions of the environment at differing times of the year, rather than upon exploiting a single commodity. Throughout north-western Siberia, oil and gas development has disturbed pastureland and undermined the ability of Indigenous Peoples to continue hunting, fishing, trapping, and herding activities. Roads constructed in connection with oil and gas exploration and development destroy and degrade pastureland, ancestral burial grounds, and sacred sites and increase hunting by oil workers on the territory used by Indigenous Peoples.

In the Sami homeland on the Kola Peninsula in north-western Russia, regional authorities closed an eighty-kilometre stretch of the Ponoi River (and other rivers) to local fishing, and granted exclusive fishing rights to the Ponoi River Company, an enterprise offering catch-and-release fishing to sport fishers largely from abroad. This deprived the local Sami – otherwise protected by Article 21 of the Code of the Murmansk Oblast – of food for their families and community and of their traditional economic livelihood. Thus, closing the fishery to locals may have violated the directives given by the U.N. Human Rights Committee and disregarded the Land Code, other legislative acts, and the 1992 Presidential decree. Sami are not only forbidden to fish in the eighty-kilometre stretch leased to the Ponoi River Company but are also required by regional laws to pay for licenses to catch a limited number of fish outside the lease area. Residents of remote communities have neither the power nor the resources to demand enforcement of their rights. Here and elsewhere in the circumpolar north, the failure to apply laws for the protection of Indigenous Peoples amounts to a criminal offence of the local Indigenous populations, who otherwise could not survive without ‘poaching’ resources which should be accessible to them exclusively.

Indigenous leaders in Russia have occasionally confirmed Indigenous rights to land and resources, but to date there has been no serious or sustained discussion of Indigenous group rights to ownership of land.

On 16 November 2005 in Helsinki, a group of experts, led by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Norway Professor Carsten Smith, submitted a proposal for a Nordic Sami Convention to the annual joint meeting of the ministers responsible for Sami affairs in Finland, Norway and Sweden and the presidents of the three Sami Parliaments from the respective countries. This convention would recognise the Sami as one Indigenous People residing across national borders in all three countries. A set of minimum standards was proposed for the rights of developing the Sami language and culture and rights to land and water, livelihoods and society. The convention has not yet been ratified by all the Nordic countries.

Continued Monday with: A movement of people in Australia (Part 1)

Previous instalment: One last chance (Part 1)

Dr Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents.




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1 comment

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  1. Wam

    Dear georgio,
    I read this post early and it has tumbled around in my head all day. Most of your words have gone over my head but it seems the sami people were nomadic herders bordersless and are struggling everywhere to maintain some connection with their traditions. Russia has just caught up with the nords and imposed conditions on the Sami. Perhaps they will succeed in settling???

    50 years ago I visited Taiwan and saw the way the invaders lived and the indigenous. Awful, a bit like the Sami in Norway/Sweden???

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