The Sami are arguably the only indigenous people within the European Union. They are concentrated in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They share a common language and distinguishable traditions dating back thousands of years. The Sami heritage became threatened when Finland started rebuilding herself after the Second World War with the ambition of forging “one people, one language, one nation.” Lapland, the northern part of Finland, an extremely rural part of the country, was in dire need of modernisation in order to achieve this goal. These Finnish policies had a direct impact on the Sami communities in the country, as families were converted to a Finnish culture, language, and lifestyle. The Sami were seen as a barbaric people at the time, and many were forced to abandon their old traditional ways of life. This has been a hushed topic in Finland for decades, but it has recently started to gain more public interest.
A documentary called “Suomi tuli Saamenmaahan”(‘When Finland came to Samiland’), released in 2011, included interviews and stories of people who went through the process of changing their identities. Sami children had to face a completely new environment, while many were bullied by their Finnish classmates. The collision with Finish ways of life was a shock for the entire Sami culture, and the language was not given any rights in the country; Sami children were sent to boarding schools and were not permitted to speak their mother tongue even during their spare time. Many Sami people felt they were disrespected by the Finns.
In July of this year, the “Helsingin sanomat” newspaper released a story about the Sami families who took part in human exhibitions around Europe during late 19th and early 20th centuries. Very few documents related to these events have survived, but it is known for example that one of the exhibitions took place in the Hamburg zoo in Germany.Professor Veli-Pekka Lehtola (a specialist on Sami culture and history) states that even though colonialism and racism were strong concepts at that time, the Sami families volunteered to leave, receiving money and interesting experiences in return. The exhibitions were criticised, at least to some extent, but shows kept on going right until Hitler took his place as chancellor of Germany in 1933.
Today, Sami traditions are under a threat of extinction, but various methods have been employed to keep their culture alive. For example, there are specialised schools teaching Sami language for children and anyone interested. The movement for Sami education started in the 1970s and has grown slowly but steadily ever since. People with Sami family roots are still interested in the Sami culture and their origins. However, many families have migrated southwards, becoming more urbanised and losing parts of their Sami identity on the way. Over half of the children speaking the Sami language live outside the original Sami living area, and teaching the language in southern Finland is rather rare. It will be impossible to revive the language if it is not taught properly through education and gets completely lost by a single generation.
Critics have raised a question: Finland apologised for its mistakes concerning the Second World War, but will she apologise for the fate of the Sami people? In April 2012 Finland’s new president Sauli Niinistö faced issues concerning the Sami people and the principles of the ILO convention, which demands for identification of indigenous peoples and their lands. The agreement has not been ratified in Finland despite years of struggling as the rights of Sami landownership remain unclear. The intentions of strengthening Sami rights have given rise to anti-Sami movements, while president Niinistö points out that the ILO agreement is hard to be followed in today’s Finland as it was designed for helping former colonies, and that the process is going to be extremely slow.
For more information on the Sami people see The Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at http://www.galdu.org/