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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Indigenous Sami Fight For Ancestral Lands in Europe by Karl Ritter


Squinting in the horizontal rays from the barely rising winter sun, Hans-Goeran Partapuoli scans knee-deep snow for prints from lynx or wolverine, traditional enemies of his reindeer.

It's mostly out of habit. Nowadays, the greatest dangers to his 1,500 reindeer are cars, trains and snowmobiles crisscrossing the frozen wilderness near Kiruna, a mining town 93 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

"The worst predator is the Swede," the 45-year-old herdsman says, watching a dozen reindeer poke their furry muzzles into glistening snow.

His words reflect deeply rooted feelings of mistrust among the Sami, a once nomadic people scattered across Lapland _ or Sapmi, as they call it _ a region that spans the far north of Sweden, Norway and Finland and the northwestern corner of Russia.

The Sami, previously known as Lapps, have preserved their own language and traditions despite efforts by governments of the Nordic nations to assimilate them. They have abandoned the nomadic lifestyle and wear their brightly colored garb and plumed hats mostly on special occasions, but they have their own flag and national anthem, both created in 1986.

Although awareness and respect for Sami culture have grown in recent decades, disputes over land ownership and hunting and fishing rights still fray Sami relations with descendants of Norse and Finnish settlers.

"The problem is that Sweden hasn't come to terms with its colonial past," says Lars-Anders Baer, a member of Sweden's semiautonomous Sami Parliament. The assembly decides on issues affecting Sami language and culture, but is subordinate to the central government in Stockholm.

Baer compares the situation of the 80,000 Sami, most of whom live in Norway and Sweden, to that of American Indians _ both pushed off their lands by European settlers and often oppressed by colonizers.

Rather than establish reservations for Sami, the Nordic governments sought to absorb them. Norway discouraged reindeer herding and banned the Sami language in schools until the 1960s. Today, only about 10 percent of the Sami herd reindeer.

The Nordic governments now embrace Sami culture as part of their own heritage.

Sweden formally apologized in 1998 for wrongs committed against the Sami and recognized Sami as a minority language the following year.

Finland amended its constitution in 1996 to grant further autonomy to the Sami, including the right to use the Sami language, which is related to Finnish, when dealing with the government. In Finnish Lapland, where the government owns almost all land, an effort is under way to give some of it back to the Sami.

Yet Finland, Sweden and Norway _ diligent critics of human rights abuses around the world _ are routinely accused by the United Nations of not respecting the rights of their own indigenous minority. Sweden and Finland haven't signed the U.N. convention on the rights of indigenous people; Norway has.

At issue is the Sami claim to the mountains, lakes and forests they inhabited long before the Nordic kingdoms emerged in the Viking era. The Sami's geographic origin remains unclear, but they are considered one of Europe's oldest ethnic groups.

In Sweden, disputes flare up every year when tens of thousands of reindeer trek between winter and summer grazing grounds, crossing mostly uninhabited tundra but also private land used for farming and forestry.

Staffan Sandstroem, a farmer in Aamsele, 460 miles north of Stockholm, says he loses a fifth of his animal fodder crop to migrating reindeer every year. He complains that neither the herdsmen nor local authorities take his concerns seriously.

"As soon as there's a conflict, it's called racism. That's just rubbish," Sandstroem says.

Foresters contend they suffer substantial economic losses from reindeer stomping on and chewing newly planted trees.

Herdsmen dispute their reindeer cause extensive damage to crops or forest.

In the southern part of Swedish Lapland, landowners say reindeer owners have pushed far beyond traditional grazing grounds by using modern herding methods _ traveling by snowmobile and helicopter instead of on skis.

"The reindeer industry can't just expand unfettered. If we are to have reindeer on our land, it has to be done in a reasonable manner," says Jan Salomonsson, chairman of a coalition of landowners who won a lawsuit against Sami herdsmen in central Sweden's Haerjedalen province.

A 1996 ruling that herdsmen in had no historical rights to use private properties as grazing grounds in Haerjedalen angered Sami. They have pressed an appeal to the Supreme Court, which is expected to decide this summer whether to hear the case.

The court's decision could affect six similar cases pending around Sweden and, if the ruling is upheld, force herdsmen to keep reindeer off private land.

Joergen Bohlin, a lawyer for herdsmen, said that would make raising reindeer impossible in some areas.

Sami say reindeer herding produces only limited income from reindeer meat, hides and antlers crafted into knife handles.

Many herdsmen now take tourists on guided snowmobile or cross-country ski trips to boost earnings. They sleep in traditional Sami tents, marvel at the northern lights and ice-fish on Lapland's pristine lakes and rivers.

Partapuoli says he started guiding tourists after exceptionally harsh winters killed off half his reindeer herd. He even tried working as a steel cutter in Kiruna.

"Just one day _ then I quit," he says, laughing. "I couldn't stand the fumes, the noise and the dirt. I just wanted to get back out into the fresh air."

This article was first published by the Associated Press


Tuesday, March 16, 2004

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