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Aspects of the History of the Sami People in Northern Europe


History is a problematic field of study, and the farther back in time we delve, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction. Another complicating factor is that northern Scandinavia has still not been fully investigated by archaeologists, which is why a very considerable amount of research remains to be done, particularly as regards the very early history of the region. Another cause for uncertainty in the case of Sami history is the fact that occasional visitors have recorded it in the form of rather rudimentary notes; the Sami themselves have thus been described and interpreted largely by outsiders, not by themselves from their own perspective. Another problem is that Sami history appears in a seemingly infinite number of variations; south and north, east and west are very different, which is why it is very difficult to talk about what is "typically Sami" or universally applicable in an historical sense, other than by making a series of broad generalisations.

History is not an exact science. Its inquiry is based instead on incomplete fragments, interpretations and a number of more or less credible sources that, for one reason or another, have survived over the centuries. Just how representative they are is often a point of contention. A further limitation lies with the author. My knowledge is mainly of conditions in Sweden, which is why this text is principally concerned with the Swedish situation. To a certain degree, it addresses patterns of a more general nature, for example as regards latterday Sami political mobilisation in Sweden as well as in other northern European countries. Bearing these reservations in mind, we begin our journey back in time.

Early history

Just after the birth of Christ, the Fenni roamed the wide expanses of much of what is now Arctic Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula. They hunted, fished and lived on what nature could provide. They owned no land, nor did they cultivate the soil. About five centuries later one of the tribes was referred to as the Skridfinnar, and they were considered the wildest of all the wild peoples of the North, reputedly subsisting on nothing but meat. There are a number of theories about how the land became inhabited: one is that people migrated westward from what is now Russia; another is that they moved successively northward along the Norwegian coast, and a third is that people even migrated northward along the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia. These theories need not necessarily contradict one another – they may all have a degree of relevance in different areas.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages these unclaimed lands were claimed as the possessions of nations or kingdoms. In Sweden these lands were divided up into the Ume, Pite, Lule, and Torne Lappmarker and taxes were collected by the birkarlar, traders who lived along the Baltic coast. In the Ume Lappmark the Sami paid taxes directly to the kings, but elsewhere the birkarlar had a monopoly on trade with the Sami and taxation until the1500s. King Gustav Vasa took a further step towards Swedish ownership of this unclaimed territory when he claimed it all as Crown land. He decreed this in a letter to the Hälsingar, but was later interpreted as having claimed all of Norrland. This was the accepted historical truth well into the 1900s.

Subsequent research has revealed, however, that many of these supposedly unclaimed lands already had Sami owners; the territory had long been divided into distinct taxation districts to which individual Sami laid claim. The basis of the Sami society was the siida, i.e., the family unit, and several family groups formed a Lapp village. The Lapp villages were also divided by boundaries. For purposes of collective taxation, each Lapp village was a single entity.

The land was thus occupied long before agricultural colonisation began. One must bear in mind that the area was very sparsely populated, and that it would soon become apparent that it could support many times the number of people who already lived there.

Colonisation and reindeer herding

Domestic reindeer herding and Lappmark agriculture increased in scale at about the same time. The former began to grow in the southern Lappmark in the 1500s and spread northward and southward. However, as early as the 1300s some Sami kept a few tame reindeer, partly as a means of attracting wild reindeer. Compared to today’s herds, their numbers were insignificant. One source tells us that during the 1600s, the richest Sami in the Västerbotten village of Storuman had 60 reindeer. Among the Sami, reindeer herding was merely one means of livelihood among many others and many Sami eventually turned to agriculture. In many areas the majority of settlers were Sami who for one reason or another had established permanent dwellings. For survival, hunting and fishing were by far the most important pursuits, and such was the case well into the 1900s. It was also common practice for permanent settlers, both Swedes and Finns who had moved into the area, as well as Sami, to keep several reindeer. Similarly, the reindeer-herding Sami often had a few goats, a cow or some sheep that were looked after by permanent settlers during certain times of the year when their owners were away with their reindeer herds. In exchange for their services, the settlers were given reindeer cheese and other reindeer products. People developed a mutual interdependence, and ties were formed in different ways. In the parish of Tärna it was common during the decades around the turn of the last century for reindeer-herding Sami and homesteaders to be the godparents of each other’s children, which bonded the families so closely together that the children regarded each other as half siblings. The cultures influenced and enriched each other.

Certainly, there were conflicts between reindeer-herders and farmers in situations where they both required the use of the same land or water, but one cannot speak of ethnic conflicts in any sense. It was more a matter of economic agreements. These can be traced back to the so-called parallel theory, whereby reindeer herding and agriculture were presumed to have utilised separate types of natural resources, and did not therefore conflict. But this did not hold over the long term. All went well as long as reindeer herds were small and agriculture remained small-scale. But as the population increased, so did competition over natural resources. That both forms of livelihood survived despite the competition just shows that plenty of resources remained unexploited. Tornedalen, for example, has some of Sweden’s most fertile land, which is why the view that the prerequisites for agriculture did not exist is simply not true. The only climatological limitation existed in the high fell country, where it was not possible to grow grain, though these regions could support dairy and meat production. The land, game and fish could feed a much larger population than anyone could have imagined. Water meadowing, first implemented in the early 1800s, meant a giant leap forward for agricultural production. By damming streams to flood meadows, huge crops of hay could be harvested without encroaching on the grazing lands of the reindeer. From a longer, more local perspective, the conflicts of the past have often been exaggerated in present-day historical debate. The norms were probably friendship, co-operation, family and strong ties. Whether someone was called Sami or Swede was probably of very little consequence. The important thing was to lend a hand, since people depended on each other for survival.

What is Sami?

Therefore, the notion that ‘Sami’ is synonymous with ‘reindeer herder’ and ‘homesteader’ is synonymous with ‘Swedish settler’ is a latter-day myth that lacks any real basis in history. This myth has become a prevalent notion, above all in the Swedish view of history. It originates partly in the enumeration of the Lappmark population that was a consequence of the grazing laws (1886, 1898, 1928), which meant that only reindeer owners could be classified as Sami. Other Sami became Swedes in a single legal pen-stroke, with the loss of identity and rights as a consequence. And in time, perplexed by economics, reindeer herding became a heavily subsidised, large-scale ranching operation to which a couple of thousand owners cling with every argument they can muster. It is their lot to overemphasise a Sami identity, granted to them exclusively by the state and emerging out of a very limited period in history during the late 1800s and early 1900s when Sami politics was marked by racism. All for the purpose of defending a position and securing the means to save what can be saved of a troubled way of life. It is understandable – each must see to his own – but increasing tension is the result, both among the Sami people and between the reindeer-herding industry and other economic interests.

We know from church records and other documents that a very considerable cultural intermingling occurred over a 400-year period in the mountain regions. Love, as we know, knows no boundaries; men and women of different ethnic origins have given rise to families in which cultures have merged and melded. It is very difficult to establish, at a purely cultural level, who is Sami, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish or Russian. This is further complicated by the fact that ethnic identity is an illusory concept that has changed many times over the years.

Ethnicity can be difficult to define. Attempts were made early in the 20th century to classify different ethnic groups according to language, but since many Sami no longer spoke the Sami language, particularly in the southern regions of the reindeer-herding zone, this became problematic. During the 1920s and 1930s the Swedish central bureau of statistics (SCB) attempted to distinguish between Swedes, Sami and Finns by seeking to establish their origins. The project failed when it became apparent that people had intermarried so many times over such a long period that this method was impracticable. Nor was it possible to classify people according to livelihood, since census showed that 55.6 per cent of Sami were dependent on work other than reindeer herding, e.g. agriculture. How, indeed, could it be possible to arrive at this figure? Later, the SCB (now known as Statistics Sweden) tried to introduce terms such as "tribe" and "full blood Lapp" and "half Lapp" – an attempt that was also doomed to failure, even though "experts" were brought in from what was then known as Rasbiologiska Institutet (the Institute of Racial Biology). "If one did not bear in mind the racio-political tragedies of the 1930s, the ongoing attempts to identify ‘tribes’ would seem merely comical," writes historian Lennart Lundmark in Så länge vi har marker. After the World War II and the Holocaust, racial biology fell into disfavour, and classification attempts using biological guidelines were replaced by other models that perceived ethnicity as something that is more a matter of personal choice. If you feel Sami, then you are Sami. But social development is dynamic, people move, change jobs, marry spouses from other countries, which is why all attempts at establishing ethnicity are very difficult and in many cases impossible. Under the current Swedish policy, franchise in Sami parliamentary elections is decided on the basis of language. The second paragraph of the law pertaining to the Sami parliament states:

"Sami, under this law, is any person who considers themselves to be Sami, and

1. can establish beyond reasonable doubt that he or she has spoken the Sami language at home, or

2. can establish beyond reasonable doubt that one of his or her parents or grandparents has spoken the Sami language at home, or

3. has a parent that is or has been on the list of voters in a Sami parliamentary election.

When ethnicity is to be established, Sweden thereby adopts basically the same language criteria that was abandoned in the early part of the century. This policy implies that the franchise is an inherited right, in perpetuity. Whether this will stand the test of time remains to be seen, and whether it is necessarily wise to bring ethnicity and rights into the same equation is debatable; international experiences, e.g., from Bosnia, would suggest otherwise. Can any examples whatsoever be given to show that basing rights on ethnicity is advantageous in the long term?

But the Sami are not merely a minority; they are an indigenous people. Lennart Lundmark contends, "special consideration must therefore be given to their livelihood, their language and their culture, sanctioned as these are by long usage." That indigenous peoples need and have a right to protection against unfair treatment by majorities can hardly be questioned nowadays. This is generally agreed, even internationally. Article 1 of the United Nations ILO Convention 169 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples defines indigenous peoples thus: Peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions. Self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply. The use of the term "peoples" in this Convention shall not be construed as having any implications as regards the rights which may attach to the term under international law. (Article 1) The concept of indigenous peoples as a point of departure for discussions about rights is not entirely unproblematic, especially since the practical constitution and application of protective measures implies delimitation and preferential treatment in situations where other groups may also feel that they have legitimate claims to the maintenance of their own traditional lifestyle. This is even more problematic if the boundaries to be drawn are difficult to define. What is Sami and what is not? Is a reindeer herder more Sami than a hunter or a farmer? How should the Sami who have been robbed of the opportunity to maintain and develop their Sami identity by an ill-conceived and to some degree racist policy be treated? Should they be given the opportunity to regain their origins, and if so, how? The issue becomes even more complex if the concept of international law is introduced into this line of reasoning. This has its origins in the naturalist legal tradition, wherein the first notion of universal human rights was conceived. During the 1600s and 1700s, international law was developed and began to appear in legislation in many countries. Over time, distinctions between national law and international law developed. Legal positivism emerged, reflecting the compromise between, on the one hand, the actual power structure and the existing notions of justice in society at any given point in time on the other. A classic definition of the rules of legal positivism is that they are a set of commands from the powers that be that must be obeyed by subordinates under threat of reprisal. With this definition, "state" and "justice" are intimately interconnected. Positivism prevailed until World War II, until its weaknesses were revealed when it was employed by the fascists to underpin putative legal forms that helped them to "justify" internment and genocide. In the interior of Norrland the consequence of legal positivism was that it justified arbitrary treatment of the Sami and homesteaders at the hands of the State. Their understanding of what was legally justifiable was incapable of satisfactorily counterbalancing the power of central authorities.

Until World War II, international law was perceived primarily as something that concerned relations between various national states – that it also pertained to relations between an individual state and its citizens was of little relevance. After the war, the idea that all legal principles should be based on human rights and that all people have certain inviolable rights began to emerge more clearly. Consequently, a number of international conventions were formulated, one of which is ILO 169. One human right is the right to own property, which further complicates matters, since both the Sami and the Swedes in the fell country own land and have land-use rights. And it is no simple matter when all land, with or without rights, is occupied by someone who believes it is theirs. One problem is that older legal systems and notions of legal justification have created conditions that are not easily undone. Throughout the world, colonisation has been associated with oppression and brutal treatment of indigenous peoples, but it has also implied development, though not under their own terms. Eventually, the colonisers came to regard the land in which they had settled as their only homeland. This was true of whites in Africa, Spaniards and Portuguese in South America, Europeans in North America, and the Swedes in Norrland. As we have seen, the different ethnic groups have intermingled to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish one from another. What position should be adopted when growing conflicts between different groups in such areas have to be resolved? When both sides plead that their human rights or rights as indigenous peoples, or both, have been violated?

Perhaps the concept of democracy holds the solution. Once simply a matter of the right of the majority to decide over a minority, the word democracy has even come to include concepts such as freedom of speech, equality, tolerance, equality before the law and the like; all of which can be summarised in the spirit of an even older dictum, from the Sermon on the Mount: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." For those who live in the fell country and other parts of Europe’s far north, this must mean that everyone should be equally entitled to use the land and water and that distribution of natural resources should be on the basis of equality; this, in combination with mutual respect for each others needs and desires, regardless of which rights now exist and of who holds them. These rights are generally codified in the legal positivist system and spirit, which grew strong during an undemocratic period when money meant power. It is a system that history has already ruled out because of its brutality and injustice. The bottom line is the question of which moral values and ethical principles should apply.

The State and colonialism

State authorities changed their moral tune many times over the course of history, adopting different values and principles. Economic activities that were deemed at any given time to contribute most to state coffers were usually favoured. In Sweden, during the 1700s, the reindeer-herding Sami were considered most important in many areas. Pelts, fish and not least reindeer, used as pack animals in the mining industry, brought wealth to the State. At the same time, agriculture was encouraged, and during the first half of the 19th century, farming became a fat cash cow for the State. Later in that century, timber was a great source of income, which is why the forest industry was stimulated. In the early 1900s hydropower became a valuable asset to the State. The Crown was always counting coins and introducing new legislation, rules and regulations that would maximise its incomes from the far north at any given point in time.

Looking back, it is easy to see the pattern of colonialism. This pattern is especially pronounced, for example, when we investigate how land ownership was regulated during a period of land registration and conveyance. During this period, Crown lands were distinguished from the holdings of private individuals and, in some cases, properly surveyed, so that right of ownership could be established. Land registration in the interior of Norrland took place over a period of about a century and was concluded in the1920s. It is important in this context to note that this was an administrative process, i.e., state authorities made the decisions. That the separation of land holdings could be realised in this way depended on the fact that the law stated that older boundaries and property rights would apply. Before the actual land separation and conveyance process took place, registers of owners and their possessions were drawn up. This was done in Härjedalen, the State claimed its land and the freeholders were given title to theirs. The State made its land available to reindeer-herding Sami and even purchased the expansion freeholds on behalf of the reindeer herders. To this day, land separation is not contested in Härjedalen, nor is there any disagreement south of the limit of cultivation in Västerbotten.

But above the limit of cultivation in Västerbotten and Norrbotten there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the land issue. In the fell regions of both counties, no registers of original ownership had ever been drawn up prior to the separation of the lands. This was clearly a breach of the land laws and other regulations. For the mountain farmers, many of whom were Sami, the consequences were catastrophic, since all land was considered Crown land. Above the limit of cultivation in Västerbotten, the farmers were only allowed to keep about a fifth of the total acreage to which they had formerly claimed right of ownership. In Norrbotten, about 90 per cent of all land was state-owned. Just how much land in Norrbotten was originally held as Lapp taxation entitlements or by settlers has never been fully established, but it is reasonably safe to assert that it was a very large area. From the considerable volume of extant documentation surrounding the land separation and registration it is evident that various state agencies manipulated and altered the conditions so as to favour the State’s own interests. When timber increased in value, the State increased its ownership of the forests. When hydropower became valuable, the State took control of rivers with waterfalls and rapids.

At the root of all this lies legal corruption. When these thefts and outright breaches of the laws, rules and regulations were revealed, the situation was handled as if everything was in order. The argumentation was astounding: the State approved its thefts by maintaining that these expropriations had gained legal force. When it all came out in the open, complaints were dismissed on the grounds that it would be too expensive to return the stolen property. What we see here is nothing less than a scandalous miscarriage of justice. Vast tracts of land and valuable resources worth billions of kronor have been confiscated from private owners. On top of it all, government officials and politicians have slandered those who have complained, they have mislead parliament and incited the courts to commit grave infringements on the rights of claimants. In this process, the authorities, the politicians and the courts have colluded in safeguarding the interests of the State at the expense of the fellcountry farmers and the Sami. Retroactively, a series of forced juridical interpretations have been presented in order to justify what had been done and to maintain a glossy legal varnish. In a specifically Sami context, we see an eventual erosion of the institution of Lapp taxation districts and of private ownership by Sami, which was replaced by a form of collective right to land use. The process can be summarised briefly as two parallel developments, the first of which was that social control successively passed from the local courts into the jurisdiction of central authorities. This meant a weakening of the Sami right to private ownership and the possibility of legal appeal under prevailing judicial systems. The second development was that the individual right to Lapp taxation lands was displaced by collectivism as the Lapp reserve gained importance. This process began as early as the 1600s and continued until the 1900s. The final blow to the institution of Lapp taxation lands came with the adoption of the reindeer-grazing laws (1886, 1898, 1928), when all Sami right to private ownership was abolished and replaced by collective land use. In Sweden this right was tied exclusively to reindeer-herding Sami, and only those who derived their principal livelihood from reindeer herding were admitted as members of the Sami reserves. This meant that a majority of Sami, no longer classed as Sami, lost their rights and their identity. Consequently, many Sami in Sweden began to deny their Sami origins.


Related here, in concentrated form, is part of the background that explains the rapid increase in Sami political mobilisation in recent decades. In Sweden, battles are being fought on several fronts, which may be described in simplified and schematic form as follows:

  • The reindeer-owning Sami are struggling to secure and increase their rights. They support a stronger collective right to land use, or alternatively, a return to ownership of their traditional lands. They are hesitant about other, non-reindeer-owning Sami having the same rights as they do. In principle, they wish to uphold the distribution implied by the provisions of the Reindeer-herding Act.
  • More and more Sami are claiming private right to ownership of the former Lapp taxation lands. At least one lawsuit against the State is pending and others are to be submitted.
  • The non-reindeer-owning Sami demand equal treatment and the abolition of the Sami rights implicit in the Reindeer-herding Act.
  • Government policy thus far has been to maintain the reindeer-ownership monopoly, with minor adjustments to the Sami land and water rights.
  • The question of a Swedish ratification of ILO Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples is of great current interest. A majority of the Sami organisations favour ratification. However, because of the way the Reindeer-herding Act is constituted, many are concerned that increased rights for Sami may only benefit those who are members of Sami reserves. The greatest controversy surrounds Article 14 of the ILO Convention, which speaks of the right of the Sami to own their traditional lands. There are also a number of questions surrounding the implications of a possible ratification: first of all, these lands are not clearly identified and delimited; secondly, deeds to the land may already be held by rightful owners; and thirdly – which principle should apply: the individually-owned Lapp taxation lands or the right to collective ownership by Sami reserves?

Those who must formulate future sustainable Sami policy must refer back to historical events to support their claims. Either the actual chain of events is still largely uncharted or aspects of it have been established so recently by historical research that they have not yet been accepted as fact in the realm of social debate. This also involves the question of property rights, and the diversity of Sami identities that has long been pushed aside. It is apparent that the treatment of the Sami people suffers and has suffered from a lack of democracy, and that there is an ever-growing demand to right the wrongs that have been committed. That the question of Sami rights is strongly tied to the question of ethnic identity – at the same time as this identity undergoes constant change – may lead to instability in proposals for solutions and legislation that are now being formulated.

ã Svante Isaksson

(Paper from a think-tank seminar on The Future of the Barents Euro-Arctic Co-operation and the Northern Dimension of Europe, organized in Björkliden, Lapland, Sweden on June 14-17, 2001.)


"Urfolks landrettigheter etter folkerett og udenlandsk rett" NOU 1997:5

"Bruk av land og vann i Finnmark i historisk perspektiv" NOU 1994:21

"Rett til og forvaltning av land og vann i Finnmark" NOU 1993:34

"Naturgrunnlaget for samisk kultur" NOU 1997:4

"Nationer och nationalism" Eric J. Hobsbawn Ordfront

"Så länge vi har marker" Lennart Lundmark. Rabén Prisma 1998

"Om tider som svunnit" Wolmar Söderholm 1973

"Tärna socken" Ossian Egerblad

"Vad kostar en ren?" Staffan Johansson, Nils-Gustav Lundgren. ESO Ds 1998:8

"Svenskar och zigenare" Karl-Olov Arnstberg. Carlssons 1998

"Begrav mig stående" Isabel Fonseca. Ordfront 1998

"Rätten till land och vatten ur ett svedjefinskt perspektiv" Lennart Stenman Forskningsrapport

98:6 Samhällsvetenskap Högskolan i Karlstad

"Avvittringen i Västerbottens läns lappmarker" Lennart Stenman Doktorsavhandling

Kulturgeografiska inst. Uppsala Univ. 1983

"Samerna – ett ursprungsfolk i Sverige" SOU 1999:25

"Samer og nordmenn" Harald Eidhem (red) Cappelen Akademisk Forlag

Rennäringslagen 1971:437

Rennäringsförordningen 1993:384

Sametingslagen 1992:1433

Per Guttorm Kvenangen: "Samernas historia" Sameskolstyrelsen. s. 15

Avvittringsprotokollen för Vilhelmina, Stensele-Tärna, Sorsele socknar

"Avvittringen av renbetesfjällen i Härjedalen". Valfrid Larsson, Länsstyrelsen i           Jämtland

Prop. 166, 7 april 1916

Riksdagens skrivelse nr 230 7 juni 1916.

"Om samernas rättsliga ställning i Sverige-Finland" Kaisa Korpijaako-Labba. Helsingfors 1994.

"Sápmi i förändringens tid" Andrea Amft. Samiska studier Umeå Universitet 2000

 "Från enfald till mångfald" Eva-Britt Nilsson. D-uppsats om de icke-renskötande samernas situation, Inst. För socialt arbete Umeå Universitet 2000

"Rätten att vara same" Ann-Charlotta Nilssen. Uppsats om de samer som inte har några renar, Uppsala Universitet 1999.

"The power of recognition: The limitation of indigenous people. Stefan Ekenberg. Inst. för industriell ekonomi och samhällsvetenskap Luleå Universitet 2000

"Lapp ska vara lapp ska vara renägare" Knut Carlqvist. Samtidsmagasinet Salt 1/99,

"Ingen frid i fjällen" Skellefteå. Svante Isaksson. Ord & Visor 1999

"När staten stal marken" Svante Isaksson. Skellefteå. Ord & Visor 2001

"Avvittring och grundlagsändring" Riksdagens utredningstjänst Dnr 1997:800 "Avvittringarna I lappmarkerna" Justitiedepartementet 1991.

Svegs tingsrätt "Renbetesmålet": Dom nr DT 12, Mål T88/90, T 70/91; T 85/95.

Demokratiutredningen 1999.

Samerna – markrätt mm Partiet Samernas hemsida.

"De icke renskötande samernas situation i Nord-Sverige." Karin Mannela-Gaup, Sosialhovedfag. Samfunnsvitenskapelig fakultet. Universitetet i Tromsö 2000