ARCTIC HEALTH SERIES – Sámi Healthiest in Arctic: But at What Cost?

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Peter Sköld, director of Vaartoe - Centre for Sami Research in Umeå, Sweden. Photo: Tora Lindberg, SR Sámi Radio.

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Life expectancy is shorter, health is poorer and suicide rates are higher.

This was shown in a report on the situation of the world’s indigenous people presented by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The report shows that the living conditions of indigenous people are significantly inferior to that of the respective populations at large – even in rich countries. The Sámi people in the Nordic countries are a major exception.

Professor Peter Sköld is the director of the Center for Sámi Research at Umeå University.

We meet him in a smoky Sámi kåta in the Gammlia local history center in Umeå. A kåta is the old tent form of Sámi dwelling, often likened to the tepee of the Native Americans.

An environment that is all other than healthy – eye disorders and even blindness were once very common among the Sámi people, and between 100 and 200 years ago, their average life expectancy was 25 years shorter than for Swedes.

“This is why it’s so surprising that the Sámi people are in such good health,” says Professor Sköld. “It’s truly a success story.”

The Sámi people are namely in a class of their own compared to other indigenous people, even in the richest countries.

A seven-person expert panel was commissioned by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to compile a report on the situation of the indigenous people of the world.

The report is based on publicly available statistics and for the most part makes for dismal reading.

Sámi Health the exception

In the US, Native Americans run 600 times greater risk of being stricken by tuberculosis and 62 percent greater risk of committing suicide compared to the national average.

In Australia, the indigenous people have a 20-year shorter life expectancy, and in Canada the native people live 17 fewer years than other Canadians.

Over half of all adults that belong to groups of indigenous people have diabetes type 2.

The Sámi people are an exception in the statistics and in principle have the same health as the majority populations in the Nordic countries.

“Part of the explanation has to do with assimilation,” says Professor Sköld. “We’ve succeeded to the degree that the Sámi people have the same health as Swedes.”

Retaining Diet of Reindeer Meat and Fish Helps

Sámi reindeer-herding men even have less risk for certain forms of cancer and cardiovascular ailments. This is most likely due to reindeer-herding families having been able to retain the traditional Sámi diet with considerable amounts reindeer meat and fish.

Dietetic researcher Lena Nilsson at Umeå University has with in-depth interviews with a number of older Sámi determined that fatty fish has had a major significance for Sámi fare – which has also probably contributed to the good health of the people.

“This was surprising,” says Lena Nilsson. “Reindeer meat is otherwise most associated with the Sámi.”

But even if physical health is good among the Sámi, psychosocial health is much less favorable.

The average suicide statistics for young reindeer-herding Sámi men are much higher than the Swedish average.

Since a series of suicides among young Sámi men within a small geographical area, several studies have been made of the Sámi people’s psychosocial situation.

The studies show that many experience tough psychological pressure from being reindeer herders. Intrusions into grazing lands in the form of mines and forestry, legal processes with land owners and serious threats to the reindeer herds from predators are the primary reasons for the psychological stress.

Moreover, many Sámi youths experience discrimination according to a survey conducted by psychologist Lotta Omma.
“It’s tough to be a young Sámi,” says Lotta Omma. “They often have to take a defensive position to defend their own culture.”

Sweden has received criticism from the UN’s special authority in health matters, Paul Hunt, for its disinterest in Sámi health.

The government has therefore surveyed the health of national minorities in a special study, and the National Board of Health and Welfare and the Sámi Parliament have taken up these questions in a special seminar.

“I hope that we can work with the National Board of Health and Welfare to develop a national plan of action for Sámi health,” says Ingrid Inga, chairperson of the board for the Sámi Parliament. “We can’t do it ourselves.”


Tora Lindberg, SR Sámi Radio

This article was contributed by Tora Lindberg, SR Sámi Radio as part of the Eye on the Arctic ARCTIC HEALTH SERIES – Part I: OUR SYSTEMS

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