Government control over fishing rights in the Tenojoki, or Tana river in Utsjoki has been contested both by the Constitutional Law Committee and the local Sámi community. Now activist group Ellos Deatnu has occupied an island in the river to protest against restrictions on their traditional weir-and-net fishing systems.
A new Sámi activist group called Ellos Deatnu has occupied an island and declared a “moratorium” on fishing regulations in and around Tenojoki, or the river Tana in Utsjoki. The activists are aiming to hinder or annul the fishing and waterway ordinance seen by the group and others to affect the human rights and traditional lifestyle of the Sámi people, the northernmost indigenous population in Europe.
They’re angry at rules introduced on 22 March that restrict the use of traditional Sámi fishing techniques involving weir and net devices that direct and trap salmon.
Ellos Deatnu (Northern Sámi for “long live the Tana river”) opposes the new Tana regulations and promotes Sámi self-determination and local governmental autonomy in the Tana River Valley, which runs along the border between Finland and Norway.
Widespread discontent, constitutional issues
Sámi people on both sides of the border have long opposed the new Tana fishing agreement due to its restriction of Sámi fishing rights and the extension of additional privileges to non-residents.
Norwegian and Finnish authorities say the river is over-exploited and fishing rights must be cut back, with the traditional Sámi fishing technique one of their prime targets. The Sámi fishing techniques direct salmon into nets, ensuring a plentiful catch but also, according to Finnish and Norwegian authorities, deplete fish stocks.
Sámi activists, on the other hand, point out that their fishing practices date back hundreds of years and are an integral part of their culture. Restricting them amounts to an attack on Sámi culture, according to the activists. They say that allowing tourist fishing permits instead, without local Sámi approval, is unacceptable.
The Chancellor of Justice said in March that the local residents were consulted too late in the drafting of the law, even though the Finnish government is obliged to negotiate with the Sámi Parliament on all things affecting the lives of Finnish Sámi.
“Survival as a nation”
The Constitutional Law Committee also found that the rights of the Sámi should have been taken into consideration; the committee nonetheless gave the draft bill a green light.
Ellos Deatnu says that the Sámi people have been painted into a corner by the disputed legislation.
“Now that we see how obviously governments are slowly but surely stealing everything from us, there is no other course of action but to stop that process in its tracks if we want to survive as a nation,” the Ellos Deatna manifesto reads. “The moratorium is in place for the new regulations because they threaten the wellbeing of the river valley’s Sámi people, who rely on salmon fishing for their livelihood.”
The Ellos Deatnu activists have occupied Tiirasaari, a tiny island in Utsjoki River. They do not intend to follow the new fishing law, opting to observe traditional Sámi law instead.
“The new agreement has been implemented inappropriately, and it is against both international law and the constitutions of Norway and Finland,” says Beaska Niillas, a member of both Norway’s Sámi Parliament and Ellos Deatnu.
“Tiirasaari is part of Sápmi [the traditional Sámi homeland], and violating Sámi rights is prohibited in the moratorium area,” adds Finnish Sámi Parliament member Áslat Holmberg. “These rights are mentioned in international agreements, declarations, guidelines and state constitutions. Activities here during the moratorium are based on our traditional system of justice and fishing customs as an indigenous people.”
The Ellos Deatnu group says their action, which they call a “moratorium” will be in effect during the entire fishing season, or until government and the local populace have successfully renegotiated new fishing regulations for the Tana river.
Critics of the current legislation say they do not deny the importance of keeping salmon stock healthy or that regulations are in order. Rather it is the strictness and the perceived insensitivity of the law that is being called into question.
“The new stipulations must be annulled. Recreational fishing permits that do not have local approval are not valid in the Tiirasaari area. Tourists must ask for permission to fish in the river from the local Sámi and especially the Helander family, which is in possession of the region,” Niillas says.
The group also encourages other Sámi living in the Tana river area to declare “moratoria” elsewhere in the local waterways.
Music concert in support of Sámi rights
Ellos Deatnu organised a public discussion on the Tana issue at the Áiligas House in Utsjoki on 25 June – and now another public event is in the works, with celebrity artists and activists standing behind the group’s mission.
A concert will be organised at Onnelantörmä in Utsjoki on Tuesday, 25 July at 5 pm. Headliners include yoik musicians Wimme Saari and Niko Valkeapää, Northern Sámi rapper Ailu Valle and Inari Sámi colleague Amoc, and Finnish hip hop superstar Paleface.
“The goal is to gather together people all along the Tana, and from elsewhere, too. Ellos Deatnu is just one group. We want to encourage everyone to act on behalf of Sámi nature, culture and human rights. We need everybody’s help,” Beaska Niillas says.
“The concert proceeds will go toward supporting Ellos Deatnu financially, to construct a large lean-to (laavu) for meetings and to purchase groceries such as food, firewood and fuel,” adds Áslat Holmberg.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Inuit leaders want Ottawa to ‘reimagine’ relations: Obed, Radio Canada International
Finland: Finnish National Museum returns thousands of artefacts to indigenous Sámi people, The Independent Barents Observer
Norway: Injustices against Sámi, Kven peoples to be examined by commission in Norway, The Independent Barents Observer
Russia: More protected lands on Nenets tundra in Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer
Sweden: Treatment of Sami people among Swedish shortcomings : Amnesty International report, Radio Sweden
United States: Bering Sea tribal groups slam Alaska delegation for ‘standing by’ as Trump struck order giving them voice, Alaska Dispatch News