Bitter disappointment as Finland’s attempt to reform Indigenous law fails — again
It’s the third time attempts to reform Finland’s Sámi Parliament Act have failed
This piece was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center.
A controversial package of reforms to Finland’s law governing rights for the Indigenous Sámi people has failed, shattering the hopes of Sámi activists who had seen the bill as a major step toward self-determination.
“It’s disappointing to see that Sámi human rights are just a game,” said Tuomas Aslak Juuso, the president of the country’s Sámi Parliament.
“Finland has betrayed the Sámi people,” said Janne Hirvasvuopio, a Sámi activist and political operative in Helsinki. “Prime Minister Sanna Marin has a lot to answer for.”
Alongside what advocates say are long-overdue updates to Sámi election law, the Sámi Parliament Act would have expanded and formalized the assembly’s role in consulting on issues that impact Sámi communities. But it also would have redefined who is eligible to vote in Sámi elections, with critics saying it would have excluded hundreds of would-be voters from participation in the country’s Indigenous politics.
Since it was introduced in November — with minimal time to pass before an April election — anger and controversy over the bill has risen to the level of death threats directed at Sámi activists.
But on Friday, after years of advocacy and debate, the bill quietly died in committee as key government members skipped the vote, leaving the decision on its fate in the hands of its opponents.
“It just feels like this time, we really did give it all we had … and that still wasn’t enough,” said Petra Laiti, the chair of Finland’s Sámi Youth Council. “When you’ve already given everything, what else do you have to give?”
Tämä kuva on otettu noin 5 minuuttia sen jälkeen, kun kuulin käräjälain kaatuneen. Kun yhtäkkiä ei ollutkaan enää mitään.#saamelaiskäräjälaki pic.twitter.com/iq79qiAuYW
— Petra Laiti (Mihku Ilmára Mika Petra) (@PetraLaiti) February 25, 2023
Indigenous rights — for who?
The Sámi people are Europe’s only recognized Indigenous group, with a home territory that covers the northernmost reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia.
Finland is home to one of the smallest Sámi communities, just 10,000 strong, many of whom have long lived in close contact with Finnish settlers. This close contact, combined with a long history of forced relocation and assimilation, has muddied the waters of Indigenous identity in Finland.
Under the original Sámi Parliament Act drafted in 1996, a person is considered eligible to vote in Sámi elections if they meet one of two criteria. Either their great-grandparent or more recent relative spoke a Sámi language, or an ancestor was recorded as a “laplander” — a term denoting hunters, fishers, foresters or herders — in tax records going back as far as the 16th century.
Sámi leaders have long said the laplander criteria is too broad, and opens the community to dubious claims based on distant ancestry.
“Taxation records do not indicate ethnicity — it is a mark of livelihood,” said Juuso. “And this kind of livelihood practicing does not build an automatic legitimacy to an ethnicity.”
For this reason, the Sámi Parliament has repeatedly rejected applicants who claim Sámi rights on this basis. But in a series of rulings since 2011, the Finnish high court has overturned those decisions, admitting hundreds of new voters to the list.
Those decisions drew condemnation from the United Nations, who called them a violation of Sámi rights to self-determination.
But the history of Finnish colonization means many in Sámi communities like Inari, where the Sámi Parliament sits, cannot satisfy the language requirement.
“Here in Inari, Finnicization, colonization, was the deepest,” said Anu Avaskari, a member of the Sámi Parliament from the region. “That’s why it’s a bit of a strange situation that some of our people … consider [these groups] to be Finnish wolves [in sheep’s clothing].”
Yet some experts worry that the laplander criteria — and Finland’s dark history of colonization — is being used against Indigenous people.
“This history is now mobilized really purposefully,” said Laura Junka-Aikio, a professor of northern politics at the University of Lapland.
Among the defenders of the laplander criteria are groups like the Association for the Cooperation of the Original Sámi of Finland, who claim to represent a southern Sámi group, the Metsä or Forest Sámi, that they say were driven to settle by competition from northern Sámi neighbours.
“The Indigenous Sámi, the Forest Sámi, they were pushed aside,” said Juha Joona, a professor of minority law at the University of Lapland and supporter of the groups.
These groups say that they suffered language loss as a result of this displacement, and call any efforts to remove the laplander criteria attempts at “ethnic cleansing” by northern Sámi.
“Sami is my identity, and I will give it to my children, too,” said Merja Mattila, the spokesperson for the association. “If someone takes this identity, I am lost. I am totally lost.”
Sámi leaders, legal experts, historians, and even the Finnish Ministry of Justice have at times cast doubt on some of these claims. “Almost everyone in Lapland has some Sámi roots,” said Hannele Pokka, a member of Finland’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Junka-Aikio traces the origins of many Forest Sámi groups to activism against the creation of the Sámi Parliament in the 1990s.
“When the Sámi Parliament Act was actually passed … the strategy changed,” she said. “There emerged more of this discourse that we are also Indigenous … so that we can also be beneficiaries of any rights that may come to Sámi.”
Free, prior, and informed consent
Those rights would have been expanded by the updated act, which required negotiation with the Sámi Parliament on any measures that may “carry particular importance for the Sámi” with the goal of “obtaining its consent.”
Juuso said the passage brought the right to negotiation, already guaranteed by the constitution, closer to the “free, prior, and informed consent” outlined in international agreements like ILO 169.
But the language prompted fears from Finnish municipalities and Sámi claimant groups alike that the Sámi Parliament would exercise veto rights over private industry and landowners.
“It is a question of our independence and our sovereignty,” said Mattila.
The objection of many Sámi claimant groups to any special rights or consultations with Sámi have, in the eyes of their opponents, made them powerful allies for extractive industries. Finland’s Sámi homelands contain some of the last bastions of old growth forest in Europe, home to species until recently undiscovered by science.
In neighbouring Sweden and Norway, Sámi lands have been the target of intense interest for wind energy and mining projects that are pitched as part of Europe’s green future.
“It plays out as a Sámi internal conflict … but it’s not really,” said Tero Mustonen, an expert with Snowchange Cooperative, a conservation group that works with Sámi communities. “[These movements are] connected with a political force that has strong industrial interests.”
On Friday, the bill languished on the table of Finland’s constitutional committee.
Chair Johanna Ojala-Niemelä, a member of Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s party, missed the committee’s key final session before its deadline to issue a report. She also issued “wrong instructions” to a fellow party member about the start time of the meeting, which effectively ensured an opponent of the bill would take her place, killing the bill.
In the wake of its last-minute failure, activists have been quick to point to Ojala-Niemelä’s connections to the Forest Sámi movement, and her place on the board of a large hydroelectricity company. Ojala-Niemelä did not respond to requests for comment.
But it is unclear if the vote would have survived a vote in parliament, anyway. Marin’s party, the Social Democrats, would have needed the support of opposition members after its rural-backed coalition partner, the Center Party, objected to the bill.
For Sámi activists and advocates, who have seen similar efforts fail twice before, the outcome is no less heartbreaking.
“When I heard the news … I just broke down, basically,” said Laiti, the youth activist. “This time, it really does feel different, because this time, we really did have everything we have on our side.”
Juuso, the Sámi president, says the bill has never drawn such international interest.
With all the groundwork laid, Juuso said, there is nothing preventing politicians from retabling the bill as soon as this April’s election is over. But Laiti says the decade of debate is taking a toll on the appetite of young Sámi for political activism.
“The state has once again shown that our voice has no meaning, has no weight,” she said. “I’m not entirely sure how much more Sámi have to give.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Mark Indigenous languages decade by making Inuktitut official in Canada: Inuit UN rep, The Canadian Press
Finland: Marin “disappointed” in failure of Sámi Parliament Act reform, Yle News
Norway: Sami NGO demands removal of “Far Northern Attire” from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy, Eye on the Arctic
Sweden: Swedish Truth Commission begins collecting testimonies from Sami people, Radio Sweden
United States: Inuit leaders applaud UN move to designate International Decade of Indigenous Languages, Eye on the Arctic