Harassment and attacks on the indigenous Sámi and industrial colonialism in Norway

PARLIAMENT, OSLO, NORWAY, 08/23/2018 © NATALIIA SOKOLOVSKA / SHUTTERSTOCK

In 2019, the harassment, attacks and conspiracy theories targeted at the Sámi population in Norway are on the increase. The abuse is particularly ugly on social media and – for the first time in Norwegian history – a man was charged with hate speech on Facebook against a Sámi person and sentenced to 18 days in prison and fined.

The FrP and Racism in Norway

Racism against Sámi should come as no surprise; the junior partner in the government coalition, the radical right Fremskrittspartiet (Frp), have always argued against ‘preferential’ treatment of Sámi and opposed the establishment of a Sámi parliament as early as 1989. Moreover, they have continued to question universal human rights of the native Finno-Ugric peoples. Frp politicians argue, for example, that the Sámi shouldn’t have rights linked to their status and identity as an indigenous people, which means no rights in relation to land – and land use – that separates them from other Norwegians. Per Willy Amundsen, the previous Frp minister of justice, meant it to be a scandal that the Sámi have status as indigenous people. The party is very concerned about a potential extension of Sámi land rights; they say it could be damaging for Norway’s economy after the centralisation of the counties that will take effect from January 2020. The Frp’s ideology and disregard for minorities is mirrored in their recent bill in the parliament where they got support to continue preventing asylum seekers from taking part in the labour force in terms of paid work

Despite of an apology given to the Sámi in the 1990s, the state has still not been able to – or willing – to tackle institutionalised discrimination. To be able to do that politicians in charge have to recognise there is a problem in the first place, that is still not the case in Norway with its long history of othering and discriminating against Jews, Roma, asylum seekers, immigrants and Sámi. The Sámi population suffered from brutal assimilation programmes since nation building in the 1850s (Hilson 2008) and forced sterilisation, lobotomy and electric shock treatment until the 1970s. More than a third of the children were sent to boarding schools as part of the ‘norwegianisation’ process. Moreover, Sámi culture didn’t exist as far as the state was concerned, the modern welfare state was built on oil and cheap energy though hydro-electricity, and – in the process – Sámi land and lakes were disturbed. The Sámi population was not asked about this and the state’s domination continues.

Historical Challenges for Recognition: The Radical Right and the Sámi Parliament

In the 1980’s, the Frp in Norway was unsuccessful in preventing the establishment of a Sámi  parliament that represents people of Sámi heritage. The parliament came about as a result of struggles – and disagreement – over land and natural resources in 1989. Despite this, and due to the cross-national basis of the Sámi peoples, there are similar parliaments in Sweden, Finland and Russia. Historically, however, the Norwegian government had not seen Sámi land as anything but for their own exploitation. Norway is not unique in this – the governments in Sweden, Finland and Russia governments have all developed infrastructure, built mines, constructed dams on Sámi land without taking much regard of what the people who lived there and what they felt about losing land used for reindeer herding for centuries.

In 1980, the biggest salmon river in the north Altaelva was dammed, the battles to save it were fierce and people chained themselves together, occupied the PMs office and got injured for life fighting the Norwegian state. The Norwegian government decided in 1902 that the Sámi weren’t allowed to buy land unless Norwegian was their language of choice in all interactions – even at home. Another stipulation was that property was given a Norwegian name. The restrictions on buying land were only lifted in 1965 and, in 1997, the king apologised on behalf of the Norwegian state for the abuse and discrimination the Sámi had suffered.

The Present Day Struggles: Recognition and Cultural Survival

The president of the Sámi parliament in Norway claims that the government continues to systematically discriminate against the Sámi through austerity measures and cuts to the Sámi budget. She stresses that situation is as bad as during the process of ‘norwegianisation’ and assimilation that led to Sámi languages and much of Sámi culture is disappearing. For example, the government cuts includes closing down a UNESCO-listed Sámi school in Midt-Norge. Moreover, the Sámi parliament has reported the Norwegian government to the UN on grounds of racial discrimination.

Added to this, the land dispute between the state and the Sámi has recently become highlighted again as new plans to build a tunnel through a holy mountain has just been agreed by the government. The development also involves damming a lake and forcing the river Stikkelva to run underground.

Finally, and in August, the shamans of the arctic circle held a ceremony where they prayed for the mountain. They asked for respect for the mountain and the area as the forefathers had passed it on to new generations. They are working towards preservation of the mountain – through legal rights – for the natural object and are in the process of passing it on to the UN committee for ‘harmonizing mother nature’, like the Whanganui river in New Zealand.

Conclusion

Government policy, a ban on using Sámi languages, the appropriation of land and resources has all had an enormous impact on the culture and activities of the Sámi people but despite their indigenous status and historical apologies from the king and the state, the conflict continues – with disputes over mining, fishing rights, holy mountains and plans for windmill parks.

In Norway, as globally, the discourse around human rights and minorities has sharpened and become radicalised by the far right; what can be said and printed now, even by the mainstream, was unthinkable only a few years ago. Norwegian politicians have forgotten what they promised after 22 July 2011 and don’t seem to worry about normative violence against minorities and what that leads to.

For example, Runar Myrne Balto – from National Sámi association (NSR) and an MP at the Sámi Parliament – says the attacks on Sámi are especially fierce in social media. NSR aims to preserve Sámi culture and languages and depend on state funding.

The most recent dispute is new in the sense that – through increased awareness and indigenous voices – most Norwegians are realising that the issue is not only about territory, economy and language but also very much about religion. The recent Facebook hate speech incident is therefore a silver lining in a historical context of Sámi racism, abuse and marginalisation in Norway.

Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at University of Leeds. See her profile here.

© Mette Wiggen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).