The Sámi: Indigenous People of Scandinavia

When we talk about the plights of indigenous populations we rarely think of any groups in Europe. Aren’t these people usually the colonizers? Most of the time this is in fact the case. However one group of native Scandinavians, the Sámi, have faced discrimination, exploitation and grave robbing, just as Native Americans have.

A Sámi mother and child in traditional dress.

The Sámi are a nation of traditional, semi-nomadic, reindeer herders that reside in northern Scandinavia, the majority of which live in Norway. Tensions between the Sámi and Norway have always been tense. Norway had adopted a policy of “Norwegianization” in1870, very similar to Americas forced assimilation policies. Children were taken away from their families and placed in boarding schools where they were told their Sámi heritage and language was of little value and they were discouraged from speaking it. This policy was only discontinued in the 1980’s.

As part of the Eugenics craze in the early 1900’s over 1000 skeletons were taken from their graves and transported to the Anatomical Institute at Oslo where their skulls were weighed and measured in order to prove that they were genetically inferior to Norwegians. of these skeletons, 94 have been returned to the Sámi people and reburied in their original graves.

Reburial of the 94 individuals repatriated to the Sámi.

Today the  Sámi people are in better shape than they have been in past years. In 1987 a law was passed in Norway that recognized the Sámi as the Native people of the region and that “It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sámi people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.” (Sami Act 1987) This also established a Sámi Parliament which acts as an institution of cultural autonomy.  In 2007 they were acknowledged as the basic institution on all things regarding reindeer farming.

Those 1000 skeletons are under the control of the Sámi people, they are kept in a separate room from the rest of the institution’s collection and the Sámi council dictates what research can and cannot be done on them. In 2011 a group of researchers studying the genetic history of Norway were denied access to the skeletons for fear that they would use the data for political  reasons or as the president of the Sámi Parliment, Egil Olli, said, “to prove the Sámi are not Sámi.”  The researchers argue that a greater knowledge of the genetic lineage of all Norwegian people could help give a better understanding of where they all came from. But can several centuries of prejudice and mistrust be overlooked? What would this research mean for the Sámi living today? Would it further their claim as the native people of Scandanavia? Or would it be used only to harm them as science of the past has done?

Additional Reading

Repatriation to Sámi people:

Additional info on Assimilation:

Sámi Policies in Norway:

Genetic Research on the Sámi:

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