Sami Indigenous Nordic Women – Issues of Culture Preservation, Climate, Political Tensions & Defense
Date: April 21, 2023
Sami/Saami Indigenous Women of Northern Europe
The Sami people live in four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The total population in these four countries is estimated at approx. 80,000, of whom around half live in Norway. Slightly under half of these people talk Sami. I Norway, the Sami people in Norway live in almost all parts of Northern Norway.
The Sámi have historically been known in English as Lapps or Laplanders, but these terms are regarded as offensive by the Sámi, who prefer the area’s name in their own languages, e.g. Northern Sámi Sápmi. Their traditional languages are the Sámi languages, which are classified as a branch of the Uralic language family.
Traditionally, the Sámi have pursued a variety of livelihoods, including coastal fishing, fur trapping, and sheep herding. Their best-known means of livelihood is semi-nomadic reindeer herding. Currently about 10% of the Sámi are connected to reindeer herding, which provides them with meat, fur, and transportation. 2,800 Sámi people are actively involved in reindeer herding on a full-time basis in Norway. For traditional, environmental, cultural, and political reasons, reindeer herding is legally reserved for only Sámi in some regions of the Nordic countries.
ARCTIC GEOPOLITICS – MAINTAINING A REGION OF PEACEFUL COOPERATION
Recent years has seen a rapid increase in the number of countries taking an interest in Arctic matters. This risks turning the Arctic into an arena of geopolitical competition and potentially harming the EU’s interests. Besides a growing interest in Arctic resources and transport routes, there has also been an increase in military activities. The EU has a strong interest in maintaining good international cooperation. It will mainstream Arctic matters in its diplomatic relations and build on its engagement in regional bodies.
Amidst Challenges, , the Sámi women are striving to keep their reindeer herding, culture, language, and livelihoods alive.
In northern Europe, where winter temperatures hover between -13 and -22 degrees Fahrenheit, reindeer roam an ancient pine forest that’s blanketed by snow. That might sound like a fantastical scene from a snow globe, but for the Sámi people, the Indigenous inhabitants of Arctic Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, this is home. The expansive region, known as Sápmi, is their ancestral land—and herding reindeer there has been a form of survival for them since the prehistoric era.
It is not disappearing without a fight. It’s the Sámi people’s steadfast female leaders who are advocating both domestically and internationally for their communities’ rights to their land and heritage. Sámi women tend to achieve higher levels of education than men of the tribe; many of them choose to attend universities in order to take on additional work, like nursing, entrepreneurial ventures, or teaching to help support their families, explains Outi Paadar, a Sámi journalist and Sámi history and culture researcher.
Tiina Sanila-Aikio was about 9 when she was initiated into the physical work of gathering, marking, and vaccinating reindeer. Little did she know that she’d grow up to become the first female president of Finland’s Sámi Parliament(opens in new tab), a position she held from 2015 to early 2020. (This is the official representative body of the Sámi people in Finland, which is separate from the country’s federal government. Sámi people in Norway and Sweden have their own parliaments as well.) Sanila-Aikio is one of the many women heading the Sámi political scene: Norway currently has a female president of its Sámi Parliament, Aili Keskitalo.
Temperature patterns in the Arctic in the last 10 years have been more dramatic than ever. According to the World Wildlife Fund,(opens in new tab) the Arctic is warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world, especially affecting animals that build their habitats on sea ice and snow (like reindeer). Even a change of a few degrees, like the current average rise of about 2.3 degrees Celsius across the Arctic since the 1970s, can greatly impact reindeer feeding patterns—and, with those, the Sámi’s economy.
In order to combat rapid global warming, Scandinavian governments have put “sustainable” initiatives in place, including the implementation of wind energy. But, Henriksen says, building wind turbines on the Sámi land in Norway is itself harmful to Sámi society: The wind-turbine construction, which is set to continue until 2021, takes place in an area that includes reindeer migration routes and pastures, and it will disrupt key hunting and fishing areas as well. “If all the land was to disappear for industrial development, disguised as a ‘green future,’ it would in the end mean that there is nothing more for our existence to build on; our knowledge is so closely attached to the land,” Henriksen says.
Henriksen represents the Sámi at the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), reporting on Indigenous issues. In regard to the wind-turbine dispute, she is working to influence the Norwegian government to give the Sámi their pastures back. (So far, a Norwegian court has ruled that the Sámi herders should receive financial compensation totaling 90 million kroner, or $9.6 million, to make up for the loss of land.) She also advocates for the Sámi by reporting to other UN committees, including the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Human Rights Council. The Saami Council is a permanent participant in the Arctic Council(opens in new tab), representing Indigenous rights amid green-energy development that’s happening across Europe.
In these, the depths of winter, the reindeer have migrated to their seasonal pastures and are digging through the snow for their survival. The Sámi women, meanwhile, are suiting up for battle, whether that means wrangling reindeer with their families or reciting a speech at a virtual UN forum. Like the cartoon heroines they inspired, these fierce leaders will stop at nothing from defending the snowy oasis they call home.