Frozen: Sámi Parliament vote exposes deep divisions on identity and rights

After months of negotiations, a draft law to update the legal status of the Sámi legilsative body in Inari has been put on the shelf.

File picture showing meeting of the Sámi Parliament / Credit: Samediggi

Proposed new legislation covering the relationship between the Sámi Parliament and the Finnish state has been put on ice, after politicians in Inari voted against it.

The breakdown in the legislative process highlights an apparent lack of understanding from the Finnish establishment of the red lines in Sámi society dealing with highly sensitive issues of identity.

It has also brought back to the surface lingering divisions within Finland’s small Sámi population about who is a ‘true’ Sámi and who can be considered members of the tight-knit community.

Explaining the Act

The proposed legislation is an update to the current act, and covers the whole scope of activities which are handled by the Sámi Parliament in Inari, and has been several years in the making.

“The Act on Sámi Parliament first of all has articles about how many members there are in parliament, what kind of parliament members [their roles], who can stand in the elections, who can vote in the elections, what are the tasks of the Sámi Parliament, what is the Sápmi area, and for example that the Sámi Parliament is the highest political body that represents Sámi people officially at national and international level” explains Tiina Sanila-Aikio, Chair of the Sámi Parliament, who was the lead negotiator on the Sámi side.

The draft legislation was drawn up by experts at the Ministry of Justice, representatives of political parties and Sámi Parliament leaders, but the negotiations were hit by delays even before it got started. The administration process finally got underway some two years later than originally envisaged.

The most contentious issue was always going to be about who has the ultimate say on matters affecting Sámi people.

“I think the most important thing is how the participatory rights of the Sámi are recognized by the state and its officials” Sanila-Aikio tells News Now Finland.

In the current legislation it’s the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court which has the ultimate say. Many Sámi politicians wanted the same arrangement as Norway has, where the Sámi Parliament in Kárášjohka, not the Norwegian state, is the final arbiter.

“This was unacceptable to many, including me, and would have infringed upon what little legal self-determination we actually have” explains Neeta Jääskö, a member of the Sámi Parliament.

“The right to create and manage our own political institutions and decide who belongs are rights that belong to the Sámi in the eyes of international law, from the UN’s own  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights up to UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People” she says.

File picture of large Sámi flag / Credit: iStock

Why is the issue so sensitive?

In the most simple terms, the issue is sensitive because many Sámi people think that only other Sámi should have a say in Sámi affairs. And they want their own parliament to have the power to specifically define who is Sámi and who is not.

“It is definitely important because the Sámi Parliament would not have the credibility to represent our people” if they can’t have the final say in Sámi matters, says Tuomas Aslak Juuso, the parliament’s Second Vice-Chair.

Currently, the definition of who is a Sámi is set out in the existing Act as someone who has at least one parent or grandparent who learned Sámi as a first language; if they are the descendent of someone who has been on the land, tax or population register as a mountain, forest or fishing Lapp; or if at least one parent could have been registered on the Sámi electoral roll.

With the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court still having the ultimate say in any dispute about who can be considered Sámi, there is an ongoing concern among the community that it leads to ‘outsiders’ potentially exerting more influence over issues that concern Sámi people.

And there’s already precedence for the court overruling the Sámi Parliament.

Administrative Court rulings

In 2015 the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court in Helsinki recognised 93 people as Sámi, against the express wishes of the Sámi Parliament.

It lead to a previous Sámi Parliament Chairman resigning from the Sámi electoral roll; and at the time Tiina Sanila-Aikio said the decision put “the cultural self-government of the Sámi people in Finland” under threat.

Erika Sarivaara, a Sámi language and culture lecturer at the University of Lapland, was one of those people accepted to the Sámi list back in 2015.

Having lived and worked in Norway, she says the attitude of Sámi politicians there is markedly different than in Finland.

File picture of Erika Sarivaara / Credit. Erika Sarivaara

“The Sámi Parliament in Norway is working hard to get more people on the voting register. They are making videos, they are calling people, come join us, then we are stronger. They are actively looking for people to come, especially from the assimilated areas” says Sarivaara.

“In communities in Norway when someone finds out they have Sámi roots they are celebrating. They are supporting Sáminess and the revitalisation of culture and language” she tells News Now Finland.

In Finland, Sámi areas were historically much more extensive than they are now, with language being one of the first things to die out as traditional land for reindeer herders and fishing communities were reduced over the course of generations, down to just three main municipalities today.

While Sarivaara’s grandparents didn’t speak any Sámi language, she says her mother’s family still work as reindeer herders, wear traditional Sámi clothes, and have a strong Sámi identity.

“I grew up in the forest with my parents, we always knew we were Sámi” she says.

“I took back the language, it’s my mother tongue and now I am teaching it to my children. It’s my academic language. It’s my working language, and I am teaching language to student teachers. It’s how I identify” she explains.

That identity, language and even her family history weren’t considered sufficient for the Sámi Parliament to approve Erika Sarivaara’s application to be added to the Sámi electoral role.

So she took her case to the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court and won.

Next steps for legislation

Now that the Sámi Parliament has rejected the draft legislation – it was a split vote, there are some members of parliament who support it – the bill is effectively dead in the water.

“The committee, consisting of the three parliamentary groups that form the Government, representatives of the Sámi Parliament and experts, did thorough work and negotiated the content of the proposal in detail during its mandate. Unfortunately in the end the proposal was not accepted by the Sámi Parliament” says Johanna Hautakorpi, Ministerial Adviser at the Ministry of Justice.

For now the current legislation remains in place, with the Supreme Administrative Court still having the ultimate say, creating a legislative impasse with the Sámi Parliament, and people.

Some experts have said recently the ongoing legal dramas about who is Sámi and who is not, and protracted negotiations over drafting laws, detracts from other work the Sámi Parliament could more usefully be doing.

“I want to protect our earth, our land. I love the language. But when it comes to identity I am liberal, I am open to different kind of Sámi. I think the more we are, the stronger we are” says Erika Sarivaara in a phone interview from Lapland.

“It’s a waste of time and resources to fight against another people. We have to fight together to save our language, and save our land. We have bigger issues to deal with like climate change. We have many challenges, and now the resources are going to this fight, and it’s such a damaging conflict”.