The Sami, Europe’s indigenous people in the search of their identity
The Sami people have lived in northern Europe for thousands of years, yet their history is often overlooked. The Swedish film director and screenwriter Amanda Kernell is giving back its voice to the Sami people by diving into their history in her film Sami blood (Sameblod), that was released in 2016 and won the European Parliament LUX price in 2017. Let’s jump right into it.
Who are the Samis?
The Sami are an indigenous people in northern Europe. Their territory stretches between four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. According to the centre for Sami culture in Östersund, Sweden, it is estimated that about 40,000-50,000 Samis live in Norway, 20,000-35,000 in Sweden, 5,000-6,500 in Finland and approximately 2,000 on the Kola Peninsula in Russia.
The people who lived in Northern Scandinavia 9,000 ago are the direct ancestors of the today’s Samis. The first documentation mentioning the Samis dates back to 98 years B.C. There they are described as hunters. In reality, the Sami followed a nomadic way of life. They lived off of hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. The latter is a livelihood as well as a tradition.
The traditional handicraft is called duodji, and the Sami crafted their own utensils and clothes. They lived in communities also known as sjiddas. The sjiddas consisted of three or four families, and were based on solidarity and communal work. Hunting and fishing were therefore carried out together on a well marked off territory.
Spirituality was very important in their daily lives, and strengthened their relationship with nature. The Sami believed the world consisted in the world of gods, the real world and the world of the dead. The sun was believed to be a primordial goddess, its divinity seeping into many of the elements in nature, such as the wind, the moon, thunder or certain animals, like the bear.
The spirituality revolved around the shaman. The shaman was a prophet and a doctor as well as the bridge between the real world, the world of gods and the world of the dead. He passed into the different worlds through a trance, which he entered by beating on his tambour and by yoiking. The yoiking is considered to be the oldest form of music in Europe. The yoiks are songs that express emotions and celebrate the memories of places, happenings and people.
Furthermore, the Sami have their own language, which is different depending on the region they live in: Eastern Sami, Central Sami and Southern Sami. These three languages are in turn made up of nine different dialects.
It is difficult to paint a true picture of this people and its culture because it is so multifaceted and plentiful. And the languages, handicrafts and traditions differ from territory to territory.
The beginning of colonization and assimilation policies
Amanda Kernell’’s film Sami blood (2016) depicts the discrimination, racism and disparagement that the Sami people have had to face. It takes place in Sweden during the 1930’s.
Racism in the 1930’s was the result of a deep rooted process of colonization. During the Middle Ages, Nordic kingdoms began taking interest in the Sami territories and their many resources, since these lands, didn’t actually belong to any government. The evangelisation of the Sami during the 11th century, abolishing the whole spectrum of sami spirituality, marked the beginning of their conquests. During the 17th century in Sweden, the government instituted the conversion to christianity. The government forbids yoiking and the possession of tambours in particular, which were often confiscated or burned.
In order to establish its sovereignty over the Sami territories, the kingdom of Sweden even went on insert a taxation. Because the Sami were now part of the Swedish judiciary system, it led to the disappearance of the sjiddas.
The Lappmark Proclamation in 1673 marked the culmination of the colonization of the Sami territories in Sweden. The proclamation offered serious advantages for anyone who settled in the North, such as tax exemption for 15 years. However, the declaration required the colonists to settle on uninhabited lands only. Then in 1695, the government renewed the declaration. It urged the colonists to clear out of the farmable lands, but without burning them. The colonists however repeatedly disregarded the clauses and chased the Sami out of their lands.
The true critical point for the Sami happened in the 19th century. Colonization and conflicts increased, completely erasing the already low protection for the Sami that the government had offered them, for the benefit of the colonist. Additionally, the 19th century was the starting point for the pan-Scandinavian movement. It spread the message of cooperation among the Nordic countries, especially focusing on the linguistic and cultural homogeneity. This movement is said to have greatly contributed to forming the image of an ethnic homogeneity in Scandinavia. The Sami have been considered inferior and flawed, always on the remorse of the government to civilize them. And the road to civilization was assimilation in terms of language, culture, values and “scandinavian” religion.
The image of this alleged national- and pan-national homogeneity is all the more true, as the Nordic countries actually were lands of emigration until the 1930’s.
A destructive and racist gouvernement: between dreams of emancipation and identity loss
Amanda Kernell brings light to the assimilation policies of the 19th century. The film plays out during those times: the 1930’s. Throughout the film, we get to follow Elle-Marja in her childhood at a boarding school in Sweden. Elle-Marja is 14 years old, she lives together with her sister Njenna, her mother and her grandparents in the Swedish Lapland. They are Sami people and their livelihood comes from reindeer herding. But their mother sends them to a boarding school, as is required by the the government of Sweden.
The only ones who go to the school are young girls who are obligated to learn swedish. From the 1900’s up until the 1960’s, the Swedish government opens schools with the sole purpose of educating the Sami. The schools, that are called lavvu schools, teach the Sami to become good Swedish citizens. The purpose was not to make them live in unison with the Swedish people, but to return them to their nomadic lifestyle afterwards. The Sami only learned to write and read in swedish.
It is at this point that Elle-Marja and Njenna have to deal with discrimination and racism, in their own home country. There is one scene in particular that showcases to which lengths the government went to deplore the Sami. In the scene a group of people from Uppsala, a city situated 70 km north of Stockholm, are visiting the boarding school. But in reality, they are conducting all kinds of tests and observations on the children. They are touching the children’s hair, examining their traditional clothing, measuring their skulls, their noses. They compare the texture of their skin and force the children to get undressed in order to take photographs of their bodies.
Sadly, the discriminations aren’t limited to the boarding school. Locals stare shamelessly at the two young girls, calling them “dirty Lapps” and accusing them of smelling bad. Sometime the verbal abuse even turn into physical violence. While trying to defend herself from the insults, Elle-Marja ends up getting cut in the ear by a group of teenagers, just like the Sami do to mark their reindeer.
Elle-Marja dreams of a different future. She wants to be a teacher and to go study in Uppsala, because the oldest and most prestigious university in Scandinavia is there. However, the headmistress at the boarding school refuses to write her the letter of recommendation that would let her join the school. She says that Elle-Marja lacks of the abilities that the Swedish children have, and that her kind isn’t well-suited to surviving in the city and that their brains are too different from those of the Swede’s. Instead, her people has to stay in Lapland, or else they will perish.
That scene unveils the categorization that the Samis fell victims to. It stems from the first reindeer grazing law in 1886, the First Reindeer Grazing Act. The law establishes reindeer herding as a fundamental part of the Sami identity. Consequently, a homogenous Sami identity was established in the Swedish constitution, which fundamentally separated the Samis from the Swedish. They were considered to be qualified only for reindeer herding, and therefore inferior. The only “true” Samis were those who followed a nomadic way of life and herded the reindeer. The government turned a blind eye to the other Samis, who didn’t receive any recognition or any rights. The Samis that matched this arbitrary definition of what a “true” Sami should be, did not however benefit from it any more than the others. They were condemned to a very specific way of life, that couldn’t intrude on that of the Swedish people’s.
Finally, a confrontation with the headmistress drives Ella-Marja to denounce her identity, and even to deny it and hate it. She understands that she will have to break away from what she is in order to pursue the life that she wants. She decides to go to Uppsala on her own, abandoning her sister. She burns her traditional clothing and dresses in new clothes, which marks the first rupture from her culture and identity.
In Uppsala, she manages to join the university under a new name: Christina Lajler. However, she is required to pay a registration fee that she cannot come up with. Consequently, she is forced to return home to her family and ask her mother for the money. But she is met with a lack of understanding from her family: why has she changed her name in order to go to university? Why does she want to leave her family? Ultimately, Elle-Marja decides to sell the reindeer that she inherited from her father, as well as his silver buckle belt. Her mother insists on giving it to her, but eventually she gives in. The moment her mother puts it in her hand, Elle-Marja makes a clean break from her family and with a part of herself.
Elle-Marja returning to her family, Sami blood, 2016. Photo: Sophia Olsson, NORDISK FILM
The film doesn’t go on to show her return to Uppsala, neither the pursuit of her studies. One can only guess that she manages to become a teacher, at the cost of her identity and her people. The film opens with that scene. Now aged, she is attending her sister’s funeral, accompanied by her son. She refuses to listen to Sami music during the car ride. She ignores the rest of her family at the funeral, letting on that she never reconciled with her sister. She even openly speaks ill of her people: “They steal, they lie.” she says.
At the end of the film however, after having looked back on everything she went through at the boarding school, she seems to have made peace with herself. She has reconnected with her identity and goes on to join her family for the ear-marking of the young reindeer.
A long road to reconciliation
Amanda Kernell’s film isn’t frozen in time. It examines a process of political exclusion, essentialism and confinement, scarring both individuals and communities and perpetuating over time. Through differents narrative tenses, she lets us know that the stigmas inflicted by the Swedish government policies surrounding the Samis, are still very much existent. Despite its developments, the situation of the Sami people is in fact finding itself in a wait-and-see mode. The Scandinavian countries relationships with the Sami people differs from country to country. However, the pursuit of recognition for minorities seems to match more or less with the recent immigration. In the 1940’s, the Nordic countries became target lands for immigration. And Sweden in particular, because of its history of neutrality during the Second World War and its many job possibilities. When other minorities started to inhabit their territories, the Nordic countries had to recognize the importance of giving the Sami people space.
Unfortunately that was easier said than done. When democracy, progress and technologies started to take off after the Second World War, the Samis and their reindeer herding were viewed as a barrier to progress. This, in combination with ruined terrains due to hunting and reindeer grazing. Thus, the Samis had to be assimilated in order to fit in with the newfound productivity.
The real improvement for Sami rights and recognition of their people in Sweden, happened through an international debate and a legislation about indigenous people and minorities. In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights announced everyone’s right to individual, political, economic, social and cultural self-determination. But article 27 is the real turning point for the indigenous people. It recognizes that people who belong to minorities, regardless, must be able to exercise their rights to freely practice their language, culture or religion.
Thus, in 1977, Sweden finally recognized the Sami people as an indigenous people and as an ethnic minority. Nevertheless, it defines their culture as homogenous, and the Sami rights are limited to the protection of their culture. It is narrowed down to the very limited framework of reindeer herding. Those who practice something else are all the same excluded, denied from rights and from identifying themselves with Sami culture.
Ultimately, the Swedish government freed the Sami from the invisible shackles through the Sami Parliament Act in 1992. It specifies that the Sami identity is a mix of cultural heritage, language, religion, values and traditions, not only reindeer herding. Subsequently, the Sami Parliament of Sweden was established in 1993, in Östersund. It gives the Sami people a judicial and recifying tool. It is an elected parliament as well as a municipal organization, with the primary mission of preserving and protecting the Sami culture. It is in charge of supervising the reindeer herding, supporting the Sami culture with funds from the Sami Foundation and launching language projets. In addition, it ensures that the Sami people’s interests are protected, in terms of water usage and lands.
The road to achieve consideration, recognition of rights and autonomy for the Sami people in Sweden has been a long one, undermined by racism and discrimination. And the road is still full of pitfalls.
Yes, Sweden officially recognized their language in 2000, along with a forefront seat in many medias and in the school boards of five Sami schools. Yet, their political power is very limited, even non-existent.
The Sami Parliament does not have any substantial political influence. It doesn’t have veto power in administrative matters, nor can it initiate legislation and it has no taxation powers. It is only an advisory body. Furthermore, the funds that go out to cultural activities and Sami organizations are controlled by the Swedish government. And until this day, the Sami still don’t have any political representation in the Swedish Parliament.
Finally, the rich and heterogeneous identity of the Samis is recognized but the Sami still have very limited rights. The fact that Sweden hasn’t ratified the International Labour Office Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (No. 169) proves it. The convention that consists of 44 articles, requires countries to recognize the cultures and identities of the indigenous and tribal peoples that live there. It recognizes these peoples rights to lands, social security, healthcare as well as to employment and recruitment conditions. Above all, the convention acknowledges theses peoples rights to political consultation and participation within the legislative, executive and judiciary branches.
Amanda Kernell, daughter of a Swedish mother and a Sami father, has directed a fundamental work of art with Sami blood. The film shows to what extend politics control people, and can have lifelong impacts on them. It is a manifesto that calls to remember and reveal an unknown history that the governments must be held accountable for until this day.
Elle-Marja Sami blood, 2016. Photo: Sophia Olsson, NORDISK FILM
To learn more:
- HILSON, Mary. Chapter 5 : Scandinavian Society : Equality, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism. In The Nordic model, Scandinavia since 1945. London : Reaction Books, 2008, 148-176.
- Mörkenstam, U. (2005). Indigenous peoples and the right to self-determination: the case of the Swedish Sami people. The Canadian journal of native studies, 25(2), 433-461.
Bastien, B., Kremer, J. W., Kuokkanen, R., & Vickers, P. (2003). Healing the impact of colonization, genocide, missionization, and racism on indigenous populations. The psychological impact of war trauma on civilians, 25-38.