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Happy National Sami Day!

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Poster shows a woman in traditional Sami dress with a view of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, in the background. [Photo courtesy of Prints and Photographs.]
Poster shows a woman in traditional Sami dress with a view of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, in the background. [Photo courtesy of Prints and Photographs.]
February 6 is National Sami Day. The purpose of the day is to celebrate the Sami, the indigenous people of the northern parts of the Nordic countries–Norway, Sweden, and Finland–as well as the Kola Peninsula of Russia, which is an area known as Sápmi . It is estimated that the Sami have lived there for over 2,000 years. Population estimates for the region range from 80,000 to 150,000, and the area which they inhabit spans over 150,000 square miles.

This national holiday is celebrated among the Sami with flags, singing and festivities; yet, observance of the day is given varied recognition at the national level across the region. In Norway it receives the greatest attention:  Norway has legally designated it as a national flag day, requiring that government offices display the Norwegian flag on this day. The City Hall in Oslo also plays the Sami national anthem this day.

Regardless of whether the day is designated as a flag day, as is the case of Sweden and Finland, the local communities typically display the Sami flag. (Så firas Samernas nationaldag, DN, Feb. 6, 2014 ; Samernas nationaldag firas i fyra länder, Finnish Foreign Ministry, Feb. 6, 2014)

Just as with the holiday, the rights of the Sami vary between the nations.  This was one of the main incentives for creating the Sami Council, which aims to promote more uniform laws for all Sami people. The council was first created in 1956 in Karasjok, Norway; however, representatives from the Sami communities had already celebrated their first assembly on February 6, 1917 as part of a Sami National Convention  in Trondheim, Norway.  As a result, this is the date commemorated by the National Sami Day.  Furthermore, the Sami Council Conference was established in 1953, in Jokkmokk, Sweden.  So, as we can see, there were certainly precursors to the creation of the Council in ’56.

The Sami Council is composed of national member organizations from the Sami community and is headed by 15 representatives. The Council meets every four years and is hosted by one of the community countries on a rotating schedule. Issues discussed include the arctic, culture, environment and human rights. The Council has previously adopted the Sami flag  and the Sami National Anthem.

Not to be confused with the Sami Council, there is also a Sami Parliamentary Council which was established in 2000.  It is made up of seven representatives from each of the respective Nordic Sami parliaments, from Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Parliamentary meetings are held every other year. Although Russian representatives are not formally members, they are certainly represented. The Sami Parliamentary Council, like the Sami Council, works to promote and safeguard Sami interests, not least of these the promotion of language.  It also represents the interest of the Sami before the European Union.

A draft Nordic Sami Convention is currently being negotiated at the multinational level between Norway, Sweden and Finland to approximate the rights of the Sami people across the region and is expected to be finalized in 2016.

At the national level, Sami parliaments differ both in constitution and power. In Norway, where the first Sami Parliament was created in 1989, the Sami interests are also represented in the National Parliament (Stortinget) with a special Sami undersecretary, who is tasked with giving attention to Sami issues. The special status of the Sami people can be seen in the Norwegian Constitution, whereby “it is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.” As an indigenous population, the Sami also have rights–in accordance with consultation agreements–to be consulted by the Norwegian parliament on issues that directly affect them.

The Sami Parliament of Finland was created in 1996. The Finnish constitution designated the Sami as an indigenous people; as such, they are entitled to develop and preserve their language and culture. Their cultural autonomy is regulated by special legislation. This legislation prescribes, among other matters, that international representation of the Sami people of Finland rests in the Finnish Sami Parliament. Like Norway, the Finnish Parliament must consult with the Finnish Sami Parliament in issues that directly affect them.

In Sweden, the Sami gained recognition as an indigenous population in 1977. As of 2011, the Sami are described as a people in the Swedish Constitution as opposed to other minority groups.  The distinction here being that denomination as a people rather than a group gives the Sami special status. A Swedish Sami parliament was created in 1993. It is, however, not a typical parliament; it is a government agency.   Its objectives, as well as its organization, are regulated by a special law known as the sametingslagen. In 2007, it was designated the government agency responsible for reindeer husbandry. In 2011, the Sami population won a Supreme Court case recognizing their right to heard reindeer on private land: The Nordmaling case (NJA 2001 s.109) marks a major victory for the Sami.

For more on the sociology, history and law of the Sami, the Library of Congress houses a number of interesting titles.

If you are interested in learning more about legislation of America’s indigenous population, I invite you to visit the Law Library’s new Indigenous Law Portal.

This post was originally published as a guest post by Elin Hofverberg. The author information has been updated to reflect that Elin is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.

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