Britta Mangi lives in Kiruna, the most northern city in Sweden, and is steadily preparing for a big change. Just above the arctic circle, Kiruna is set to relocate two miles from its current position after years of iron mining underneath the municipality has rendered the earth geologically unable to support the weight of human activity.
Like her, many other members of the Sami community suffered from the discrimination that has taken historically in Sweden. Historian Leonard Lundmark says that Sweden’s, or more properly the Crown’s, early dealings with the Sami are closely linked to the conquest of Norrland in the 14th century when colonisation began in earnest. It was during the 14th and 15th centuries that the Crown began to levy taxes on the Sami.
He also points out that in the 16th century the State’s Sami policy was characterised by an increased interest in the riches of the Lappmark (Samiland). The levy was substantially increased and lists were drawn up of the lakes and land areas that different Sami families used. These areas became known as the Sami tax lands, and in Jämtland and Härjedalen as the tax mountains.
In the 1630s the State “discovered” the first silver deposit in Nasafjäll, northwest of Arjeplog. Lundmark describes how Sami
were forcibly recruited to transport the ore to Piteå since reindeer were indispensable to its transportation. Since the wages paid were not sufficient to live on, the Sami found themselves facing a crisis. Some were forced to turn to begging, others fled to Norway or further north in Sweden.
In 1977 Sweden recognised the Sami as an indigenous people. Under international law, indigenous people have particular rights in addition
to the rights accorded them through their status as a national minority.
In particular this concerns the right to self-determination, as well as land rights to the areas where they have traditionally lived.
In the latter half of the 17th century the Swedish State began to colonise Sami land more actively. Lundmark describes how the State tried to attract settlers from the south and the coast by introducing a 15-year exemption from taxes. However, because of the wars this tax exemption did not have the desired effect.
During the 18th century the settlers gradually forced the Sami out.
At this time the State also began to build churches in the Lappmark and so-called ‘Lappmark priests’ were appointed. The priests were an extension of the State in the Lappmark and just like the rest of the population the Sami were obliged to attend church and were summoned to parish catechetical meetings. Religious non-conformity was not tolerated and as the Sami religion was considered heathen, it was forbidden.
According to Lundmark the State’s dealings with the Sami were lucrative since the taxes and trade in animal skins, meat and fish gave the State excellent income. Since the State had understood the economic value of Sami activities, they had been allowed to retain relatively extensive rights to their tax lands and the Sami tax lands despite the colonisation. In the 18th century, as the settlers increased colonisation of the Sami land, other activities such as mining and farming grew in importance to the State. The courts had earlier taken the Sami rights to their tax lands and Sami tax lands into consideration, but now they began to disallow them in favour of the settlers.
Towards the end of the 19th century concessions of this type were no longer being granted and the lands were increasingly seen as State property. According to Lundmark, both the colonisation itself and its effects were extensive, forcing some Sami to switch to farming, others to leave the areas to take up trading or become beggars.
In the mid-1800s the Swedish anthropologist Anders Retzius developed a method for measuring craniums in order to classify people into different categories. Both authorities and researchers conducted skull measurements on a large scale. Researchers not only measured living Sami, but also dug up and plundered Sami graves.48 Sami remains and artefacts from this period can still be found in various Swedish State collections. Race biology was popular in Sweden and in 1920 a unanimous Parliament decided to establish the world’s first state institute for race biology in Uppsala.
Political Scientist Ulf Mörkenstam has shown that the Swedish Sami policy in the late 19th century was designed to resolve a problem that the State considered important, namely the conflict of interest between the reindeer husbandry industry and the resident populations. Parliament passed the first Reindeer Grazing Act in 1886 which had serious consequences for Sami rights. With them, the Sami lost the right to own land and the individual reindeer pasture right was turned into a collective right for the Sami villages. Moreover, the rights were different for men and women.
Reindeer herding was defined as a man’s job and the reindeer-herding Sami woman’s rights were based on her husband’s status, including whether he was defined as a Sami or not. The woman’s legal status was thus dependent on the man’s, a system that persisted until 1971 when the concession herding system was introduced.
One example described by Lundmark is found in 1909 report on the Sami schools where reindeer herding is considered incompatible with civilisation. The special education system for certain Sami, the Sami schools, were intended for the children of the nomadic mountain Sami. Wooden Lapp cots were built where the children lived and were taught. This effectively separated the children of the mountain Sami from those of the forest Sami. The State regarded the forest Sami as corrupted nomads, since their way of life was not considered to be as genuinely Sami as that of the mountain Sami. The children of the forest Sami and other domiciled Sami had to attend the same schools as the Swedish children. The level of teaching in the nomad schools was not the same as for Swedish children, but the teaching hours were shorter and the competence requirements for the teachers were lower.
Mother tongue teaching
The Sami feel that the local authorities do not take the Sami right to mother tongue teaching seriously, even to the point of openly opposing it. It is evident that a child’s possibilities for receiving mother tongue teaching are in many cases dependent on the parents’ involvement and knowledge of Sami linguistic rights.
The assimilation and education policy have put the Sami languages under threat. The South and Lule Sami risk extinction and the North Sami language is in a precarious situation. It is therefore crucial for the Sami languages that the language shift ceases and that the Sami languages are preserved and developed. The lack of teachers in the Sami languages is a major structural problem that must be resolved in order to secure their linguistic survival and development.