Can Europe Make It?

Empowering Saami people: greater autonomy for greater equality

Living for the most part in countries praised for their democratic system, the Saami population still feels threatened. Is this evidence that colonialism is hardly a thing of the past?

Marie Francisco
16 December 2018

Four Swedish Saami women from Wirijaure Staloluokta outside the shop in Furulund, July 2015. Wikicommons/ Baard Hartvig Lund. Some rights reserved.

The first page of the Saami Council declaration held in Tråante in 2017 clearly proclaims:

To enable the Saami people to live in a responsible way and be able to celebrate the next one hundred years, mercenary states in Sápmi must cease to impede our right to self-determination”.

The tone of the declaration may seem surprisingly hostile from an outsider perspective. After all, Saami populations live in Europe, under the law of the European Union and are as such supposed to be protected and to benefit from the subsidiarity principle, not to mention the fact that the Nordic countries are held accountable to the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. Moreover, the Nordic system is usually seen as highly democratic and fair. 

Yet these Indigenous populations feel the burden of colonization and demand more autonomous rights. Why? What is their current situation? Some strands of the answer can be extracted from the political system of the Nordic countries, but also from the impact of some policies on the Saami people. 

The Nordic political system

According to the Human Development Report, the Nordic countries have a tradition of centralized power. The Nordic model is also described as consensual. Efforts have been made towards greater devolution and autonomy, as in the case for Sweden’s Norrbotten County, but the national parliament still enjoys extensive power. As such, Saami parliaments only have an advisory role, and regions and communes are always dependent on the national level. This is especially worrying for Indigenous societies: they have to rely on the benevolence of national parliaments to get more power and control the land they have traditionally lived in. 

This is a problem not only because of the post-colonialist relationship it can induce, but also because as long as the community feels threatened as such, the voices of specific groups within this community have less room to express their own concerns. As a matter of fact, a community that feels itself to be in danger requires greater cohesion between its members in pursuit of their interests. Any divisions are seen as potentially weakening in that regard. 

On the other hand, centralized decisions can also miss important perspectives and lead to harmful situations for some citizens. 

The Reindeer Herding Act and its dreadful consequences 

A striking example of the risks is the Reindeer Herding Act and its impact on Saami women. Monica Burman spells it out clearly in her article “Men's intimate partner violence against Saami women: a Swedish blind spot”. The Reindeer Herding Act allows the Swedish Saami reindeer-herding community to manage their herds autonomously, which on paper gives those communities substantial autonomy. But in practice, this act can have negative effects on Saami women.

The issue is threefold, each aspect being interrelated. The first problem is that full members, i.e. members of the Reindeer herding community able to vote and get involved in the making of all decisions, are virtually all men, marginalizing Saami women from the decision-making process. In case of divorce Saami women risk losing their herd and their belongings to their community, which adds to their subordinate position. Saami women can be disempowered by this to the extent of forcing them to stay in abusive relationships. The feminist approach to such issues is sometimes accused of containing residually imperialist elements, and not recognizing the specificities of Indigenous and Black women. All this spells out the need for action to be taken by Indigenous communities themselves, and not by policies imposed by national governments. 

What solutions are there? 

Solutions ought not to be decided by national jurisdictions. The movement towards greater autonomy of the regions and Indigenous societies must be continued for lasting, genuinely fair policies to work. This would enable Saami people to manage their societies in a most efficient way, while decision-making will be done at a level that is way more likely to understand the ins and outs of a given situation.

It is also a critical step towards better inclusion and intersectionality. Only when Saami people feel safe and autonomous enough will there be possibilities for Saami women, queer and disabled Saami people to promote their own interests. Intersectionality should not be imposed from above by national governments. It should emerge from below. This would also avoid the risk of being perceived as imperialist and consequently rejected by the populations. 


Arctic Human Development Report (2015).

Burman M (2017) Men’s intimate partner violence against Saami women - a Swedish blind spot. Nordic Journal on Law and Society.

Saami Council (2017), Tråante Declaration.

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