From her home in Finland’s far north, Ristenrauna Magga recalls the day in 1968 when she and her family were stripped naked while researchers took measurements and blood tests.
“Sami people were used to doing what we were told, no-one questioned the research,” Magga says, of Finland’s “racial biology” programme into the Sami minority which continued into the 1970s.
The EU’s only indigenous population, an estimated 100,000 Sami live across the vast Arctic wilderness of northernmost Finland, Norway and Sweden as well as Russia’s Kola peninsula.
For much of the 20th century, governments denounced the indigenous people and their culture as uncivilised and inferior.
“People called us Lapps and said we’re lazy and dirty,” 76-year-old Magga said.
“That experience of being belittled and looked down upon follows you in everything you do.”
In the last five years, Finland, Norway and Sweden have stepped up moves to atone for past injustices, setting up truth and reconciliation commissions and repatriating stolen Sami artefacts.
But the Sami argue that their rights continue to go unrecognised, pointing to government plans to open up parts of their mineral-rich homeland to mining companies or new windfarms, impeding the traditional livelihood of reindeer herding.
For Magga, a lifelong Sami rights campaigner, Finnish moves to make amends will simply be “a government hand-washing exercise” unless new laws are brought in to recognise the claim of the indigenous people to their homeland.
‘Tough’ reconciliation process
Until at least the 1960s, assimilation policies forced children into Finnish-language schools, where they were beaten or punished if caught speaking their own Sami languages.
“Many lost their language,” Magga says, leading to shame and guilt.
“I still now have to tell people that it’s not your fault if you weren’t taught it.”
Many Sami in Finland are expected to testify about the injustices they experienced to an upcoming truth and reconciliation commission, whose first meeting was held this week in the Arctic town of Inari.
Due to be published in 2023, its report aims to see the Finnish state “bear responsibility for its actions and . . . work to strengthen the realisation of the rights of the Sami people,” a government statement said.
The process will be “tough, forcing Sami people to open up wounds that they don’t want to revisit,” said Anni Koivisto, vice-president of Finland’s Sami Parliament.
“People, however, are hopeful that in future it will improve our standing,” Koivisto said.
But she added that the establishment of the commission in itself was “no great joy or victory” but rather a sign that “all other ways of ensuring Sami rights haven’t been enough”.
A similar Norwegian process began in 2018 and after a delay is due to report in 2023.
Progress has been slower in Sweden where authorities will soon launch a truth commission to be completed in 2025.
But last month Archbishop Antje Jackelen apologised for the Church of Sweden’s role in centuries of “severe violations of human dignity” against the Sami people.
She also announced a €3.9-million ($4.4-million) 10-year reconciliation plan.
Calls for stronger Sami rights
Sami in all Nordic countries have said the inquiries will amount to little without tangible changes to their rights in law.
“It’s easy to apologise when you’ve won the battle anyway,” Henrik Blind, a Sami representative who attended the Swedish Church’s apology ceremony, wrote on Facebook.
The Sami’s indigenous status is written into each country’s constitution, but Sami campaigners say their rights go unrecognised, especially regarding land use.
Finland and Sweden’s governments are planning extensive mining operations to extract minerals for electric car batteries in parts of the Sami homeland.
The Sami argue that the heavy impact on their livelihoods and environment is being ignored.
Norway’s supreme court ruled in October that the government had violated a UN treaty by allowing two windfarms to be built on Sami reindeer pastures.
“It was hoped that for once the Sami’s rights would be secured by (this) judgement,” researcher Susanne Normann, of the University of Oslo, said, noting that nine weeks later there were still no signs of concrete consequences.
Human rights watchdogs have long criticised Sweden and Finland for not ratifying the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which would give the Sami more say over government decisions that affect them.
Nevertheless, Koivisto, the Sami parliament vice-president, said she was encouraged by the attention Sami issues were receiving.
“It does feel like there are lots of people who understand our situation and want to defend us,” she said.
Finland’s National Museum in Helsinki earlier this year repatriated its entire collection of 2,000 Sami objects taken from Sami lands over the last century.
“You could sense that people were moved and happy that these objects have come back to us,” curator Anni Guttorm said from Siida, the Sami museum on the banks of frozen Lake Inari.
The collection includes colourful woven belts and jewellery embellished with rabbit fur and Arab coins, a sign of the area’s past international trading links.
Before going on display next year, artefacts will be shown to community members in the hope they recognise the craftsmanship and help shed light on their provenance.
“I think that returning these objects is one part of making things right,” Guttorm reflected.
“I’d say it does help to heal old wounds, now that the Sami have control back over our own cultural heritage.”