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Saami in the Barents Region

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This article originally appeared in The Circle 03.17. Find back issues here.

Sápmi, the traditional lands of the Saami people, lies in the northernmost regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. For many centuries, the main traditional activities of the Saami have been reindeer herding, fishing, gathering of wild plants and traditional art.

THE SAAMI COUNCIL is a voluntary organization with member organizations in each of these countries including a large part of the politically-defined Barents Region. Established in 1956, the Saami Council is one of the oldest active Indigenous peoples’ organizations in the world. Its primary objective is to safeguard Saami interests and strengthen Saami solidarity across national borders as one people and as Indigenous people. The council also works to ensure Saami cultural, political, economic, civil, social and spiritual rights are legally protected nationally and internationally.

Every four years the Saami Council hosts a conference. During the 1986 conference in Sweden, the concept of a Nordic Saami Convention was proposed. This Convention would ensure that the Saami people can maintain, practice and develop their culture across national borders. It is expected the Convention would establish a joint legal framework for Finland, Norway and Sweden, that conforms with standards set by international law and adapted to the Nordic Saami setting.

This process has been complex and taken decades of negotiations. In January 2017, a proposed draft was presented and is being discussed by state governments and the Saami Parliaments. The Saami Council, which initiated the concept of a Saami Convention, still has great concern on the point of self-determination for the Saami people. The Convention states that the Saami peoples’ right to self-determination is covered through consultation processes, but the Saami Council maintains such consultation is not according to international standards.

The Russian Saami are not included in this Convention but are represented by the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North. However, there are numerous issues related to Saami language and traditional activities that are of common concern for all Saami peoples throughout the Barents region.
Issues specific to the Saami in Murmansk include the decline of private reindeer husbandry, which – in the times of the Soviet Union – was liquidated and a collective state farm was created, thereby violating the traditional Saami way of life. There is some revival of private reindeer herding in the Murmansk region and traditional lifestyles are carried out by both family (tribal) and territorial communities. Unfortunately, young people are reluctant to work in reindeer husbandry: the unsettled nature of life on the tundra and the desire to be closer to urban centers are turning most away from traditional lifestyles.

With the support of the Russian state which grants subsidies at the federal and regional levels, traditional commu- nities are developing with some engaged in fishing both on inland waters and at sea. The Saami are allocated a quota for their catch of sea fish such as cod and haddock as well as other types of fish in inland waters.

Another critically important issue for the Kola Saami is the preservation of their native language, which is only offered as an elective class at schools. Saami is used less and less in everyday life, contributing to the breakdown between generations.

The Saami Parliament is also involved in negotiations over the regulation of fisheries in the Deatnu River, which forms part of the border between Nor- way and Finland. The Deatnu holds rich Saami traditions for the people and fisheries on both sides of the border.

Finland and Norway ratified the Deatnu River Agreement in 2017, regulating fishing in what is Europe’s largest salmon river. But this new agreement violates Saami cultural and property rights by restricting traditional fishing practices. The Saami and other people in the region united against these negotiations that took place without legally-required Saami involvement and consultation.

The Deatnu case is yet another example of the lack of Saami self-determination. There is a resurgence in the developent of Sami art and needlework across the Sápmi. Many master Sami artisans and craftspeople willingly engage in making products from deer antlers, bones, fur, leather, as well as fish skin and wood. The Saami culture is internationally recognized and many Saami public associations in the Murmansk region actively work to preserve and develop traditional skills and knowledge. The Cultural Committee of the Saami Council offers financial support for various activities such as festivals, seminars, conferences, book publishing, film making and music recording. This close cooperation in cultural and social life is reaping excellent results in preserving the rich and diverse culture of the Saami people.

Contributed by the Saami Councils of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia

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