The Fight of Indigenous People in the Nordic countries

A new documentary film has set a renewed focus on the remaining grievances, position, and treatment of the Sámi people in Finland. The Sámi people are claimed to be the last remaining indigenous people in Europe. They live in Finland, Norway, Sweden and north-western Russia.

March 21st is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On the same day a week long support campaign takes off to stand in solidarity with the victims of racism and discrimination. The pandemic caused by COVID-19 is affecting minorities especially since some of them are facing additional challenges with increasing discrimination based on their race or nationality.

The day focuses on the importance of young people’s support for anti-discrimination. Children and adolescents are the future of our world that can educate themselves in many ways, question remaining discriminatory structures and practices, and direct the world another step forward in development.

Discrimination nowadays

One advocate for minorities in the Nordics is a Sami film director Suvi West. The new documentary film by West is called Eatnameamet – Hiljainen taistelumme (2021) (Our Silent Struggle), and it touches on the remaining grievances, position, and treatment of the Sámi people in Finland.

“My film is about the Sami politics of the Finnish government and the colonialist structures against Sámi people in Finland. Discrimination is complex and it happens both in the society and in politics. Racism happens on a large scale and on many levels”, West explains.

Suvi West
The documentary film by Suvi West deals with the Sami people’s current position in Finland. Picture: Riitta Supperi

People are often unaware of Sámi people’s history and their situation today, which is why problems in the Sápmi continue year after another:

“When we are talking about Northern Finland, we are talking about hard racism against Sámi people. In the Southern Finland the attitude is more casual or kind laughter. However, many people still do not know that Sami people are an indigenous community. They are just like there are Native Americans, aboriginals and Māori people. We are not Finland’s property or a playground where people just come to, take a vacation, and build mining.”

The United Nations General Assembly highlights that any notion implying one race’s superiority over another is scientifically not accurate. The United Nations has also presented that all member states are expected to get rid of any discriminatory practices both in the public and private sectors. Things are necessarily not always that simple, though:

“The representatives of the Finnish government have completely ignored the Sámi and walked over their rights. Agreements including Tana fishing agreement or the New Act on Metsähallitus will directly impact the future of the Sámi. Finland has already been noted by the UN about the fact that the government is violating Sami people’s human rights”.

The continuing fight of the Sami people

Finland’s education system is one of the best in the world, but it still has deficiencies. Students in Finland are being taught very little, if at all, about the Sámi people. According to West this is one big part of the whole issue, because many people may have never learnt about the history and culture of the Sami.

“For many years the Sámi have fought so that there would be more information about the Sami in the national curriculum. For some reason, the school system has not wanted to do this. The Sámi are always being left aside. Universities should also start to take this seriously and begin to plan how safe spaces can be provided not only to the Sámi people, but also for other minorities”.

The Sami have fought for their rights for a long time, but we are now facing a critical point in history that will define whether the culture of the Sami will survive. The situation is serious, because many people even in Finland have been unaware of the situation and struggle for so long:

“It seems to me that the young generation has already been lost in this matter, because they have never been exposed to enough and accurate information about the Sámi people”.

When there is no information available at the schools, old perceptions and prejudice are more easily transmitted from one generation to another. This will prevent from changing attitudes towards the Sami.

“I believe that usually the issue is not that people are mean or malicious, it has more to do with the fact that they are unaware”, West points out.

West gives an example of a situation that exposed the deficiency in the school institution. After Sami students at the University of Oulu had questioned the institution practice to advertise a music school by using a fake Sami drum, these same students were targets of a hate campaign on campus.

“They even received death threats for that”, West explains.

Prejudice as a barrier

Although the film by West is focused on the situation in Finland, she highlights that the same issues are present in other countries as well. Sámi are people present inside the borders of four different countries. West also explains that racism can be hard to recognize, because it can be so deeply ingrained:

“Some things might seem innocent for others. However, if minorities come across same prejudice, exotization and belittling all over and over again, it suggests systematicity”.

To understand another person’s struggle, one must be willing to listen to their story first with patience.

“When I was trying to talk about political or societal situations before doing this film, people often thought that my view had to do with my personal attitude problems. Other Sami people have also come across this in other fields. Another extreme is when people try to label me as a poor thing to ask about my personal experience. I am actually just trying to point out structural racism, or what is happening to a whole group of people”, West adds.

On the other hand, the film has received a lot of good feedback from people who have eventually seen it.

“The feedback we have already received from Finnish people who have seen the film, has been heartwarming. The feedback has been good, but also shocked. Many have been wondering why no one has told them about these things before”.

Time for change

To make a change happen, the topic has to become a public topic of discussion. However, conversation about the position of minorities, for example, does not always stay respectful, which worsens the situation. The media has a great responsibility in how the message is delivered to the public, and whether confrontation or hyperbole is being created. Sometimes even journalists are not accurately informed about the situation of Sámi people, which creates further challenges. On the other hand, when Sami people get a chance to speak about their experiences, the message is not always welcomed:

“There have been instances where, for example, a Sami ends up receiving hate speech after saying something that questions Finnish sovereignty towards Sápmi or the robbery of the Sami culture”.

young people in different colors
The UN campaign #FIGHTracism aims to end discrimination and intolerance. Picture: UN

Indigenous people need rights and support. Discrimination must come to an end. The United Nations invites everyone to take part in a social media campaign against discrimination, prejudice, and anti-tolerance. People can take part by posting online and using hashtag #FightRacism. Another way to participate is to take part in an online conversation about discrimination through the board of the UNICEFVoices of Youth.

Curious to know more about the Sámi? You can read more in this recent article.

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