A Small Guide to the Sámi Definition in Finland

The Sámi definition in Finland was the topic of the Yle A-studio talk show on Feb 7, 2018. Also, the Act on the Sámi Parliament, including the Sámi definition, is being amended. A Small Guide to the Sámi Definition helps to follow the discussion that has created a lot of turmoil in Northern Finland lately. The guide is also available in Finnish.

Govva/photo: Marja Helander

1. The ’Sámi definition’ refers to the third section of the Act on the Sámi Parliament in Finland (below).

The Sámi Parliament is the cultural self-government body of the Sámi in Finland. The cultural self-determination is very narrow, only limited to the Sámi languages and the Sámi culture, and the opinions expressed by the Sámi Parliament do not bind the Finnish Parliament.

According to the Sámi definition, a person has to consider herself a Sámi (the so-called self-identification), but they also have to have objective grounds (points 1-3 below) for their Sáminess.

”Section 3: Definition of a Sámi
For the purpose of this Act, a Sámi means a person who considers himself a Sámi, provided:
(1) That he himself or at least one of his parents or grandparents has learnt Sámi as his first language;
(2) That he is a descendent of a person who has been entered in a land, taxation or population register as a mountain, forest or fishing Lapp; or
(3) That at least one of his parents has or could have been registered as an elector for an election to the Sámi Delegation or the Sámi Parliament.”

Although the Section 3 is called the Sámi definition, in essence it means the criteria according to which one can be entered into the electoral register of the Sámi Parliament in Finland. (You can be Sámi even without being a member of the electoral register. Media has interviewed Sámi persons, who have not seeked membership in the electoral register.) Being a member of the electoral register means that you can vote and run in the election of the Sámi Parliament every four years.

2. The self-identification of the Sámi definition means, that a person has to consider herself of himself a Sámi and give a permission to be entered into an ethnic register. Based on the experiences of the World War II, noone can be entered into an ethnic register without their permission.

Originally it was thought that the self-identification as a Sámi signals that one identifies with the wider Sámi community. A recent phenomenon is that ethnically and culturally Finnish people opportunistically identify as Sámi based on an ancestor who allegedly was Sámi (see points 3. and 4. below). One of the motives for wanting to be a Sámi is to get land rights if the ILO convention number 169 on indigenous peoples’ rights is ratified in Finland.

3. Originally (since 1952) the Sámi definition was Sámi language-based, but in 1995 the so-called Lapp criterium was added. The Sámi definitions is Norway and Sweden are language-based only and do not include the Lapp criterium. The Sámi Parliament has opposed the Lapp criterium since it was added to the law against their will.

The constitution of Finland acknowledges that the Sámi are a language-based minority and indigenous people. The basis of the original Sámi definition in 1995 was that a person is of Sámi-language descent.

4. The so-called lapp criterium of the Sámi definition (point 2 in the Act) is a loophole originating in 1995. This loophole allows ethnically and culturally Finnish people to enter the electoral register, to vote and to run in the elections of a self-government body of the indigenous people Sámi in Finland.

A lapp does not mean the same thing as a Sámi. The term lapp can be found in the old official records, such as tax, land and person registers (under Swedish rule at the time). ”Lapp” was the designation for those practicing subsistence livelihoods, or so-called lapp livelihoods, like fishing, hunting and reindeer-herding.

The old records never refer to a person’s ethnicity but to a livelihood. Persons (males, never females!) marked as lapps in tax, land and person documents included both ethnically Finnish people and ethnically Sámi people. The reason is that up until 1673 only subsistence, ie. lapp livelihoods were allowed in the northernmost part of Finland.

The opposite of a lapp is a settler (nybyggare). Both lapp and nybyggare could be anything ethnically. What mattered to the state was how to tax each individual.

(Note: the Sámi have for at least 2 000 years called themselves sápmelaš, Sámi, in their own Sámi languages.)

The inclusion of the lapp criterium in the Sámi Parliament Act has been extremely damaging to the Sámi. The criterium has created false aspirations among norther Finns of being officially recorded as Sámi and indigenous.

5. Sáminess is not be found in old tax, land and person registers and documents. Sáminess means belonging to today’s Sámi culture. Sáminess cannot be measured in genes. Children adopted by Sámi persons are also Sámi.

6. The ultimate decision-making power about who is entered in the electoral register lies in the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland, not the Sámi Parliament in Finland. This is against the principles of the international law, according to which each people, also the Sámi people, has the right to decide who belong to the people. This is referred to as group recognition.

7. The Sámi definition includes objective criteria (points 1-3 in the definition) but the Supreme Administrative Court does not stick to them. The Supreme Administrative Court applies so-called holistic, overall interpretation (kokonaisharkinta in Finnish) in deciding who is entered in the electoral register of the Sámi Parliament in Finland. This means that applicants can be entered in the electoral register even if they do not satisfy any criteria of the Sámi definition but present other evidence of (or even lie about) their alleged Sáminess.

8. There are several myths about the Sámi Parliament electoral roll. One of the most common ones is that in some cases one sibling would have been accepted to the electoral roll and but another one not. The issue might be that one has actually applied to the electoral roll, but another not. Or that one application was technically correct and another one insufficient. Siblings may also have different mothers or fathers.

9. A Sámi population research was conducted in 1962 in Finland. (Norway and Sweden never achieved a similar research.) The Sámi definition 1973 was based on this research, as was the first electoral roll of the Sámi delegation 1973 (predecessor to Sámi Parliament).

The 1962 Sámi population research can be regarded as very reliable. It was conducted at a time when the Sámi identity was not sought after. Also, at that time Sáminess or belonging to the Sámi electoral roll was not associated with real or imaginary benefits, such as land rights.

According to professor Veli-Pekka Lehtola the Sámi definition was not a subject of debates before the 1990s, when the plans to ratify the ILO convention number 169 on indigenous peoples’ rights gave rise to opportunism and fears about transferring land rights in the Northernmost Finland to Sámi hands.

10. A non-status Sámi is an invented concept with no legal or political ground. There is no juridical, legal category ”status Sámi” in Finland, and therefore you cannot speak of ”non-status Sámi”. According to professor Rauna Kuokkanen, in Finland there are no laws equivalent to the Indian Act in Canada, which determine government responsibilities towards to the Sámi in terms of certain services, like healthcare, education and social services.

Bonus: Professor Veli-Pekka Lehtola writes in his book Sámi Dispute that according to the Sámi Parliament in Finland even a thousand new non-Sámi members would nullify the original objective of the Sámi definition: to protect the rights of the current Sámi-language population to their own language and distinctive cultural heritage.

Adding ethnically and culturally Finnish people to the electoral roll of the self-government body of the indigenous people Sámi would amount to forced assimilation of the Sámi people into the Finnish majority once and for all.

The author Pirita Näkkäläjärvi is the Sámi of the Year 2017 in Finland.

Additional reading

Finlex: Act on the Sámi Parliament in Finland

Sámi Parliament in Finland: Information about the Sámi Parliament in Finland

Sámi Information Centre: Samer information page in English

Council of Europe: The Sámi People – The People, Their Culture and Languages (see also video)

Yle Sep 30, 2015: Nearly 100 new people accepted as Sámi persons against will of Sámi Parliament

Independent Barents Observer: Act on Sámi Parliament up for reform in Finland

English-language columns by Pirita Näkkäläjärvi on News Now Finland