A Small Guide to the Sámi Definition in Finland

This is A Small Guide to the Sámi Definition. It helps to follow the discussion that has created a lot of turmoil in Northern Finland since the 1990s. 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. It deals with the living Sámi languages and Sámi cultures in Finland (Skolt Sámi, Inari Sámi and Northern Sámi). The scope of the cultural self-determination is limited, 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 roll of the Sámi Parliament in Finland. (You can be Sámi even without being a member of the electoral roll. Media has interviewed Sámi persons, who have not sought membership in the electoral roll.) Being a member of the electoral roll means that you can vote and run in the elections 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 criterion was added. The Sámi definitions is Norway and Sweden are language-based only and do not include the Lapp criterion. The Sámi Parliament in Finland has opposed the inclusion of the Lapp criterion from the beginning, ie. when 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 criterion of the Sámi definition (point 2 in the Act) is a loophole originating in 1995. This loophole allows ethnically and culturally Finnish people to be entered in the electoral roll, 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 land, taxation, and population 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 referred to a person’s ethnicity but to a livelihood. Persons (males, hardly ever females!) marked as lapps in land, taxation and population registers included both ethnically Finnish people and ethnically Sámi people. The reason is that up until 1673 only subsistence livelihoods, 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 criterion in the Sámi Parliament Act has been extremely damaging to the Sámi. The criterion has created false aspirations among northern Finns of being officially recorded as Sámi and Indigenous.

5. Sáminess is not to be found in old land, taxation and population registers and documents. Sáminess means belonging to today’s Sámi culture. You grow into, you are enculturated in Sáminess. 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 roll lies with the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland, not the Sámi Parliament in Finland. This is against the principles of the international law (see for the example the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Article 33), according to which each people (as in nation), also the Sámi people, the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This is the essence of self-determination and group recognition.

7. The Sámi definition is not the only issue but what is also problematic is the interpretation of the definition by the Supreme Administrative Court. There is a human rights violation ongoing in Finland concerning this very issue. UN treaty bodies have published landmark decisions on the matter: The UN Human Rights Committee in 2019 and the UN CERD (UN Committe on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) in 2022 (see below).

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

In 2019 the UN Human Rights Committee published two landmark decisions regarding the ”holistic, overall interpretation” (kokonaisharkinta) by the Supreme Administrative Court. The committee stated that Finland had violated the political rights of the indigenous people Sámi (as per UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). It was wrong for the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court to intervene in the 2011 and 2015 Sámi Parliament elections in Finland by giving 4 plus 93 non-Sámi persons a right to vote – against the decisions of bodies of the Sámi Parliament in Finland.

The committee states that Finland is obligated to review the Sámi definition with a view to ensuring that the criteria for eligibility to vote in Sámi Parliament elections are defined and applied in a manner that respects the right of the Sámi people to exercise their internal self-determination. Finland is also under an obligation to take all steps necessary to prevent similar violations in the future. (Decision 1 available here and decision 2 here.)

in 2022, CERD (The UN Committe on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) published another landmark decision on the same matter. CERD stated that for the first time, Finland has violated the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on the Sámi Parliament electoral roll matter.

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 by the Sámi Parliament bodies. 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. Or that one was accepted to the electoral roll by the Supreme Administrative Court. 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 (predecessor to Sámi Parliament) in 1973.

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. At that time Sáminess or belonging to the Sámi electoral roll was not associated with opportunism or imaginary or real benefits, such as land rights. Quite the opposite. The Sámi were openly discriminated, belittled and forcefully assimited. Someone identifying as a Sámi was thus most likely a Sámi.

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. The term ”non-status Sámi” (”statukseton saamelainen” or ”statuksettomat saamelaiset” (plural) in Finnish) is an invented, made up concept with no legal ground. There is no juridical, legal category ”status Sámi” in Finland, and therefore you cannot speak of ”non-status Sámi”. ”Status Indian” and ”Non-status Indian” are terms used in for example in Canada. According to professor Rauna Kuokkanen, in Finland there are no laws equivalent to the Indian Act in Canada, which contain the term ”Status Indian”.

PhD and researcher Laura Junka-Aikio writes about the raceshifting phenomenon in North America (see Leroux 2019) in which persons who previously identified as white, have turned to newly-constructed Indigenous identities opportunistically and/or without a link to indigenous peoples. She links the North American phenomenon to the anti-Sámi ”neo-Lappish” movement that started in the 1990s in Finland (see Pääkkönen’s PhD 2008).

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 Parliament: to protect the rights of the current Sámi-language population to their own living languages and distinctive cultural heritage. There are only 10,759 Sámi persons in Finland including children and adults (Source: Sámi Parliament statistics). There are 5,876 voting adults.

Every second person in Lapland, circa 100,000 Finnish persons, could get into Sámi Parliament based on their ancestry from persons who used to practice Lapp livelihoods (such as fishing or hunting) and paid Lapp tax for it. The term Lapp was a taxation term and did not discriminate between Finnish, Sámi, Karelian etc ethnicities. 

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.

Additional reading

Heinämäki et al (2017) Actualizing Sámi Rights: International Comparative Research

Sámi Parliament in Finland (2019): UN Human Rights Committee: The decisions of the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland on the electoral roll of the Sámi Parliament’s election in 2015 were a violation of human rights

Finlex: Act on the Sámi Parliament in Finland

Laura Junka-Aikio (2014) Can the Sámi Speak Now? Deconstructive research ethos and the debate on who is Sámi 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)

Daryl Leroux (2019) Distorted Descent. White Claims to Indigenous Identity

Erkki Pääkkönen (2008) Sámi Ethnicity and Northern Locality –
The Sámi Ethnic Mobilization and its Local-based Counter Movement

Laura Junka-Aikio (2020) Hvorfor utgir hvite personer seg for å være svarte?

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