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The Sami people’s right to self-determination in Sweden: Fighting a vicious circle

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Sara Johansson Lopez | 6 February 2023

Picture of the Sámi flag: the left third of the flag is red, the right two thirds is dark blue. Separating them are, from left to right, a green and a yellow verticle stripes. A circle is centered on the two stripes, the left half of the circle is dark blue and the right half is red, and it overlaps the stripes and the blue and red parts of the flag.
The Sámi flag. Photo by jackmac34 on pixabay.

What can be said about the Sami people’s right to self-determination in Sweden? While the Sami people have been recognized as indigenous since 2011 through the Instrument of Government, they are still fighting for their indigenous rights. Specifically, the Sami people’s right to self-determination under Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is still restricted by the state. By using concepts of self-determination and how majorities and minorities relate to each other, I have tried to answer the question: What can the parties’ public statements and actions tell us about the Sami people’s right to self-determination in Sweden?

First, the Swedish state has a seemingly limited openness to the Sami people’s political freedom. For decades, Sami people have expressed a need for influence in decisions regarding the use of their traditional lands. The state has failed to protect these lands and has stated that it does not do enough to secure the Sami people self-determination, although it should. A recent court ruling regarding Girjas Sami village and its fishing and hunting rights, however, indicated a change towards giving the Sami more status as a people and influence in decisions affecting them. In 2021, the state initiated a mission in which Sami people would participate in investigating the scope of their right to fishing and hunting. Nonetheless, because of a political shift in the government and discussions about changing the mission to consider more actors of interest, representatives of a Sami association are concerned that their rights will be set aside again.

Second, the state’s approach to the Sami people forces them to adjust to certain attributes, to gain their right to self-determination. Sami people’s lack of control over their cultural development is illustrated in the Sami Parliament’s statement that the Swedish state’s administrative actions take their rights away, e.g., when traditional lands, which are needed for reindeer husbandry, are exploited or when education in the Sami language is not secured. Sami people’s culture is forced into the majority’s society, but they are also forced to adjust themselves and their culture in relation to the majority. Since their rights are connected to who is a Sami, and the state’s (lack of) actions threaten their culture, Sami people risk losing prerequisites for their rights. In general, Sami people also want to preserve central aspects of their culture, partly to plead for indigenous rights. This leads to some people of Sami origin without the typical Sami identity being excluded from Sami contexts and indigenous rights. Thus, self-determination is also narrowed to those who, with forced openness, embrace the rights-language of the majority that presents new concepts that change their way of thinking of themselves, who they are and should be, to fight for their rights.

Finally, the state has used legal spaces to portray Sami people in specific ways, seemingly attempting to inhibit the Sami people’s control over their own economic, cultural, and social development. In the Girjas case, the state, as the opposing party, tried to delegitimize certain Sami roles. By accusing researchers of Sami origin of not being objective because of their ethnicity, the state framed Sami people as only being able to give expertise on their own culture and not history or the law as professionals. Additionally, Sami representatives criticized the state for using offensive terminologies which undermined Sami people as indigenous. Furthermore, the court’s judgment affects Sami people’s development since their resources, which can be critical for preserving their culture, are dependent on the judgment’s outcome. While the judgment in the Girjas case indicates a direction toward the state supporting the Sami people’s freedom of development, it created an internal conflict within the Sami community because Sami people outside of Sami villages were excluded from the court’s decision.

The three ways of viewing the Sami people’s and the state’s approaches to the Sami people’s self-determination show fulfillment of their rights in Sweden. Limitations are created in different areas of society where the state tries to control the Sami people’s roles and influence, not only through the lack of action by the state but also by its discriminatory actions in court. As previously stated, the Sami people need to adjust to the state’s regulations and the consequences that follow, such as expectations of identity and culture. The Sami people seem to be in a vicious circle where the focus is on how to define it, which leads to the group not being able to be more open to different Sami identities and support cultural development. The state’s limited openness to the Sami people makes the latter dependent on a pre-defined identity and culture to gain their rights which itself becomes an obstacle to fostering self-determination. Since the state is supposed to reconcile with the Sami people, it is time to address these obstacles.

This blog post is a part of the research project Litigating land rights in Sápmi.


Sara Johansson Lopez is a research intern in human rights at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. In her MA thesis, she focused on racism and the Swedish curriculum for compulsory school.


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