It’s the first day of proceedings at the new Sámi Parliament on the banks of the River Juutuanjoki in Inari, northern Finland, and linguists in glass booths translate the registrar’s opening gambit into the distinctive sounds of the South Sámi and Skolt Sámi languages, as the assembled delegates listen intently through Bosch headphones. Their traditional cobalt blue felt tunics and red, beaded bonnets appear strangely at odds with the charcoal grey upholstery and modernist lines of the oval wooden chamber. “This is the culmination of years of work,” says Tiina Sanila-Aikio, a 29-year-old member of parliament wearing a fringed red silk scarf. “I think this building will boost the credibility of the Sámi parliament. It’s a landmark.”
The €15m complex, designed by Helsinki architects Halo, is inspired by the shape of a reindeer bone. Every aspect of the modern building is related to Sámi culture: in the parliament chamber, politicians sit under an installation by local artist Outi Pieski that resembles the silver Sámi brooch, the solju, which is thought to date back to a time when Sámi used coins as ornaments. The pine-clad interior mimics the traditional curved birch drinking cup, the kuksa. “And look in here,” says one of the centre’s project managers, Marja Männistö, as she beckons monocle into a brand-new tv studio. “This is the modern, hi-tech Sámi culture at work. We have a film festival here in Inari. We are training media graduates. And look at the huge windows. It’s very important for the Sámi to be close to nature.”
The Sámi are the Nordic countries’ only official indigenous people. Their semi-nomadic communities have lived for millennia in the region of Sápmi – a partly sub-Arctic territory that stretches across Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. They are an ethnic minority that share a beleaguered history. From brutal assimilation programmes in Norway to degrading ethnographic scrutiny in Sweden and the forced collectivisation in the kolkhoz of Russia, Sámi culture has endured varying degrees of repression. In Norway, government policy sent generations of Sámi children to state-run boarding schools where their mother tongue was forbidden. The land act of 1902 effectively outlawed Sámi names until the late 1960s. “Many people are still traumatised from this period,” says radio presenter Wenche Marie Hotta, as she tucks into lashings of boiled reindeer at a craft fête in the Norwegian town of Karasjok. “There are still scars from this time. Our parents were taught to be ashamed of the Sámi language. Many of my generation don’t speak Sámi at all. Because of this, our languages very nearly died out.”
In 1997, the King of Norway officially apologised for the country’s harsh “Norwegianisation” scheme. But this open contrition did not come before a few major bust-ups that brought the Sámi cause to the world’s attention. The Sámi campaign against a government plan to build a hydro-electric dam on the river Alta in Finnmark county in 1979 was a turning point for the group’s rights in Norway and the whole Sápmi region. The international media watched as protesters in traditional gákti dress staged some of the biggest social unrest Norway had seen since the Second World War. Seven hunger strikers lay emaciated in hospital beds and Norwegian police (who lodged on a cruise ship moored off the coast) were photographed evicting elderly Sámi protesters by force.
The images have become vivid, rallying symbols of defiance for contemporary Sámi people. In her home on Swedish Hill in the Norwegian town of Karasjok, fashion designer Anne Berit Anti shows monocle her homage to the Alta episode. “My uncle was a hunger striker, so I’ve used Alta as inspiration for my collection,” she says, waving a chiffon shirt screen-printed with images of Sámis holding placards outside the parliament in Oslo. “They were chanting ‘Let the River Live!’” she says, “And this is the Sámi political rights activist Niillas Somby who lost an arm trying to blow up a bridge near Alta in protest to the dam. I printed his severed hand on this skirt. Without Alta I don’t think we would have our parliament. So I want to lift these people up in my work.”
In spite of the Sámi’s bitter opposition, the Alta dam was built. But it was a turning point for Sámi rights. “You could look at this as a compensation,” says communications adviser Anders Henrickson, as he shows monocle around the vaulted chamber of the Norwegian Sámi parliament, the Sámediggi – a spike of Siberian birch and glass that perches on a hill at the other end of Karasjok. Built in 2000 by the architects Stein Halvorsen and Christian Sundby the handsome building is a riff on the Sámi’s traditional lavvu, a tipi-style tent that reindeer herders still use as shelter during their stints in the tundra. “These seats are inspired by the reindeer hide,” Henrickson says. “The Sámi parliament in Norway was established in 1989, so it was after Alta,” adds Henrickson. “Alta is what earned us ilo [International Labour Organisation] Convention 169. A lot of things happened after that.”
In many ways the ilo 169 is the mantra of the modern Sámi people. The legally binding UN-affiliated convention enshrines the rights of indigenous and tribal people and has become the bedrock of the Sámi’s cultural regeneration in Norway. “With ilo 169 the Sámi have the right to their language in any hospital, school or public office,” says Anne Jannok, political adviser on pedagogical issues in her office in the Samediggi. “Wherever you are in the country you are entitled to a translator. You must have texts books in Sámi. My main concern is making sure that’s possible. This has to happen all over the country.”
Norway’s copious oil revenues are also helping the Sámi cultural renaissance. At the Samediggi the elected politicians have a budget of kr350m (€47m) set aside each year for cultural and linguistic programmes. Some of its projects are ultra-niche. In the wooden eaves of the parliament building, Joseph Fjellgren is busy creating new words for South Sámi, his mother tongue, and a language that has only a few hundred speakers left. “South Sámi has hundreds of words for reindeer antlers, even configurations of antler, and so many words for terrain and snow but very few for modern concepts,” Fjellgren tells monocle as he leafs through a South Sámi dictionary. “Look, there is no word for farming here. So it’s a lot of inventing. Today, I am working on a term for the phrase ‘drug addict’. The terminology board can’t decide on this one. I am also writing a book of poems in my local dialect; we only have 10 speakers left. I’m doing my bit for its revitalisation.”
Specialists like Fjellgren are key to the survival of the Sámi culture and both parliaments in Norway and Finland devote large resources to linguistic regeneration. Finland has yet to ratify the ilo amendment but despite this, in the past decade the Sámi languages have been brought back from the brink of extinction and in many areas are flourishing. There is a powerful cultural movement emerging in the region; Sámi culture in all its forms is back in vogue. “I remember when I was young there was only a handful of families in Inari who where openly Sámi,” recalls Pirita Näkkäläjärvi, a Helsinki-based member of the Sámi Parliament of Finland. Over coffee in Inari’s new canteen. “Even when the language was available they didn’t send their children to the Sámi class. Now the situation is the opposite. Everyone wants to be Sámi. With the Sámi radio, the library and the cultural centre young people are moving back to Lapland to work here.”
Yet the beautiful vaulted buildings that the Finnish and Norwegian Sámi parliaments inhabit are somewhat misleading. Neither assembly has any legislative powers of self-determination. Both serve merely a consultative, advisory function to their central governments on Sámi issues. “We have almost no power,” sighs Näkkäläjärvi. “Of course, it would be great to make our own laws. That’s the direction we want to go.”
Some politicians in Inari are sceptical about how much difference the new parliament complex will make, especially since the government in Helsinki owns the land and charges steep rents for the use of it. “The centre hasn’t changed our political and day-to-day work,” says the Finnish-Sámi president, Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi. “Of course, it is important for Finland’s international reputation. Finland is pursuing a UN Security Council two-year term from 2013 to 2014 and it has had many recommendations and appeals from UN and other international bodies to improve the status of Sámi people. The biggest challenge is the low profitability of traditional Sámi livelihoods and the future of the Sámi home area.”
Despite the symbolic splendour of its architecture, the Sámi Parliament in Norway is equally vulnerable to the dictates of Oslo. In the past few years Stortinget (the Norwegian parliament) has ignored Sámi politicians on crucial legislative issues surrounding mining compensation and fishery rights in the fjords of the north where international trawlers have depleted fish stocks in Sámi’s traditional waters. When monocle arrives in Karasjok a delegation from the Samediggi is in Oslo attempting to negotiate the case for reindeer herders, as the government proposes to change the rules on its organisation. “The government wants control over land rights and herding routes so they then can invite mining businesses into this area,” says one bureaucrat at the Samediggi, whose family are in the reindeer business. “They know nothing about reindeer: what they are proposing will kill off the smaller herders. We need self-determination on land rights. Norwegian companies abroad are acting like colonialists. Look at companies like Statoil – they have no care for indigenous people in Canada. Why should this be any different?”
But many of the members of Norwegian Samediggi who are affiliated to national parties are happy with their parliament’s nominal status. In Karasjok the parliamentarians balance careful negotiation and compromise. “We have no power, at least on some critical issues but that doesn’t mean we don’t have informal power,” says Anders Henrickson. “The government has to listen. We have the media – and used skilfully this can be very powerful. And we do have a consultative power. The Sámis have to be consulted in every major issue that affects us. A large part of the focus here is on Sámi culture and language.”
In this regard the Sámi parliaments are doing a sterling job. In both Karasjok and Inari there is a palpable pride in all things Sámi. Young people pile into the bars to watch the weekly yoiking competition – the traditional Sámi song that was unofficially banned from public places for so many years. Today the masters of yoik are local celebrities and sit quaffing pints surrounded by fans. At a Saturday Sámi football tournament in Karasjok monocle meets a squad of cousins in yellow Kill Bill-style strips, all of whom have a strong sense of Sámi identity. “My father was so proud when I decided to go to reindeer herding school,” says 18-year-old Kristi Monica Eira, triumphant after her team’s 6-1 win over a formidable-looking squad with war paint etched onto their high cheekbones. “I’ve now completed two years of study. I had a dream to be a doctor but I wouldn’t want to travel away from here, there’s so much happening.” Her cousin, a psychology student in Tromsø, is also enthusiastic. “This is about the new generation taking over,” she says. “We want to learn the language and know how to make gapmagat reindeer shoes. It may sound just like handicraft to you but to us, this is our identity.”
However imperfect the Sámi representative bodies may be, the new buildings are a great source of pride for the Sámi communities. They are elevated temples to the Sámi culture, packed with young Sámi people hell-bent on restoring their birthright, through literature, linguistics, craft and hard politics.