Norway’s Treatment of Sámi Indigenous People Makes a Mockery of Its Progressive Image

Norway often presents itself as a defender of human rights around the globe. Yet its treatment of indigenous people within its own borders tells a quite different story, as the Sámi population struggles to defend its way of life.

Protesters demonstrate for Sámi rights in Oslo, Norway, March 3, 2023. (Amanda Iversen Orlich)

On March 1, global media outlets reported that Greta Thunberg had been arrested in Oslo while protesting wind turbines. It wasn’t that the climate activist had suddenly taken a stand against renewable energy. Rather, she had joined forces with activists standing up for indigenous people’s plea to be able to continue practicing their culture in Fosen, central Norway. For hundreds of years, this land has been home to reindeer herders — an important tradition, which helps preserve the Sámi’s endangered language. Yet today, the siting in Fosen of wind turbines, which frighten the reindeer, puts its continuation in doubt.

Some five hundred days ago, Norway’s supreme court ruled that the turbines are a violation of indigenous rights under international conventions. Yet they are still running even now — and indeed, even after the ebbing of the short-lived news attention surrounding Thunberg’s role in the protest. Once again, the Norwegian government has proven that it remains indifferent to Sámi lives.

“What’s happening in Norway doesn’t surprise me — [there’s] this double standard of working to protect indigenous groups around the world and presenting itself as this progressive nation, yet not giving a shit about the indigenous people living within its own borders,” Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi tells me. Between reindeer herding and her studies, the twenty-two-year-old is the leader of the Sámi Parliament’s youth committee and is a board member of the Norwegian Sámi Association youth group. During the recent eight days of protest in Oslo, she stood arm in arm with her Sámi sisters and brothers. “We are used to it but that doesn’t make it any less unjust. It’s about time Norway drops the mask. It’s about time the rest of the world sees Norway for what it really is,” she says.

From the outside looking in, the Scandinavian country is often seen as a progressive social democracy. But — as Elle’s comments suggest — a story far less told is that of its colonial past, also striking at indigenous people in Norway itself.

Assimilation Policy

What the government prefers to forget, but the Sámi people cannot, is the system of repression by which the Norwegian state set out to assimilate this population from the 1850s onward.

The Sámi religion had previously been suppressed under Danish rule during the years when Norway was in union with Denmark. When the two countries separated in 1814, as Norway instead formed a union with Sweden, the question of Norwegian identity grew more important, alongside ideas that the Sámi were culturally and racially inferior.

One of the first steps of the state’s so-called Norwegianization policy was to phase out the use of the Sámi language. By the turn of the century, the language would officially be banned in educational settings, and many schools would subject children to physical punishment if they conversed in Sámi. In 1901, boarding schools were established to isolate them from what was seen as an inferior way of life. By then, the government had also begun introducing Norwegian place names to replace the Sámi ones, an attempt to strip these areas of their connection to the people who had lived there long before national borders even existed.

The assimilation efforts would continue long after 1905, the year Norway gained its independence from Sweden. 1956 is often described as the turning point in this history, given the foundation that year of the Saami Council, which was set up by the Ministry of Church and Education Affairs and worked to safeguard Sámi rights. But it would take another forty-one years before the king of Norway became the first state representative to apologize for the injustice it had “inflicted on the Sámi people through the harsh Norwegianization policy.” Decades later, the current prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, struggled to do the same.

Truth and Reconciliation?

As for the wind farms, the Sámi already fought and won their case in court in 2021, thirteen years after they first began advocating against the wind farms’ construction. Ironically, the government set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2018, not only to investigate the state’s assimilation policy and its consequences, but also to establish measures promoting greater equality for minorities in Norway. The investigation is soon to be published.

When it came to removing the wind turbines, Sámi people have had to resort to civil disobedience to get the government’s attention. On February 23, protesters occupied the reception area of the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy and blocked the entrances of several other government departments across Oslo.

“Indigenous rights are human rights. You can’t weigh them against anything else,” says sixteen-year-old Jostein Tennø Loe, a socialist youth board representative. He was among the first activists to be arrested outside the Ministry of Finance. As they were carried away, passersby could hear the sound of joik, the traditional Sámi singing once suppressed by the government’s assimilation efforts. “When Norway, as a democratic state, ignores human rights and ignores the supreme court five hundred days after the ruling, something is deeply wrong,” Jostein says. For the Sámi, who are no strangers to conflict over land, the court’s ruling in their favor came a century too late — but the five hundred days that followed were nothing but a slap in the face.

Not only is reindeer herding a significant part of their culture — it’s also a crucial arena for the Sámi people of Fosen to practice their language. Considering that the Norwegian government is single-handedly responsible for pushing the language to the brink of extinction, the prime minister’s lack of remorse was damning.

As the protest movement continued to grow over the final days of February, the activists succeeded in capturing Norway’s attention — yet protests went on for a full week before Støre finally made his apology and acknowledged that the government had violated Sámi rights. “An apology is the first step toward change, but an apology means nothing unless it’s followed by action,” Elle says. After all, the wind turbines should never have been raised, as the development started before an official decision was made. “To have faith in an apology, you need trust, and I don’t trust Støre nor the rest of the government.”

Meanwhile, the public debate surrounding the Fosen case has exposed the prejudice that lives on long after the days of assimilation policy. Norway is the seventh-richest country in the world, and Statkraft, the state-owned renewable energy company responsible for the turbines, made over $1 billion in profit in the last quarter of 2022 alone: nearly $15 million in profit a day, while the estimated cost of tearing down the turbines is around $100,000–$200,000. Yet today Sámi people have to watch Norwegian leaders and fellow citizens weighing their human rights against these meager costs.

For those critiquing the environmental cost of removing a source of renewable energy, this argument also comes with a hint of irony. Besides the fact that Norway’s wealth is predominantly built on fossil fuels, the country’s leading environmentalists have themselves endorsed the protests. Members of the largest environmental organization for Norwegian youth were among the protesters occupying the energy ministry, and the country’s Green Party also made its presence felt. “The green shift must and can happen at the same time as we put an end to and repair the violations that have been imposed on indigenous peoples and national minorities in Norway for hundreds of years,” says Anna Kvam, deputy Green Party representative for Oslo council. For the government to prove its commitment to Indigenous rights, she suggests the turbines are turned off until they can be taken down.

Jumping Through Hoops

To this day, the consequences of the assimilation policy are widely felt, yet the Norwegian government continues to jump through hoops to avoid responsibility. Fosen is the latest example, but as reported by Minority Rights Group International, there is a wider issue of shrinking herding lands. Even before Fosen made headlines, the UN Human Rights Committee urged the Norwegian government to designate an area for the East Sámi to herd their reindeer, but without effect. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Sámi Parliament, which promotes this community’s rights and concerns, suffers from a lack of funding despite the government being bound by the constitution to “help create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.”

A comment piece by Runar Myrnes Balto of the Norwegian Sámi Association questions how the Sámi Parliament, on a budget lower than that of Oslo’s opera, is supposed to be responsible for preserving Sámi languages and culture (including museums, theatres, festivals, literature, and artists), while representing the Sámi in all matters that concern them on a national, regional, and local level.

Clearly, the prime minister has more than just the Fosen case to deal with if he wants to make it up to the indigenous people of Norway. “Sámi history has been silenced and written out of Norwegian history. The Fosen case might have reached the national media, but it took civil disobedience,” Elle says.

The protests came to an end on March 3 with a commemoration in front of the Norwegian royal palace, as the government was meeting with the king. Outside, hundreds of people sat together in union and listened to the joik filling the square. The vibrant blues and reds of the Sámi costume lit up against the snowy backdrop. It was a peaceful affair, but the activists wore their traditional Sámi kofte (clothing) inside out in silent protest.

“The fight is not over and Støre knows we have no problem occupying the government’s offices again, if necessary,” Elle says. In a few weeks, the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission will present its investigation into the state’s assimilation policy — but for Elle, it is difficult to think about rapprochement in light of the ongoing violations of Sámi people’s rights. “The government must tear down the wind turbines to show they’re serious about reconciliation. Otherwise, it’s incredibly difficult to trust them.”