Lapland's Sami people: how do you decide who is indigenous and who isn't?

The Arctic spring.

A Lapp tent near the village of Vuollerim, Lapland province, west of the costal city of Luleaa, Sweden. Photograph: Getty Images

Far above the Arctic Circle, at the northern limits of Scandinavia, live one of Europe’s last indigenous peoples, the Sami. They are, or for the most part were, a seminomadic group, migrating with their reindeer from the forests to the northern coast for the short Arctic summer. But modern life has encroached on the Sami’s traditional lifestyle: roads and new national borders have sprung up across centuries-old migration routes, and many of the old ways of life have been lost because of government policies that sent generations of Sami children to boarding schools in the south.

In Finland, Sami campaigners are nearing the end of a long battle to have their right to land that they have inhabited for centuries recognised in law. They propose, in line with the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, that control of 20,000 square miles of state land should pass to the Sami parliament in Inari, 800 miles north of Helsinki.

Under this move, backed in September by the UN’s committee for the eradication of racial discrimination, 10 per cent of Finland’s land area would be handed over to 21 representatives voted in by the Sami population. With these new powers, the Sami parliament might then seek compensation for use of its resources, now and in the past.

The current Helsinki government has pledged to resolve this issue finally during its term of office. But here in Enontekiö, in the heart of Lapland, the prospect of altering the status quo to favour one ethnic group has reignited friction in the community that has lain dormant for years. Finnish reindeer herders bicker with their Sami counterparts over who was where first – and thus who has best claim over the land. Local entrepreneurs fear ruin if their access to the wilderness and its fishing and forestry is curtailed. Others trawl their family trees for Sami relatives so that they, too, might benefit from the changes.

The mayor of Enontekiö, Mikko Kärnä, has been vocal in opposing the proposal. He told me: “Only 10 per cent of Enontekiö residents are on the Sami [electoral] register: [if land rights are granted] the Sami parliament will have a lot more power than that proportion would suggest.” One point of contention is how to choose who will benefit from the changes. “Almost all northern people have some Sami blood in them somewhere – 95 per cent of all people in Lapland, according to one study. So where can we draw the line?”

The current rules are clear: an applicant to join the register must be a native speaker of a Sami language, or prove that a parent or grandparent was. But many who continue to live a traditional lifestyle have lost their language and are excluded as a result. Erika Sarivaara, a university researcher, had her application for Sami status rejected. In response, she has started a rival register of “non-status Sami” who seek recognition. “My ancestors have lived here for hundreds of years,” she says. “If we say we are indigenous, then that has to be respected.”

The test of the Sami parliament may be over how it wields any powers. Will members choose to oust their Finnish neighbours from the land in revenge for decades of persecution? And how will they treat their own minorities, the groups that feel excluded from their success?

On Sarivaara’s kitchen table is a copy of the local newspaper. Its front page is emblazoned with the garish Sami flag. “Kuka on Saamelainen?” asks the headline: “Who is Sami?” It seems that no one here knows – but they had better find out, and soon.