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

The Arctic spring.

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.

Cal Flyn is a freelance journalist, who writes for the Sunday Times, New Statesman and others. Find more of her work at and her Twitter handle is @calflyn.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation