Heated debate over “Sáminess” in Finland

The Sámi Parliament in FInland is located in Inari.

The question about who should be accepted as Sámi is under debate after the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland accepted nearly 100 new people as Sámi against the will of the Sámi Parliament.


The Sámi people of Finland on Sunday voted in the Sámi Parliament elections. The preparations for the elections have been overshadowed by a process that the representatives of the Sámi people consider unlawful.

The elections of the Sámi Parliament in Finland are conducted every four years to choose 21 representatives for the cultural self-government organ of the Sámi people, the Sámi Parliament, Sámediggi.

As part of the election process, persons can apply to be listed as voters in the electoral register of the Sámi Parliament. Several organs of the Sámi Parliament give their opinions on the applications and approve part of the applicants as Sámi. However, the ultimate decision-maker in the issue is the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland.

This spring the Sámi Parliament accepted about 500 new people to the register. Most of them are children of the members of the register who had turned 18 since the last elections.

According to Finnish Law, a Sámi is a person who considers himself a Sámi, provided that a) he himself or at least one of his parents or grandparents has learnt Sámi as his first language; b) he is a descendent of a person who has been entered in a land, taxation or population register as a mountain, forest or fishing Lapp; or c) that at least one of his parents has or could have been registered as an elector for an election to the Sámi Delegation or the Sámi Parliament.

After the recognition of the Sámi people as an indigenous people, hundreds of new people have applied to be Sámi. The Sámi Parliament has systematically rejected the applications of the new-comers while the Supreme Administrative Court has accepted some applicants as Sámi, for example four persons in 2011.

93 people accepted as Sámi against the will of Sámi Parliament
The latest twist to the Sámi definition saga came on Wednesday, as the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland gave their latest decision on the applications in 2015. 182 people who had their applications as Sámi persons rejected by the Sámi Parliament, appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court. About a half of the applications – 93, were accepted by the court as Sámi persons, Yle Sapmi reports. 

The Sámi Parliament does not consider the rejected applicants as Sámi people, arguing that group acceptance is an essential part of for example the UN Declaration on the rights of the indigenous peoples (UNDRIP).

Sámi president: Forced assimilation
The president of Sámi Parliament, Tiina Sanila-Aikio is very disappointed.

“The Supreme Administrative Court shows that a forced assimilation of the Sámi people in Finnish people has happened. This is a question of collective Sámi rights and not about the rights of individual persons,” she said to Yle Sapmi. “The cultural self-government of the Sámi people in Finland is under threat”.

The Sámi Parliament later issued a statement saying the decision by the Supreme Administrative Court violates the rights of the Sámi people as an indigenous people.

The former president of the Sámi Parliament Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi had the strongest reaction of the day. He resigns from the electoral roll the Sámi Parliament. “The decision of the Supreme Administrative Court leads to a forced assimilation of the Sámi people into the Finnish people. The Sámi people can’t trust the Finnish judicial system anymore,” Näkkäläjärvi said, according to Yle Sapmi.

Advocate of the “Sámi without a status” was now accepted as a Sámi
Researcher Erika Sarivaara was one of the 93 appellants contesting the decision of the Sámi Parliament. She is well known in the community for her 2012 doctoral dissertation, which introduced the concept of the “Sámi without a status”. Sarivaara said that inclusion in the electoral register is an important part of Sámi identity.

“Regardless of their Sámi roots and language the Sámi without a status are not official members of the Sámi community. Only those who have been entered in the Sámi Parliament’s electoral register have that status,” she observed.

“According to the research, conscious Sámi without a status consider their situation problematic because they do not have the official Sámi status. It is essential to note that inclusion in the electoral register of the Sámi Parliament is important in terms of Sámi identity,” Sarivaara said to Yle.

There are about 6 000 voters in the electoral roll while there are about 10 000 Sámi in Finland in total.