Skolt Sámi archives candidate for UNESCO list

Skolt Sámi women in Sevettijärvi, Finland.

The National Archives Service of Finland and the Sámi Archives have proposed including the Skolt Sámi archives in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Only 301 items have been listed in the register so far.


The archives from Suonjel, Pechenga, are the most significant body of documentation in the cultural heritage of the Skolt Sámi. The oldest document in the archives dates to 1601 and the most recent document to 1775.

The documents, which form an over nine‑metre scroll, comprise edicts issued by Russian emperors, confirming the rights of the Skolt Sámi to their pasture and fishing territories. The documents are of symbolic significance to the entire Skolt Sámi population and to indigenous people in general.

The Skolt Sámi or Skolts are a Sami ethnic group and are considered to be the indigenous people of the borderland area between present-day Finland, Russia and Norway. Current estimates put the number of ethnic Skolt Sámi at around 1250, of which approximately 400 can speak Skolt Sámi.

Saved from the turmoil of war
The documents in the scroll were joined together using glue made from bones. The long document scroll was kept inside a case carved from a pine tree. The meticulously carved sliding lid of the casing was easy to close tightly to protect the valuable documents from the harsh northern weather conditions.

The archives were stored in a secret location known only to three trusted men, who all came from different families.

The Pechenga area was annexed to Finland by a peace treaty signed in Tartu in 1920. After the onset of the Winter War, the Skolt Sámi were evacuated from Pechenga to Tervola. Finnish border officials saved the archive casing they found in an abandoned village. It was first delivered to the headquarters of the Lapland Border Guard District in Rovaniemi and then, in 1942, to the state archives in Helsinki (the National Archives Service of Finland as of 1994).

The Skolt community did not know the archives had been preserved but thought them destroyed in the turmoil of the war. The archives were not “discovered” until in 1996.

Archives returned to the Sámi district in 2012
The Sámi Archives, a part of the National Archives Service of Finland, launched operations in Inari in 2012 in conjunction with the opening of the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos. In the opening ceremony, the National Archives Service of Finland returned the archives to the Skolt community, who in turn submitted them to the Sámi Archives for permanent preservation. Thus, the historically and culturally unique archives were returned to the Sámi district.

The National Archives Service of Finland and the Sámi Archives have proposed including the Skolt Sámi archives in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, the service says in a press release. Only a small percentage of the items recommended for the list is accepted. At present, a total of 301 collections submitted by 102 different countries, 4 international organizations and one private foundation are inscribed on the International Register of the Memory of the World Programme, the organization’s web site reads. UNESCO will announce the approved items in June or July 2015.