“They tried to make us tourists in our homelands”

Interview with Áslat Holmberg and Kukka Ranta

In Northern Europe, around 80,000 Sámi live in a region stretching over four countries. As one of the world’s Indigenous People, many work as coastal fishers, shepherds or semi-nomadic reindeer herders. For long periods of time, the Sámi lifestyle thrived because of its adaptation to the Arctic environment. Today, their traditional homelands are increasingly under threat.

“I have been working on human rights and minority rights for 15 years. More recently, I started to look at assimilative social structures in everyday politics in Finland.” Researcher and journalist Kukka Ranta is originally from southeast Finland, lives in Helsinki and focuses her work on Finnish colonialism. A part of Ranta’s work has now been published in the book Vastatuuleen about the forced assimilation of the Sámi population in Finland.

“My passport name is Aslak, but in Sámi, I am referred to as Áslat.” Áslat Holmberg is the vice president of the Saami Council, an NGO active in the four countries that encompass Sámi territory—Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia—though the organisation has recently had to cease operations in Russia. “I’m a salmon fisher from the village of Nuorgam—the northernmost village on the Finnish side of the Sámi homelands, next to the Deatnu river.” A scholar, politician and activist, Áslat’s work primarily revolves around environmental issues in the Arctic.

Áslat, what does being Sámi mean to you?

Holmberg: “Where and how I grew up has coloured everything I do. It’s the reason why I work around Sámi and indigenous issues today. When I was a child, our family worked with reindeer on the tundra highlands during autumn, winter and spring. Our summer times revolved around salmon fishing in the Deatnu river valleys. My father is a very eager salmon fisher—from the moment I was able to be on a boat, I’ve been helping him out .” 

Ranta: “Finnish people regard Lapland—the whole area in the north, including the Sámi homeland, referred to as Sápmi—as a wildness. But for the Sámi, it’s full of cultural heritage signs. Their place names carry all kinds of information: the history of their ancestors, the stories of the area, the region’s assets for reindeer.” 

Holmberg: “We have strong ties to our home, and it’s important that I can sustain myself, at least to an extent. I mainly eat fish that I catch myself and reindeer meat from my friends. By getting my nutrition from my surroundings, I connect myself to the area where my father and grandfather have always lived.”

“Older generations made do with virtually no stores to buy your food—you had to survive with what you had. So my father has this urge that you have to go pick berries when the cloudberry season starts. It’s not like something you contemplate—it is something you do because it’s a part of life. When the fishing season starts, my father usually gets quite restless. The need to go fishing is almost physical. Because when the salmon is coming, you have to start preparing for the winter.”

Ranta: “Because they live in symbiosis with nature, the Sámi have hundreds of words for snow, each conveying specific information. There are hundreds, if not thousands of words to talk about reindeer. Through language, you live the culture.”

The Haukivaara area in Partako, Inari, was clearcut in the early 1990s—most trees uniformly razed in one go. The felling destroyed the abundant luppo and lichen meadows at this important grazing area of the Muddusjärvi community.

Growing up in southeast Finland, were you at all aware of the indigenous people of Finland? 

Ranta: “I remember once at the lecture where we were taught our mother language, the Finnish language and grammar, a teacher told us one sentence in the Northern Sámi language, and I remember being really curious—I had never heard about its existence.”

“When I started to be interested in this topic and started to talk to the people around me, I was shocked they knew so little—and the level of racism was really, really high. But then they’d also admit that they actually didn’t know anything about the topic.” 

“The lack of information is a structural problem. Because in schools, we don’t get taught about Sámi. So the level of knowledge among the general population and among media professionals and among political decision-makers is very, very low.” 

As the only indigenous people in the EU, the Sámi receive protection under the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which underlines the importance of self-determination multiple times. What does the concept mean to you?

Holmberg: “Simply put, it’s the right to make decisions pertaining to your life—and the very foundation of your life is your land. It means that you have the right to decide how your territories, including the water and the resources, are used. Most decisions that impact our lives are made by others than ourselves. Many of the issues that shape our future are not in our own hands, whether it’s legislation that regulates overfishing or determines how reindeer herding should be done.”

“At the same time, being Sámi today also means not respecting the rule of others. In my activist career, I have been public about breaking unjust laws that go against our right to our culture.” 

Ranta: “It’s a simple fact that Finland is a colonial state—it always has been, and it still is. There is a stream of political and commercial decisions around land use, whether it’s about building wind power plants, designating new tourism areas or mining gold mechanically. And it’s always the same: many Sámi people find out that something new is happening in their homeland when they read the news.”

Two Sámi women attend a court case in February 2019, where the judge ruled that, as an indigenous people, the Sámi have the right to maintain their cultural heritage.

One of the established rights in the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People is that states shall consult and cooperate with the indigenous peoples before adopting any measures that may affect them. But it seems that the Sámi are structurally kept on the sidelines.

Holmberg: “There’s a fundamental Sámi concept of Bivdit Lobi which means to ask for permission. If you go to a place, you have to state your intentions first and declare who you are and what you want. Then you should ask for permission. Am I welcomed here? Can I do this or that?”

Holmberg: “The way things are done in Finland is not even close to respecting our human rights. There’s the practice of negotiation, which is required by law. The Sámi Parliament acts as a representative institution, but if you look at the set-up, legislators are only required to hear the Sámi parliament—not necessarily listen to it. It provides an arena for us to state our concerns, while the right to self-determination is a material, universal right to make decisions. And, in some cases, the right to say no. That ‘no’ has to be respected, but currently, that is not the case for us. As was said by the first president of the Sámi parliament in Finland: the only thing that the Sámi Parliament can decide on is when they hold their next meeting.” 

Holmberg: “The Sámi Parliament generally writes more than 100 statements a year. Every time, they need to appeal to the system that’s in place and argue for the importance of taking our traditional practices into account. Then, we wait and wish for the best.”

Any company that wants to start mining on Sámi territory can “reserve” an area of up to hundreds of square kilometres for exploration. Does this process allow for the protection of the traditional homeland? 

Holmberg: “Last year, one company reserved 1800 square kilometres in the northern municipality of  Inari. Reservation means that a company is applying for an exploration permit, where they can drill samples. After that comes the mining permit. There are only two reasons for a reservation to be denied: if the company doesn’t have the capacity to establish a mine or if another one has already reserved that area. For the company, it’s so simple that it’s just a formality. But if you, as a Sámi person who is using that area, see that a mining company now has the priority to use this land as they wish, it renders you powerless.”

Ranta: “There’s no overview of all the industrial and economic plans in the Sámi homeland. When you apply for mining permits in an area, the administration only looks at your request, but the surrounding region might already be full of mechanical gold miners.” 

So there’s a risk of overcrowding the land?

Holmberg: “Indeed, the lack of assessment of the cumulative impacts of all different forms of land use in Sámi territories is quite problematic.” 

The Kutturantie area is an important summer grazing and calving area for the Hammastunturi and Ivalo communities. It is now filled with gold mining machinery, large excavation pits and loud noises that the reindeer shy away from.

How does this impact people’s everyday lives? 

Holmberg: “We live under the colonial rule of the states of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. They are still implementing different ways of taking our lands piece by piece. It’s a threat looming over our heads all the time. It’s simple mathematics. If we lose territories or resources to others, we become less economically viable. That means that we have less ability to adapt to the future.”

Ranta: “Every Sámi generation has lost lands and has been fighting for their culture. We need to understand what has already been lost during the last century, including to logging, artificial lakes, and tourism. That’s the big picture we have to look at, instead of focusing on a very small part of it.”

Are commercial companies the main dangers to Sámi homelands? Or are modern politics still doing more harm than good? 

Holmberg: “We’ve had problematic pieces of legislation like fishing laws that basically forbade the Sámi to fish in their home rivers, in the name of conservation. They tried to make us tourists in our homelands and waters. Well, they failed in that because the Sámi took the government to court.” 

Ranta: “It was the first time that Sámi rights were challenged in a criminal court case.” 

Holmberg: “And we took home the victory—the highest court recognised that our rights to our territories and traditional practices were not respected in the new legislation.”

Holmberg: “The problem is more widespread than that. The State parks and forest enterprise, Metsähallitus, also claims ownership of the Sámi territories and governs the area. A 2016 piece of legislation defines how Metsähallitus works. In the last moments of the renewal of the Act on Metsähallitus, they decided to remove the paragraphs on the protection of the Sámi altogether. That’s how they can change designated protected areas to an area with production expectations—something that could be used for logging or mining, or tourism. And I would argue that what is best for us often is not best for the 1,000 tourists who want to come to our territory.”

So would you say that the Finnish priorities lie more with revenue than with protection?

Holmberg: “We live so high north, so we don’t really have agriculture. I guess that has protected us from further colonisation for a long time. If our land could be used for agriculture, it may have been taken over already. But we have resources. Logging is one of the big issues that impact the Sámi today. We use the old forests as grazing lands, but the state sees them as financial gain.” 

Holmberg: “If your reindeer cannot find food because the forests have thinned, herders have to bring extra food to the lost grazing lands. You have to work much more, bringing hundreds of kilos of grass to the tundra and the forests. It’s not the easiest way of making your living to work as a reindeer herder or a fisherman, so some quit.” 

Ranta: “This pressure on the land is causing a lot of worries for families, especially for youth when they decide how to live their lives. And many times, Sámi need to study international law and Finnish law just to be able to defend themselves. Life in the community is very rich in culture, but it can also be very tiring.”

Holmberg: “Yes, it’s challenging to live traditionally. Of course it’s hard to pinpoint exactly the cause and effect. People today have all these possibilities to educate themselves and work in whatever field they want. But when there is less land for us to work on, it automatically means that there are fewer opportunities for people to be engaged in traditional livelihoods.”

These concepts of environmental protection and traditional livelihoods often seem to be pitted against each other. 

Ranta: “Especially the media in the north of Finland give a lot of space for economic representatives. Every time the Sámi parliament is against a new mine because they are protecting their nature and their lands, the coverage enforces this public image of Sámi constantly pushing against economic development.” 

Holmberg: “Twist the picture around. You could say that we are not against something, but pro something else. We’re not against progress, but we are working to secure our way of life. In general, these are the only moments when we are heard. When the majority of society wants to do this or that, and we object, that’s when we make the headlines. So that negative perception is only deepened.”

Ranta: “And we need to remember that indigenous cultures keep biodiversity strong in their areas. Areas that were logged in the nineties are still bare today.”

Holmberg: “It can take 300 years for a forest to grow. Knowing that, you can ask yourself: is it really a renewable resource if it takes five generations to come back?”

In the family of Osmo Seurujärvi, extra feeding has become essential for the reindeer to survive the winter. Jussa Seurujärvi is determined to continue in his father's footsteps as a reindeer herder, despite the threats to the future of the industry.

Around the world, a strengthened indigenous movement now connects and collaborates on many issues together. Do you think the global movement has brought some hope and relief?

Holmberg: “In a way, the movement works as peer support to talk about shared concerns and similar struggles. And, of course, there are also good examples where people have managed to protect their territories and their way of life. A part of the international work is to support one another—to share strategies, methods on language revitalisation, education, transfer of indigenous knowledge, and so on.” 

Ranta: “A great example was the North Dakota pipeline protest, where a group of Sámi visited to exchange knowledge like how to survive in freezing temperatures.”

Holmberg: “Yes, that’s true. It was empowering to see 10,000 people coming there to support indigenous peoples’ rights. It demonstrated how we could mobilise on a scale never seen before. It inspired us to strengthen our ties to civil society in the Nordic countries. It taught us to build that kind of support so that it’s not just ourselves struggling.”

How do you look at the future?

Holmberg: “It’s looking very concerning, to be honest. The whole Arctic ecosystem is changing. Because we are attached to these lands and live according to the season, climate change impacts our everyday lives and culture. There is a lot of concern and sadness because there will be many things that we’ll have to give up because the Arctic is changing so rapidly. What gives me hope is this way of growing attention and appreciation for Sámi and indigenous rights. Because of the ecological collapse happening globally, people have realised that the way our world is revolving currently, is not sustainable. People are looking to indigenous peoples for guidance on shifting to a more sustainable way of life. I hope this respect can materialise.”

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Photography by

Kukka Ranta