A Sámi tent near the village of Vuollerim in Sweden. Sweden joined Norway and Finland last week in announcing the formation of a truth commission to examine policies of forced assimilation aimed at the Indigenous Sámi population. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP)
It began with a funding announcement — and a modest one at that.
Last week, the Swedish government announced $175,000 for preliminary work for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission on historical injustices against the Sámi, an Indigenous people of Arctic Europe.
It’s the last of the three Scandinavian countries to formally examine forced assimilation policies aimed at Indigenous people, despite organized efforts to create a commission since at least 2006.
Now, Sweden will join Norway and Finland, whose own commissions are already underway, in discovering the true impact of those policies using a method partly inspired by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But those commissions will have to overcome a deep distrust of the process among many Sámi people.
Even before the commissions began, advocates have raised concerns about a process that extracts traumatic stories from Indigenous people with little guarantee of follow-through.
“There are public meetings where people are sharing stories that they have probably never told anyone,” said Christina Henriksen, the president of The Saami Council, a transnational organization representing the Sámi.
“Why are we sharing all this, if it’s not going to do something for our future existence within these national states?”
Sámi herdsmen photographed in 1969. Starting centuries ago, Sámi have been the target of forced assimilation policies in Norway, Sweden and Finland. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)
A model for reconciliation
For millennia, the Sámi have hunted, fished, and herded reindeer in northern Scandinavia, occupying a broad territory stretching from the Norway’s western coast to Russian shores on the Barents Sea.
But from at least the 19th century, European governments in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia pursued aggressive policies of assimilation grounded in racism.
Sámi were put in residential schools and forced to convert to Christianity. Cultural and spiritual sites were desecrated, and Sámi languages were suppressed.
That process, Sámi say, has not ended.
Those Sámi languages that have not already gone extinct are endangered. Advocates say racism has recently intensified as they have pushed for rights to manage lands and resources.
Truth is great … but what is the point if it’s just another report put into the drawer?– Christina Henriksen, President of The Saami Council
“The majority population has been taught that they are an inferior, lower class of people,” reads a 2018 report prepared for the Finnish prime minister on the feasibility of a truth commission.
“This way of thinking alone may also have a strongly finnicising [assimilating into Finnish] influence.”
In Sámi parliaments across Scandinavia, political leaders have suggested truth commissions as one means of addressing these systemic inequalities.
“Sweden’s dark history must be brought into the light for real change to be possible,” reads a statement from Per-Olof Nutti, the president of Sweden’s Sámi parliament. “A truth commission can both investigate and suggest what measures can be taken.”
The Sámi truth commissions are drawing direct inspiration from the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which relied heavily on public testimony. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Many have looked to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for inspiration, which completed its work in 2015.
Nutti heard directly from Dr. Paulette Regan, the senior researcher for Canada’s commission, and Chief Wilton Littlechild, one of the commissioners, in developing the Swedish process.
In Norway, where a commission started its work in 2018, organizers were inspired by Canada’s method of public hearings, which they are mirroring in their own process.
They were also inspired to invest in “psychosocial support” for those who testify, partnering with a Sámi health institute to deliver the services, according to Dagfinn Høybråten, the commission’s chair.
“I’m impressed by the depth and how comprehensive the process [in Canada] has been,” said Høybråten. “But I’m also aware that it’s been criticised, and it’s been controversial, and much of the success of a process like this is not only in a thorough investigation, but certainly in a thorough and committed followup.”
Another report in the drawer
It’s the followup that concerns many Sámi participants in the truth commission process.
“Of course we want the truth to come out,” said Henriksen, with The Saami Council. “We want the Norwegian and Sámi society to know what has happened in Norway, and in Sweden, and in Finland, but in many ways we already know that.”
“So truth is great … but what is the point if it’s just another report put into the drawer?”
The commissions’ work is further complicated by the actions of the Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish governments, which at times are at odds with the message of reconciliation.
In Finland, “consultations revealed that the Sámi do not trust the Finnish government and harbour a deep mistrust of the government’s plans,” the report to the Finnish prime minister reads.
The Sámi flag flies in front of Oslo City Hall. Sámi advocates say knowledge of their culture among the majority population is poor, which contributes to a culture of discrimination. (Terje Pedersen/AFP via Getty Images)
“They suspect that … the Finnish government is trying to improve its reputation internationally as a country that respects human rights … at the same time [as] it is further weakening the rights of the Sámi people.”
That lack of trust is a hurdle for a process that relies on the goodwill of Indigenous people to disclose traumatic personal histories.
“[For] old people this is like the last violation, telling some officials here what they would usually tell psychiatrists,” reads one anonymous testimony included in the Finnish report. “Then they just put it in the file right at the back…. It conflicts with my sense of justice.”
Rauna Kuokkanen, a Finnish Sámi scholar, wrote that when forming truth commissions, settler states often define reconciliation as the venting of individual psychological traumas, rather than the eradication of structural causes of injustice.
Or in the words of Henriksen, The Saami Council president, “the truth overshadows the reconciliation.”
Following through on reconciliation
For Henriksen, the truth commissions now underway across Scandinavia must find a way to meaningfully involve the non-Indigenous majority if they are to make progress on reconciliation.
“Why should they think this is interesting? Why should they feel that this has something to do with them? Because at the moment, the majority population can just say, the Sámi issue is not our issue,” she said.
That was echoed by the Finnish report.
“In Finland, information and knowledge about the Sámi people is highly inadequate, which is seen as being one reason why the majority population view the Sámi negatively,” it reads.
More tangible reforms may not be on the table. Norway’s truth commission excluded from its mandate questions of compensation and open matters of legal dispute, which include core issues like land rights.
That is a problem for Sámi scholar Kuokkanen, who writes that in Finland’s case, the only meaningful sign of reconciliation will be tangible progress toward self-government.
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“It is unlikely that the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] will succeed in bringing such a fundamental foundational shift,” she concludes. “The Sámi may well be reconciled into a contemporary injustice as the consequence.”
For commissioners like Norway’s Høybråten, the question is a political one — how to make recommendations that address systemic inequalities, but remain palatable to settler politicians.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to recommend some measures that politically, will be feasible,” he said, “and maybe also, so strong that it can’t be ignored.”