Norway's Native Northerners Dig In To Defend Land, Lifestyle, Language

When the indigenous Saami people of northern Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia's Kola Peninsula speak of the North, they call it Saamiland. Over 80,000 people in the world say they are Saami. One third of them live in Norway.

Formerly known as Lapland, Saamiland is rich with gold and diamond reserves beneath the Arctic snow. In Norway, mining multinationals and their local partners want to dig up those riches. And the government says it controls these "crown" lands and wants to open up concessions.

But Saami leaders say they never gave up ownership of this territory to Norway - a region they have lived in for more than 10,000 years as nomadic reindeer herders.

Now thanks to a government report to be issued Jan. 30, the Saami may find themselves one step closer to Norway recognizing their right to their ancient lands.

Like many indigenous peoples around the world, the Saami have found their land, as well as their culture, overshadowed for centuries by a national government with its own particular agenda.

"During the 18th century," says Ole Henrik Magga, president of the Saami Parliament, "the Norwegian government installed itself as a private landowner in the Saami area, and sent in colonists from the south with paper in their hands telling them that this is your land from this valley to this river, and this mountain and so on, without asking the Saami," who were there first.

Now, political pressure is mounting to settle the land rights dispute once and for all. In 1980, following massive protests the year before by Saamis and environmentalists against a dam constructed along the large Alta River - in traditional Saami territory - the Norwegian government allowed the creation of the Saami Parliament (an elected body that can advise, but not make laws, on issues that affect the Saami) and amended the Norwegian Constitution to highlight Norway's responsibility to support, rather than assimilate, Saami culture.

At this time, the government also appointed a Saami Land Rights Commission to study the thorny issue of Saami land claims in the north. The report to be issued by the commission on Jan. 30 is its most important finding so far on the legal basis for Saami land rights - 16 years after the report was first commissioned.

While the commission can merely make nonbinding recommendations, it is expected that one suggestion, the creation of a land-management board comprising Saami and government representatives, will be adopted.

Even so, none of the board's decisions would be implemented unless backed up by the Norwegian parliament.

Residents since the Ice Age

The Saamis base their land rights on historical practice: They once followed a seminomadic way of life - hunting, fishing, and herding reindeer. Their identity, spirituality, and communal ownership of the land reflected this way of life.

In fact, their ancestors first migrated to the region around 8000 BC, following wild reindeer north when the Ice Age began to recede.

Now, only 10 percent of the Saami population in Norway still herds reindeer. And with some notable exceptions, the herders are being squeezed out of their livelihood because of reduced grazing land and higher costs.

But in the fight over who controls the North's natural resources, the reindeer herder's land-based way of life remains a symbol as the most easily recognized strain of Saami identity - though many Saamis today find this image of themselves quaint.

"The main issue today is whether the Saamis have the right to self-determination," says human rights legal expert John Henriksen. "Part of the right to self-determination is control over the land and natural resources."

Saami renewal today is a reaction against aggressive assimilation policies carried out by successive Norwegian governments that stretch back well over a century.

Assimilation and renewal

As colonists moved in from the south, several Norwegian rules and laws repressed Saami life, and even suffocated the language in some regions.

Rules were created to block Norwegian officials marrying into Saami families, and at one point, one could own land only if one could read, write, and speak Norwegian. With few exceptions, as late as 20 years ago Saami children were sent to Norwegian-only public schools. The Saami were hampered by the fact that it was not until recently that they had a written language. Even now, most older Saami do not read or write their own language.

They have even reclaimed their name. Laplander meant "rag lander." Saami is the name by which they refer to themselves, and recently national governments have begun to recognize this name and use it.

No one this reporter met could describe, clearly, what Saami culture looks and feels like now. Even within the small reindeer-herding proportion of Saami society, some people are questioning traditions such as property rights that favor men, said to be Saami ones.

"The problem is that Saami culture is really disappearing, because we haven't had any protection in the law when it comes to land rights and when it comes to culture. And these two things are linked together because the land is the basis for the culture," says Mr. Magga.

While they discuss what being Saami means, contemporary Saami leaders have made the jump from renewing Saami pride to focusing attention on what is probably the most consequential, long-term issue for northern Saami society: control of the Saami traditional lands and their natural resources. "We want protection from exploitation from outside," insists Magga. "And we want at least our share of the profits, because the process has been so far that people from outside ... take what they want, and there is nothing left for us."

The Norwegian government and Rio Tinto Zink, the mining company with the rights to explore but not develop deposits, say that they will wait until the land rights question is resolved before miners begin to blast and dig.

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