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Sámi National Day celebrated – 100 years since first Sámi Conference

February 6 is international Sámi National Day, which celebrates Sámi ethnic minorities and their culture. This year is the centennial of the first international Sámi Conference in Trondheim, Norway. President Sauli Niinistö held a speech in Inari to mark the occasion. Sámi rights are still in crisis in Finland.

Standing Rock
Sámi women Inger Biret Kvernmo Gaup, Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska and Sofia Jannok protesting at Standing Rock in the USA in 2016. Image: Inger Biret Kvermo Gaup

One hundred years ago on February 6 the first ever Sámi Congress marked the first time that Norwegian and Swedish Sámi people came together across cultural and national borders to discuss solutions to issues faced by all members of the northernmost ethnic minority in Europe.

The date was not set as the official and annual national day until 1992 at the 15th Sámi Conference in Helsinki, as a historical nod to the landmark meeting. In Finland the day has only been recognised in the official almanac since 2004.

The day is for all Sámi people regardless of where in the world they live.

An estimated 137,000 people in the world are Sámi. The highest populations are in Norway and Sweden, with a large extant population of some 30,000 people living in the United States. The Finnish Sámi population is estimated to be just under 10,000 people, and less than 2,000 people within the Russian Federation.

Children of the Sun

People observing the national day are likely to be flying the Sámi flag, whose current form is the second incarnation (from 1986) of an earlier, unofficial flag (1977). The design is unusual for a civil flag and ensign, with two asymmetrical rectangles superimposed with vertical lines running through a circle.

Saamelaisten kansallispäivän kunniaksi lippu liehui salossa Helsingin Narinkkatorilla 6. helmikuuta 2013.
The Sámi flag. Image: Trond H. Trosdahl / Lehtikuva
The colours of the flag – red, blue, yellow and green – are all found in varieties of the gákti, the Sámi national dress. The circle represents both the moon and the sun, a reference to sun-moon symbolism found on traditional shamanistic Sámi drums. The only colour allowed on shaman drums is red – derived from an extract of the sacred alder tree – but the flag uses both red and blue to differentiate between the two celestial bodies.

A traditional joik song called Päiven parneh, written down by a Protestant priest in the 19th century and containing many mythological elements, describes the Sámi people as "the children of the sun". The Sámi national anthem also makes mention of the "offspring of the Sons of the Sun". These references tie in closely with the phenomenon of kaamos or skábma, a period north of the Arctic Circle where the sun does not rise at all for several months.

Way of life praised, at risk

Visiting the city of Inari in Lapland on Monday, President Sauli Niinistö held a speech on Finnish-Sámi relations, and about the character of the Sámi people.

"The Sámi languages, culture and livelihood – the entire Sámi way of life – is a boon to Finland," the President said. "As the only indigenous population in all of the EU, Sámi people have been vocal about their rights. I hope that the cooperation between the Finnish government and the Sámi people will only improve."

Finland has still yet to ratify the international ILO 169 agreement on indigenous and tribal rights. It is the only international treaty open for ratification that deals exclusively with the rights of these peoples. Finland Sámi have had access to Sámi language instruction in some schools since the 1970s, and language rights were established in 1992.

Sámi people have always had meagre representation in Finnish politics. The first Sámi person to be elected to the Finnish Parliament was Janne Seurujärvi for the Centre Party in 2007.

Activist groups like Suohpanterror and a variety of Sámi artists, musicians and poets actively campaign for the rights of their own people in Finland.

Bad blood, good ties

First vice chair Heikki Paltto of the Sámi Parliament, the highest political body in Sámi culture, says that Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's government's ties to the Sámi representatives are in poor shape.

Land use qualms are at the forefront of the bad blood. For instance, says Paltto, the mining industry needs proper impact assessment standards.

"The law says the impact [on nature and Sámi culture] should be rigorously assessed, and yet it never is," Paltto says. "Decision-makers have the wrong information."

Paltto met with President Niinistö on Monday at the Sámi National Day festivities in Inari. Paltto describes the talk he had with Niinistö as warm.

"Of course it is understandable that people in Sápmi are very reliant on how their environment is treated," President Niinistö says. "These are important discussions to have and I hope we can arrive at a solution."

Edit: Clarified that the Sámi National Day was officially added to Finnish almanacs in 2004. Added quotes from Paltto and Niinistö.

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