Norway’s indigenous people: From assimilation to recognition

New article by Robert Kvile, Ambassador of Norway to the Czech Republic.

Norway’s indigenous people: From assimilation to recognition

Back in 2007, the then President of the Sami Parliament in Karasjok, Mr. Egil Olli, told me about his first day in school as a seven-year-old boy in his home district of Porsanger. “I didn’t know a single word of Norwegian”, he said; “we only spoke Sami”. At the time, it was forbidden to speak any language other than Norwegian in school.

This was back in 1956.

Norway’s policy towards its indigenous people, the Sami, has changed radically since the 1950s. Nonetheless, the consequences of the policy of Norwegianization are still visible, and the process of righting the wrongs of the past is still ongoing.

The Sami population of Norway is concentrated in the north of the country, in Finnmark and Troms, but the traditional Sami region extends all the way down to the Femunden area in the southeast.

Of the four countries with a Sami population, Norway has the largest. Estimates vary substantially depending on the criteria used, but approximately 40,000 is the figure often cited. There are considerably fewer Sami in Sweden, and even fewer in Finland and Russia.

As with most other Western countries, Norway has developed into a multicultural society over the last one or two generations. That said, Norway has never been homogenous. In addition to the indigenous Sami population, there are five national minorities. Only groups with a long-standing attachment to the country (more than 100 years) have been granted minority status. They are Kvens (people of Finnish descent in northern Norway), Jews, Forest Finns (people of Finnish descent in south-eastern Norway), Roma, and Romani people (in Norway often referred to as Tater).

More recent immigrant groups, for example Pakistanis, are not considered as national minorities.

Towards a consolidated Norwegian nation – pressure to conform

There were no clearly defined national borders within the Sami areas until 1751, when the border between Denmark-Norway and Sweden (including present-day Finland) was drawn. The treaty on the border allowed for the need to regulate the Sami’s grazing rights in the border areas. This was set out in an addendum to the border treaty, the so-called Lappekodicillen.

By contrast, when the eastern part of the border between Norway and Russia was defined in 1826 (with the then Grand Duchy of Finland), some of the Sami “siidas” were divided in two, with one part in Norway and the other in Russia (the Pasvik siida) or one in Norway and the other in Finland (the Neiden siida).

Around the mid-19th century, amid a growing national sentiment and drive towards independence, a policy of Norwegianization was introduced, the aim of which was the full assimilation of the Sami people and other ethnic minorities into the Norwegian-speaking majority.

Influenced by the theories of social Darwinism, the policy was grounded in the notion that the Sami were an inferior people, and that their way of life was outdated. Driven by the schools, the church and local authorities, the process of Norwegianization fostered widespread discrimination, and had substantial negative consequences for Sami culture, language and society.

The ban on the Sami language in schools was particularly effective, but even so the Norwegianization policy eventually moved into other social spheres as well. Besides language, this policy also came to dominate agricultural policies, the armed forces, communications and the media. As an example, the Land Act of 1902 stipulated that property could only be transferred to Norwegian citizens who could speak, read and write Norwegian. This law was in effect until 1965.

It was not until the 1930s that Sami was again permitted as a second language in some school districts. In practice, however, the Sami language was banned in many Norwegian schools well into the 1950s, even during the school breaks.

In Finnmark, boarding schools were used as a tool in the Norwegianization efforts. From 1905 until 1940 a total of 50 boarding schools were built. The children lived away from their parents, all teaching was in Norwegian, and the use of Sami – and Finnish – was strictly forbidden.

Ultimately, many Sami families and societies came to reject their identity and lose their command of the Sami language and their attachment to Sami traditions. There was a widespread negative attitude towards the Sami among Norwegians, many of whom were influenced by negative stereotypes, including inter alia, those found in the literary works of Nobel Prize Laureate Knut Hamsun.

After 1945 – towards recognition of minority rights in international law

After the Second World War, new attitudes towards tribal and indigenous peoples slowly emerged.

The development of international human rights instruments was important in this regard, beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the statement therein that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

A few years later, in 1957, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted its Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, aimed at recognizing and protecting the cultural, religious, civil and social rights of indigenous and tribal populations within an independent country, and providing a standard framework for addressing the economic issues faced by many of these groups.

The 1989 ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, also known as the ILO Convention 169, was an update of the 1957 convention and is the most significant legally-binding international convention concerning indigenous and tribal peoples.

This convention is considered a forerunner of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. This Declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples. It establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world, and it elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.

The two 1966 covenants, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are also important instruments to prevent discrimination, the latter with a clear reference to minorities in Article 27: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.”

Norway – a somewhat slow and hesitant follow-up

It is, however, fair to say that Norway’s policy towards the Sami developed rather slowly.

A Sami committee was established in 1956 to discuss principles and concrete measures for the Sami population. Its conclusions, published in 1959, included numerous initiatives to facilitate the preservation of Sami culture within Norwegian society. This was the first time that Sami issues were put before the Norwegian Parliament. It was also the first attempt in Norway to introduce a policy in relation to the Sami population that recognized their special situation and the responsibility of the State to safeguard their needs and rights.

In its White Paper presented to Parliament in 1963, the Government did not recommend the adoption of the proposals of the 1956 committee. The Government did not recognize the Sami as a minority and referred instead to “Sami-speaking Norwegians”. However, in 1964 the Sami Council was established as an advisory agency for state, county and municipal authorities.

Sami organizations

The gradual, albeit slow change in attitudes in Norway towards the Sami was also influenced by the establishment of organizations representing Sami groups and Sami interests.

The oldest of the Norwegian Sami organizations still in operation today is the Sami Reindeer Herders’ Association in Norway (NRL), established in 1947 with the goal of promoting the interests of the reindeer-herding Sami. A Sami Association was founded in Oslo 1948. Somewhat later, in 1968, The National Association of Norwegian Sami (NSR) came into being, followed by the competing Norwegian Sami Union (SLF) in 1979.

Nordic cooperation between the Sami developed in parallel, first with a conference in Jokkmokk, Sweden, in 1953. Three years later the Nordic Sami Council was established to ensure liaison between Sami organisations in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Today, the Sami Council represents the Sami indigenous people of Finland, Norway and Sweden in the Arctic Council; it is represented in the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat (IPS), and has observer status at the Barents Euro-Arctic Council Working Group of Indigenous Peoples (WGIP), as well as in the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The Alta Controversy: towards recognition of Sami rights

The Alta controversy was an eye-opener for many Norwegians on issues pertaining to the situation for the Sami population. The background to the controversy was comprehensive plans to develop the Alta-Kautokeino water system on the Finnmark plateau, including a dam which would inundate the Sami community of Masi. Even after the scaling back of these plans, a major hydroelectric project remained on the drawing board, including a 100-metre high dam across the Alta river canyon; this also involved the construction of a road across reindeer grazing land and calving areas.

Reindeer owners, joined by environmentalists, took the state to court in 1979 to stop the project. They lost the case, but the issue took on symbolic significance. Demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience were organized, both at the construction site and in front of the Parliament in Oslo. A group of Sami women staged a sit-down strike at the Office of the Prime Minister.

In 1982, the Supreme Court of Norway confirmed the ruling by a lower court that the project was legal. The activists dissolved their organization, and the plant went into operation in 1987.

The controversy, however, would radically change Norway’s policies towards the Sami. In 1980, the government appointed a Sami Rights Commission, tasked with looking into Sami cultural and political rights, as well as issues related to the use of land, water and resources in the county of Finnmark. The Commission was reappointed in 2001 to explore the same issues in the area spanning from the county of Troms down to Hedmark in south-eastern Norway.

The 1980 commission report was published in 1984 and paved the way for the incorporation of a new paragraph on the Sami into the Constitution of Norway (see below), and the Sami Act of 1987 on the Sami Parliament and other issues pertaining to the Sami, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Sami Parliament, officially opened by the King in October 1989.

The work of the Sami Rights Commission also eventually led to Norway’s ratification of the ILO Convention 169 and hence to a final recognition by the State of the Sami as an indigenous people.

The Sami Parliament (Sámediggi)

Sámediggi, the Sami Parliament, is located in Karasjok (Kárášjohka) in Finnmark. Elections take place every four years on the same day as elections to the Parliament of Norway (the Storting). It currently has 39 members elected from 7 constituencies.

Only a small number of responsibilities were assigned and transferred to the Sámediggi when it was first established in 1989. However, more responsibilities have since been added, and it now plays an important role in issues ranging from language and culture to economy and the use of land and water resources.

An important task for the Sámediggi is its participation in the management of the land area of Finnmark, 95 % of which (or 46,000 sq. km) was transferred to the Finnmark Estate agency by the Finnmark Act, adopted by the Norwegian parliament in 2005. The Sámediggi appoints half the Finnmark Estate board members .

The basis for the Finnmark Act is that the Sami, through traditional use of the land and water areas, have acquired individual and/or collective ownership of and the right to use land and water in the Finnmark County. The act does not cover fishing rights in saltwater, nor does it cover mining and oil rights.

In 2005, the Government and the Sámediggi agreed on “Procedures for Consultations between the State Authorities and the Sámediggi”. These procedures have been developed in accordance with Article 6 of the ILO Convention 169. They apply to the Government and its ministries, directorates and other subordinate state agencies or activities and shall ensure that work on matters that may affect Sami interests is carried out in a satisfactory manner. Around 30-40 consultations take place annually.

Various professional advisory organs have been established subordinate to the Sámediggi. These are the Sami Cultural Monuments Council, the Sami Culture Council, the Sami Business Council, and the Sami Language Council. They function as professional organs for the Sámediggi and assist in the management of allocations and subsidies.

The Sámediggi cooperates closely with its Nordic sister parliaments, the Sámediggi of Sweden, established in 1993, and the Sámediggi of Finland, established in 1996.

The Sámediggi was the scene for a highly symbolic act by the King of Norway, Harald V., when, in a speech to the Parliament in 1997, he apologised for the assimilation policy:

“The Norwegian state is founded upon the territories of two peoples – the Norwegians and the Sami. Sami history is closely interwoven with Norwegian history. Today, we must apologize for the injustice previously inflicted upon the Sami people by the Norwegian authorities – through a hard assimilation policy. The Norwegian State, therefore, has a particular responsibility for facilitating the Sami people’s ability to build a strong and viable society. This is a historical right based on the Sami’s presence in their cultural regions, which stretches far back in time”.

However, the Norwegianization policy has left open wounds. This motivated the Norwegian Parliament in 2018 to appoint a commission charged with examining the past assimilation policy towards the Sami and Kven populations: the commission to investigate the Norwegianization policy and injustice against the Sami and Kven/Norwegian Finnish peoples (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

The Commission has three tasks: first, to historically map the policy and activities carried out by the Norwegian authorities against the Sami and Kvens/Norwegian Finns, locally, regionally and nationally, from around 1800 until the present day; second, to investigate the consequences today of the Norwegianization (assimilation) policies; and finally to propose measures for continued reconciliation.

The commission shall deliver its report by 1 September 2022.

The Sami languages

The aim of the Norwegianization policy was assimilation, including linguistic assimilation. The low number of active speakers of the Sami languages made these languages vulnerable, especially the Sami languages spoken south of the Northern Sami areas of Troms and Finnmark.

In 1967 Sami was introduced as a first language in certain elementary schools. Today the right to an education in Sami (any of the three Sami languages spoken in Norway) is confirmed in law, in both primary and secondary schools. This has helped consolidate the Sami languages, but first and foremost Northern Sami.

At the academic level, the University of Tromsø plays an important role in the promotion of North Norwegian and Sami perspectives in education and research. Its Centre for Sami Studies has a coordinating role. In 1989, a Sami College in Kautokeino (Guovdageaidnu) was established, the main objective of which was Sami language teacher training.

Recognising that the Sami languages are vulnerable and therefore in need of special attention and support, the government appointed a commission in 2014 to develop measures to this end. Their report (NOU 2016:18 Hjertespråket (“The language of the heart”)) was presented two years later. When discussing follow-up measures, the Norwegian parliament asked the Government to pay particular attention to the Southern Sami language and to the interrelationship between language, culture, trade and crafts.

In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution (A/RES/71/178) proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, based on a recommendation by the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The resolution had full support from the Norwegian government, which allocated extra funding to the Sami Parliament’s work to promote the language year.

The sad reality is, however, that the number of Sami speakers is set to decrease in the years to come. An important reason for this is that few young people speak the language in the coastal areas traditionally dominated by the Sami.


The situation for the Sami indigenous people of Norway – and for our national minorities for that matter – is the result of a gradual recognition of their rights, coupled with a simultaneous recognition of the responsibilities of the authorities towards them.

This principle was included in the Norwegian Constitution in 1988: “The authorities of the state shall create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life” (§108). The paragraph also symbolized that the policy of assimilation had finally been abandoned.

A greater interest on the part of the majority population in Sami culture, and especially in Sami music, has played an instrumental role in fostering a recognition of the positive contribution of the Sami in Norwegian society. Films on Sami history and culture, perhaps most notably Pathfinder (1987) and The Kautokeino Rebellion (2008), have also been important in this regard. The positive role played by the public broadcaster of Norway, as well as Sami newspapers, should not be underestimated either.

While only a few decades ago many Sami felt that suppressing their identity was important for their success on the labour market, and for their success in general, today’s young Sami are proud of their Sami heritage and their mastery of the Sami language.

This gives hope that the Sami indigenous people of Norway will also constitute “a strong and viable society” in the future, as the King of Norway, Harald V, put it in his speech to the Sámediggi in 1997.