06 February 2019

Lihkku beivviin, Sápmi!

A very happy National Day to the Sápmi nation and to the Sámi people! Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the first Sámi Assembly, which met across the Norwegian and Swedish borders to address certain problems, including: Sámi rights to herd reindeer (and their recognition in Norwegian courts, which had been severely curtailed under Norwegian law); as well as the cultural problem of education for young Sámi in Norway and Sweden. It was the first time that local Sámi communities had come together as a single unified body. The success of the first Sámi Assembly was limited, but it did set the precedent not only for unified political action, but also for the organisation of reindeer herders for collective bargaining and for the active preservation of the Sámi languages and cultural practices. (For many years, Norway banned the use of the Sámi language by law.)

Coincidentally, the first Kuelnegk Sobbar Куелнегк Соббар, or Kola Sámi Assembly, had been arranged some decades before on this same date in Russia, by the Skolt Sámi of the Kola Peninsula with the coöperation of Tsar Aleksandr II of Russia. (The Skolt Sámi, one of the Eastern Sámi peoples, had been converted to Orthodox Christianity by the mission of Saint Tryphon of Pechenga in the 16th century.) For the decades leading up to 1917, this Eastern Sámi deliberative body in Tsarist Russia was the only one of its kind recognised by a Western-style nation-state. (Sadly, this deliberative body did not survive the Russian Revolution, and the Eastern Sámi were severely repressed under the Soviets.) As a result, this historical coincidence was unknown to the Sámi when the first National Day was commemorated. Today, the Eastern Sámi have reëstablished, on their own initiative, the Kuelnegk Sobbar, and they are still attempting to achieve recognition from the Russian government. If the Russian government were to recognise this body, it would be a welcome return to one of the more positive aspects of the Tsarist period, as well as a positive affirmation of Russia’s commitment to the principles of federalism.

Today, Sámi National Day is fully recognised in Norway, with the national anthem of the Sámi being played publicly from the City Hall in Oslo; and it is recognised as a flag-day in Sweden and Finland. The Sámi themselves celebrate the day as a festival with flags, joik singing and traditional handicrafts.

Those of us on this continent have reason to celebrate and defend Sápmi as well. The Sámi people have stood with the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux of Standing Rock since the beginning of the pipeline protests there, and were even the first to successfully pressure a public fund to divest from the pipeline by way of indigenous solidarity. On their own ground, too, they also fight for the right to clean water and air: against mining concerns and also against climate change more broadly, which stands to affect their traditional livelihoods in a direct and immediate way.

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