Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Indigenous Peoples and the Right to Self-Determination: The Case of the Swedish Sami People

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Indigenous Peoples and the Right to Self-Determination: The Case of the Swedish Sami People

Article excerpt


This article analyses Swedish Sami policy during more than a century. By this historical perspective the author shows how public policy constitutes a 'true' and 'authentic' Indigenous identity, which both delimits legitimate political action and maintains a political order founded on hierarchical premises. Self-determination of Indigenous peoples in terms of the power to define the people in question and their indigeneity is decisive to break away from this legacy, the author concludes.

L'article analyse la politique suédoise à l'égard des Lapons au cours de plus d'un siècle. La perspective historique adoptée par l'auteur démontre comment la politique gouvernementale crée une identité autochtone « véritable » et « authentique » qui délimite l'action politique légitime tout en soutenant un ordre politique fondé sur des hypothèses hiérarchiques. En conclusion, l'auteur avance que l'autodétermination des peuples autochtones en termes du pouvoir de définir les peuples en question et leur caractère autochtone est un élément décisif pour se démarquer d'un tel héritage.

In the Swedish debate on the first Reindeer Grazing Act at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was considered 'indisputable that the Lapps were the first to make use of the Swedish Lapplands' and it could not be 'denied that they have been pushed aside by culture.'1 Thus, there could be no infringements of the rights 'they have had since time immemorial.'2 In the contemporary debate on a ratification of the 1989 ILO Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, a similar argument is put forward: The Sami are an Indigenous people in Sweden [...] a Sami population lived in what is now northern Sweden before the country acquired its present state boundaries.'3 Accession of the convention calls for 'special measures, which promote the social and economic rights of the peoples concerned and protect their spiritual and cultural values.'4

Reading these disconnected statements, separated by a time-span of more than a hundred years, it is evident that indigeneity has been in focus in Swedish Sami policy for a long time, although in quite different ways. Indigeneity has been ascribed a normative value, which explains and justifies a specific public policy, and a specific system of Sami rights. In a historical perspective, Sami indigeneity has supported a paternalistic policy founded on race biological arguments and cultural hierarchies, as well as the current multicultural politics, where cultural diversity is ascribed a value in itself. Despite many ambiguities, conflicts and important changes regarding how Swedish Sami policy has been legitimised, however, the legislative development on Indigenous rights in Sweden has been rather insignificant, and the system of Sami rights is today in many ways similar to the one established over a century ago.

By an extensive analysis of the Swedish Sami policy during more than a century, I want in this article to delve further into the apparent reluctance to change the public policy towards Indigenous peoples in many Western liberal democratic states today, for instance, obvious in the unwillingness to ratify ILO convention 169. No doubt, the contemporary international debate on minority rights and rights of Indigenous people, including the controversial issue of land ownership, challenge traditional governmental policy. And, as James Anaya claims, 'international law, although once an instrument of colonialism, has developed and continues to develop, however grudgingly or imperfectly, to support Indigenous peoples' demands.'5 How are we to understand this tension in contemporary politics between a political rhetoric praising cultural diversity and Indigenous rights on the one hand, and an insignificant progress in changing political practice and the prevailing legislation on the other?

In this article this tension is analysed by a focus on political practice on a national level; or, more accurately, through an analysis of the constitutive character of politics. …

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