After winning a historic court victory, Sweden’s Sami face attacks, including death threats

Swedish police are investigating several threats against Sami in the Girjas area.

By Krestia DeGeorge - January 30, 2020
Reindeer cross the tundra on Norway’s Finnmark Plateau in June, 2018. (Stoyan Nenov / Reuters file photo)

A decision earlier this month by Sweden’s top court that upholds a Sámi right to manage hunting and fishing in a traditional herding area in the Arctic could eventually set a precedent that sees more Sámi control of land management in other areas, too. In the short term, though, the historic decision involving the Girjas area in northern Sweden appears to have sparked a backlash of intimidation and hate speech — including anonymous death threats — aimed against Sámi communities.

[Swedish supreme court decision upholds Sámi claims in a key land-rights case]

Saami Council Vice President Christina Henriksen told ArcticToday that the January 23 ruling was greeted with “surprise, relief, joy — and then also excitement about how can we make this work.”

Those positive reactions were quickly marred by a backlash that included threats made on the app Jodel. (Like the defunct app Yik Yak, which came under fire for enabling cyberbullying and hate speech, Jodel allows anonymous comments to be shared within a short radius of a user.)

The threats weren’t only online. During the night on Monday, a Sámi-language road sign was stolen from near the edge of the village where the chair of Girjas Sameby, the region’s Sámi community lives.

And a car pulled up to a herder moving reindeer in the area, Henriksen said, and a man rolled down the window to tell him he had shot seven reindeer, would shoot more if the herder brought them to the area — and that if he found the herder alone in the forest, he would shoot him, too. (Accounts of that incident were also reported by several Swedish news outlets.)

Saami Council Vice President Christina Henriksen says that instead of intimidating Sami, threats made against the community after a historic court decision have united them. (Krestia DeGeorge)

Henriksen said Sámi communities had united to urge authorities to address the threats and to send a message “that it is not acceptable.”

By earlier this week, Swedish police investigating the incidents said they had collected almost 10 reports of threats and hate speech, and expected more might come in.

The tensions are nominally over hunting and fishing rights, though Henriksen says non-Sami hunters and fishers have little to fear when it comes to being excluded from Sámi areas.

“If we are able to manage our own territories that does not mean that anyone will be excluded necessarily,” she said. “No Sámi community, I think, is interested in isolating or concentrating rights and excluding others from that, because everybody’s depending on alliances and coexistence with our neighbors because they’re rarely Sámi as well.”

Instead, she thinks the issue goes deeper:

“It’s not only about the fishing and hunting, it’s also about ‘the Sámi are taking something away from us.’”

For Sámi communities that have endured long periods of forced assimilation into Nordic societies, and more recently have heard government attorneys in the Girjas court battle “using colonial language and describing the Sami communities as inferior,” Henriksen says, the threats are an additional blow, and one that is “terrible for our mental health.”

Yet if they were designed to stop Sámi from pursuing further land rights, it’s having the opposite effect, she says.

“I don’t see any end to this antagonism in the very near future,” she says. “But it is uniting us.”