A Truth Commission Can Create a Shift in Public Opinion

A former leading Sami politician called for the creation of a truth commission in Sweden in a lecture on Friday at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute.

We don’t want reconciliation; we don’t think it’s even possible at this stage, said Josefina Skerk, the former Vice President of Sami Parliament in Sweden. We need the truth commission to at least create a shift in public opinion. Sweden needs to deal with its history and recognize that it has always been a multicultural society.

Skerk was joined by Dr. Peter Johansson, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, and Dr. Alejandro Fuentes, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s expert on minority people’s rights.The discussion covered a broad range of issues affecting Sweden’s indigenous Sami people.

Challenges Faced by Sami
Skerk said the Sami face many challenges today, including:
• low awareness of the Sami among Sweden’s dominant population
• anti-hunting laws causing financial hardship
• proliferation of renewable energy, such as wind turbines, being erected on their land
• climate change
• a general lack of societal acceptance

I think so much of today is a reaction to what was before, Skerk said. In southern Sweden, the Sami are supposed to be exotic, however, up in the North, the attitude towards the Sami is negative, perhaps even racist.

Skerk said Sweden is not investing enough in Sami-speaking teachers, worsening the risk that the Sami languages become extinct.

Skerk fears that, “Hundreds and thousands of years of knowledge will go to waste”, if traditional Sami knowledge, such as local knowledge related to reindeer herding, stories tied to specific places, amongst other things, aren’t passed down to the next generations. One of the reasons, for example, why this could happen is if the lands and waters are destroyed.

She also highlighted the growing internal conflict between the “true” Sami population (reindeer herders) and other Sami (hunters and fishers). She blamed the divide on unequal laws, with the former getting exclusive rights to herd reindeer, fish and hunt, while the rest being forced to give up their occupation and traditions due to laws banning these activities.

Integration into Swedish Society

Skerk was asked at one point during the lecture whether the Sami people would prefer to have their own country. She responded:

No, we don’t want to have our own country, but we’d prefer that the borders are not a problem. They shouldn’t hinder our people’s ability to move and live across borders.  I don’t like the term ‘integration’ at all.  Sweden has always been multicultural.  We should find ways to respect each other with common sense. I don’t think it should be that difficult

Renewable Energy

Skerk said Sami people do not get anything back from investments in green energy and argued that it was easier to erect renewable energy on Sami land than to “argue with influential people somewhere else.” She argued that there was no protection for Sami boarders or lands and that their land and waters were being destroyed.

It is important to find balance between nature and people. It’s not that we don’t want predators or don’t want to prevent climate change. We have nothing against green energy but it’s just that we also need the opportunity to exist, said Skerk.

Establishing a Truth Commission
Skerk says Sweden needs to take responsibility for what it has done to the Sami people.

We need to get Sweden’s past in order, she says. Being open and honest about what works and what doesn’t is so important because we need to learn from our mistakes. We also need to learn what is culturally appropriate for the Sami people.

Skerk called for the future establishment of a retrospective truth commission that would facilitate a very open environment. She says the commission’s first task would be to agree on its mandate. However, there is currently no unanimous idea on what the Sami people want the mandate to be.

People with different ethnicities and cultures are not scary. People really want to tell their stories. We want to take this trauma and put it behind us. Only then we can stop it from happening in the future as well. We need to move away from self-determination in a way to raise public awareness – a truth commission would do this.

How the World’s Youth and the Swedish Government Can Help

Skerk said the Swedish government needs to train teachers about the Sami and add chapters about the Indigenous Sami People and national minorities to school textbooks.

She said the youth can help by pressuring the government and politicians to act. Specifically, she called on people to pressure the Swedish government to ratify ILO 169, which gives indigenous peoples the right to choose the extent to which they want to maintain their cultural and political identity and protect indigenous peoples from non-voluntary assimilation. For Swedish Samis, this would be in reference to their right to land and water as well as the right to hunt and fish freely.


She also noted the importance of artists in affecting change.

A lot of the change is what we owe to the artists who have put the Sami agenda ahead, she said. We want to, and are on the way, to shape our own future.

Quick Facts
1.The estimated Sami population in the world is about 80,000 to 120,000 people, out of which there are roughly 42,000 living in Sweden.
2.A Sami village isn’t actually a village. It’s an association for reindeer herders in a specific area.
3.The Sami have a group of 10 distinct Sami Languages. All 10 Sami languages are endangered, ranging from what UNESCO defines as “definitely endangered” to “extinct”.
4.Roundtable discussions for the establishment of a truth commission for the Sami in Sweden have been ongoing for two years. While Norway has passed a bill to have one, allocated funds and presented the members of the truth commission, Russia doesn’t consider the Sami as a minority group and has no talks for a truth commission yet. Finland is yet to establish a truth commission as well.
5.All aforementioned countries except Russia, have an official government approved Sami Parliament.

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