First Come, First Served

3 mins read

By Fredrik Thorslund

“Next to shooting indigenous peoples, the surest way to kill us is to separate us from our part of the Earth.”

– Hayden Burgess, Hawaiian attorney and activist

They started appearing by the end of October last year – at first, sporadically, ominously, like gray hairs by the temples. Then, they exploded like chicken pox at a communal day care center.

The Facebook check-ins at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation were a manifestation of solidarity with the native American Sioux tribe and its supporters, protesting against the construction of a cross-state oil pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline was to be laid out across the Missouri River, about half a mile from the reservation, and worries arose amongst the Sioux that the oil pipeline – were it to break – could come to jeopardize clean water supplies, wildlife habitats and ancient burial grounds. The protests yielded massive support, eventually pushing the Obama administration to block the construction of the pipeline – a block which later turned out to be about as short-lived as the newly elected President Trump’s patience.

The situation of the Sioux is in no way unique when it comes to the global treatment of indigenous peoples. The struggle to maintain ancient land territory is shared with native peoples across Polynesia, Asia and Africa – but it also reoccurs here in Scandinavia, in the often ascribed stronghold for human rights and progression.

The Sami are the indigenous people of Sweden. Although this was not officially recognized by the Swedish government until 1977, the Sami have been inhabiting the northern parts of Sweden for more than two millennia – way before the same land areas caught the eyes of the Swedes. Being a nomadic people, mainly relying on the herding of domesticated reindeers, the Sami have long since been both economically and culturally dependent on the possibility to roam freely within Sápmi – the cross-border Scandinavian land area constituting the Sami nation. Historically speaking, the relationship between the Sami and the Swedish government has been somewhat tense – especially in regards to Sápmi, covering more than a third of the Swedish land territory altogether. The area had been left largely untouched by the Swedes up until the mid 1600s, when a process of gradual colonization began to unroll in the north. In an attempt to gain control over the valuable mineral assets of northern Sweden, the Crown would offer tax reliefs and other incentives to settlers who set up camp in the ancient Sami territories – efforts that soon succeeded in causing a great surge of Swedish settlers in Sápmi. Consequently, during the next few centuries, the ancient Sami territories were progressively dismembered and divided between the Swedish state and the settlers.

Well into the 20th century, countless miscarriages of justice have continued to strain the relationship between the Sami and the Swedish state – including the forceful relocation of entire Sami families, and in some cases even forced sterilizations of Sami citizens, following the currents of social-Darwinism in Swedish politics. To this day, evidence of the historical abuse still remains. There are, for instance, the dozens of Sami skulls that allegedly can be found here in Uppsala, acquired in the mid 1900s for eugenic studies.  

Then there is the question of the legal rights to the Sápmi land areas. Contrary to the native American population, who were left to exercise sovereignty within clearly defined Indian reservations (such as Standing Rock), the legal landscape of Sápmi is intricate and still today is somewhat shrouded in mystery. In a series of court rulings over the last few decades, it has been established that the Sami have a right to herd their reindeer over certain parts of Sápmi – parts once conquered by the Swedish state or the settlers over the course of the colonization. More frequently though, these types of legal proceedings against the state and private landowners have turned out to be a losing game for the Sami, sometimes leaving whole Sami collectives in devastating debt to their counterparts. Still, the question is far from settled. The problem is partly due to the fact that Sweden, as opposed to Norway, has refused to ratify the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989. Ratifying the convention would undoubtedly strengthen Sami land rights and dispel the judicial fog surrounding the question. Correspondingly, it would challenge the rights of the state and private landowners to the valuable natural assets of northern Sweden.

The idea that we live in an era of post-colonialism, or even post post-colonialism, is fundamentally flawed. As for the Sami, as well as the Sioux, the line between colonization and its aftermath has turned out to be so blurred that the whole idea should qualify as a false dichotomy. The difference today, as opposed to the colonial rule of the past, is that the mechanisms of colonialism have become more subtle. Instead of ‘brave men’ invading foreign lands with muskets and a Bible, and instead of the explicit discourse of higher cultures and savages, the battle has become judicialized. It never really ceased; it merely moved from the frontlines to the courtrooms, the parliaments and into the White House.

By Fredrik Thorslund

Cover: Matthew Baliga

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