It was getting very congested in Karesuando. There were a lot of reindeer here but not much to graze on. It was at the end of the 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s.
The reindeer wandered around as they had always done. Unconcerned about conventions, treaties or government decisions. They wandered over national borders from winter pastures to summer pastures. And back again.
The congestion occurred because Norway, Sweden and Finland had, to varying degrees, banned any ‘foreign’ reindeer from grazing in their countries.
Against the background of the growing need for cultivated land from farmers in Norway, the Swedish and Norwegian governments went into negotiations on reducing reindeer husbandry. Norway wanted rid of all Swedish Sami and their reindeer. In the Reindeer Grazing Convention of 1919, Sweden sacrificed the rights of its Sami people over the border in order to reach agreement with Norway.
In one hit, the northernmost Sami villages in Sweden lost much of their summer pasture in Norway. When many Sami people closed down their dwelling places after the summer in Norway, they didn’t know that they would never return. The Swedish authorities had sanctioned a policy aimed at confiscating the Swedish Sami’s customary right to use land in Norway, free of charge.
This was a hundred years ago. Then Sweden initiated a forced removal, a deportation of Sami to reduce the number of reindeer in the north. Nobody moved voluntarily. The authorities forced the reindeer herding families and their reindeer south. But the authorities didn’t want anyone to see them being forced.
The historian, Johannes Marainen, whose family originates in Saarivuoma tells of his grandfather who could neither write nor speak Swedish. According to the application to the Sami officer, he had strenuously pleaded in official Swedish to be able to move with his seven sons and their reindeer to Tuorpon's Sami village.
- And then he put his house mark on the letter! So, then, it was not my grandfather that wrote the letter, says historian Johannes Marainen.
In the beginning, the families were allowed to choose where they would move to. Then the authorities started deciding. And threatened to fine the Sami if they didn’t comply. In some cases, the Sami officer seized their reindeer and took money for sending them to Gällivare. And added fines for the owner.
The forced removals mostly took place during the 20s and 30s. Individual cases even took place in the 1950’s.
A total of about 500 people from 155 families moved with their reindeer herds from the Karesuando area and the area south of there.
For a lot of people, the move was a personal tragedy. They were forced to suddenly leave everything behind that they had built up during their lives. The children didn’t just end up in areas they didn’t know. They were also placed in nomad schools with other Sami children. Sometimes they even had to sleep by the door because of their lower status! The children were also not allowed to speak the Sami language or meet their families for long periods.
The first ones to be moved were reindeer herding families with surnames such as Sikku, Utsi, Gaup, Skum and Turi. Then the authorities decided to move big clans such as the Omma and Blind families, for example. As the clans were considered quite wealthy, the authorities calculated for a significantly reduced number of reindeer in Karesuando.
To give the authorities even stronger powers over the Sami, a law was passed that gave the county administrative board the right to slaughter reindeer by force. Just in 1931, 7,200 reindeer were slaughtered in Arjeplog belonging to the nineteen families who moved there from the north.
In February 1944, the reindeer herder, and later author, Lars J Walkeapää moved with nine families and their reindeer from Mertavárri. The reindeer herd was sluggish and hard to move. The reindeer understood that things had changed.
- This was traveling the wrong way across the traditional routes, he writes.
Finally after four months, they reached the mountains west of Jokkmokk, at Staloluokta. Some reindeer escaped north and swam over the Torneträsk swamp to get to the old lands.
How did it feel to squeeze yourselves into an existing Sami village? How did the original Sami inhabitants react to the ‘newcomers’? How should we look at forced removals today?
How can an Sami who is immigrating to a new area claim customary rights? Where do we have the right to feel ‘at home’?
Conflicts arose, such as when it came to different reindeer herding cultures. There were different ways of managing the reindeer herds. In some cases these conflicts continue to this day. Such as in Tärnaby. There, the district court will make a decision on which Sami have reindeer herding rights in the Vapsten area. Those who were there before, or those who were forced to move there.
The government started the conflict but it’s the Sami who are facing each other! They were forced to move and forced to receive new residents.
- The forced removals were an act of abuse! The Swedish state has never treated people in this way before. It is incomprehensible that these forced removals were carried out, says historian Johannes Marainen.
Reading tips: At the end of January 2020, Elin Anna Labba's book on the forced removals, ‘The Lords Brought Us Here’, will be released.
Listening tips on Swedish national radio: Lappkok eller slarvsylta. A report on the state and the Sami, and cross-border reindeer herding. Producer, Sigrid Flensburg.