Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2017, 11:55 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Sweden : Sami

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Sweden : Sami, 2008, available at: [accessed 13 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Sami are indigenous to Scandinavia (see also Finland and Norway). Approximately 15,000-20,000 of them live in Sweden. The largest concentrations of Sami live in the northern municipalities of Kiruna (2,500), Gällivare (1,800), Jokkmokk (900) and Arvidsjaur (700), while a further 1,000 live in the greater Stockholm area. In 1993, a UNESCO survey (which also covered Norway and Finland) showed that some of the smaller Sami languages were either seriously endangered or virtually extinct.

Historical context

As the Sami became better organized they won increased support for the maintenance of their language, including the right to mother-tongue teaching in Swedish schools. The Sami National Union was founded in 1950. In 1992 the Swedish Parliament passed Proposition 1992-93:32 establishing a national Swedish Sami Assembly or Sameting, which only has advisory status.

On 1 April 2000, Sweden officially recognized Sami as a minority language. Legislation enacted ensures the right to use Sami when dealing with state authorities and the court in Sweden. The law applies to municipal, state, regional and local authorities in the Sami administrative area, which includes Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Arjeplog. This legislation gives Sami individuals the right to use Sami in all oral and written communication with authorities concerning official decisions related to them. Authorities are obliged to use Sami in oral communications and provide information that a written answer can be translated orally into Sami if the individual requests it. Provision also exists for Sami-language education within the Sami area. Within so called 'Sami schools' instruction is given in both Swedish and the Sami language. Sami schools can be found in Karesuando, Lannavaara, Kiruna, Gällivare, Jokkmokk and Tärnaby. Some municipalities offer integrated Sami education, which means that the Sami children attend municipal schools, but a part of their education has a Sami focus. Sami children are allowed four weeks a year out of school to participate in reindeer herding.

Current issues

Despite the efforts made to protect the Sami language in recent years, major problems still remain. Some analysts say the Minority Languages Act, has not had a large impact - partly because of the weakened state of the language before it was introduced (many young people can't speak it fluently), and there are not enough officials proficient in the language to allow its widespread use in bureaucratic settings.

Issues arise too over the resource privileges that Sami receive in order to maintain their unique heritage, which is officially interpreted as 'reindeer herding'. The Swedish state allows between 300 and 500 reindeer per family. If a herder depends more upon non-herding sources of income, their membership in the herding collective with accompanying resource rights can be questioned. The herding unit, the sameby, can engage in no economic activity other than reindeer herding. Currently, only 10 per cent of Sami in Sweden belong to a sameby.

Reindeer husbandry is regulated in the Reindeer Husbandry Act, where Sami rights have been collectively referred to as reindeer husbandry rights. The Act gives the Sami the right to use land and water for their own maintenance and that of their reindeer. This right is based on tradition from time immemorial and is protected in the Swedish Constitution. It belongs to the Sami people and may be exercised by any member of a Sami village. There are 51 Sami villages for reindeer herding, whose members are entitled to pursue reindeer herding. A member of a Sami village has the right to hunt and fish on outlying land in reindeer grazing mountains in Jämtland and in the traditional grounds of the Sami people. This right to hunt or fish applies regardless of who owns the land.

While in theory the Swedish Supreme Court acknowledges Sami land rights, in practice these rights and Sami landownership are controversial and therefore frequently disregarded. As elsewhere in Scandinavia, the rise of extractive industries and tourism poses a threat to herding and the traditional Sami way of life. For example, because of concerns about damage caused by Sami reindeer to settlers' property, herding and farming have ostensibly been kept apart. Problematically, however, a significant area of that territory officially designated as herding land is unusable as pasture. In the hope of resolving this issue, in September 2005 the Swedish government asked the Board of Agriculture to negotiate an agreement on winter reindeer grazing between Sami villagers and Swedish landowners. In May 2006, the government extended the negotiating period until the end of that year.

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