New article: Two Centuries of Russian Sámi Policy

This article reviews arrangements for Russian Sámi self-government during the Late Imperial (1822–1917), Soviet (1917–1991) and Federal (1992–) Eras of Russian history, comparing them to developments in the country’s general indigenous minority policy.

Berg-Nordlie, Mikkel: Two Centuries of Russian Sámi Policy: Arrangements for Autonomy and Participation Seen in Light of Imperial, Soviet and Federal Indigenous Minority Policy 1822–2014 is available in Acta Borealia, Volume 32, Issue 1/2015.

A version of the article made for this website is also available (PDF)


New book: Developments in Sámi politics

The new book «Samepolitikkens utvikling», edited by Bjørn Bjerkli and Per Selle (Oslo: Gyldendal, 2015), contains one chapter which compares Sámi representation in Russia with Sámi representations structrues in Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

The chapter in question is:
«Representativitet i Sápmi: fire stater, fire tilnærminger til inklusjon av urfolk» (Mikkel Berg-Nordlie)

Read more about the book (in Norwegian) here.

omsl.8-Samepolitikkens utvikling


New book: Indigenous politics – institutions, representation, mobilization

A new book on the indigenous politics in different states across the world. Edited by Mikkel Berg-Nordlie, Jo Saglie, and Ann Sullivan.

The book contains a thorough overview over institutional arrangements for indigenous representation and mobilization processes, and describes concrete cases of conflict and negotiation in a wide range of states.


Several of the chapters touch upon Sámi issues, one of which concerns Russian Sámi politics: «Who shall represent the Sámi? Indigenous Governance in. Murmansk Region and the Nordic Sámi Parliament Model» (by Berg-Nordlie)

Click here for table of contents and excerpts from the book.

The book is published by ECPR Press, with chapters produced by a broad and interdisciplinary international team of researchers: Johannes Bergh, Mikkel Berg-Nordlie, Einar Braathen, Ravi de Costa, Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh, Patrik Lantto, John-Andrew McNeish, Ulf Mörkenstam, Torunn Pettersen, Martin Papillon, Jane Robbins, Jo Saglie, Cássio Inglez de Sousa og Ann Sullivan.


PhD project on Russian Sámi politics

NIBR-researcher Mikkel Berg-Nordlie will on the basis of articles produced as part of the project Russia in pan-Sámi politics write a PhD on the subject of Russian Sámi politics and border-transcending Sámi cooperation. This will be an article-based PhD in history at the University of Tromsø – the Arctic University of Norway. Field work and writing has been supported by NIBR, U. Tromsø, and the Norwegian Research Council’s Programme for Sámi Studies.
The thesis is set to be completed by June 2015.


New article: An Iron Curtain through Sápmi?

The Sámi are one people, whose fellowship must not be divided by national boundaries. To what extent has that credo of Sámi politics come true after the end of the Cold War that divided Sápmi between East and West?

A new article written for the Russia in pan-Sámi politics project has now been published.

The Iron Curtain through Sápmi
accounts for the close connection between post-WW2 Nordic cooperation and early pan-Sámi organizing, and the development of two separate but intertwined systems for pan-Sámi political activity: state-based and non-state based pan-Sámism.

The Iron Curtain looks into the challenge of including Russian Sámi in political structures made for Nordic conditions. It accounts for the inclusion of the group into the Sámi Council and the Sámi Parliamentary Council; their gradual detachment from the project aimed at making a pan-Sámi rights convention; and their lack of inclusion into the «new Nordic cooperation on Sámi issues» that launched in 2000.

The article can be downloaded here as PDF.

Please refer to the article as
Berg-Nordlie, M. (2013) «The Iron Curtain through Sápmi. Pan-Sámi politics, Nordic cooperation and the Russian Sámi». Anderson, K. (Ed) L’image du Sápmi II. Humanistica Oerebroensia. Artes et lingua nr 16, pp. 368-391.
* Note: Pagination in pdf is incorrect

Báhčeveaijohka, the border river between Norway and Russia. Image: Wikimedia Commons.


Bridging Divides: A new book on Russian Sámi politcs

The book «Bridging Divides. Ethno-political leadership among the Russian Sámi» was published as part of this project in the Fall of 2012.

Bridging Divides by Indra Overland and Mikkel Berg-Nordlie accounts for key events in the establishing phase of post-Soviet Sámi ethno-politics during the 1990s. The focus on the book is on the challenges and conflicts associated with leading a small ethno-political revival movement, and the establishment of new relationships with the Nordic Sámi afterhaving been sundered from them during the Soviet Era.


Table of contents

Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Who are the Russian Sámi?
Chapter 3. Lost Land, Broken Culture
Chapter 4. Language Revival
Chapter 5. Educational Re-orientation
Chapter 6. Political Representation
Chapter 7. Conclusions

Appendixes: Glossary and Abbreviations; Sámi population estimates; Nuclear bomb testing on the Kola Peninsula; Inter-ethnic relations; Language; Three Intertwined Social Problems; The complexity of ethnic identity.
Reviews and appraisals for «Bridging Divides»
«…a comprehensive, trustworthy and I would even say authoritative soure of data and good analysis about Russian Sámi ethnic politics»
– Vladislava Vladimirova (Max Planck Institute), Review in Acta Borealia 30/1/2013.

«This very well-documented study concerns how problems connected to the collapse of the Soviet Union affected the existence of the Russian Sámi. …a detailed analysis of human efforts to create Sámi ethno-political organizations and rebuild Sámi culture, whilst also integrating this project in the neighboring countries’ political structures»
– Helena Jerman (University of Helsinki), Review in Nordisk Østforum 3/2013.

«..an important case study… of an indigenous revitalisation movement and thereby allows for comparison with similar developments not only among the officially recognized forty [indigenous peoples of Russia] but also with other indigenous peoples in industrialized countries… It is a valuable contribution to the literature on language loss and bilingualism»
Stephan Dudeck (Arctic Centre, University of Lapland).

«[A] close and sophisticated analysis of the almost impossible project of restoring a cultural tradition, a lost language and a way of life balancing precariously under harsh and marginal econological and economic conditions. …[It is] well written, well organized and well documented.»
– Jens-Ivar Nergaard (University of Tromsø – Arctic University of Norway)

Buy it from Berghahn Books or from Amazon,
or your local academic bookstore.


Russia: Indigenous Activists Called Spies For Norway

After a group of Russian Sámi held a demonstration, authorities accused them of being agents for Norway. How did we end up here? What does this mean for the Sámi movement – and for Norway?

By Mikkel Berg-Nordlie

It happened on August 9, the UN International Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Outside the City Hall of Murmansk in Northwest Russia the day was used to demonstrate by a group of indigenous activists associated with the campaign for a Russian Sámi Parliament. The activists had been denied hoisting the Sámi flag outside the building, and wanted a word with the authorities over the matter.

Indigenous Activists – Western Spies?
Local media took an interest. In the end, a spokesman of the provincial authorities emerged with a written message to the journalists. The message warned that the activists did not represent the Russian Sámi. Rather, they represented Norwegian interests. Indeed, it said that they were even funded by the Norwegian Sámi Parliament.

The Odd One Out
Let’s back up. Most likely you, the reader, do not know what a “Sámi Parliament” is. The Sámi Parliaments are elected advisory and (to a limited extent) participatory political organs of the Sámi – North Europe’s indigenous nation. They are elected by self-registered Sámi in Finland, Norway and Sweden. Russia is the only one of the four states that originally split the Sámi homeland (Sápmi) between them, which does not have such an institution.

A Self-Made Parliament?

Russian Sámi activists have been demanding such an institution in Russia for long – with no success. In 2010 some of them decided to simply hold self-organized elections. A province-wide gathering of Sámi individuals cast their votes and elected a 9-person council, declaring that they had now formed a Sámi Parliament and demanding that the provincial authorities should recognize them as such.

One People – Two Councils
The provincial authorities were less than thrilled. Already in 2008 they had responded to the mounting campaign by forming their own indigenous council. Members of the Murmansk Indigenous Council under the Governor are selected by the Governor, out from suggestions by the obshchiny. The obshchiny are non-profit indigenous NGOs aimed at revitalizing traditional Sámi cultural practices, f. ex. family-based reindeer herding.

For the last four years, the Murmansk Indigenous Council has been meeting with representatives of the authorities to give advice on indigenous issues.

Sam Sobbar: A Success In The West And South – But Not Locally
The self-declared Sámi Parliament, Kuellnegk Nyoark Sam’ Sobbar, has until now been largely ignored by regional authorities. They have, however, succeeded in being treated as a legitimate institution by RAIPON – the Russian network of indigenous NGOs – and in the West.

Representatives of the Sam’ Sobbar has participated in several pan-Sámi fora, Western Sámi Parliaments have given moral support to the initiative, and its leader Valentina Sovkina is recognized by the Barents Region’s Working Group of Indigenous Peoples as the representative of the Russian Sámi.

Why Western Support?

Why has the Sam’ Sobbar been accepted so eagerly into the Western fold? The Murmansk authorities’ media spokesman implied that this was rooted in Western interests. This accusation assumes a degree of state control over pan-Sámi politics which, frankly, does not appear to exist. Rather, there are several other reasons.

* The Sam’ Sobbar activists were already at the outset better connected to the pan-Sámi political network, than individuals in the Murmansk Indigenous Council. (1)

* The Murmansk Indigenous Council has not made any effort to connect with pan-Sámi politics (1).

*Western Sámi-oriented media have scarcely reported on the existence of the Murmansk Indigenous Council. The Sam’ Sobbar, conversely, has often been referred to as “the Russian Sámi Parliament” without comment. (2)

* Most fundamentally, though: the Sam’ Sobbar speaks a political language that falls on fertile soil in the Nordic countries (2, 1).

Fitting Neatly Into Western Sámi Discourse

From the perspective of Nordic Sámi politicians and activists, it seems obvious that one should support a movement for a popularly elected Sámi organ in Russia. The introduction of such structures were considered a symbolic and practical breakthrough in the Nordic countries. Why would they not wish for their neighbors what they, themselves, enjoy? Indeed, the very idea of a border-transcending Sámi nation has as a logical consequence that if the Nordic Sámi have Sámi Parliaments – so should the Russians. One for all, and all for one.

Democracy To The Russian Sámi?
Furthermore, the Sam’ Sobbar campaign fits in with certain Western expectations about Russia. In the West, people are used to thinking about Russia as an authoritarian superpower needing to import democratic institutions. The Sam’ Sobbar activists are easily perceived as a grassroots movement for democratization, needing Western support.

For Western observers, the structure of the Murmansk Indigenous Council seems to confirm this: it is difficult for people in the Nordic countries to accept as legitimate, a council seemingly consisting of hand-picked representatives – at that, only from one sector of Sámi civil society, the obshchiny.

The Securitization of Sápmi

On the Russian side of the border, it is often heard in this debate that ethnic parliaments are undemocratic – undermining majority rule by giving too many rights to ethnic minorities. Such arguments are also heard in the Norwegian debate, but not from the authorities (3).

Now, as a fact: there are officially sanctioned councils of elected indigenous representatives elsewhere in Russia (1). But Murmansk is not just anywhere in Russia: part of the border that divides Western Sápmi from Russian Sápmi is also a direct border between Russia and NATO.

Since Soviet times this has been a highly securitized area, where the local border-transcending people has historically been treated with a certain skepticism – at worst outright suppression. When viewed through the security lens, Western institutions’ support for a Sámi Parliament in Russia serves to make the local authorities more skeptical to the idea.

What Kind of Sámi Politics?

Nonetheless, provincial authorities’ approach to Sámi politics today, is a far cry from the suppression of old. The politically themed Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration in Murmansk was indeed met with accusations. However: simultaneously there was an officially sanctioned – cultural – celebration of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in the inland city of Apatity. Governor Marina Kovtun has also stated that the authorities shall look for opportunities to fund Sámi-language classes for school children.

The authorities may hence be convinced to support measures for the survival of Sámi language and culture. Demands for rights to land and self-determination -issues fronted by the Sam’ Sobbar – are less warmly received.

Norway Accused By Proxy
On the Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the authorities went from ignoring to confronting the Sam’ Sobbar. Notably, though, this was not a formal accusation of espionage – just a statement to the media. It has so far not been followed up. How far up in the hierarchy were the contents of this message clarified? Was this just the brainchild of a local media spokesman, or should it be interpreted as a warning from «higher up»?

If the authorities follow up on the accusation, consequences could be dire for the local activists concerned. Also, it would lead to an interesting situation for Norwegian-Russian relations. Norway would then have been accused of running an ethnically based opposition movement inside Russia. That would fit poorly with Norwegian ambitions to remain on friendly terms with their eastern neighbor.

1. Berg-Nordlie, M. (2011): “Striving to unite.” (Arctic Review on Law and Politics )
2. Berg-Nordlie, M. (2011): “Need and Misery in the Eastern Periphery.” (Acta Borealia).
3. Berg-Nordlie, M. & A. Schou (2011): “Who are indigenous – and how does it matter?” (Ethnopolitics Papers )

Also check out the soon-to-be-published article “The Iron Curtain through Sápmi.” (Humanistica Oerebroensia), and (with Indra Overland) the fortcoming book “Bridging Divides” (Berghahn Books ).

Mikkel Berg-Nordlie is writing his PhD on Sámi internationalization (pan-Sámism) and Russian Sámi politics, at the University of Tromsø . This blog post is loosely based on an article published in the North Norwegian daily Nordlys on August 21, 2012.


New article: Striving to unite. The Russian Sámi and the Nordic Sámi Parliament model

A second article from our project is now available for the public, addressing the issue of Russian Sámi attempts to import the Nordic Sámi Parliament model of political representation.

Berg-Nordlie, Mikkel: “Striving to unite. The Russian Sámi and the Nordic Sámi Parliament model” is available in Arctic Review on Law and Politics 1/2011 and can also be downloaded by clicking on the icon at the end of the text.

This article describes activism in the Russian Federation aimed at reforming indigenous policy by adopting a foreign model – a Nordic-type indigenous elected assembly – for the Sámi of the Russian Federation. Key initiatives ca. 1985-2010 are presented, their origins investigated, and some effects of the activists’ actions – intended and otherwise – are analyzed.

The article also analyses mechanisms for Sámi representation in Russia in light of certain functions of the Nordic Sámi Parliaments.


The Sámi Parliament Building in Norway (Image: Wikimedia Commons).



New article: Need and Misery in the Eastern Periphery

The first article from the project has now been published, addressing the issue of Nordic Sámi media discourse on the Russian Sámi.

Berg-Nordlie, Mikkel: Need and Misery in the Eastern Periphery. Nordic Sámi Media Discourse on the Kola Sámi is available in Acta Borealia Volume 28, Issue 1/2011.

The article investigates Nordic Sámi discourse on the Kola (Russian) Sámi through analysis of texts from Sámi newspapers and journals 1992–2009. Among the findings are that the relationship between Nordic and Kola Sámi is frequently discussed as a donor–recipient pattern similar to that of general Western discourse on “the [global] South” and the 1990s’ “great misery discourse” on Russia. This portrayal of the Kola Sámi is here referred to as “the discourse of need”. However, the study also finds that this most divergent subgroup of the Sámi people is accepted into the border-transcending Sámi “nation” without question – it is never challenged that they are part of a larger “us”.

The article also comments on some similarities between the discourse on the Kola Sámi as a “suffering” group, and certain patterns in Nordic Sámi self-representation. In comparison, a selection of non-Sámi media texts displayed less interest in the Kola Sámi; their paying attention to the group was more dependent on its members being perceived as victims of crisis and/or injustice; and they articulated the discourse of need more often. The two decades from which texts were drawn (1990s and 2000s) differed mainly by the latter period showing a general decrease in interest in the group; and by Sámi media being less dominated by the discourse of need, and containing more texts portraying the Kola Sámi as culturally and politically active.

Read more about the findings on NRK Sápmi’s webpages.

The article as published in Acta Borealia can be read here. A version of the article made for this website is also available (click on the icon below).


ECPR Workshop

Indigenous Politics in Switzerland

Our project’s ECPR workshop in St. Gallen has now been successfully held, drawing participants from three continents and shedding light on a large set of cases. Below, please find the workshop report, which constitutes a brief overview of subjects debated and researchers present at the workshop.

We wish to thank our partners in arranging the workshop, Jo Saglie of the Institute for Social Research and Ann Sullivan of the University of Auckland for a fruitful cooperation; the ECPRfor giving us the chance to arrange this event; and last but in no way least the researchers who participated in the workshop.


St. Gallen, Switzerland (Image: Wikimedia Commons).

Workshop report for workshop 25, ECPR Joint Sessions, St. Gallen 2011:
Indigenous Politics: Mobilization, Representation and Internationalization

by Jo Saglie

The workshop on indigenous politics included 17 papers, with 19 authors attending. The participants had a diverse background. Most were political scientists, but the disciplines of indigenous studies, social anthropology and history were also represented in the workshop. In addition, some papers drew on cooperation with law scholars. Geographically, Norway and Canada were well represented, but the group included participants from Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and the UK as well.

Theoretical and comparative studies were presented, but a majority of the papers were case-studies from a single country. Ephraim Nimni’s paper discussed the significance of indigenous representation for normative political theory on self-determination, while John Coakley’s paper compared indigenous peoples with other minorities. Jane Robbins compared representative institutions for indigenous peoples in seven countries, whereas Martin Papillonanalysed the impact of federalism on indigenous self-determination in Canada and the US.

Three case studies were Canadian: Peter Kulchyski discussed two cases of land claims and resource development, Christa Scholtz analysed indigenous mobilization and vote in a national referendum, and Janique Dubois examined non-territorial self-government for the Métis people.

The Australian case was explored in Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh’s paper on indigenous participation in natural gas development, while Ann Sullivan analysed the lack of Māori representation in New Zealand’s local government.

The remaining papers dealt with the Sámi of Northern Europe. Mikkel Berg-Nordlie studied the Russian Sámi and their relation to the Nordic pan-Sámi cooperation, Patrik Lanttoanalysed the Swedish Sámi movement and their strategies, and Tanja Joona discussed Sámi land rights in Finland. Five papers examined different aspects of the Norwegian Sámi Parliament: its electoral register (Torunn Pettersen), Sámi identity and citizenship (Anne Julie Semb and Kristin Strømsnes), media coverage of the elections (Eva Josefsen), political cleavages (Johannes Bergh and Jo Saglie), and the management of Sámi cultural heritage (Marit Myrvoll).

The basic theme for most papers was the concept of self-determination. Most indigenous peoples do not demand an independent state. The question is then how to achieve self-determination for indigenous peoples within the framework of an existing state, recognizing their special status and their relationship to ancestral lands, but simultaneously acknowledging the rights of other inhabitants on the same territories.

Another central question dealt with identity: how can we delimit an indigenous people? This question arises at the collective level – which nations can be regarded as indigenous – as well as the individual level: which individuals can be regarded as belonging to an indigenous people? In practice, ethnic identities may not be clear-cut, but the concept of indigenous rights requires a distinction between those who are entitled to such rights and those who are not.

Political representation of indigenous peoples was another central concept in many of the papers. Two alternative models are ‘bottom-up’ organizations for indigenous mobilization, and representative institutions created by – or in cooperation with – the state. There are considerable variations in indigenous peoples’ relationship to the political institutions of the states in which they live. Historical factors may be important to explain this variation, such as the existence of treaties between the state and indigenous peoples, state policies towards indigenous peoples (assimilation vs. segregation), and whether indigenous peoples historically has been included in the national political system (by e.g. the right to vote).

Representation is, however, not only a matter of institutions. It is also a process, and some of the papers discussed how indigenous peoples are represented and consulted in policy processes of importance to them, especially regarding resource extraction projects.

Indigenous politics has become internationalized, and this feature was covered in several papers. This is partly a question of indigenous peoples themselves engaging in border-transcending cooperation, as we have seen in e.g. the Sámi case.

Another international aspect, however, is international conventions – especially the ILO convention and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Workshop papers showed that indigenous peoples can use such international treaties as an instrument when dealing with their national governments. But on the other hand, states may reject to ratify such agreements, or fail to live up to these standards even when they endorse them.

In spite of the diverse background of the workshop participants, and the lack of a ‘standard’ research literature and a common theoretical framework, discussions in the group were generally very good. The non-Europeans and non-political scientists in our group – who were not familiar with the ECPR Joint Sessions – were especially satisfied with this conference format, as it gives more time for discussion and reflection than the panel format.

The workshop directors’ initial aim was to create a meeting place for European and other researchers who are interested in indigenous politics – and we are happy to say that we reached this goal.

In the final discussion of the workshop, the participants agreed that we should try to continue the cooperation that started in St. Gallen. We might proceed with a book project from the workshop, but – more importantly – we will try to establish an institutionalized networkon research into indigenous politics.