Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Who is a settler?

While I prefer the term settler to many other terms, I find that using it often seems like a simplistic cop-out and that it at the same time, without further explanation, offers little or no insight into the intricate ways in which indigenous and non-indigenous people  -I’m thinking both on a local and a global level here – have formed relations with the lands they inhabit. I use it primarily as a negative word, and in most cases this is perfectly fine and valid, but as other far more eloquent people have already mentioned, decolonisation is a complicated, dirty business so thinking that people can be divided into two homogeneous groups of natives and settlers, where all natives have the same rights, and all settlers draw upon the same set of privileges just doesn’t work.

What is more, seeing as decolonisation is a global issue, it is naïve to approach it as a simplistic one-sided question of land-ownership where the answer and ways to reach that answer will be the same regardless of the peoples involved. It just won’t.

Just as an example, when I talk about decolonisation from a personal point of view, I’m not talking about exactly the same thing as indigenous peoples in the Americas or Australia are talking about when they talk about decolonisation, so it just gives that my use of terms like settler  has to be explained further in everything I write. And while I retain the right to not have to explain my own decolonial processes or offer cheat-sheets with definitions of the terms I use to others, it’s still worth remembering now and then that my understanding of these terms are coloured by my own surroundings and cultures.

Thus, from a Swedish Saami perspective it is worth noting that the Swedish government decided to label certain people settlers in order to slowly and silently erase us from the maps of the state that colonised us.

Through a number of laws, most notably the reindeer husbandry act of 1928, the Swedish state redefined the understanding of Saaminess to only pertain to people engaged in large-scale reindeer husbandry, and this was done to strip a large number of Saami people of their Indigeneity. This has now changed, but by using a law to superficially change the identity of fisher Saami, forest Saami and all Saami who were engaged in small-scale transhumance rather than reindeer husbandry and instead starting to refer to them as settlers alongside actual Swedish settlers from the south, the theft of Saami lands became justified. To this day this means that, in stark contrast to the practice in Norway, reindeer herding communities in Sweden are forced to hire academics and lawyers to prove to courts that they have lived and worked on their ancestral lands since time immemorial, instead of it being the other way round, i.e. that incoming mining companies and settler land owners have to prove that they didn’t steal the land from the Saami in the first place.

The thing is that only a minority of all Saami were engaged in large-scale reindeer husbandry, and especially in southern Saebmie, the ancestral lands of the South Saami, most reindeer herders had smaller herds and herded their reindeer differently from North Saami herders who in general had larger herds. What is remarkable here is that with the creation of the reindeer husbandry act in 1928, most South Saami reindeer herders were legally stripped of their Indigeneity, and instead North Saami reindeer herders were forcibly removed from their grazing lands by the state in order to resettle South Saami lands and take over the established ancestral land rights from de-Saamified South Saami reindeer herders.

To this day the legal right to herd reindeer is still based on what is referred to as ancient claims to an area, claims that have to date back to the time before Swedish colonisation of Saebmie. The right to be engaged in reindeer husbandry is moreover intricately linked to a person’s membership in a Saami reindeer husbandry community, and these communities are geographical and economical areas in which members have the right to fish, hunt, collect wood and herd reindeer. As an effect of colonialism less than 10% of all Saami hold membership in a Saami reindeer herding community and if it wasn’t for changes made to the law in the 70’s and 90’s, these Saami would still be treated as non-existing.

Anyway, what has this got to do with the term settler? Well, seeing as displaced North Saami reindeer herders have no actual ancient claims to South Saami lands but still are indigenous to Sweden as a whole, a large number of South Saami who lost their own rights when North Saami herders were given new homes in their communities use the term maadth-saemie to distinguish themselves from these incoming Saami, who are simply referred to as saemie. The prefix maadth then stresses the ancestral land rights belonging to South Saami men and women on our lands, and effectively denotes incoming Saami as a type of settler, something which has given rise to a number of still ongoing conflicts between different Saami groups in Saebmie, some of which are more than 75 years old. 

In other words, from a Swedish Saami perspective the term settler becomes somewhat tainted as it due to colonisation and a fierce homogenisation coupled with eugenics, all carried out by the Swedish state during the 19th and 20th century, has come to have a completely different meaning in Swedish Saami politics than in e.g. American indigenous decolonisation. A settler can mean both a Swedish coloniser, a Saami stripped of their family’s Indigeneity back in the early 20th century who has chosen to not reconnect with their Saami heritage and, when discussing reindeer herding rights, a Saami from another sub-group of the Pan-Saami community. Most often it naturally refers to Swedish settlers and other non-Saami incomers; when using settler to refer to mining companies, the terminology needs no further explanation, but it’s important to remember how complex it actually is.


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