ECMI Minorities Blog. Indigenous Inequalities in Egalitarian Societies: The Case of the Sámi People in Norway and Sweden

Fabian Bergmann
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Author: Fabian Bergmann  |

 Fabian Bergmann is a doctoral researcher at the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz, from where he also received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science and public administration. In his dissertation, he focuses on the Indigenous Sámi populations of Norway and Sweden and the different policies with which the two countries address Indigenous issues. In particular, he investigates the interplay between these policies and potential inequalities between the Sámi and ethnic majority populations. Please feel free to send any feedback or comments to:


The Sámi People in Norway and Sweden

Norway and Sweden are among the world’s most consolidated democracies; their societies are renowned for their affluence and comparatively high levels of egalitarianism. The two countries also share a history of being keen advocates of fostering human rights worldwide. The Swedish and Norwegian public show high levels of support for international human rights institutions and both countries are influential donors of official development assistance. At the same time, however, the countries also share a history of discrimination against and marginalization of the Indigenous Sámi people.[i] In the latter decades of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, so-called Norwegianization policies aimed to assimilate all Sámi into mainstream Norwegian society. In Sweden, reindeer herding Sámi were paternalistically segregated from Swedish society, into which all other Sámi had to assimilate. In both countries, the social and cultural status of the Sámi and their languages was gravely impaired.

Over the course of the second half of the previous century, these detrimental policies were gradually replaced by ones that aimed at recognizing the Sámi as a people and revitalizing the Sámi languages, with Norway thus far being comparatively more progressive in these respects. Yet, despite these considerable improvements, public health research shows that experiences of ethnic discrimination are still prevalent among the Sámi. This suggests that the Sámi continue to face social inequalities despite a context that is unfortunately rather untypical for Indigenous peoples – namely, living in a society characterized by economic welfare and low material inequality. But is there actually socioeconomic equality between the Sámi and ethnic majority populations? And are there other inequalities on the political or cultural dimension that might cause the Sámi to experience discrimination?

New Insights into Discrimination and Inequality

So far, it has not been possible to empirically explore such questions as official statistics and censuses in Norway and Sweden do not record Sámi ethnicity. Therefore, we[ii] conducted  the Nordic Peoples Survey. To be able to make meaningful comparisons of answers both between ethnic groups and across countries, we focused on regions in the north of both countries where the relative population sizes of the Sámi are highest. The resulting dataset allows us to investigate between-group inequalities and perceptions thereof from both a political science and a linguistic perspective.

In a recently published joint study, we confirm previous findings that when asked about discrimination in the recent past, Sámi respondents are clearly more likely than their non-Sámi counterparts to report having had such experiences. Interestingly, while experiences of discrimination are generally more frequently reported in Sweden, the ratio between non-Sámi and Sámi respondents who do so is strikingly similar across the countries: In Norway, 8.3% of the non-Sámi and 14.9% of the Sámi respondents state having experienced discrimination. In Sweden, the numbers are 15.1% and 25.4%, respectively.

Our study is also the first to explicitly show that, measured through household income, the Sámi are indeed on a material par with the local non-Sámi population in both countries. In addition, we cannot find any other evidence that feelings of discrimination among the Sámi would have a clear economic cause. Instead, our findings suggest that they primarily derive from cultural and – in particular – linguistic factors. Among Sámi respondents, those with higher self-assessed proficiency in a Sámi language and those who report using their Indigenous languages more frequently at home and in public are the ones most prone to experience discrimination. In the case of the latter association, there is also a distinct difference between the countries. In Sweden, the relationship between using Sámi outside the family context and reporting experiences of discrimination is even more pronounced.

Economic Status

What can we infer from these findings about the inequalities the Sámi face today in Norway and Sweden? First of all, they are evidence of the Nordic social-democratic welfare states having achieved what many other countries, including some of the most economically advanced democracies, have hitherto failed to do: eliminating material disparities between their Indigenous and ethnic majority populations. At the same time, however, the significantly more frequently-reported experiences of discrimination among the Sámi make a good point that solely establishing material equality between these groups is not enough to rectify historical injustices. The inequalities the Sámi face today seem not rooted in the economic but in the cultural dimension.

Cultural Status

Admittedly, we do not know how such experiences emerge individually. They could result from exposure to actual discrimination – that is, unfavourable treatment due to membership in a social group – or from attributing other hurtful experiences to discrimination. Yet, in any case, these are expressions of frustrations and adverse incidents that individuals have to deal with in their daily lives. Our results show that not only are Sámi individuals more likely to have such experiences, but also that their likelihood depends a lot on how well and how frequently they speak their Indigenous languages. We view this as an indicator of the cultural dimension being central to between-group inequalities in the Sámi case.

This language-discrimination experience link is multifaceted. On the one hand, proficiency in a Sámi language and its frequent use could indicate a particularly strong involvement in Sámi society. A profound ethnic identity might lead to a heightened perceptiveness of discrimination. On the other hand, language use is also a distinguishable ethnicity pointer. That is, by using a Sámi language, individuals are more easily identified as Sámi by others, who in turn might then be more likely to – consciously or unconsciously – engage in discriminatory behaviour.

In the case of the Sámi, both mechanisms seem to be at play. Regarding the former, our survey results further show that respondents with both a Sámi and ethnic majority background are much less likely to experience discrimination than respondents who report having exclusively an ethnic Sámi background. This difference vanishes when we control for language use within and beyond the family context. Hence, Sámi language use seems to be indeed moderating the relationship between the intensity of Sámi ethnic identity and the experience of discrimination. Yet, the significant difference between Norway and Sweden in how strongly public Sámi use is related to experiencing discrimination suggests that the second mechanism has its relevance, too.

Norway and Sweden follow different strategies to protect and promote the Sámi languages. In Norwegian legislation, Sámi and Norwegian are considered to be of “equal worth.” In some designated northern areas, this is implemented through Sámi being virtually another official language. In Sweden, by contrast, there is a clear hierarchy with the Sámi languages belonging to the group of recognized minority languages. Even though there, too, exists an area where advanced Sámi language rights apply, these are not as extensive as in the Norwegian case. Likewise, Norway provides more comprehensive opportunities to receive Sámi education and generally budgets more resources for Sámi language development. Consequently, not only are Sámi languages more vital in Norway, but they arguably also enjoy a comparatively higher prestige – which potentially rubs off on their speakers.

Viewed from this perspective, the finding that in Norway the link between public use of Sámi and experiencing discrimination has a smaller magnitude seems logically consistent. If the rest of society views the languages more positively, then using a Sámi language should come with less of a social stigma. What is more, this perspective points out how politics could contribute to alleviating such inequalities rooted in the sociocultural dimension. Policies that strengthen Sámi culture’s status within the overall society – like Norway’s language policies – could play an important role here.

Political Status

That being said, the Sámi’s more frequent experiences of discrimination cannot be solely explained by the countries’ Sámi policies. Otherwise, we should see even more differences between Norway and Sweden regarding the extent to which Sámi experiences outnumber those of the ethnic majority. Besides the field of language and education, in comparison to Sweden, Norway is also more progressive in recognizing the Sámi’s Indigenous rights in the areas of territorial rights and self-governance. In addition, Sámi political inclusion and influence in decision-making is more substantial in the Norwegian political system. All of this implies a stronger political status for the Norwegian Sámi. However, it does not seem relevant for the magnitude of discrimination experiences. As mentioned above, when comparing Norway and Sweden in general, we find that Sámi respondents are equally more likely to report having experienced discrimination than their ethnic majority compatriots.

Conclusion: Open Questions and the Need for Further Research

In conclusion, our investigation into the backdrops of discrimination experiences among the Sami thus reveals a clear link to the sociocultural dimension. Disparities towards the ethnic majority appear to be virtually absent in the material status dimension, and political status seems to simply lack relevance for the discrimination Sámi experience in their everyday life. However, this is not to say that Indigenous inequalities in Norway and Sweden are exclusively limited to the cultural dimension. There is still a profound need for further research in order to paint a complete picture of the inequalities the Sámi face.

Firstly, while our paper shows that household income levels are similar among the Sámi and ethnic majority populations, this does not say anything about whether the former actually feel economically on par with the latter. Research on the perceptions of inequality shows that there can be significant gaps between where people objectively stand in a society’s socioeconomic order and where they think they do. The latter depends a lot on people’s feelings of how much esteem they receive from society at large. Feelings of discrimination might, hence, be accompanied by lower perceptions of socioeconomic status among the Sámi, irrespective of actual income levels.

Secondly, the political status of the Sámi has already received some scholarly attention through surveys among the voters of the Sámi Parliaments. These institutions are the central bodies of Sámi political representation in Norway and Sweden.[iii] Their members are publicly elected by voters who voluntarily register with the respective electoral roll. Eligibility to do so requires fulfilling particular self-identification and language or ancestry criteria. The Sámi Parliaments’ roles and functions in the political systems of Norway and Sweden mirror the differing levels of the Sámi’s political status. The Norwegian Sámi Parliament is a more autonomous and influential political actor, whereas its Swedish counterpart functions more like a government agency.

In cross-country comparison, research has found that Swedish Sámi Parliament voters show lower levels of institutional trust than their Norwegian counterparts. This suggests that in the political status dimension, too, inequalities manifest themselves in the realm of perceptions and attitudes. Here, there is still considerable ground for research to cover. For example, how satisfied are the Sámi populations in general – and not only the Sámi Parliament voters among them – with the way the Norwegian and Swedish democracies work for them?

Finally, there is the question of what could be done about the Sámi’s lack of collective political power – especially in Sweden. Theoretically, the answer might be obvious: their rights to self-determination need to be realized more assertively. But how realistic is the implementation of Sámi policies that could achieve this? That is, how much public support would such policies receive? These are questions I investigate in another recently published article. Again using data from the Nordic Peoples Survey, I find that preferences toward Sámi policies differ substantially between Sámi and ethnic majority respondents. While the former support policies that would comprehensively facilitate their self-determination rights, the latter are sceptical about such policies. Instead, they prefer a limited realization of Sámi self-determination. Consequently, it seems unlikely that there would be much public support for policy initiatives to strengthen Sámi rights.

To conclude, our study has produced new insights about some of the inequalities Indigenous people face in egalitarian societies. The prevalence of experiences of discrimination among the Sámi is strongly connected to their language use and thus rooted in the cultural status dimension. Other forms of inequalities – and potential ways to rectify them – have yet to be investigated in more detail.


[i] The Sámi are the Indigenous people of Sápmi, a territory that is today part of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

[ii] The survey was conducted by the interdisciplinary team of political scientists and linguists of the “Ethnic Policies” project at the University of Konstanz’s Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality”, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG – German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy – EXC-2035/1 – 390681379.

[iii] The institutions’ North Sámi name is Sámediggi, what literally translates to ‘Sámi Parliament’. The Norwegian Sámi Parliament was established in 1989 and its Swedish counterpart in 1993. Since 1995, there has also been a Finnish Sámi Parliament.

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