Marked by bloodshed, colonization, and conflict, the history of Sweden’s indigenous population – the Sami– has been largely erased from Sweden’s national narrative. It is not mandatory to learn about it in Swedish schools, and while most Swedes have a vague sense of their prehistoric ancestors, the Samis' disadvantaged place in history is not widely known – even among the Nordics.
For countless millennia, the Sami people have inhabited Sápmi, the northernmost tracts of the Cap of the North, which encompasses large parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Though it is not certain when or where the Sami originated (they hail back to before any of the Nordic countries were formed), archeological findings indicate that the originally semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers have traversed the highlands since the end of the last Ice Age. At present, there are about a hundred thousand Sami across Sápmi, most of whom are united by a language and cultural heritage. According to their estimates, about one-third of Sami live within Swedish borders at present.
While today the Sami are involved in rural livelihoods of most kinds, they have traditionally relied mainly on reindeer husbandry (the care and cultivation of reindeer), hunting and fishing, and arts and crafts for sustenance. The Sami and their close relationship with reindeer has featured in historical documents since 98 B.C., and Icelandic Viking tales recount non-violent skin trade with the Sami. In this way, for at least another millennium or so, the Sami people coexisted with the rest of the changing surrounding world.
It was in the 14th century when the Nordic borders were beginning to be drawn up, that the Sami population was subjected, for the first time in history, to outside forces of colonization, exploitation, and forced assimilation. In 1328, trade laws and taxation were imposed upon the Sami, and in 1335, the Swedish queen Margareta urged the Archbishop of Uppsala to send missionaries to the Norrland terrain to convert the Sami to Christianity. From there on, the Swedish Sami population has been treated harshly and lost ever vaster portions of its historical lands.
The next major blow against the Sami came in 1684, when King Karl XI ordered their religion to be crushed, their drums to be burned, and their holy places defiled. Though the Sami have had some minor legal wins since then, by and large, their legal and cultural status has been in sharp decline – and remains so to this day. Some of the more noteworthy milestones of this gradual marginalization include major displacements in 1919 and, nine years later, the abolishment of the self-determination of Sami villages, meaning that they were no longer in charge of their own financial, social, and cultural development.
Though the Sami have had an official representative body, Sametinget, since 1992, they still have neither self-determination nor representation in the Swedish parliament. In recent history, the Sami have also gained some more legal recognition, including a 2010 minority reform that gave all Swedish minorities more room to preserve and develop their languages and cultures.
Since 1977, the Sami have been recognized as Sweden’s official indigenous people, and since 2011 they have been acknowledged as an official people in the four fundamental laws of the Kingdom of Sweden. Their struggle for Sápmi continues, however, and the Sami lands keep shrinking as mining and power expand further across the hilly and mountainous plains of Northern Sweden.