Global Communities and society

Local governance among the EU’s only Indigenous nation – the Sami people


Young girl, in the national winter clothes of the northern inhabitants of the tundra, the Arctic circle

The Sami people, often also referred to as the Sami or Saami, are one of the world’s oldest Indigenous communities, residing in the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. With a rich cultural heritage deeply connected to their ancestral lands, the Sami have developed unique governance systems that reflect their values, traditions, and commitment to preserving their way of life. In this feature, we explore the distinctive local government structures among the Sami people, highlighting their efforts to safeguard their language, customs, and natural environment amidst contemporary challenges.


Historical Context of Sami Governance:

The Sami people have a long and rich history that dates back thousands of years. As one of the oldest Indigenous communities in Europe – and the only recognised Indigenous people left in the EU – they have inhabited the northern reaches of the Scandinavian Peninsula, including parts of present-day northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula since the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago.

Throughout their history, the Sami people have faced a multitude of challenges that have threatened their distinct identity, culture, and traditional way of life. Some of the major challenges have revolved around colonisation and forceful assimilation policies, as Sapmi – the region the Sami inhabit, has been subject to colonisation and encroachment by various nations and settlers. As nation-states formed in Scandinavia and Russia, the Sami people often faced forced assimilation, displacement, and land dispossession, resulting in the loss of their ancestral territories.

Assimilation policies imposed by national governments aimed to suppress the Sami culture, language, and traditions. The banning of the Sami language in schools and the promotion of dominant cultures led to the erosion of cultural identity and weakened traditional practices. To this date, the Sami people face the threat of being forcibly relocated from their traditional lands for development projects, such as dam construction and resource extraction.

Yet, despite the challenges, the Sami have successfully maintained their distinct cultural identity, language, and traditional way of life, closely tied to reindeer herding, fishing, hunting, and gathering.


The traditional form of Sami local governance

The traditional governance of the Sami people was based on kinship, communal cooperation, and the use of their ancestral lands. Each Sami community had its own local governing structures, where decisions were made collectively, and consensus-building played a central role. These traditional forms of governance were characterised by flexibility, adaptability, and an understanding of the delicate balance between human activity and the natural environment – and this is what the Sami have brought along to their governance today.

Elders and community leaders, known as “ålderman” or “siida-chiefs,” played pivotal roles in the Sami local governance systems. They were responsible for mediating disputes, managing communal resources, and upholding customary law. Decisions were often reached through the process of “Sami rievdadus,” which involved seeking counsel from elders and considering the needs of all community members.


Modern-day Sami Parliaments

In the 20th century, with the emergence of modern nation-states in the Nordic countries, the Sami people faced ever-increasing challenges to their land rights, culture, and way of life. As a response to these pressures and demands for political representation, the Sami established their own representative bodies known as “Sami parliaments” or “Sami assemblies”.

Norway, Sweden, Finland and Kola Peninsula now all have their own Sami parliament, each consisting of a different number of members.

For example, in Finland, the 21 members and four deputy members of the Ssmi Parliament are elected from among the Ssmi people every four years through elections. Each municipality within the Sami homeland must elect a minimum of three representatives to the Sami Parliament. A candidate for the Sami Parliament can be nominated by a selector association formed by three Sami individuals. The last elections were held in the autumn of 2019, which means the next elections for 2024 are just around the corner.

The establishment of Sami parliaments and assemblies marked a significant milestone in the recognition of Sami rights and the preservation of their culture. These representative bodies act as bridges between the Sami communities and national governments, facilitating dialogue and negotiations on issues of crucial importance to the Indigenous people. Through their work, Sami parliaments have contributed to advancements in education, cultural preservation, and land rights, while also striving to protect the environment and address the impacts of climate change on traditional livelihoods.

However, challenges persist across Sapmi, including ongoing debates over land use, the balance between economic development and environmental conservation, and the need for further recognition and respect for Sami rights across national borders.

Additionally, in Finland there have been challenging conversations about who is eligible to vote in the Sami parliamentary elections, which have been reserved for only approved Sami votes. In the last elections, people without Indigenous heritage entered the elections against the residing parliament’s wishes, which has been criticised by UN’s Human Rights Committee. The Sami parliaments and assemblies remain central to the preservation and promotion of Sami culture and identity – and enjoy autonomy in certain decision-making – ensuring that the ancient traditions of this Indigenous community continue to thrive into the future.

In addition to the four Sami parliaments, the Skolt Sami people are the only Sami group (about 300 people) in the Nordic countries that have managed to preserve their traditional decision-making body, known as “siidsååbbar” or village assembly, as part of their living culture.

Skolt village assemblies are known to have been in operation since the 1600s. These assemblies held significant decision-making power, including matters related to land use, taxation, and dispensing justice within the community. They even had the authority in resolving minor criminal cases, with a trusted representative leading the assemblies.



The unique local governance structures among the Sami people exemplify their resilience, cultural richness, and commitment to safeguarding their heritage for future generations. By fostering collaboration between the Sami communities and governments, promoting language revitalisation, and prioritising environmental stewardship, the Sami people are setting an inspiring example of how Indigenous governance can exist in the modern world. However, ongoing challenges persist, making it vital for policymakers and society at large to support and respect the rights of the Sami people in their pursuit of self-determination and cultural preservation.


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