Welcome to Nuorgam in Finland, the EU’s northernmost point. The sun kisses the monumental fells next to the small village, while stunted mountain birches push themselves through the snow. Spring is coming, but wind still gets under the clothes. It is in this beautiful setting that the Sámi live. This article was originally published in May as part of our Frontiers of the EU series. We are republishing it to mark the International Day of Indigenous Peoples on 9 August.
The Sámi homeland covers the northern parts of Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden, but life has not always been easy for its inhabitants. Although language is vital to the Sámi people, they were not always allowed to use it in official situations. However, being in a united Europe has facilitated cross-border cooperation and the protection of minorities. In Finland, Sweden and Norway the Sámi people even have their own parliaments.
Aslak Holmberg is a young Sámi who is actively involved in Sámi and minority politics. One EU-funded project he was involved with was the YES6-project (2007-2013), where he planned a week-long educational programme about indigenous peoples, minority issues and political action. “We are so few here, that it’s important to be politically active,” he said. “But it’s nice that we young Sámis are proud of our roots and culture. When I was a child, it was still the other way round.”
Some 40 kilometres southwest from Nuorgam lies the Ailigas Science and Art Centre, where musician Annukka Hirvasvuopio-Laiti leads a project to establish an adult education centre of Sámi music that is partly funded by the EU The centre aims to teach music to Sámi teachers and also promote cultural entrepreneurship in the community.
”Music is a very important part of our culture. But since traditions are endangered, I believe this education would be very useful for our culture,”Hirvasvuopio-Laiti said.
The people behind Ailigas are also planning a Sámi language centre for Utsjoki. As the EU is committed to taking care of its minorities, both projects, as well as the renovation of the Ailigas centre, were partly funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF). These structural funds are designed to reduce the disparities between different regions and to improve the competitive environment of the EU’s weakest regions, and redress unemployment.
“The EU’s impact is quite remarkable for us, especially via projects which enable us to preserve the vitality of Sámi language and culture. Since we are a small municipality, our own economic possibilities are limited,” said Eeva-Maarit Aikio, director of economic development in Utsjoki.
Projects are often undertaken in co-operation with Sweden, Norway and Russia, even though two of these countries are not in the EU.