Most of us have heard of Lapland, but we’re not supposed to call it that anymore. The correct term these days is Sápmi — i.e. the land inhabited by the Lapps (or, rather, the Sami — as they very much prefer to be known). And, fair enough: they’ve got every right to assert their own identity, especially after centuries of domination by their southern neighbours.
Some of those neighbours are now keen to make amends for past injustices. For instance, the Swedish government made a point this week of using its presidency of the EU Council of Ministers to celebrate Sami National Day. Here’s the tweet:
Today is #SamiNationalDay!
The Sami are the EU’s only indigenous people. Since time immemorial, they have lived in an area stretching across parts of four countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. This area is called Sápmi. pic.twitter.com/c4UGWWcXhP
— Sweden in EU (@SwedeninEU) February 6, 2023
It was worded with the best intentions, but if you read the replies it’s clear that it hasn’t gone down well with everyone. The problematic claim is that the Sami are “the EU’s only indigenous people” (my italics).
For a start, what is meant here by ‘indigenous’? According to most dictionaries, it’s the property of being original to, or characteristic of, a particular part of the world. In which case, there are all sorts of European peoples who could claim to be indigenous to Europe. For instance, the geneticist Razib Khan points out that the ancestors of today’s majority-Swedish population have been in Scandinavia for at least as long as the ancestors of today’s Sami.
In any case, if Europeans are going to have a competition as to who was in Europe first, then it might be won by those with the most Neanderthal ancestry — because, as genomic testing has revealed, millions of us carry Neanderthal genes.
But perhaps the Swedish government is using indigenous to mean something more specific. According to Merriam-Webster the word relates to “the earliest known inhabitants of a place and especially of a place that was colonized by a now-dominant group”. This extra element of oppression by outsiders sharpens up the definition. However, while it applies to the Sami people and their history, it doesn’t do so uniquely. There are many ethnic groups in Europe that have been around for ages and which have been maltreated by foreign overlords. Just ask the Welsh, for instance, or the Basques.
It could be argued that the Sami are in a special category because of where they live (i.e. the most northerly reaches of Europe) and how they lived there (e.g. by reindeer herding). To have maintained a traditional culture for so long into the modern era surely sets them apart. But, again, this is debatable. While there’s no doubting the distinctiveness of the Sami, other Europeans can also lay claim to ancient traditions that have survived against the odds. To take a topical example, the Ukrainians are literally sacrificing their lives for a distinctive culture, language and history that Putin wants to erase.
Progressives ought to think twice before making an issue about who is and isn’t indigenous in Europe. While the label might play into the victim/oppressor narratives of the woke Left, it can also be exploited by the far-Right.
At a time when populism is a constant threat, telling people that they’re not indigenous to a place where they and their ancestors have lived for “time immemorial” is less than helpful. I’m sure that the Swedish government meant well, but it’s pulling on a dangerous thread.