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EU > Finland > Rovaniemi

Sharing the country

Rovaniemi, FI (View on map)

Nature-loving Finns say that Rovaniemi, the city I am currently visiting, is only a transition area towards the `real Lappland`. Although Rovaniemi is the capital of the administrative region of Lappland, their ideas about Lappland are quite different from the city of Rovaniemi. Who only gets to visit Rovaniemi misses out on Finland`s northernmost forests, tundras, waterfalls and the homeland of the indigenous population: the Saami. Ever since its independence, Finland has shared its territory with the Saami in the North, the Swedish in the South-west, Russians in the East and religious communities spread over the country. Here`s a short overview of the positions they currently hold in the Finnish society.

Jussi (25):

`A lot of the problems with the Saami arise from the fact that is not sure who owns the land they live on`
Long before current days, the Saami were a nomadic people living in the northern area of Scandinavia. Their community stretched out over the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Saami travelled around with herds of rain deer and engaged in primitive agriculture. When the Nordic countries started to take up today`s shape, they all needed to find ways of integrating the Saami into their society.

For a long time, the Sami have not been fully accepted in Finnish society. They were expected to behave like normal Finns and could not claim any special rights associated with their indigenous nature. The Saami language was recognised, but could not be used as a language in education. The situation changed by the end of the last century. An approximate 10 000 Sami currently live in Finland, holding Finnish passports and being at least operational in the Finnish language. They are attending Finnish schools and the differences between the different lifestyles are slowly being bridged. Only very few of them still lead nomadic lives, although their lifestyle is still likely to be more traditional than that of the average Finn.

My host in Rovaniemi, Jussi (25, photo) is a student in cultural anthropology, and he is the perfect person to tell me about difficult position of the Saami population in Finland. He explains that the main problem between the Finns and the Saami is caused by the fact that there is no legal clarity about the land ownership in the region. `The economy-driven Finnish society has fundamentally different opinions on the useful exploitation of land and forest, which is causing a lot of arguments between the Finnish government and the Saami minority. The government claims that the land is state-owned, while the Saami defend the position that they want, at least, to be heard when the allocation of land to commercial or tourist purposes is being discussed.`

The land ownership doesn`t only cause problems between the Finnish government and the Saami. It also causes problems within the Saami population itself. They care for the the development of their region and on average, they do want to improve their standard of living. However, opinions about how to do this are scattered. Progressive streams claim that commercial exploitation will help Lappland develop as a region. Conservative voices say that the state has no right whatsoever to take advantage of territory it has expropriated from the Saami in the first place. One of the achievements of the last decades is the creation of a Saami representation office in Inari (North Lappland), which is consulted in all matters concerning the Saami population. Unfortunately, the opinion of the Saami council is oftentimes as divided as the people it represents.

Other minorities
The Saami case is the most serious issue Finland has with its cultural minorities nowadays. One of the other groups is a religious movement called `Lestadians`, a spin-off from the Finnish Lutheran Church, but officially still a member of the latter. Lestadians forbid the use of anticonception to their members, who can obviously be recognised by size of their families. In some communities, they have gradually taken over the city councils. `Average Finns` generate on average less than 1.5 offspring per couple, and in some cities, they risk becoming a minority themselves. The religion, which is in the view of some a sect, is rather closed and does not allow its followers to have a TV. Surprisingly, internet is seen as much less of a problem. Lestadians do not have their own political party.

Distinct on a language difference rather than a religious one, Swedish Finns also make up a small percentage of the Finnish population. This is mainly due to the historical rule of Sweden over Finland. The Swedish are concentrated in the South-West of the country, where all city names are both in Finnish and in Swedish. Their relatively small presence is the reason why each secondary school student must take at least three years of Swedish courses. The stereotype image of the Swedes is summarised by the expression `B?ttra Folk`: referring to their average standard of living, which is considered to be higher. Finns may take the Swedish-speaking population for arrogant snobs, while the reverse stereotype is that Finns are barbarian beer drinkers.

Due to longstanding historical relations, Russians have also present in Finland. Finland even used to be part of the Russian empire until 1917 and it was mainly thanks to Lenin`s personal affection for Finland that the country could become independent after the Russian revolution. Most of the old-generation Russians are now Finnish citizens like any other. New supply has been sent from across the border over recent years. Russians are invited to fill the gaps that overeducation leaves in the disciplines of plumbing, construction and healthcare.

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