Illustration by Narrative Initiative
Illustration by Narrative Initiative

Europe’s Last Indigenous People Forge Bond with Palestine

Field Notes is where writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. In this Field Note, Shafi Musaddique shows us the complexities of transnational indigenous solidarity.


Shafi Musaddique


21 May, 2024

At the very northern edge of Europe, world’s apart from the dry, olive groves of Palestine, a solidarity movement is forging. Despite being thousands of miles away, the Sami people of Norway, Sweden, Finland and western Russia have emerged as vocal supporters of Palestinian self-determination.

Palestinian support at such a northerly latitude may come as a surprise. The Sami people have no historical contact with Palestinians, or indeed the Middle East, at large. But generations of Sami people have known all too well the brutality of oppression, displacement and the impact borders have had. 

Europe’s only remaining indigenous peoples, with a history stretching back as far as the melting of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, have battled increasing land encroachment, hate speech, forced assimilation policies and the arrival of mineral extraction companies destroying their land. 

Because of this, many Sami say there lies a deep connection between two, separate peoples.

“The Sami are historically silenced and subjugated. There are things we can understand through our experience,” says Helga West, a researcher on Sami reconciliation at Helsinki University, and herself of Sami heritage. 

It all comes down to the imposition of borders drawn without Sami consent; a historical form of colonialism that has direct echoes to early Palestinian loss of land under the British in the early twentieth century. 

“The Sami know how it is to be marginalised and lose our lands. It all starts with state borders,” says Aslat Holmberg, president of the Sami Council.

Holmberg is a salmon fisherman. He’s also an advocate for indigenous rights, originating from a border area that is modern day Finland on one side and Norway on the other. In the division of his ancestral home, Holmberg understands the deep crisis borders create in splitting communities apart. 

Finland and Norway were considered Sami land “long before both countries existed”, he says. So too the areas spanning modern day Sweden and Karelia, western Russia. 

After Norway and Sweden drew a line of separation in 1751, Sami fortunes deteriorated rapidly. Their migratory existence with the reindeer began to decline with it. Reindeer herding remains a part of the Sami economy and their means to a sustainable livelihood. But even that is on the brink today, with just under 10,000 reindeer herders left. 

Reindeer herding is deeply interwoven into Sami language, tradition, and culture. For Maja Kristine Jana, from a reindeer herding family on the Fosen peninsula, it is a source of pride and ancestral wisdom. “It's not just knowledge of how to take care of the reindeer, but how to respect the nature and the landscape you are in,” she says. 

Her way of life is under danger, in what Holmberg describes as “colonialism with a shade of green”.

The construction of Europe’s biggest wind farm on the Fosen Peninsula, north east Norway, in 2016 moved the Nordic country away from fossil fuel dependency. But in that so-called green shift, the wind farm - owned by a state-funded energy firm, a Swiss company and the city of Munich - was built without Sami consent. 

By 2021, the Norwegian Supreme Court deemed the construction a violation of Sami human rights. Three years on, the wind farms remain in use. Pipes and roads have destroyed reindeer grounds for grazing, cutting away not just vital nutrients, but threatening a way of life the Sami have long known. 

“The psychological impact isn’t spoken about by the media and, especially, the national authorities,” says Jama. Her front line Sami community, squeezed into ever tighter spaces over generations, face increasing corporate pressure to leave their ancestral homes. 

We have this never ending occupation, siege and ethnic cleansing. Any talk of decolonization is not credible if we Sami stay silent."

The Fosen wind farm case sparked multiple mass protests attended by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and led by the Sami last year, including blocking the office of Norway’s prime minister in June and occupying Norway’s parliament in October

Sami demonstrations against Fosen coincided with growing anger across Norway, when the majority of Nordic countries refused to back a ceasefire in a UN General Assembly vote on October 27. It was to be a sliding doors moment that would bring two issues into one. Sami, with Norwegians, took to the streets of Oslo to protest outside the Norwegian Parliament.

Among them was Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, a Sami artist and musician known for her singing. While at the demonstrations, she performed the ‘joik’, a traditional Sami chant with tones of lament and prayer.

“There is an instant urge to stand up for people who are being displaced from their homes,” she says. Though the Sami aren’t facing mass violence as Palestinians are, being indigenous brings a connection whereby Isaksen shares Palestinian “pain”.

“Sometimes I just feeI like I'm alone in this, And then I walk out to the streets and then there are thousands showing up with Palestinian flags and scarves,” she adds.

As well as weekly protests in Oslo combining Sami and Palestinian activism, young Sami activists have used social media as a tool for both protest and education.

Ida Helene Benonisen, a Sami poet and activist charged for blocking entrances to Norwegian government offices, is among a new wave of younger, typically millennials and Gen-Z, finding their Sami roots despite living in urban Norway.

Proudly showcasing her Sami roots online marks a new path from the “shame” Benonisen says her family and other Samis felt, hiding their identity under Norwegian-ization and forced assimilation policies that officially ended in 1960. The impact of forced assimilation is felt to this day. Just nine Sami languages are spoken today, down from 14 languages in the past.  

“It wasn’t even a question to use my platform. [What is happening in] Gaza is a brutal expression of white colonialism,” says Benonisen. 

Sami use of social media to educate global audiences about their own plight mimics the way journalists and everyday citizens in Gaza have used platforms such as Instagram to share on-the-ground experiences. 

Not all Sami are on board with Palestinian solidarity. Older generations who experienced forced assimilation practices are more likely to be pro-Israeli, says Helsinki-based researcher West. A history of silence and subjugation, combined with a more Christian-ized upbringing, has meant older Sami are more likely to be in favour of staunchly pro-Israeli narratives.

“Palestinian solidarity should be stronger. I want to see more Sami collectives stand out and speak out for the Palestinian human rights,” says West. Like Benoninsen, West uses Instagram to showcase Sami traditions, educate outsiders on Nordic colonialism and advocate for the Palestinian people.

She argues that the Sami people residing in Finland have been restrained, particularly in light of Finland joining the NATO military alliance, which she believes has restricted political language. “Strategically it [Finland] partners with the US more than ever."

For West, staying quiet about occupation in Palestine doesn’t align with the core experience of being Sami.

“The discourse of colonialism has been in Sami life for decades. We have this never ending occupation, siege and ethnic cleansing. Any talk of decolonization is not credible if we Sami stay silent.” 

Shafi Musaddique is a British journalist based in Estonia covering the Nordics and Baltics.