Pirita Näkkäläjärvi: Hate Speech and Indigenous People Sámi

Freedom of speech of indigenous peoples and hate speech towards indigenous peoples has not been widely studied. Academic literature on the rights of the indigenous peoples has understandably focused on self-determination and land rights: self-determination is a priority for all indigenous peoples, and land rights are essential for the future of indigenous peoples as distinct peoples.

Freedom of speech is closely linked to self-determination. A recent paradigm shift in international law means that indigenous peoples are now recognised as peoples with peoples’ rights, such as the right to self-determination. This means that indigenous peoples should be treated equally compared to those peoples that have organised as states. Indigenous peoples should also have an equal right to enjoy freedom of speech, and a good life without having to suffer from hate speech.

The Sámi are an Arctic indigenous people divided into four countries by the borders of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. In Finland, there are only 10,000 Sámi. Formally the Finnish constitution grants the Sámi freedom of speech. However, hate speech is a threat to the freedom of speech of the Sámi in Finland. A 2016 survey by the Ministry of Justice concluded that Sámi encounter hate speech and harassment in public places in Finland, most often online. The most common forms are constant negative commentary, verbal insults, harassment or humiliation, name-calling, silencing or restriction of societal participation.

A small ethnic minority and indigenous people like the Sámi needs allies. The following list, based on my 2017 London School of Economics MSc Dissertation about threats to the freedom of speech of the indigenous people Sámi in Finland, is designed to help identifying hate speech against the Sámi, and to be a better ally online.


Sámi experience attempts to be silenced especially online. Silencing is explicit, politically motivated and happens in the form hate speech, harassment and even death threats by the majority population. Hate speech is the new normal: belittling, ridiculing, discrediting, defaming. This creates aggressive and hostile discussion climate towards the Sámi. Sámi women suffer disproportionally from hate speech.


Sámi get represented as inferior and less full and equal participants in public life than the majority population. Subordination often happens through stereotypes especially in
TV comedy sketches, media and tourism. Roots of stereotypes about the Sámi are in racism. They portray Sámi as primitive, dirty, quarrelling, child-like and always drinking. Stereotypes spread by media and entertainment are not harmless fun. They show minorities their “place” in society, and they cement asymmetri- cal power relations.


Sámi experience their words being discounted no matter what their merits as ideas. There are attempts to undermine the credibility of the Sámi as individuals, and on the level of the official representative body Sámi Parliament. Sámi are accused of bias due to their ethnicity. Politically active Sámi
are stigmatised. Sámi are required to be unanimous, like a party. Delegitimisation denies the Sámi the right to speak for themselves and to be experts of their own culture. It also causes Sámi to be taken less seriously on the public arena, and alleviates the dominant culture from the burden of listening to a culture deemed less legitimate.


Despite the highly acclaimed Finnish school system, there is little knowledge about the Sámi in the society. However, disinformation about the Sámi history is in abundance. It builds on populistic and far right rhetoric. It portrays reindeer-herding Sámi as immigrants and elites which discriminate other (also imaginary) minority Sámi groups and exclude them from politics. Disinformation about the Sámi is a strong force in the Finnish society. It builds on existing preconceptions, it is sticky and it is deliberately constructed by the dominant population in the north to undermine the Sámi politically.


Colonial societies have efficiently destroyed indigenous ways of knowing, and this has happened also in Finland that is characterised by settler colonialism. The Finnish society is built on the Finnish worldview, and the Sámi are invisible in the structures of the society from education to healthcare. However, the Sámi worldview has survived and is now more visible than ever before, especially online. Lack of knowledge and understanding about the Sámi may anger the majority population and makes it hard for them to appreciate Sámi concerns. Foundational differences between different civilisations cause communication problems that can escalate into tensions and hate speech.

Pirita Näkkäläjärvi

Pirita Näkkäläjärvi specialises in Sámi rights and indigenous advocacy.

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