Girjas Sami village is located in Gällivare, northern Sweden. For more than a decade, the little community has been in a court battle with the Swedish state. The core of the matter has been the issue about who gets to manage hunting and fishing rights in its land management area; the Sami reindeer herding community or the Swedish state.
The Swedish Supreme Court on Thursday 23 January ruled that the Girjas Sami Village holds exclusive rights to decide who gets to hunt and fish within its land management area. In other words, the State may not issue licenses for this area.
A decade’s work
Åsa Larsson Blind, President of the Sami Council and Chair of the Sámiid RIikasearvi, was present in the court hall when the ruling came. She says to High North News that the atmosphere in the hall was tense.
“We had strong expectations. This has been a long an arduous process that has lasted for ten years. Many years of work lies behind it, and many have worked hard and been very invested in this process. The atmosphere was both tense and nervous before the ruling was read out, Larsson Blind says.
The Sami reindeer-herding district stipulated that the Swedish Supreme Court should rule that the Sami village holds exclusive rights to decide whether others are to be permitted to hunt and fish in the village’s areas. Girjas argued that such exclusive rights were inherent in the Reindeer Herding Act, or that it would be based on traditional custom or based on inherent rights. The State opposed this.
According to a press release from the Swedish Supreme Court, the Court decided that the reindeer herding Act does not give the village any right to permit hunting and fishing inn the area where it has its reindeer herding operations. However, the Sami village nevertheless has the sole right to permit hunting and fishing in the area as a consequence of historic circumstances applying to the area; inherent customs, or inherited rights.
There has been massive interest in the court’s ruling, says Larsson Blind.
“It was great to see such massive interest and support before the ruling fell. It also goes to prove the significance of this verdict and the process.”
She adds that the reason why this court process started was based on the understanding and experience that in Sweden, it has been hard to move on with Sami issues, and more specifically; with hunting and fishing issues, through politics.
“That is why a decision was made to try these issues in a legal process in order to clarify the legal foundations and move on – and that is what we got with this ruling.”
Potential consequences outside Sweden
In the aftermath of the ruling, the question has arisen about what significance the Swedish Supreme Court ruling will have in other parts of Sápmi. Sápmi is the traditional word for the Sami nation, which stretches across northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
“This is a ruling applying to Girjas Sami Village int eh Swedish part of Sápmi and its area within the land management boundaries. When talking about the verdict, one does of course have to relate to what the Court actually has decided. That, of course, is about Girjas Sami Village, says Larsson Blind.
“This is a Swedish court, though Sápmi stretches across four countries. We have to relate to the national court, and we see that there are major differences across the borders, and that the Sami live under varying conditions. This is a process that has been going on in the Swedish court system and we cannot draw a direct parallel to other parts of the Sápmi, as national legislations look different elsewhere.”
“Nevertheless, there is an understanding on the Sami side that the Sami rights look similar, though we have seen various recognitions of the rights in the various parts of national borders in the Sámpi region.”
Øyvind Ravna, Professor of Law at the University of Tromsø says to Norwegian broadcaster NRK that this is a groundbreaking and historic verdict, and that the case may have repercussions for Norwegian court decisions. He points out to NRK that inherent rights may matter in a neighboring country like Norway, as the Sami are a people residing in four countries while sharing inherent customs and legal traditions.
Larsson Blind also says there are elements that could make this verdict important beyond Sweden:
“Lawyers will analyze and look at it later on. This verdict is about Girjas sami village, but there are elements and core parts of this legal reasoning that the Court has made that matter to how one looks upon Sami rights. Inherited rights are acknowledged in this verdict. It has been argued that these have formed the basis of the Sami rights, and the Court has agreed with that. Cases like this one matter.”
“Today is the first day we live with this new arrangement. There is still much work to be done in order for everything to fall into place, and a lot of work remains. However, this represents a new legal status and we will work towards the Swedish state to make it analyze what kind of consequences this verdict will, and should, have for other Sami people.”
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.