Port Elgin, Ont.
It is a story that is sadly all-too-familiar around the world: a pastoral people who lived on the land for generations have had their spirituality stripped from them and their traditional territories taken away by a colonizing power, and their descendants are now trying to recover a sense of identity and political agency in the face of strong resistance from the dominant society.
But this particular story takes place not in Canada’s Wendake or Australia’s Wollongong, but in a country heralded the world over for its respect for human rights: Sweden.
In a keynote delivered August 19 to the eighth National Anglican Sacred Circle meeting here, Kaisa Huuva, the adviser on Sami issues at the Church of Sweden, drew many parallels between the experiences of Indigenous peoples across North America and those of the Sami people in Sweden.
Huuva said she hopes to be able to take what she has learned from Indigenous Anglicans and apply it to her own people’s struggle for self-determination—in the church and in Swedish society. The Sami have inhabited Lapland and parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia’s Kolan Peninsula for thousands of years.
“During the days here, I have come to realize that we, the Samis of the church, are really one of the younger sisters in the family tree of Indigenous churches,” she said. “We have just started our journey on the path towards what one day might become a Sami church.”
Huuva explained the history of the Sami people’s relationship to Sweden, and talked about some of the ways in which the Church of Sweden was complicit—and continues to be complicit—with the state in keeping the Sami marginalized.
The mineral wealth that made Sweden an important European power, for example, largely came from traditional Sami territory, she said. And while the Sami language and culture are recognized, and they are considered a national minority, they have no rights over their own land. In fact, the state or the church own almost all of the land, she noted.
While Sweden is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Huuva said there is a “lack of knowledge” among political bodies about what it means. “The concept of Indigenous self-determination is very, very strange in Swedish society.”
Like Canada’s Aboriginal people, Sami children were also forced to go through residential schools.
“The experience of the residential schools…is very much similar to the experience you had here in Canada,” Huuva noted. “There is a loss of language, a culture of not feeling valued as Sami.” She said that after attending residential schools, many Samis left their Indigenous communities and never came back because of “bad experiences.” The effect of the residential schools has also been intergenerational, she said.
But while Canada has started coming to grips with its history through initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Sweden has yet to face its colonial history. This is why Huuva is working on a research project looking into the stories of the many Sami who—like her own father—went through the schools.
“This has not been done before, not by a Sami organization or Sami institution” she said. “The issue of the residential schools has very much been dealt with privately or among friends. Everyone has an experience of it, but we have not documented it before. This is the first time it has been done systematically.”
However, for Huuva, this is but one step toward the ultimate goal.
“We Samis need to heal and decolonize ourselves,” she said. “We need to build up our own leadership before we can start to decolonize Sweden and also the Church of Sweden. I don’t know how many generations that will take, but probably not during my lifetime.”
Huuva ended her keynote by promising to “bring back what I have learned from our older sister” to her Sami and non-Indigenous colleagues in the Sami church councils and the Church of Sweden.
“My hope and aspiration is that we will one day arrange our own Sacred Circle,” she said, to loud applause.