It would have been impossible to conduct an expedition to Finnmark centred around the
environment and omit the story of the Sami, the first population to truly settle this wild region.
Today, Sami flags are flown proudly in Finnmark. The striking red, green, yellow and blue
background, adorned with a red and blue motif representing the sun and moon, stands in sharp
contrast to the ‘Nordic Cross’ style national Norwegian flag. Indeed, the cross of the Norwegian flag,
representing the country’s Christian routes, and the sun and moon motif of the Sami flag, heralding
from local Shamanistic religion, might seem to be polar opposites. Yet the two are frequently seen
together, representing a unique blend of regional and national identity. Sami emblems hang behind
campsite reception desks, yet the staff made it clear that they were proud to be both Norwegian and
Sami. However, this was not always the case.
Faced with ‘Norwegification’ efforts from southerners seeking a modern Norwegian nation-state in
the mid to late nineteenth century, the Sami are no strangers to the struggle to preserve cultural
autonomy and identity, of which the environment forms a major theme and sometimes
battleground. Christianity competed with Shamanism, whilst a linguistic battle raged over the
introduction of the Norwegian language. The Sami emphasis on the omnipotence of mother earth
and the seas clashed with rival ideas that land could be owned, bought and sold.
Despite these conflicts, the Sami have succeeded in protecting and celebrating their ethnic identity
and this is in no small part thanks to their relationship with the environment. This can be seen in
what has been immortalised in local memory as the ‘Alta Affair’. In 1978, a hydro-electric dam
approved by the national Norwegian Parliament on the Alta-Kautokeino River, flowing through Sami
territory, threatened to damage the village of Máze as well as disrupt salmon and reindeer migration
patterns, both core environmental components of the Sami lifestyle. Despite extensive civil
disobedience and hunger strikes, the plant was completed in 1987. However, such Sami resistance
to intrusion in the environment did not go unheard. In 1988, an amendment to the Norwegian
Constitution was made. It read “It is the responsibility of the authorities of the state to create
conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life” 1 .
A new Sami Parliament opened in 1989, followed by full recognition of the International Labour
Organisation’s International Convention on Indigenous Populations by the Norwegian government in
1990 2 . As a result, environmental issues have provided a mouthpiece for the Finnmark Sami
population at large and have paved the way for increased cultural and social autonomy for this
The story of the Sami commitment to the environment certainly proved inspiring, given our similar
interests in vegetation and climate change in the region. People we met who identified as Sami
proved ever helpful and hospitable. We were treated to primary oral recollections as to how the
region had changed and popular sentiment regarding such change. It’s safe to say we’ve all found it
a privilege to study climate change in an area where there is such cultural engagement with the
1,2 Fonneland, Trude (1977) Contemporary Shamanisms in Norway, Oxford University Press. Page 8.