Minorities Or Immigrants? The Kven And Sami Peoples Of Norway

The phrase “minority rights” conjures abhorrent images of Palestinians tortured in Israeli prisons; Aegean Macedonians expelled from Greece or incarcerated on remote islands, there to perish; and Native-Americans confined to wasteland “reservations”, having been decimated for decades. But, the sad truth is that minorities are welcome nowhere and that every single nation harbors embarrassing skeletons in its historical closet.

Consider Norway, by far the least plausible candidate for the role of perpetrators of genocide, physical or cultural. This remote Scandinavian polity has repeatedly won every conceivable prize for upholding and cherishing human rights. Yet, it, too, has a dark chapter that ended only recently.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, many Finns – destitute farmers and fishermen – emigrated from their homeland and from Sweden and settled in the inhospitable northern reaches of Norway. They joined the original inhabitants of that area, Finns known as Sami. The new arrivals came to be known as Kvener (in Norwegian), Kvenee (in their own Finnish dialect), or simply Kven, by everyone else.

Fully one quarter of the population in the north identified themselves as Kven in the census of 1875 – yet, it took their adopted country two centuries (and a parliamentary investigative committee) to recognize them a minority (in 1996) and to accept their right to use their language (in 2005) within the framework of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Still, this may have been too little, too late. In the intervening period, the word “Kven” has been used as a pejorative by the Kvens’ upstanding “ethnically pure Norwegian” compatriots. Kven and Sami culture and languages were considered backward and inferior (with racist undertones). Across the border, in Sweden, Samis were compulsorily sterilized.

In Norway, the Kven and Sami were re-labeled “The Foreign Nations” (non-Nordic, of Mongol roots) and “The Original Immigrants” (a falsification of history, as the Norwegians were the immigrants, not the Sami).

The mandate of the “Finn Fund”, established in the 19th century by the Norwegian National Assembly, called on it to “civilize” the Kven and the Sami. Even after World War II, as Norway sought to “modernize” itself, Kven and Sami civilizations were cast as outdated and primitive.

Consequently, many Kvens now claim counterfactually to be Norwegians (or merely Norwegian Finns) and consider the Kven language to be a dialect of Finnish.

Inevitably, in a nationalistic backlash, some Kven now insist that they are the aborigines of northern Europe and that once, in the 11th century, they ran an empire that covered most of northern Scandinavia. Groups of opportunistic Swedish Finns support these theories in an attempt to leverage the ILO 169 Convention about the Rights of Indigenous People and apply it to Sweden’s Kvens.

Be that as it may, the truth is that Norway had made it exceedingly difficult for Kvens (and other Finns, such as the Sami people) to obtain citizenship or maintain it and literally impossible to buy real estate – unless they agreed to change their names, give up their language and culture and, later, move away from sensitive border areas (they were considered pro-Russian, then pro-German and, therefore, a security risk). Additionally, lands in the public domain (in truth, owned by the Sami and Kven) were declared to be state property and confiscated without compensation.

This discriminatory policy was known as fornorskningspolitikken (Norwegianization).

Thus, for instance, well into the 1950s, it was forbidden to teach the Sami language in schools (with a few exceptions in the 1930s and 1940s). The very existence of the Sami nation (as a minority) was acknowledged only in 1989, after massive demonstrations in 1979 (ostensibly against the construction of an environmentally-disruptive dam, but actually to air Sami grievances).

Only in the 1990s were some of the wrongs righted: the Sami language was declared a “national treasure” (and a second official language in Norway), a Sami parliament was established, and lands appropriated by the state were returned to the Sami people.

The Kven are envious of the Samis’ achievements. Well into the 1990s, they were still being labeled “immigrants” (and not a minority) by the Norwegian state.

In 1987, they established The Norwegian Kven Organization. Its aims are both political and cultural: the ultimate compilation of a government report about the Kven population; liaising with the Norwegian media; to push for the establishment of a State Secretary for Kven issues; to further the knowledge of the Kven language, from the kindergarten level onwards, using the proceeds of a Kven culture fund and income from museums and culture centers. The Kven also demand bilingual signage and place names.

Yet, only after Norway ratified, in 1999, the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, did it reluctantly alter the Kvens’ status and accept that they are a “national minority”: a collective with a historical presence (longer than 100 years) in a given territory. Now, only Norway and Canada (and maybe Australia) maintain a three-tiered hierarchy of “nations”: indigenous, minority, and immigrants.

Even so, Norway is light years ahead of countries such as Israel and Greece who completely deny the existence of their minorities. Israel had insisted until quite recently that the Palestinian “nation” is an invention and the Greeks refuse to this very day to accept the existence of a Macedonian minority (or any other non-Greeks, for that matter) on Greek soil.