Protecting indigenous identities? An example of cultural expertise on sámi identity

Toivanen, R. (2022). In: Legal pluralism and critical social analysis, 54(2-3), 210-230.


In Finland, there is a national law that aims to protect the cultural heritage and identity of the Indigenous Sámi people. This law establishes certain criteria for determining who belongs to the Sámi community. The Sámi Parliament, which represents the Sámi Indigenous Peoples, has an electoral committee that decides whether individuals meet these criteria and can be included in the electoral roll

However, the Sámi Parliament has rejected many applications from people who are not recognized as Sámi. If someone's application is rejected, they can appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland. In 2015, the court overturned 93 rejections, which caused a crisis within the Sámi Parliament. This raised the question of who has the cultural expertise to determine Sámi identity in Finland.

Sámi activists took their concerns to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and filed two complaints, arguing that the rights of the Sámi people to self-determination were being violated. In 2019, the Human Rights Committee concluded that Finland had indeed violated the rights of the Sámi.

This paper examines the issue of cultural expertise in determining Sámi identity and who has the authority to make such decisions. It focuses on the evidence required by the Supreme Administrative Court and questions whether legal experts and judges, who may not have cultural expertise, can accurately decide someone's Indigenous identity without input from cultural experts.

The argument presented is that the legal mechanisms in place to protect Indigenous Peoples do not sufficiently consider the diverse and complex real-life contexts in which these rights are negotiated. As a result, applicants often rely on essentialist arguments that rely on stereotypes about how Indigenous Peoples should be, rather than recognizing the true diversity and heterogeneity of these communities.


Find the full publication here.