Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 7, 2015

Swedish colonialism, part 1: the persecution of the Sami

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

A Sami family, 1900

(This is the second in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one can be read here.)

It is likely that one of the reasons Bernie Sanders advocates socialism based on the Swedish (or Scandinavian more generally) model is that it does not seem to have the same awful history as British, French or American colonialism. In order to develop a critical understanding of this model, it is necessary to dig a bit deeper into Swedish history.

To some extent, there is a reasonable basis for being pro-Sweden, at least if you are old enough to remember the role of Olaf Palme in the 1960s. The Swedish prime minister was a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam and his country became a haven for American servicemen opposed to the war and antiwar activists fleeing prosecution for misguided attempts to sabotage the War Machine, including one Robert Malecki, a Spartacist League sympathizer and general nuisance on the early days of Marxism on the Internet.

Malecki ended up in Robersfors, a tiny town in northeast Sweden that is traditionally part of what was once called Lapland, but more properly known as Sami (or Saami) territory. If Sweden had been innocent of the brutal treatment of native peoples, that certainly would have been news to the Sami who as I shall now try to point out had much more in common with indigenous peoples in North America than they did with the Swedes who swept north in the 17th century in their own version of what took place in Ireland or in Indian territories in Canada or the USA. There might not have been wholesale extermination but there was forced assimilation. Indeed, the parallel is much more with Canada where a policy pursued by the dominant nationality can seem benign in comparison to that carried out by the Wild Bill Hickocks or Andrew Jacksons to the south.

This picture of a Sami family above should give you a good indication of why such comparisons make sense.

Nobody quite knows where the Sami came from but they occupied the northern regions of what would become Norway, Sweden and Finland from at least 5000 years ago. There are also Samis in Russia who despite being designated as an indigenous people with rights guaranteed by the Soviet state are now being encroached upon by commercial interests determined to exploit oil and other mineral resources on their homeland. No big surprise there.

In his chapter on the Sami in “Colonialism in the Margins”, Gunlög Fur presents a picture of a hunting-and-gathering society not that much different from the Lenape indians in North America, who were the subjects of his 1993 dissertation earned in 1993. Among younger Swedish scholars, Fur departs from the traditional Swedish narrative of being pure as the driven snow.

Although Sweden was a bit player in the colonialism game in the 17th century, the parallels with the British were striking. Establishing a Swedish West India Company, they created something called New Sweden that extended along the Delaware River. The colony was short-lived, being conquered by the Dutch in 1655.

But in the Swedish kingdom, it was much easier to defend the interests of Gustavus Adolphus who had the same sort of territorial ambitions as other European monarchs. Throughout the 17th century this would entail bringing the Sami into the “civilized” world by hook or by crook.

Just as the Northern Plains Indians relied on the bison for food, clothing and shelter, the Sami both hunted and domesticated reindeer for the same purposes. Fur describes the communal nature of Sami society in a way that resonates with how most pre-capitalist, hunter-and-gathering bands existed. It was primitive communism, so to speak:

Hunting fur-beating animals was primarily a winter occupation while fishing belonged to the summer. Male hunting parties representing all the families in the village chased reindeer and beaver. The catch was then divided among the households according to tax burden. The old and the infirm received a full share. Reindeer caught outside the communal hunt belonged to the hunter alone, but no matter how or when it was caught, all beavers had to be shared with the whole village. Beaver pelts were particularly attractive as trade items in the early seventeenth century and also formed part of the tax payment in certain areas. Village custom regulated the hunt so as to avoid over-hunting. Each family kept some tame reindeer that they milked and used for transportation. The families guarded the domesticated animals well and sometimes brought them onto islands in the lakes where people fished during the summer.

In contrast to the sociobiological tripe found in Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chignon et al, the Sami were anything but warlike:

Contemporary accounts held that Saamis were “useless” as soldiers. According to these sources, Saamis were easily frightened and squeamish, and money could not persuade them to enlist as soldiers. Johannes Schefferus offers the unlikely explanation that their fear of war was due to “their diet, which cannot supply good blood and spirits.” Violence and murder, as well as daring deeds, were not unknown to them, but it is probable that the autonomous Saami villages had no tradition of concerted action against a common enemy and had no leadership who could demand such action from their people. Samuel Rheen described their “natural inclination” and physical constitution in derogatory terms. Most of them were “useless in war, because among them there is no Manly courage, instead they arc generally timid and faint-hearted: and although a few of them might enroll in the army for money, such happens rarely.”

King Gustavus Asolphus, regarded as the father of modern warfare, was able to assimilate the Sami mostly through the agencies of the Church rather than the Cannon. Of course, the cannon was always held in reserve if the Sami proved too unruly. The Crown mostly had a need in the mid-17th century for the Sami as coolie labor transporting silver and copper ore from newly developed mines in the far north. Given the ruggedness of the terrain and the brutal cold, the only possible transportation were reindeer-drawn carts that the Sami men were dragooned into operating. The Sami were called hallapar, which meant “kept men”. If you read B. Traven’s “Trozas”, about the debt peonage that forced Indians to work on ox-carts, you’ll how it was done in Mexico.

Keeping in mind that the Sami were polytheists with the men worshipping male gods and the women worshiping females, the dour Lutheran missionaries had a job on their hands. Commenting on the relationship between the silver mines and piety, the Swedish chancellor opined “since we have not be able to come there [to Sami country] per pietatem [by piety], God draws us, opens doors, and shows us the way through a new silver mind, that we may come here per vitium avaritie [through the vice of avarice].” The Queen concurred, stating “God who has blessed this Country with such a magnificent mine; He intends thus to help our subjects and Lapps [a pejorative term for Sami] out of the miserable condition in which, until this day, they have lived.”

Pastors assigned to the “Swedification” of Sami villages were instructed to impose fines on all men and women who engaged in premarital sex, something that these people preferred to making war, showing up drunk on Sunday services or avoiding the church altogether on major holidays.

Finding pastors to work in Sami country was no easy task as one observer described:

[H]e who becomes used to warm houses, feeding on bread and beer, lying in good beds, he will not be eager to live among the Lapps . . . they quickly die when they have to … refrain from bathing, drink water and eat smoke, run on skis, lie like a dog in snow and huts in the winter, withstand cold and frost, walk through rain in the summers, across marshes, swamps and mosses … put up with mosquitoes and gnats so that they may eat one alive in summer, above and around giving one peace neither day nor night.

But the key to driving the demon out of these people was getting to the youth. Like the Canadians, the Swedes forced the Samis to enrol their children in boarding schools where the native would be driven from their unclean souls. Not only were the children required to speak Swedish, they had to Swedishize their names—Pagge became Paul, etc.

One devout Swede described the efforts at conversion (ie. assimilation) as virtually hopeless:

I began by asking them about the catechism … What they understood was quite little; charged them with Idolatry and witchcraft; Intercourse with animals; incest, manslaughter, fornication, but saw no more reaction than from a log… when I more clearly repeated his [Christ’s] suffering in the garden, etc. was an equal lack of reaction, I saw only 2 or 3 that cried tears … the Pastor has scant responsibility for this, when the Lapp is like this, he can achieve little.

With all due respect to those who admire the Swedes, I’d have preferred to live like a Sami.

Now you might assume that these were the bad old days and that the Swedes straightened out their act under a benign and enlightened social democracy in the 20th century when Sami rights would finally be respected. Well, let’s take a look at the record.

Roger Kvist, a faculty member in the Department of Saami Studies at Umeå University, wrote a paper titled “The Racist Legacy In Modern Swedish Saami Policy” that demonstrates the continuity between the 17th century and the modern era.

Despite the fact that reindeer was a key to the cultural survival of the Sami ethos just as the bison was to the Lakota, the Swedish government has consistently tried to impinge on the right to hunt and to tame the beasts. Social Democrats like  Gunnar Sträng (Minister of Finance) and Torsten Nilsson (as Minister of Agriculture, responsible for Saami Affairs, Roger Kvist Minister of Foreign Affairs) were for strict control of reindeer grazing.

In the 1980s, even after Norway had passed legislation favorable to Sami self-determination, the Swedish social democrats failed to pass a similar bill. Also, the government would not sign the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169, concerning Indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries. Ironically, despite the social democratic pretensions to being concerned about the rights of the downtrodden, it has been non-social democratic governments in Sweden that have been more forthcoming.

But this is not the half of it. On August 29, 1997 the Washington Post reported on how “Sweden Sterilized Thousands of ‘Useless’ Citizens for Decades”:

The victims were young and mostly female, judged to be rebellious or promiscuous, of low intelligence or perhaps of mixed blood. One was a young woman whose priest believed she had not learned her confirmation lessons well enough, another who couldn’t read a blackboard because she did not have eyeglasses and was deemed to be retarded.

In the eyes of Swedish authorities, they were misfits in a forward-looking nation, and for that they paid a terrible price: sterilization at the hands of the state, often against their will. From 1934 to 1974, 62,000 Swedes were sterilized as part of a national program grounded in the science of racial biology and carried out by officials who believed they were helping to build a progressive, enlightened welfare state.

Now the collective history of the victims, brought back into public view by a sharply written series of articles in Sweden’s largest morning newspaper, has stirred the public consciousness of a country that has often ignored the darker corners of its past.

The policy weighed heaviest on the Roma who were specifically targeted by the social democrats who were heavily into eugenics but there is little doubt that Sami women were victimized as well, not so much for being Sami but for being rebellious or promiscuous—in other words the same kind of behavior that offended Lutheran preachers 350 years earlier.

In my next post, I will deal with the Swedish social democrats and Africa.


  1. Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, the famous husband and wife team, who were among the chief architects of the Swedish welfare state were also prominent advocates of eugenics.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — July 7, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

  2. Thank you for writing about the Samis, fills in a lot of blanks.  I had heard of the post-Nazi Eugenics and couldn’t fucking believe it but then the US has defacto eugenics going on with 1/4 of those killed by police this year being mentally retarded.  Not to mention the assassinations of young Black and Latino men who, being dead, can’t reproduce. Astonsihing how the Sami dwelling resembles the tipis of the SIoux. I agree I would RATHER live like a Sami than a Swede.  And the earlier story about Bismarck and germany being the site of the founding of the modern welfare state astonishes me.  In my old age I am learning everything “they” didn;t tell me back in HS and college.  But that is OK.  SOmehow these truths set one free.  I think the left should keep pounding at Bernie and Syriza to keep them honest.  Regards, Thom

    Comment by Thom Prentice — July 8, 2015 @ 12:41 am

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