Sweden’s official national minorities


Sweden has been inhabited since the stone-age. 2000 years ago different groups competed about the natural resources and land to inhabit. Three main groups could be seen: Sveons/Swedes in the Stockholm and Uppsala region, Goths in Western and Eastern Gothland as well as on the island of Gotland, and Ski-Finns/Sámit in the north. In the centre-eastern areas a kingdom in the Viking era (780 – 1066 A.D.) was called Svithiodh, (roughly Swed Earth). From the early 13th century Sveons and Goths gathered in an expanded kingdom called Svea Righe, (Svea Kingdom)/Sweden. What about the Ski-Finns/Sámit then who inhabited the lands from central Sweden and up in the Middle Ages?

On December 1st 1999 the Swedish Parliament/Riksdagen decided that Sweden should follow the convention for protection of national minorities taken by the Council of Europe, and also the European Charter about regional and minority languages. To be an accepted ethnic minority the group had to have been living in Sweden at least since the 18th century. Five groups emerged: the Same population who also are aboriginals, Finns (mainly living in eastern Sweden), Finns from the Torne Valley in the far north east and who speak a Finnish version called Meänkieli, Romanies and Jews. The five minority languages became: Sami (about ten versions of it), Finnish, Meänkieli, Romani Chib and Yiddish. This text will deal with the development and situation in this country for these groups.

The Same population/Sámit, have now an area called Sápmi. About 70 000 Sámit live in Sápmi which covers northern Norway, northern Sweden, northern Finland and most of the Kola peninsula in north-western Russia. Ca 20 000 Sámit of those in Sápmi live in Sweden. Their situation is very similar to the Kurds or Native Americans, even if there hasn’t been an armed war for independence. The ancient Sami tongue developed about 2000 – 2500 years ago when also their culture began to emerge. In 98 A.D. the Roman writer Tacitus described a group called “Fenni” that has been identified as probably the Sámit: “They eat herbs, dress in animal skins and sleep on the ground. The only thing they trust are the arrows with arrow-heads of bone. Men and women follow each other and feed from the same game”. In the 6th century Procopius talked about “Skrithifonoi”/Ski Finns, and so did Paulus Diaconus ca 780 A.D., and Adam of Bremen in the 11th century. Also Ottar Viking described in the 8th century his journey to the Arctic and the meeting with reindeer-keeping “Fenni”. In Norwegian one word for Sámit still is “Fina”. Since the 13th or 14th century a common word in Swedish has been “Laps” for this group. The Sámit have always been treated with contempt for their down-to-earth lifestyle and seen as inferior by those who didn’t bother to get to know them. This maltreatment has continued for hundreds of years. It’s only recently that some improvements have began somewhat. In 1340 king Magnus Eriksson of Sweden said that: “All who want to convert to Christianity are allowed to take land and property in Lappmarken”. In the 16th and 17th centuries the national states Norway and Sweden, as well as Russia, increased their abuse of the local population. The Sámit have for centuries and millennia mainly been working with reindeer-management and fishing. Until the 17th or 18th century the Sámit shaman, the “noid”, used a drum and a specific form of sacred singing called “jojk”. The tents, called “kåta” looked like the Native American wigwams. The climate in the north is harsh and cold which has made the mentality the same: silent, tough, proud and warm. The Sámit national costume is a mix of red, blue, yellow and green and the different patterns describe origin and descent. In 1751 the national borders between Norway and Sweden was decided in the Strömstad treaty. Kautokeino, Karasjok and Utsjoki became part of the Norwegian Finnmark Shire. That year also the borderline for Lappland was drawn on Swedish maps. The Sámit were converted with force to Christianity, but given little or no education. In the 19th and early 20th centuries scientists measured their skulls and decided that they belonged to an inferior race. Luckily that kind of reasoning is proven wrong. In 1904 the Sámit politician Torkel Tomasson published “Lapparnas egen tidning”/The Laps’ own paper”, but in 1918 instead “Samefolkets egen tidning”/The Sámit people’s own paper. Since 1979 there’s a Sami Parliament in Finland, followed by Norway in 1989 and Sweden in 1993. The Sami national commemoration day is February the 6th and their national anthem is called “Sámi soga lávlla”. The Sámis are acknowledged as national minority in SOU 1990:91 and Euro Charter, EC-document 1980. The Sámi culture is protected in UN’s ILO convention 169 from 1989 which Sweden hasn’t ratified.

Meänkieli/Tornedalsfinska/Torne Valley Finnish is spoken in the far north-eastern corner of this country. Meänkieli means “our language”. Just like Sámi it belongs to the Baltic-Finnish branch of the Finno-Ugrian languages, which in turn is part of the larger Western Ural-Altaic language family. To this wider family we find Sámi, Meänkieli, Finnish, Estonian and more distantly Hungarian. In Tornedalen/The Torne Valley Finnish has been the dominant language since the Middle Ages. During the 12th century the lower part of Torne River Valley was inhabited by Western Finns and Kareles. In 1809 the Swedish-Finnish border was drawn at the Torne River Valley. In 1888 the first schools appeared in the region, but all education was in Swedish. In the 1920’s ambulating libraries existed with good, accepted Swedish literature. Finnish literature was banned. In the late 1930’s Tornedal Finns were granted the possibility to study Finnish on their own in the so called “continuation schools” which disappeared in 1940. Officially you were allowed to study Finnish in upper-secondary school from the 1930’s, but in reality first in 1955. Two years later it was no longer forbidden to speak Finnish during the breaks. In 1970 it was possible for Tornedal Finns to study Finnish/Meänkieli in primary and lower-secondary schools. In 1990 ca 1500-1900 pupils studied Meänkieli, but the situation fluctuates since then. The studies mainly occur in Kiruna, Gällivare, Pajala, Övertorneå and Happaranda.

The Finns is also another acknowledged group here in Sweden. Many of them live in the Eastern parts of the country, because of the vicinity to Finland. In the beginning of the 13th century king Knut Eriksson made a crusade to Finland, but the impact wasn’t that great yet. However from between 1238 and 1249 under Birger Jarl/Birger Earl the newly established Sweden took control of large parts of Finland.  Between 1249 and 1809 Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom. In western and southern Finland and on the island of Åland in the Baltic Sea many speak Swedish with some arcaic traits, nowadays also with influences from Finnish and English, while Finns in Sweden speak Finnish. Sweden lost Finland to Russia in 1809-1810, but the Finns continued to struggle for independence. That happened in 1917, followed by the Finnish civil war in 1918 between the socialist reds and the conservative whites. During World War II Finland was fighting the invading Soviet Union twice. In 1995 Finland entered the European Union. Since the 1990’s more immigrants from Finland have reached Sweden, apart from the older groups. The Sweden-Finnish Language Committee is guarding the safe-keeping of the language here.

On September 29th 1512 on S:t Michael’s Day 30 families led by a Count Antonius, (maybe Antonius Gagino) reached Stockholm. These dark vagrants said that they came from Little Egypt. Stockholm City Council gave them some money, (20 Mark) and a place to stay, even if the group soon became impopular. The group in question belonged to the Romanies who had been wandering from India through western Asia, north Africa and Europe for centuries. In 16th century Sweden it was made law to kill all male Romanies and expell the women. There were a few exceptions though. In 1577 Duke Magnus of Sachsen-Lauenburg outside Stockholm and Princess Cecilia gave the Romany leader Anders Faa and his company food and money. In 1617 the Swedish Parliament said that all vagrants and gypsies should be banned from the country, even if this was easier said than done. Some Romany groups were sent to guard the eastern borders of Finland against Russia, and they remained there and became the Finnish Gypsies/Romanies. The Romanies had to move from place to place and live outside the main society without any human rights. Anyone who wanted could kill or harrass them. Many Romanies were cobblers, horse-sellers, thread-makers and soothsayers. During the 18th and 19th centuries the Swedish army allowed Romany men to fight among them, and noticed that they were excellent soldiers. Many male Romanies did well as riflemen and artillery-men, even if they otherwise had no or low status. The older groups of Romanies that have lived here in Sweden and mingled and mixed are called “Resande”/Vagrants, while the later groups that have come in different waves from the 1880’s and until today have been called “Gypsies” or Romanies. In the 1890’s a group called Kalderash-Romanies appeared in Sweden, but 1914-1957 Romany immigrants were banned from Sweden. During the Holocaust in World War II 1939-1945 ca 600 000 – 1 million Romanies were killed in pogroms and death camps. Until ca 1970 Sweden had so called “gypsie camps” where the Romanies were allowed to stay a short while. From 1934 forced sterilazation of Romanies was part of the Swedish policy to keep Sweden “race-pure” and free of others who were condemned as unwanted: single mothers, handicapped, homosexuals, lesbians, prostitutes, Communists, vagrants, Sámi, poor Jews. Also forced custody was used. In the late 1950’s Finnish Kaale-Romanies immigrated to Sweden. Katarina Taikon wrote several auto-biographies for kids and youngsters about her childhood and teenage-years in Sweden during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Her nickname then was Katitizi, Little Kati. These books helped pinpointing the Romany situation for a larger audience and ever since the 1970’s different efforts have been made to get the Romanies an accepted part of the Swedish society. Today there are ca 50 000 Romanies in Sweden. New groups have come from Poland, Romania and former Yoguslavia in the 1980’s and 1990’s. About 10 000 of them live here in Malmoe. I have been  teaching some of them, and it is important to let them grow as individuals and try to avoid the old notions that contribute to an evil wheel of mutual suspicion, mutual violation and hate. The unemployment rate among the Romanies is 80%, but I also know good guys and women who work hard in today’s society and are to be as respected as anybody else. In 2000 the Romanies were accepted as one of Sweden’s official minority groups. In 2009 an establishment here in Malmoe was founded which earns to be mentioned, RIKC, Romskt Informations- och Kunskapscenter/Romany Information and Education Centre. They help Romanies getting into society, persuading them to school and higher education, give them homework-aid, contacts with authorities, hospitals etc. The Centre also have seminars teaching the general Swedes, Swedish police, schools, politicians etc about their situation, culture and history. At first it was financed by the Delegation for Romany Issues and since 2010 by Malmoe Municipality. In the autumn of 2012 the Romanies celebrated 500 years in Sweden. I was invited and was able to go to one of the seminars arranged by RIKC.

There have been Jews in Sweden since the 1500’s, but in the beginning only on occassional visits or some lonely family. In 1702 Samson Efraim and his son Efraim Samson visited Stockholm and Gothenburg on business. From 1733 Jews and other foreigners were allowed to visit Sweden for market days. Between 1729 and 1734 eight Jews lived in Gothenburg. Then something happened. In 1775 king Gustav III allowed the merchant Aaron Isaac of Mecklenburg to settle in Sweden. The king also allowed more Jewish families to immigrate. Most of them settled in Stockholm and Gothenburg. In 1780 a small Mosaic congregation was allowed on Marstrand off the Gothenburg coast. In 1782 there were families also in Norrköping, apart from those just mentioned. Then even later in Karlskrona. However, it would take until 1873 until the Jews in Sweden were given full civil rights. Until 1873 Jews had to convert to Christianity if they wanted full rights, but now also Christians were allowed to convert in the other direction. Most Jews from Western Europe, Sefardis, were wealthy and educated. Many of them quickly adapted to the Swedish society and their descendants still have an important role in society. The Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe were often less fortunate and led tougher lives with many social problems. In the 1930’s small groups of Jews immigrated from Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. During World War II about 50% of the Jews in Norway fled to unoccupied Sweden, and almost all of the Danish Jews succeeded to escape the Nazis into Scania and Sweden in October 1943. However, most of these moved back after the war. In the aftermath of World War II tens of thousands Jews that had survived the Nazi death camps were saved by the Swedish Red Cross and taken here. These Jews stayed. A few of them still live, as do their descendants. In 1956 Hungarian Jews fled a pogrom and came to Sweden and so did Polish Jews in 1969.  There was a pogrom in Poland that year with many stateless Jews killed and persecuted who instead chose to come here. There are about 20 000 Jews in Sweden today and Judaism is the fourth largest religion in Sweden after Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. About 30% of the Swedish Jews belong to a Mosaic Congregation, but only 0,3% see themselves as really religious. Nevertheless, today antisemitism again is a major problem. Israel was founded in 1949 and the conflict between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians have influenced also the Swedish society. Since I see both good and bad in every people and every nation and want people to survive, the antisemitism I see here in Malmoe and Sweden worries me. Mostly the attacks come from left-wings, Arabs and other Muslims, but also from Nazis and other right-wing Swedes. Many Jews are worried. That the conflict in the Middle-East influence us is one thing. But… Why can’t we try to accept each other as brothers and sisters instead? Where is our humanity going, here in Sweden and other places on Earth?

Anders Moberg, March the 14th 2013







1 thought on “Sweden’s official national minorities

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s