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Assimilation of the Sámi: Its Unforeseen Effects on the Majority Populations of Scandinavia

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 411-430 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0036

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The Sámi have been subject to relentless assimilation efforts for centuries.1 Assimilation took different forms, overt and covert, depending on which nation-state the Sámi happened to inhabit. What were the results of the ruling authorities’ attempts to get the Sámi to meld into the majority populations? There are perhaps 80,000 Sámi in the four nations where they live today; some scholars suggest that up to ten times that number were assimilated. Many studies have illustrated the effects on the Sámi, but few have shown how assimilation impacted Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes. I demonstrate first that assimilation has been going on much longer than mid-nineteenth century to about 1980, during which the main effort focused on Sámi children in transitional areas where they dwelt among others. They were forced to attend boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their mother tongue, thus threatening not only their language but their culture. Then I investigate what became of those assimilated and what sort of relationship there was/is to non-Sámi. Here the answers are in many ways surprising. For example, intermarriage was quite common, and this led to admixture (mixing of ancestral, previously relatively isolated populations) in ensuing generations. Today’s Scandinavians may not be aware of how much Sámi DNA they carry.

Recently I showed that today’s Sámi population in Scandinavia is genetically heterogeneous; the genetic profile of Sámi in Troms, for example, is significantly different from the genetic profile of Sámi in eastern Finland (Weinstock 2010, 31–45). Though there were migrations into the area after the Last Glacial Maximum, they came from many directions, along different routes and at various times and rates depending on where the glaciers disappeared earliest, ecological factors, and the nature of the flora and fauna. The goal of the present effort is to broaden the focus, to consider in more detail population and genetic data for all of the Nordic countries and how assimilation affected the current majority peoples, Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes. Phylogeography2 has evolved rapidly in recent years with analyses based on genome-wide sequencing and allowing new interpretations previously impossible with classical population genetics.

In nature, humans have generally been gregarious: when members of one group meet strangers, they communicate; trade; borrow words, ideas, or technologies from one another; and they frequently marry outside their ethnic group and often exchange genes. Such cultural contacts can be seen, for example, in the Venus figurines widespread over Central and Eastern Europe after 30,000 years ago (Hoffecker 2005, 87). Social networks were much larger than one might imagine. One should keep in mind when dealing with today’s Nordic peoples that they are defined primarily on the basis of ethnicity, especially their mother tongue. In the case of the Sámi, this leads to problems, since most of the available Sámi genetic data were sampled from those who “consider” themselves to be Sámi.3 Not included are the many “Sámi” who were assimilated by the nation-states in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, or even earlier, and who left their Sámi ethnicity behind—but not their genes—when they moved away to metropolitan areas such as Helsinki, Oslo, or Stockholm: do the genetic analyses of the majority populations take this into account, and, if so, what role does this factor play in the results?

Paleolithic Settlement in Eurasia and the Last Glacial Maximum

Did modern humans move westward from Central Asia to Europe during the Paleolithic? One might think that humans arrived in Europe before northern Eurasia due to the latter’s sparse human habitation, and its colder and drier climate; surprisingly, that does not seem to be particularly accurate. Modern humans settled relatively rapidly in many areas of Eurasia: new radiocarbon curves in the range of 25,000–50,000 BP4 suggest a much speedier dispersal of human populations than originally thought (Mellars 2006, 933). Between 45,000 and 24,000 years ago, they reached 71° north latitude, or further north than Europe’s highest point, Nordkapp.

The post-glacial colonization of Scandinavia...

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