Midnight Sun: The history behind the conflict with the Sami

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One of the more eagerly awaited crime dramas of the year starts up on Sky Atlantic tonight. Midnight Sun is a French/Swedish effort, written and created by Måns Mårlind and Bjorn Stein (who have previous on The Bridge) and made by French powerhouse Canal+. It stars Leïla Bekhti as Kahina Zadi, a French police officer, who travels to Kiruna, a small mining community in the remote far north of Sweden to investigate a brutal murder of a French citizen. With the help of Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten), a Swedish DA and a member of the Sami, an ancient, indigenous tribe of Scandinavia, they are faced with new killings. The initial murder turns out to be the tip of the iceberg. So far, so intriguing. But what makes this extremely interesting is the inclusion of the Sami in the series – that Scandinavian tribe of people who live in the far, far north and little is known about, certainly in the UK. So who are they? And what relationship do they have with the rest of the Nordic people? We asked our Swedish correspondant, Charlotte, to give us the lowdown.

One element of Midnight Sun is the conflict between the Sami people and the Swedes. We don’t see it in tonight’s first episode, but as the series evolves it becomes more and more central to the plot. This conflict has a long background, and is similar to that of many stories of colonisation: the coloniser encroaches on and marginalises the indigenous people and takes land and natural resources at will.

Sápmi (Samiland) covers a large area of northern Scandinavia. Traditionally the Sami have led a nomadic life based on fishing, hunting, gathering and reindeer husbandry.

In the Middle Ages and many centuries to follow Swedish kings made new rulings and decrees about the colonisation of the lands in the north: claiming land, taxation, rule of Swedish law, controlling rights to fishing and hunting, Christian missionary, etc.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Sami children were forced to speak Swedish at school and later many were forced to go away to boarding schools, separating them from both their language and culture, being treated as second class citizens, and being made to feel ashamed of their identity and heritage.

At the hands of official Sweden, Samis suffered degrading treatment. A poignant example being the cataloguing of the people, where they were treated as specimens to be measured and photographed naked. The Racial Biological Institute founded in Uppsala in 1921 went about categorising people into types and assigned qualities and characteristics based on things like skull measurements. The aim of a healthier, stronger population in all of Sweden was the reasoning behind forced sterilisation (starting in 1934) of those who were considered to be undesirable. This racial hygiene programme was not specifically aimed at the Sami but affected them also.

Because reindeer husbandry was and is so vital to the Sami way of life, they have been very much affected by the Swedish development of the areas where reindeer migrate and graze. Dams built to harness water power that flood vast areas, massive logging and pulp industry cutting down vast amounts of forest, mining industry and all the infrastructure that goes with it, more recently huge wind farms. There is also poaching to deal with. The right to engage in reindeer husbandry in Sweden is limited to 51 Sami communities, and over the years these industries increasingly disrupt the possibility of making a living from it. Many Sami live a different life with other occupations.

This longstanding conflict between Swedish financial interests versus the Samis’ right to their way of life is still visible today. Kiruna – where Midnight Sun is set – is a town where the mine means everything, even to the point of relocating the town as it would otherwise soon be undermined, literally.

In this series, when awful murders are committed, we see a community in fear, with vile racism and suspicions flaring up. No guesses who this racism and suspicion is focused on.

Charlotte Carling

Midnight Sun: Wednesday 15th March, 10pm, Sky Atlantic

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7 thoughts on “Midnight Sun: The history behind the conflict with the Sami

  1. Racial hygiene programme – argh! There seems to be a long, long history of this in the countries of the ‘Nordic race’ – the German Nazi drive for racial purity did not stand alone. Sweden in the second half of the 20th century seemed to us Brits to be a bastion of fairness and tolerance. Interesting that this series is going to be doing some navel-gazing at a time when, sadly, the populist alt-right is making another stand across the Northern hemisphere.

    A little bit of history repeating?

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  2. Charlotte Carling

    Yes, a lot of horrid goings on in our past that have been swept under the carpet for a long time but have been more acknowledged in the past couple of decades with some small restitution.

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  3. PKCox

    Thank you for the background information. I had a friend who was Navaho Native American and she was placed in a boarding school and forced to use English only. It was a part of my history that I didn’t know about. Let’s hope this show can help the Sami in some way.

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    • Charlotte Carling

      It’s an effective way to separate poeple from their culture during importand formative years and has been used in many places in the world. To be clear, there are more than one Sami language. This site offers some info in English, language and other aspects: http://www.samer.se/4643

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  4. Mahrie

    Hi Paul: Still waiting patiently for your episode reviews of Midnight Sun. I thought the series was visually stunning and pairing the history of the Sami w/the murders was simply cracker-jack! Please give us your thoughts post haste!

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