Structural Inequality and the Sámi: Challenging Equality in the Nordic Welfare States

Text: Assi Harkoma
Photo: Berit Siilasjoki


Reindeer-husbandry legislation and regulations restrict the Sámi from practising traditional reindeer herding in Nordic states.

Critical research is needed to explore and expose the structural inequality affecting the Sámi. The Nordic states have failed to examine historical and ongoing colonial processes’ impacts on the Sámi. As a result, colonial practices and policies are rooted in, and inequalities exist as part of the social structures. Structural inequality creates conditions where the Sámi are systematically disadvantaged compared to the majority people in Nordic states. Structural forms of inequality are notoriously tricky to identify. The ignorance of the Sámi’s experiences of discrimination is not assisting the situation. What the mainstream population does not see is not challenging the Nordic welfare state narrative. There is a need for critical research that provides viable knowledge on structural inequality based on the Sámi’s experiences of discrimination. 

Structural inequality

According to Iris M. Young (2001) structural inequality is: “a set of reproduced processes that reinforce one another to enable or constrain individual actions […] that tend to privilege some more than other.” It is different from individual forms of discrimination.

Structural inequality results from a power imbalance, where the economic and political power groups set up institutions to benefit and direct resources to them and not the other groups in the society. (see, for example, Royce 2018)

Structural inequality is reproduced and reinforced by, unequal relations in rights, resources, opportunities, roles, functions, and so on, in the discriminatory practices of social institutions such as the justice system and legal institutions, and governmental, educational, healthcare, social welfare, and economic institutions as well as the media. (see, for example, Dani & de Haan 2008, 3)

It is a form of inequality that is notoriously difficult to identify. The reason is that the inequalities are embedded in the normal operations of social institutions. If the inequalities and scope of the phenomena are left unseen, it is easy to pretend that structural inequality does not exist, especially when it is challenging the Nordic welfare state narrative. 

Discrimination of the Sámi in Nordic states

The oppression and discrimination of the Sámi are in sharp contrast to the idea of the Nordic welfare state. In fact, the Nordic welfare model aims to create socioeconomic and social equality (see Kananen 2016). The public sector is set up to provide welfare services and social safety net for all citizens. Equal opportunities are created by reducing economic inequality and promoting social mobility. 

If the Nordic welfare states equally distribute benefits, such as health, education, and income, throughout the population, why do Sámi not have full and equal enjoyment of the social welfare and health care services or education in Finland? (see Ombudsman for Equality 2021 & Yhdenvertaisuusvaltuutettu 2021) 

Or, if Nordic welfare states create equal opportunities for all their citizens by reducing economic inequality and promoting social mobility, why approximately one in five Sami people are reported to experience discrimination, the most common form of discrimination is ethnic discrimination, and the Sami experience discrimination is much more frequently than the majority of Norwegians? (see Hansen 2016)

Especially when the national legislation and regulations, as well as international human rights conventions and declarations, safeguard the Sámi rights as Indigenous peoples and national minorities in Nordic countries. 

Colonialism in the Nordic states 

The problem lies in the failure the Nordic states´ to comprehensively account for the past and present impacts of colonial, assimilationist practices and policies towards the Sámi. The wrongdoings by the states vary from cultural assimilation practices to the dispossession of land and resources (Kuokkanen 2020). The Sámi experiences of colonialism are ignored by the Nordic states and not well-known among the mainstream population (Kuokkanen 2020). 

As a result, the colonial processes are rooted in and exist as part of the social structures in the Nordic states. In the Nordic countries, colonialism manifesteds itself in different and diverse forms, from conscious colonialistic actions and assimilation policies in Norway (Minde 2003) to more subtle but discriminating forms in Finland (Kortelainen 1968, 4; Lehtola 2012, 453-457 & 2015, 28). Colonialism has also taken a distinct settler colonial form and follows: “the settler colonial logic of elimination that seeks to assimilate and incorporate the Sámi into the state and its institutions” in Nordic countries (Kuokkanen 2020, 309). According to Lehtola (2015, 30), the common nominator is that the Nordic Sámi policies tend to create more structural injustices than outright violence.

It is important to recognise that not all colonial processes do not result in structural inequalities, and vice versa; new kinds of structural inequalities can arise and have emerged without a direct link to historical colonialism, but colonialism in different forms is a significant contributive factor to structural inequality.

Structural inequality and the Sámi

The oppression and discrimination of the Sámi is based on Indigeneity. Other aspects of a Sámi person’s identity, such as ethnicity, gender, geographic affiliation, age, wealth, health, and sexual orientation, can expose them to overlapping forms of discrimination. Therefore, groups like Sámi women are more likely to be discriminated against on multiple grounds. 

Sámi reindeer herder women are discriminated against on multiple grounds in Finland. They are discriminated against because they are Sámi, and the reindeer-husbandry legislation and regulations more suitable to Finnish-style small-scale reindeer husbandry (Näkkäläjärvi & Pennanen 2000:82) have more or less replaced and created significant obstacles to traditional Sámi reindeer herding system based on seasonal migration (Lehtola 2015, 28).

Sámi reindeer herder women are also discriminated against in different ways because they are women and, for example, not entitled to stand-in help when unable to work due to maternity leave, unlike women in the agriculture or fur farming industry. (see Ombudsman for Equality 2021 & Yhdenvertaisuusvaltuutettu 2021). 

When Sámi reindeer herder women´s different identities, such as Indigeneity and gender intersect, it produces distinct and intersecting forms of discrimination, limiting women´s possibilities to practice traditional Sámi reindeer herding as their main livelihood. Crenshaw (1989) refers to interlocking systems of power. 

Social structures continue to create inequalities for the Sámi in the Nordic welfare states. The limited cultural and political independence and rights Nordic states have given for the Sámi, and various decolonial efforts have not been able to end discrimination. Structural inequalities maintain the status quo, where the Sámi do not have self-determination let alone the political and economic power to make the broad, policy-based structural changes that often require governmental organisations. 

The Sámi have called for a public process to examine and expose the colonial processes and structures. More knowledge is needed on the effects of asymmetric power relations between the Sámi and the majority population (Lehtola 2015,). According to Kuokkanen (2020), approaching colonialism as a structural problem and concrete structural changes can lead to reconciliation and justice. Critical research on structural inequality can provide viable knowledge for the task. 

Critical research on structural inequality

When researchers examine Nordic social systems from top to bottom, operations of social institutions, laws, policies, etc., may seem neutral and treat all citizens equally. In the worst-case scenario, this research type produces a mainstream, simplified, and stereotypical understanding of the Nordic welfare model. It maintains and reaffirms colonial, assimilative policies and practices and structural forms of inequality. 

Instead, we need a critical, bottom-up analysis of social structures based on the Sámi peoples´ experiences of discrimination in Nordic states. The exposure of the Sámi discrimination experience is the important first step towards deconstructing structural forms of inequality and ending discrimination against the Sámi. The second step is to identify structural patterns from the discrimination experiences.  

Research should not represent the Sámi people as a homogenous group but engage with standpoints and voices from different Sami groups, such as women in reindeer herding, youth, and sexual and gender minorities, to reflect an assessment of social structures and inequalities they are producing.

Critical research can provide valuable knowledge on how different power structures and grounds for discrimination are connected with, reproduce, and reinforce each other in the Nordic welfare states. 

Assi Harkoma is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Lapland, Finland.


Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sew: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Accessed on 8 May 2023

Dani, A. Anis & De Haan, Arjan (2008) Social Policy in Development Context: Structural Inequalities and Inclusive Institutions. In Anis A. Sani & Arjan de Haan (eds) Inclusive State: Social Policy and Structural Inequalities. The World Bank: Washington DC.

Hansen, Ketil Lenert (2016) Self-Reported Experience of Discrimination against Samis in Norway. Accessed on 8 May 2023

Kananen, Johannes (2016) The Nordic welfare state in three eras: from emancipation to discipline. Routledge: London & New York.

Kuokkanen, R. (2020) Reconciliation as a Threat or Structural Change? The Truth and Reconciliation Process and Settler Colonial Policy Making in Finland. Hum Rights Review 21, 293–312.

Minde, Henry (2003) Assimilation of the Sami: Implementation and Consequences. Acta Borealia 20:2, 121–146.

Ombudsman for Equality (2021) Statement on reindeer herders’ right to stand-in help, particularly during family leave. Accessed on 8 May 2023

Regeringskansliet (2023) Action programme to combat racism against Sami. Accessed on 8 May 2023

Royce, Edward Cary (2018) (3rd ed) Poverty and Power: The Problem of Structural Inequality. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.  

Yhdenvertaisuusvaltuutettu (2021) Lausunto poronhoitajien sijaisavusta. Accessed in 8 May 2023

Young, Iris Marion (2001) Equality for Whom? Social Groups and Judgement of Injustice. The Journal of Political Philosophy 9:1, 1-18.   

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