Peripheral Parliament: Sovereignty, Collective Rights, and Political Representation in the Sámi Parliament of Finland
Photographer: Jan-Eerik Paadar (Ijahis Idja), 2013.
Copyright: Sámediggi Saamelaiskäräjät

Samuel Singler
DPhil Candidate and ESRC Grand Union Scholar
University of Oxford

Sofia Singler
Junior Research Fellow in Architecture
University of Cambridge

This paper interrogates the architecture of the northernmost parliamentary building within the European Union, the Sámi Parliament of Finland, with respect to territorial sovereignty, collective rights, and political representation in Europe. The cultural-administrative centre Sajos, which houses the Sámi Parliament of Finland, was completed in Inari, Lapland, in 2012, to the design of Finnish firm HALO Architects. The building manifests, in architectural form, tensions between sovereign states and indigenous peoples; this paper addresses Sajos as a physical representation of the interplay between Sámi and Finnish collective identities, as well as the nature of democratic participation and political representation in the context of deterritorialized sovereign power. The research synthesises an architectural analysis of the design drawings, competition programmes, and the realised Sajos building with a political theory analysis of legal frameworks and political practices governing the relationship between the Sámi people and the Finnish state.

The nomadic Sámi people have historically inhabited the Sápmi region, which stretches across the northern territories of Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. Since the rise of modern state power, the geographical mobility and economic, political, and cultural autonomy of the Sámi people have been threatened by the territorial division of the Sápmi region, concurrent with state policies designed to assimilate the Sámi people into their respective mainstream national cultures. From the nineteenth century onwards, border closures and incentives relating to land rights and taxation have resulted in Sámi people abandoning nomadism in favour of increasingly agrarian lifestyles and adopting the Finnish language. Assimilationist policies intensified in the context of the Finnish post-war project of building a welfare state, resulting in the increasing movement of Sámi towards more permanent domestic spaces—albeit usually complementing rather than replacing traditional temporary dwellings such as goahti and lavvu—and in the planning of ‘Sámi suburbs’ in line with Finnish master planning conventions.

The development of international law on indigenous peoples’ rights has made the relationship between the Finnish state and the Sámi people more complex. Reflecting the emergence of indigenous rights movements in the latter half of the twentieth century, the Sámi Parliament of Finland was founded in 1996. Having initially congregated in an old student dormitory in Inari—deemed dysfunctional and insufficiently dignified by the elected officials—the Parliament commissioned an enquiry into a purposebuilt parliamentary building in 2000. The conflicting demands of territorial sovereignty and indigenous rights, a point of contention in international law, informed the brief of the subsequent architectural competition. Agreements such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples strike a compromise by recognising the right of indigenous peoples to ‘self-determination’ (Article 3) but limiting this right to issues of cultural development and ‘their internal and local affairs’ (Article 4), explicitly subordinating the right to self-determination to territorial state sovereignty (Article 46). So too, the competition in Finland—partially funded by the EU—called for a ‘Sámi cultural centre’. Alongside the Parliament, the centre would include various cultural functions and serve as a ‘symbol of Finnish Sámi self-determination as well as their living and developing culture’. The promotion of Sámi culture was evident, yet references to economic and political autonomy were scarce; the tensions between sovereign power and self-determination were also reflected in locating the Northern Finland Regional State Administrative Agency within the centre alongside the Sámi Parliament.

This paper undertakes a politico-architectural analysis of the winning submission Sajos with respect to the relationships between the Sámi people, the Finnish state, and the international community. These themes are relevant beyond the remit of indigenous peoples’ affairs, as they relate to broader contemporary dynamics of contested sovereignty and its deterritorialization. Understanding these broader issues is crucial to grasping and reconceptualising collective identities, democratic participation, and political representation in an age of globalization. This is particularly true within the European Union, characterised by a historically unique configuration of national and supranational authority; subnational forms of political representation and recognition only add to the complexity of the EU’s multiscalar politics.

November 23, 2020