Current Problems


Norway’s court rules against Indigenous control over northern territory

May 31, 2024

Court case could have seen local control granted over as much as 5% of Norway’s territory

A Sami herder prepares to lasso a reindeer.
The Sámi are an Indigenous people with traditional territories within the national borders of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. Here, Sámi herder Ante Niillas Gaup prepares to lasso one of his young reindeer in Reinfjord, in Northern Norway. (Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

CBC Indigenous: In a narrow 6-5 decision, Norway’s Supreme Court ruled Friday that the largely Indigenous community of Karasjok does not have collective property rights over a vast area in the country’s northernmost region.

The court was asked to rule on whether the Arctic Sámi people, Europe’s only recognized Indigenous group, had ever extinguished title over a traditional territory roughly the size of Wales in Norway’s Finnmark County.

The court’s majority essentially ruled that the territorial claim was overbroad, and that ownership of the land should continue to rest with a private company, the Finnmark Estate (known as FeFo), which took control of the territory from the state forestry company in 2006.

Ragnhild Lydia Nystad, a representative of the Karasjok Sámi Association, told NRK that the Supreme Court’s decision had put “the nail in the coffin … [of] Sámi rights.”

Sandra Marja West, a political adviser to the governing council of Norway’s Sámi Parliament, said the decision “contradicts the Sámi legal understanding” of collective ownership. 

“But I don’t think we should be defeated by this ruling,” she said. “There is Sámi land ownership in this disputed area, that is clear. It’s just a question of how to now move forward.”

In a Norwegian-language press release following the decision, FeFo said the court affirmed the view that the company “safeguards the state’s obligations under international law towards the Sámi people.”

“In Karasjok and elsewhere in Finnmark, we will continue … our involvement of the local population in the management of … FeFo land,” it reads.

The highly charged case drew parallels to Canada’s 1973 Calder decision, which established the precedent for the modern land claims process.

Future appeals possible

The Norwegian court’s decision overruled the findings of a lower court and of the Finnmark Commission, a committee established as part of a political settlement with the Sámi charged with investigating land ownership in the country’s north.

That committee ruled that the Sámi had never ceded title to the region when Finnmark was transferred from Sweden to Norway in 1751.

The decision leaves open the possibility of future appeals by individual villages or reindeer herding districts for local control. But it also lends credence to criticisms that the Finnmark Commission’s findings are not respected in national law.

A woman leans over a stream with hills in the background
A Sámi herder woman cleans out reindeer intestines in a stream before cooking them, amid work to herd several hundred reindeer to their winter pastures, in Reinfjord, Northern Norway, September 2023. (Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

“There’s already been Sámi feedback … that this basically explodes the Finnmark Commission. Why should it continue?” asked Aaron John Spitzer, an associate professor of Arctic governance at Norway’s University of Bergen.

“It’s conceivably possible that having been chastised by this [court], it will continue doing its work,” he said. “But it’s being forced to think of Indigenous collective [rights] as being smaller scale, more individualized, than what it was originally thinking of in Karasjok.”

In its release, FeFo said the commission’s efforts have “not been wasted.”

“New and important knowledge has emerged about historical conditions in Karasjok,” it reads. “With this judgment, the Supreme Court has made an important contribution to the direction of future mapping work.”


John Last

John Last is a freelance reporter and producer currently based in Padua, Italy. He previously reported from Yellowknife, covering Northern Canada and the Arctic. His reporting work has taken him through Europe, the Middle East and the American South.