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The History of Mining and Inroads in Sámiland and Their Effect on the Sámi

By Niikko Sommer


The Sámi are the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, comprised of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia today. This area is frigid in the winter but has a rugged natural beauty and boundless natural resources, which perhaps may be rivaled nowhere else in the world. The Sámi have existed here for many of thousands of years, since the last glacial ice sheets melted away, living modestly off the land and becoming accustomed to the harsh winter wind and climate. They gently utilize a wide variety of food sources throughout the year, depending on the season. Their constant changes or resource use prevents depletion and allows for nature to recover. The Sámi’s main livelihood and cultural identity is reindeer pastoralism.

A timeless theme for the Sámi has been their exploitation. They have been consistently taken advantage of by outsiders for their land and resources. The most highly publicized conflict between the Sámi and outsiders was the Alta affair which lasted for over ten years, culminating in the late 1970’s. The conflict was between the Norweigen government and the Sámi; a proposal to dam the Alta-Guovdageaidnu River was at hand and Sámi lands would be flooded by the new reservoir. The Sámi protested actively and passively, through hunger strikes. In the end, the dam was built but not as large as once planned. The Sámi’s cause was now thrust onto the world stage. People everywhere learned of the abuse of indigenous people’s rights (Lehtola 72).

A less well known abuse of the Sámi’s land was committed by the Soviets for years during the cold war. The Soviets used the waters near the port city of Murmansk as a dump for radioactive waste from 1964 to 1986. The inexplicable act of using the Arctic Ocean as a nuclear dump threatens the northern Sámi greatly because of their dependence on fish for a large part of their diet and income. A quote from Andrey Zolotkov, admitting of the dumping:

“… the containers used to dispose of the waste in the 1960’s and 1970’s were problematic because of their “floatability,” so holes were cut in the containers in order to ensure the guaranteed sinking of the containers,” (WISE News Communiqué).

The waters in which the dumping occurred were only tens of meters deep or less, with a high fish population located in the area (WISE News Communiqué). Another nuclear contamination of Sámiland occurred from the Chernobyl disaster. Sámi reindeer were contaminated and an estimated 30,000 were destroyed and buried (Lehtola 73).

The mining industry in Sámiland, as well as the fishing, agricultural, logging, nuclear and hydroelectric industries to name a few, all have contributed to altering the Sámi’s pristine homeland. Mining and its supporting infrastructure in Sámiland have provided much income and many demanding jobs to those in the region. However, it also polluted water supplies, scarred mountain landscapes, and created vast new unnatural borders in the form of railroads. These consequences of the mining industry harm the Sámi culture and mining has been one of the causes of Sámi oppression over the last thousand years.

Sámi Culture

The Sámi traditionally live in a holistic manner coexisting with nature in all aspects of life. The seasons dictate their activities from day to day, whether by picking cloudberries in the mountains or by driving their reindeer herd towards the coast. They lived traditionally without borders on their land, so Sámiland was difficult to define on a map, and hence difficult to protect form colonizers and outsiders. The Sámi have existed much the same way as the American Indians in North America. When they hunt, they carefully select the “right” individual to take, and they always make use of every last bit of the kill.

The Sámi are believed to be the first known culture to have herded animals. To capture and train draft reindeer for pulling snow sleds, they lasso the wild reindeer, tie it to a tree, and slowly train it until it is domesticated. The reindeer sleds, as well as skis, are vital to Sámi life in the winter. Living in a circumpolar region, their vocabulary for describing snow, ice, animals and natural terrains is so advanced it makes Sámi one of the most studied languages in the world today. There are hundreds of Sámi words which translate to terms or phases related to snow and ice.

The Sámi believe in the motto “leave no trace.” Their traditional settlements are small migratory groups of families, called siida. Their traditional shelters, lavuu, are teepee like structures constructed of reindeer hides sewn together and supported by long poles arranged in a circle, meeting at the top in a point. The lavuu could be set up and taken down hastily, leaving no mark on nature where they stood. The wind is a powerful force to the Sámi; they believe the winds of time will return all to its natural state. With the advent of the industrial revolution and advances in technology of all kinds, today’s Sámiland has been drastically altered from its natural state.

The Early History of Mining in Sámiland

It was long known by the southerners and westerners that Lapland contained many different natural riches. Sámi myths and stories passed through generations often note the riches held within the region’s mountains, such as the reference to blocks of ore as a wedding dowry in The Son of the Sun’s Courting in the Land of the Giants. Taxation of the Sámi by those claiming control over their land was common, with some Sámi having to pay taxes to three different rulers at the same time. Taxes were often paid in reindeer hides or meat, but ore and minerals were also collected.

Silver ore was discovered near the Norbotten area of Nasafjäll in the 1600’s. This discovery turned out to be of little economic significance, but Lapland has since been seen as a treasury able to support Sweden’s imperial ambitions, and hence was to be maintained under Swedish sovereignty (Kvist 205).

The first iron ore mine was opened in 1647, and the Norbotten district iron ore was mined in the 17th century. This was a significant locality for iron ore, but it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the mine near present day Kiruna (Kiruna history website).

It has been known since the early 18th century there was iron ore of superb quality in the province of Malmberget in far northern Sweden. Today the city of Kiruna in this region supports the largest underground iron ore mine in the world. Kiruna is the northernmost city in Sweden and lies in the Arctic Circle. It is surrounded by vast, beautiful natural land which coexists with severe weather, especially during the winter months.

The “inexhaustible ore mountains” of Kirunavaara (a mountain near Kiruna) host world class deposits of iron in the mineral form of magnetite. The ore consists of almost pure magnetite with an iron content of 67%. The ore body is 80 meters thick, 4 kilometers long, and extends to unknown depths. Before mining began, this deposit was one of the most powerful magnetic deviations on Earth (Kiruna history website)!

Mining activities have extended past 800 meters deep today and Kirunavaara is the largest underground iron ore mine in the world with over 400 km of maintained roads underground today (Kiruna history website). A Swede, Hjalmar Lundbohm, is regarded as the founder of Kiruna. Lundbohm was the first director of LKAB (Luossavaara Kiirunavaara AB mining company, formed in 1890), which is today Sweden’s largest metals exporter. He also established a detailed city plan and wanted Kiruna to develop into a model community, unlike Malmberget, where a mining slum town grew out of control (Kiruna history website).

Some of Lundbohm’s accomplishments include creating a miner’s union, trade union, educational system, a church, a hospital, a police station, and a city tram that transports both mine workers and civilians alike. Today Kiruna has evolved into a diverse city with many educational opportunities, especially in environmental research. Sweden’s space exploration and research program is centered in Kiruna as well (“The Kiruna History”).

Early mining operations in Sámiland were not significant for the financial gains they provided; they were significant in that they made Sámiland’s riches known to the world. These discoveries and operations paved the way for the exploitation which was to occur with the onset of the industrial revolution and the advancement of mineral exploration technologies.

Mining and War in Sámiland

Scandinavia managed to steer clear of direct involvement in World War I, but the case is not the same with World War II. Adolf Hitler lead a Nazi invasion into Norway with the goal of securing and overtaking iron ore mining operations in the country in order to fuel the Nazi war machine. He was successful but ore was used only for a few years. Hitler was forced to retreat to avoid Soviet forces in autumn of 1944. As the Germans fled, they practiced a “scorched earth” policy, looting, plundering, and burning all in their path. About two-thirds of the population of Finnmark was forcefully evacuated to the south and over 10,000 residences, schools, hospitals, and churches were burned. The fishing fleet of the region was also hit hard with a large number of vessels being destroyed (History and Culture).

After 1945, ore production continued and actually increased when compared to pre-war figures. Mining was a very important source for jobs, raw materials, and exports for the people of this region attempting to get back to normal life after being badly scarred by war.

Modern Mining in Sámiland

Deposits of iron, gold, silver, platinum, copper, lead and zinc, as well as economically significant minerals including diamonds, have been extracted from Sámiland. The region’s natural resources provided raw materials for Scandinavian countries to grow, forming mining companies, such as LKAB (Sweden’s largest mining company), which operates the iron mine at Kiruna. The wealth of the land lead to the wealth of the people and nations of the land. Today outsiders from other nations and continents are also allowed to explore after meeting governmental regulations and paying business fees and taxes.

Sweden’s mining industry is centered around the city of Kiruna and virtually all of Norway’s activities lie within the Finnmark region. Over time, this has taken a large toll on the Sámi and their way of life. A large infrastructure supports the transport of ore as well as workers. This system of roads and railroads hinders the Sámi from using the land as they have traditionally for reindeer herding. Open grazing land has slowly been sectioned off and overgrazing of useful areas has been a major problem recently.

Modern mining utilizes highly advanced exploration, extraction, and refining techniques. Exploratory drilling technology has allowed for sample retrieval from great depths since the 1880’s. Drill core samples may be collected in carefully planned spatial patterns and correlated with each other in order to apply geologic principles and map ore bodies in the subsurface. This greatly increased exploration efficiency. In the late 1960’s, technology arose which allowed for using ore with relatively low concentrations of ore and still allows for a high recovery rate for precious metals.

The LKAB iron ore mine in Kiruna is a computer automated, highly specialized world-class mine facility. Technology aims to increase efficiency (and hence profit) while limiting environmental damage and contamination. Unfortunately, the mining process is inherently a devastating process to the local natural environment (Barck 34 - 37).

The Mining Process and the Environment

The first step in any mining operation is the exploration and discovery of the ore grade rock. This is a relatively low impact process on nature. Once the ore grade rock has been identified, it then must be extracted from the Earth. This is a violent process involving explosives that to blast the ore zone into small pieces so that the ore can be collected and prepared for refining. The refining process involves heating the ore until it is a molten liquid and then stimulating it to separate into layers of its constituents (a process called smelting). The elements of interest (iron, gold, etc.) differentiate into layers in the melting tank and then may be skimmed off the top of the melt or drained from the bottom of the tank. Certain chemicals and acids are added to the molten ore to enhance the chemical differentiation process. Wastewater is removed from the system and stored in stock ponds so it may be reused. However, some water escapes from the stock ponds into local groundwater systems and many contaminants infiltrate water and soil over time, which can be fatal to plants and animals.

Not all blasted rock is used in the refining process. “Dead” rock that is not of ore grade is almost always of no economic value and is simply piled up to be left behind in huge mounds. These piles are eyesores in such a pristine natural area, and the Sámi culture directly opposes actions such as this.

Inroads in Sámiland

In order to deliver ore to refineries and markets, infrastructure was needed to transport ore from the rugged highlands towards the coast and various shipyards. The rivers were much too wild to run up from the coast. No roads were present from the coast to the highlands. The mining industry’s main problem in its beginning was transporting the ore. Quoting an unknown miner from Kiruna in 1898 “…iron ore has been dug out but it holds no value because it’s lying in the middle of nothing…” (The Kiruna History).

Early ore diggers forced the Sámi to transport ore to the coast using their draft reindeer and sleds, but this method was horribly inefficient and costly in terms of reindeer health and lives. The answer to this problem was the construction of a railroad system. Not all believed this was the solution to the transport problem. The land is so rugged, some believed railway construction would never be successful:

"It serves no purpose to build railways across these mountains and rivers, up and down high humps and across expensive bridges, to make them go against the grain of nature, and all this to gain some wagonloads of butter and grouse," author unknown, from Kiruna municipality website, history link.

Over the past century it has been proven that the railroads were possible to build and necessary for ore transportation. Thousands of men were recruited to work in harsh conditions constructing railways to deliver ore to the world. Many perished due to epidemics, bitter cold, and job accidents. It took four years to build the Malmbanan (the Ore Line). In 1903, the first ship was loaded in a makeshift harbor in Narvik. The Ore Line was eventually extended over 200 km long and it connected Narvik, on the Atlantic, to Kiruna to Lulea, on the Gulf of Bothnia (Barck 19-25).

This new link to the western world was emplaced at the expense of the reindeer herding Sámi. At this time, legislation passed a law creating a “cultivation line” which was aimed at protecting traditional Sámi reindeer herding land. More and more agriculturalists were settling in Sámiland and the cultivation line was to be a northern boundary, past which no land could be developed for agricultural use. The Sámi were to have use of their traditional land.

The Ore Line between Lulea and Narvik (through Kiruna) lies partially north of the cultivation line, and is a dangerous unnatural border for reindeer herders. They must avoid the railways with their herds at all cost, protecting their valuable property and investment from being destroyed by fast moving trains. As railways continued to develop, Sámiland became a more difficult place to tend herds (Exploration Opportunities, 8). Railroads acted as a noose slowly strangling the Sámi reindeer herders and the Sámi lifestyle in general.

Traditional reindeer herding, the essence and identity of the Sámi culture, is no longer the main Sámi profession as it was in the past. For this reason, some believe that Sámi culture is in the process of slowly disappearing because few young are choosing to continue with timeless traditions in such a difficult modern world. This social trend is touched upon in Laila Stien’s novel Antiphony.

Modern Technology and its Effect on Sámiland

The industrial revolution and modern technology have changed the world drastically over the past few centuries. This process has been extraordinarily difficult for the Sámi because they have managed to survive and prosper, inhabiting their rich homelands for thousands of years. Slowly, colonization by outsiders has introduced new technology of all kinds to the Sámi, changing their landscape and their day to day lives.

Today only about 10% of the Sámi make their living by reindeer herding. Technology, such as snow scooters and helicopters, has modernized the reindeer industry. It is now a more competitive business with a greatly increased overhead capital. If a herder can not afford a helicopter and pilot, s/he is at a great disadvantage as a herder today. In essence, technology is killing the main Sámi cultural identifier: Reindeer pastoralism.

As technology continues to evolve, the mining industry in all phases will be able to more efficiently explore for, extract, and process ore. Refining processes are very efficient today and 100 % recovery of precious metals is nearly a reality. Exploration targets are better defined, allowing for more precise extraction and a reduction in harm to environments proximal to mine sites. Today infrastructure is not a problem for Scandinavian mining companies; railways and roads are well established and maintained, providing reliable pathways for delivering exports to the world.

Environmental and Legislative Mining Policies Today

Modern policy makers have attempted to help the Sámi in their struggle to protect their environment. After WW II, the people of the world opened their eyes and minds more to the idea of all people being equal. For the Sámi who have for centuries been viewed as inferior by others, the social climate was now right to begin bringing about changes in traditional rights. Policy makers passed laws protecting the environment for the worst types of mine-waste. A system of permits, fees, taxes, and fines has been instituted to gain revenue and protect the environment.

Laws were passed disallowing exploration in national parks. A 1000 meter protective buffer area requirement around all active mines was introduced. Also, more explicit rules for environmental protection are incorporated in the exploration permits (A Guide to Mineral Legislation…).

The reality of mining is that it will always alter and usually harm natural surroundings because deposits are almost always located in isolated and pristine natural settings. Pollution and habitat damage will never be totally eliminated from the mining industry simply due to the nature of the beast. As technology continues to advance in the future, mining should have less of a negative impact on natural systems. Also, remediation of current problems will benefit from new research and technology. This is good news for the Sámi and environmentalists everywhere.


The Sámi people have both benefited and suffered from the evolution of the mining industry in their homeland over the past 1000 yeas. They have been employed by and supported with raw materials necessary for development of societies in the modern world. However, these benefits have come at a great cost. The mining process has many side effects which greatly contradict and undermine Sámi world views, ideals, and rights.

As the indigenous people to Northern Scandinavia, the Sámi have traditional land rights here. These rights have been violated not only by miners but many other modern industries as well. The Sámi conflict with the mining industry in their homeland is rooted in their religion, beliefs, and respect for nature. The Sámi respect the rocks, mountains, soil, air and everything else natural. They believe mountains have a soul and an identity. Obviously they frown upon having mountains destroyed by explosives and the modifications to the natural world inherent from the other necessary mining processes. They also despise polluted water systems and tainted soil because healthy land is closely linked with their livlihood. Finally, mining sites, roads, and railways greatly limit traditional Sámi land use in the form of reindeer herding.

Today the Scandinavian mining industry and the Sámi must find ways to progress together. The history of this relationship can be reduced to the miners exercising control and handling operations with little supervision; however, modern legislation and environmental policies may give a glimmer of hope to the Sámi and environmentalists worldwide. As for the future, the Sámi must continue to live according to their faith, the sun, their father, and the earth, their mother, and miners must learn to coexist with the age-old Sámi culture.

Works Cited

Kvist, Roger. Modern Swedish Saami Policy, “The Racist Legacy In Modern Swedish Saami Policy,” pgs. 203 – 220. Department of Saami Studies, Umeå University, Sweden, 1994.

Lehtola, Veli–Pekka. The Sámi People – Traditions In Transition. Aanaar – Inari: Kustannus-Puntsi, 2002.

“Soviet sea dumping in violation on international law.” WISE News Communique, 19 Dec. 1991.

“History and Culture.”

Kiruna mining history.

Kiruna municipality page, history link:

Exploration Opportunities in Norrbotten ( Sweden) . Geomanagement AB, et al. 1998.

“The Kiruna History.”

Sámi Culture website,

Kiruna history website,

Stien, Laila. Antiphony. Tr. John Weinstock from Vekselsang, 1997.

“A Guide to Mineral Legislation and Regulations in Sweden.” Geological Survey of Sweden, Oct. 1995.

Barck, Åke. The History of LKAB. Luleå, LKAB, 2003.