Indigenous rights | Norway

Wind turbines on Saami land

Norway spent decades trying to force the Saami to assimilate. The activist Ida Helene Benonisen is fighting for indigenous rights – in the tradition of her forefathers
Young woman with raised fist in a crowd of people, police officers next to her

Sami activist Ida Helene Benonisen


On February 23rd 2023, 18 young people, myself included, entered the Norwegian Ministry of oil and energy – and stayed. We had decided to occupy the building. We wanted to protest against the ongoing human rights violation that Saami reindeer herders are subjected to on the Fosen peninsula off the coast of Trøndelag in Sapmi, Norway.

I am Saami. I am also assimilated. I grew up in a family where our heritage and background has been more a family secret than anything else.  My family refused to talk about our background. It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I challenged this and started to reconnect with my community. The policy of assimilating the Saami people - that officially ended in the 1960s - has inflicted deep and shameful scars in our family’s memory. Through boarding schools, regulation and strict laws, the government tried to put an end to the Saami culture altogether. I decided that the feeling of shame should end with me. 

“The policy of assimilating the Saami people has inflicted shameful scars in our family’s memory”

I reached out to family and elders that were connected to the culture. They provided me with information and culture knowledge which helped me with reconnecting, understanding, grieving, and also to fight for the community that had opened their arms to welcome me back home. For the first time, I felt a sense of belonging. I also decided that I will do everything in my power, so other people would not get assimilated like my family did. We are the only officially recognised indigenous group in Europe, and if this continues, we will not exist any more. 

Against that backdrop, I want to take you back to the day we occupied the Norwegian Ministry of oil and energy – and why we did it.

Over the last 20 years, the Norwegian Government and international companies such as Stadtwerke München built 201 wind turbines in Fosen, often illegally on indigenous land of the Saami reindeer herders. This ruined the land for the next generation of herders. The Saami culture is closely connected to the land and to reindeer herding. You can see this in many aspects of our culture: our languages, our clothes and philosophy. Once the connection to the land and the herds is lost, the whole culture is endangered.

The affected Saami communities had been working against the placement and building of the turbines and, after two decades, finally won in the Supreme Court. On October 11th 2021, the Norwegian Supreme Court concluded that the construction of two wind energy sites on Storheia and Roan, threatens the future of Saami reindeer herding at Fosen (Fovsen Njaarke) and violates the human rights of the reindeer herding families, specifically article 27 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). But 500 days after the ruling, nothing had happened. That’s why the Saami youth organization NRSN and “Nature and Youth”, which I’m part of, decided to occupy the Ministry.

Just to be clear: We did not seek to protest green energy, but rather green washed colonialism. Stealing and building illegally on indigenous land is not good for the environment. The concessions for the turbines were ruled invalid by the Supreme Court, but the companies ignored this. To this day, they are producing illegal power and destroying the grazing area. 

Indigenous knowledge should be an essential tool in the fight against climate change. Indigenous knowledge teaches us how to use the land without destroying it. How to not take more than you need; how to preserve both land and the ecosystem. How can ruining indigenous land ever be green? 

The reaction we met when we occupied the ministry was not what we expected. Instead of taking any kind of responsibility for the human rights violation, the government decided to send every person working in the building home, shutting the door, denying us access to food, medicine and press. They wanted us to walk out of there ourselves, to make this go away. Quietly. 

“Stealing and building illegally on indigenous land can not be good for the environment”

But, we stayed. For four days we lived inside the ministry. It was four hard days. The thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I was doing this so that other members of my community will not lose their language, practice and way of life. Our culture is so deeply rooted in the connection to the land. My family got assimilated because we were no longer able to herd our reindeer and stay on our traditional land, because of regulations by the government to make us “Norwegian”. I reminded myself of this every night before I went to sleep on the floor of the ministry. 

On my fourth night, the police woke me up. We were being arrested in at night, so no one would know. But word got out. The next morning, everyone would wake up to news of the injustice of both the herders of Fosen and the treatment of young people demonstrating for our people's human rights. The pictures that were taken that night started a whole movement. For the next week, activists, indigenous and non-indigenous, would shut down ten ministries until the Norwegian Prime Minister admitted the human rights violation.

[Translate to English:] Several young people lie on the ground, framed by banners, one of which says "Land back"

Occupation of the ministry


2023 became a special year for every Saami person in Norway. So many people, young to old, joined forces and stood together for what is right. After a year of demonstrations, the Norwegian government made a deal with the southern part of Fosen. The herders of the south are now getting compensation including land, financial support and veto rights over the herding land. 

Sadly, the situation is very different for the group of the northern part of Fosen. There are other companies that own these turbines and 30 percent of them is owned by the city of Munich through their public service company Stadwerke München.  So far, these companies are refusing to tear down their turbines.

It is so heartbreaking for me to see our culture slowly being wiped away; to see other people go through this. Our elders taught us how to exert pressure on the Norwegian government, they have also fought for the rights we have today, but we are yet to learn how to do this overseas. How to make people understand our situation worldwide. We are the only officially recognised indigenous group in Europe. Without our land, we will simply cease to exist.