For the first time ever, the president of the Sami Parliament (Sametinget) in Norway could not and did not deliver the president’s annual New Year’s Day speech in the Sami language. Vibeke Larsen of the Labour Party, who assumed her post just before the holidays in what some call a political coup, ended up turning her lack of language proficiency into a not entirely successful call for Sami solidarity.
“As you can hear,” she said in the annual address broadcast nationwide Sunday night, “I’m speaking Norwegian and not Sami.” She noted that “like two-thirds of the Sami,” she never learned the Sami language. Efforts by Norwegian authorities to force the Sami to speak Norwegian “took our language,” Larsen said, “and I haven’t managed to take it back.”
“I know that this will disappoint some of my people,” Larsen continued. “For them, it’s important that a Sami president speaks Sami, and I understand them.” She acknowledged that language plays a major role in people’s identity, culture and fellowship.
She claimed, however, that her own family (some of whom speak Sami and others not) is “a typical picture of the Sami community: We are of the same flesh and blood, but also different. Nonetheless we are a Sami family that belongs together.”
Not everyone was convinced. One Sami woman in Alta told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday that she thought it was “just terrible” that the Sami president did not deliver the traditional New Year’s address in Sami. Brita Julianne Skum, who teaches Sami in Alta, was clearly offended: “That Sametinget’s president didn’t even say ‘hello’ in Sami was unfortunate,” Skum told NRK.
Others didn’t seem so bothered by it, and appreciated other parts of Larsen’s speech that, like both King Harald’s and Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s New Year’s speeches delivered during the weekend, highlighted several individual Sami for showing bravery during the past year, “those who stood up for democracy, fairness and diversity.” Among then: Agnete Johnsen of Varanger, who represented Norway in the Eurovision Song Contest while battling mental health problems; Jovsset Ante Sara, who has fought state demands that he reduce the size of his reindeer flock; and Dávvet Bruun-Solbakk, who led a Sami gay pride parade in Kautokeino.
Larsen stressed that the Sami community is now represented in political organizations, institutions and associations. “We represent urban life and rural life, culture and business,” she said. “We are the Sami society!” She added later that “through more cooperation, we can build bridges and understanding,” not only between the Sami and Norwegians but among all the various factions of Sami. She hailed how in Bodø, for example, Norwegians and Sami “found each other” at the new Stormen culture and community hall.
This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Sami’s first national gathering in Trondheim. Now the Sami have their own Parliament in Karasjok and more autonomy, leading Larsen to called 2017 “The Samis’ year.”
It will also likely be marked by more internal political battles, though, after Larsen and the Labour Party seized power in the Sami Parliament last month in what newspaper Dagsavisen called a “budget shock.” While Solberg and her Norwegian government survived a state budget crisis, the Sami leadership headed by former and longtime president Aili Keskitalo and her party NSR (Norske Samers Riksforbund) fell. Keskitalo was forced to step down and hand over the presidency to Larsen after Larsen’s Labour Party called for a vote of confidence and got a majority in Parliament to vote against Keskitalo.
Labour is now leading a coalition leadership council at the Sami Parliament made up of Labour, the Conservatives and the Árja Party. Accusations have since flown that Labour and Norway’s major trade union federation LO led the coup from Oslo. NSR officials had claimed they thought they could still lead using Labour’s budget. Larsen thought otherwise, noting that NSR did not have majority support for “the year’s most important political document, the budget. Then it’s natural they take their hat and go.” The vote on a lack of confidence in NSR’s leadership came after NSR initially refused to step down voluntarily, Larsen said in December. While 16 members of Sametinget had confidence in Keskitalo’s and NSR’s leadership, 21 did not.
“We think this was a pure demonstration of power on the part of Labour,” Henrik Olsen of NSR and the former Sami council Keskitalo led told Dagsavisen. “There’s a desire to steer Sametinget from Youngstorget (where Labour and LO are based in Oslo).” Both Labour and LO have supported, for example, controversial mining operations at Kvalsund. LO boss Gerd Kristiansen attended a Sami conference in Tromsø in November, where she also urged more support for mining operations in Sami areas, where they often collide with reindeer herders’ interests.
There’s thus been a lot of recent drama that ushed the non-Sami-speaking Larsen into the role as Sami president and New Year’s speechmaker. She and other Labour officials have rejected talk that they staged a coup, however, with Larsen saying that such “speculation” was “completly wild.” She said in December that it was “incredible that such rumours exist.” She insisted that the members of the Labour Party who’ve been elected to the Sami Parliament form their own policies: “It’s not LO or (Labour leaders at) Youngstorget who decide on it.”
Adding to the drama was the fact that Helga Pedersen, a former Norwegian government member for Labour who had told NRK she would also promote mining activity, withdrew her own candidacy as president of Sametinget when Larsen took over. Pedersen and Larsen were reportedly at odds over the mining issue, and Pedersen told Tromsø newspaper Nordlys she was against calling for a vote of confidence in NSR, fearing it would “create the impression that a political power play is more important than policy.”
Keskitalo, who speaks fluent Sami, wound up cast aside in favour of Larsen, who seemed to try to smooth ruffled feathers with her New Year’s speech. She noted how celebrations of the first national Sami gathering will start next month, and hoped “everyone” would join in the celebrations.
“This is the year for us to talk about who we are and our history,” Larsen said Sunday night. “Kofta (the Sami dress) shall be seen! Our language and our joik shal be heard! Let us join forces and see what we can build together.”