Sami-Norwegian conflict turns hostile

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Hostilities were rising in the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø this week, after a conflict over official use of the Sami language descended into vulgar threats against the local association representing the indigenous Sami people. The conflict also involves Sami clothing, and, say some, threatens the entire Sami culture.

Traditional Sami clothing was figuring into a hostile conflict over use of the Sami language in Tromsø. PHOTO: Samer.no/Lasse Svonni

Tensions have been high for years but as Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Friday, they now seem to be hitting a new peak. The local Samiforening felt compelled to go to the police, after it received a highly offensive drawing and letter in the mail that defaced the Sami flag with a swastika. and pictured Hitler wearing traditional Sami clothing known as the samekofte.

Gøran Lind, leader of the Samiforening, told NRK he viewed the anonymous letter and drawings as a threat and was reporting them to police. “The harassment of the Sami has reached new heights,” he told NRK.

Official language debate
The latest wave of hostilities stems from an earlier proposal to include Tromsø in the geographical region of northern Norway where both Norwegian and Sami are viewed as official languages. That means all signage, for example, would need to be in both Norwegian and Sami, rather like English and French are used in Canada.

That upset many Tromsø residents who don’t want to equate Sami with Norwegian, and when a new conservative government won the municipal election earlier this autumn, the proposal was shelved. That in turn upset Sami leaders including a lecturer at the University of Tromsø, Ande Somby, who went to work earlier this week with all his clothes turned inside out. The Sami activist told NRK that he thought the entire city had “turned inside out” after withdrawing the application to become part of the Sami-Norwegian language region.

A protest action was scheduled for this weekend where Sami language proponents also planned to “vrenge,” or turn inside out, their traditional, hand-woven and colorful Sami clothing along with whatever other outer clothing protesters may be wearing.

Tendency towards vulgarity
It’s believed that the offensive drawings and letter sent to the Samiforeningen are connected to the current language conflict. NRK reported that Sami issues in northern Norway have for years “had a tendency to become highly unprofessional and rather vulgar.” The letter is not the first time Sami leaders have been compared to the Nazis or famed Norwegian traitor Vidkun Quisling, or to offensive body parts. Some of the offenders have included mainstream politicians, while online debates have also often turned vulgar, prompting protests from Norway’s anti-racism center.

Sami blogger Lill Tove Veimæl, age 32, said the scope of offensive comments she receives has become so bad that she can barely live in Tromsø any longer. She recently wrote that she’s fed up with the “constant opposition” she meets “because of my (Sami) background.” She wrote that she was tired of always having to defend her culture and measures needed to save and protect a threatened language, because of Norwegian prejudice.

The political decision to withdraw the language initiative and thereby attempt to halt debate means that for her, “the city I love so much, is no longer the same city.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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