Sami celebrations marred by decline

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Norway’s indigenous people, the Sami, celebrated their national day this month amidst reports that their population may again be threatened by decline. State statistics bureau SSB revealed data showing little if any growth in traditionally Sami areas, and risks that population levels will sink.

Sami in Norway celebrated in Trondheim last year, where it had been 100 years since their first national meeting. This year special festivities were held in Östersund in Sweden. PHOTO: Sametinget

“What’s of most concern is that a large portion of the population in these areas (north of Saltfjellet in Nordland County) is elderly,” Anders Sønstebø of SSB told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).

“When you combine that with statistics showing fewer children being born per Sami woman, and that Sami longevity is a bit shorter (than that for ethnic Norwegians), the prospects aren’t bright,” Sønstebø said.

Following an earlier decline, the Sami population has mostly stabilized in Northern Norway in 2011. As of January, a total of 55,544 Sami lived in the Sami areas of Norway, which extend from Nordland through Troms and Finnmark. The Sami populations of neighboring Sweden, Finland and Russia have moved freely over the borders for years, but SSB’s numbers are for the registered resident population.

Those aged 60 and over comprise 30 percent of the population in the Sami areas, according to SSB’s report, compared to just over 20 percent for the rest of the population. Expected longevity among Sami is also two years less than the general population in Norway.

There are other threats to the Sami population: Fertility rates are lower, the share of the population with higher education is lower (especially among men) and fewer children are receiving Sami language lessons at day-care centers. SSB’s research shows that the number of Sami children who receive all education in Sami has remained stable, but steadily more use Sami as a second language and not as their primary language.

Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sami Parlliament (Sametinget) in Karasjok, is well aware that many Sami are moving out of their local communities, especially along the coast of Northern Norway. It’s a paradox at a time when the seafood industry is booming in places like Båtsfjord and other Norwegian coastal towns, but many youth leave to pursue an education, often in Southern Norway, and they don’t move home again.

Keskitalo is, however, pleased the population has mostly stabilized in recent years despite the threats seen by SSB. “Even though the population isn’t going up, it’s a victory of sorts that it hasn’t declined more,” she told NRK She said their Parliament is promoting programs for Sami tourism and cultural ventures that could spur growth in Sami communities.

“We need communities that can offer jobs, social services, day care centers and schools, so that it’s attractive to live there,” said Keskitalo, who spent the Sami National Day on February 6th this year in Östersund, on what she called “the Swedish side of Samiland.” Celebrations in the Swedish city centered on the 100th anniversary of the first Sami national meeting in Sweden. Berglund