Norway’s Sami population faces another important year ahead, claimed the president of Sametinget (The Sami Parliament), Aili Keskitalo, in her traditional New Year’s address this week. She led off her speech by hailing a 96-year-old woman for bravely shaking off years of Norwegian indoctrination, and reviving her Sami heritage after 70 years of suppressing it.
Agnete Nikoline Margrete Hansen Lorås was 11 years old and living in the far northern community of Kvalsund in 1933, when her Norwegian teachers claimed it was “not allowed to be Sami.” Anyone caught speaking the Sami language was punished, and Lorås was denied both her cultural heritage and identity. All Sami living in Norway were ordered to adopt the Norwegian language, culture and religion.
Many other Sami also went along with what Keskitalo called “the brutal demands from the state.” She thanked Lorås for finally daring to reveal her Sámi background and cherish it instead of being ashamed of it.
Keskitalo expects more such dramatic revelations when a state “truth and reconciliation” commission examines the long-term effects of fornorskning, a century-long campaign beginning in the mid-1800s that forced Norwegian customs and tradition upon the Sami at the expense of their own. Children, for example, were sent to boarding schools where all instruction was only in Norwegian, even though many only spoke Sami. Both Norwegians and Sami now need, according Keskitalo, “a common understanding of the past, and we need to handle the prejudice against the Sami that was transferred from generation to generation.”
She called the Sami language and history “shining treasures” that confirm the indigenous group’s borderless people now spread over four countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia). Keskitalo delivered her New Year’s speech on state broadcaster NRK in fluent Samisk, pointedly not the Norwegian controversially used by her predecessor a few years ago.
“My dream is that all the Sami languages will also become a functional language in the digital age,” Keskitalo said. The Sami Parliament, she noted, was taking steps to make Samisk “heard, used and visible” and she urged all Sami to “speak Samisk.”
Keskitalo also referred in her speech to the ongoing struggle by 26-year-old Sami reindeer herder Jovsset Ante Sara to resist state orders to reduce his herd from 350 to 75 animals, because of concerns over a lack of grazing land. She also mentioned another Sami struggle against construction of what’s billed as Europe’s largest wind power “park” on the Fosen peninsula in Trøndelag. Herders there worry the huge windmills will disrupt their animals’ grazing rights.
‘Shame no longer’
She further urged more openness about psychiatric problems among Sami and domestic violence. “It makes me glad to hear that openness yields strength and power,” Keskitalo said. She conceded that “we need help” to get answers as to why the Sami are at higher risk of experiencing violence than others in Norway: “Violence is not acceptable in the Sami culture and cases of it shall not define us as a people.”
Keskitalo ended her remarks by declaring that she was “glad that shame no longer burdens our people. We see that, when our art, our tones and our joiker are acknowledged and have appeal also outside Sami society. With the help of our own culture we can build understanding and friendship.”