[lg policy] The S ámi Language Crisis

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat May 1 16:11:35 UTC 2010

The Sámi Language Crisis
By Láilá (Emily Ricco)

The use of the Sámi language today is based on tradition. It plays a
central role not only in everyday life but in the culture as well.
Despite widespread recognition of the Sámi culture and language and
modern political reform in Northern Europe, it is estimated that there
are only 25,000 to 35,000 Sámi speakers. Compare this to the
population of the Sámi, which lies around 100,000 (Magga and
Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). The efforts to preserve the language, by Sámi
and non-Sámi alike, are, in part, unsubstantial.

Historically, the changing economy in the Nordic countries that
followed colonization affected the Sámi language. Sámi ancestors
occupied what is now Scandinavia nearly 10,000 years ago. The Sámi
were constantly confronted by hostile outsiders from the Tchudes
during the Middle Ages, to missionaries in the Seventeenth Century, to
the Norwegians, Swedish, and Russians in the 18th century (the latter
groups all claimed Sámi land as their own). Missionaries, though they
forced Christianity into the Sámi culture, benefited the Sámi language
in some ways. Biblical texts were translated into Sámi (Magga and
Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). As Norwegians settled in Sámi communities
across Norway, the Sámi were faced with the entrance of a new,
capitalist market (Jernsletten 1993, 117). This was in stark contrast
with their traditional and externally uncompetitive economy, which
included the areas of trade, industry, and reindeer herding. Earlier,
the inland Sámi in Finnmark managed to control the language of
business mainly because they dominated winter transport systems with
their reindeer. In order to do business with these Sámi, an outsider
had to know the language (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). By to the
20th century reindeer herding, a feature of Sámi cultural identity,
became increasingly commercial and run by conglomerates (Jernsletten
1993, 117). The Sámi had to adapt not only in the technical field but
also the linguistic, as Norwegian and other majority languages were
used almost exclusively in business. Not understanding the language of
the new economy proved to be problematic and many Sámi viewed their
own language as an obstacle (Jernsletten 1993, 118).

>>From the mid-1800s up until World War II, the Sámi experienced intense
political, social, and cultural repression. In one of the earliest
linguistic legislations passed in Norway in 1892, school lessons were
to be taught in the child’s mother tongue. In 1898, however, the
government revised the earlier legislation to exclude children of Sámi
and Kvennish origin (Jernsletten 1993, 116). As a result, the
Norwegian government enforced a policy of Norwegianization, an effort
to completely assimilate the Sámi into the modern culture. This
included the forced adoption of the Norwegian language, as classes
were taught strictly in Norwegian, a stipulation of that legislation.
Sámi children were forced to learn and use Norwegian by not being
given an alternative (i.e. Sámi language) and often continued its use
the rest of their lives. Having used the dominant language so much,
many would simply teach it to their children thus perpetuating the
decline of the Sámi tongue (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001).

Sámi culture and language were socially unacceptable during this time
of Norwegianization and were stifled not only by the government but in
Sámi communities as well. Many Sámi speakers today are hesitant about
teaching their children the language as a result of experiencing these
past social pressures. Some Sámi themselves are not outwardly
interested in preserving the language but are more concerned with
protecting their children from the stigma of being Sámi. In the 1970
Norwegian census, there was a 42.7% increase in the number of people
who counted themselves as Sámi in the coastal regions. This is in
contrast with the 59.5% decrease in the number of Sámi in the inner
Finnmark region (Jernsletten 1993, 122). Though this may not be the
most accurate record of the actual number of Sámi, as some researchers
have criticized the census, it does give an idea of what many Sámi
thought of being Sámi (Jernsletten 1993, 122-23).

Discrimination against the Sámi comes from all angles. Their clothes
are considered strange, they are not usually wealthy (and money is
often considered a mark of a higher social status), and they generally
do not have higher educations (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). The
Sámi are looked at as inferior to modern cultures.

There was some support for the use of the Sámi language, mostly from
teachers and the church. While government officials tried to ensure
that legislation was strictly followed by carefully evaluating and
hiring teachers loyal to the government, some teachers did, in fact,
teach in the Sámi language, though in secret. Some bishops supported
the use of the Sámi language in church, but the majority of clergymen,
and the Norwegian Church itself, never advocated it (Jernsletten 1993,

Demographics are an important factor as to why the preservation of the
Sámi language has been difficult to attain. The Sámi are a
heterogeneous group, contrary to common ideas regarding indigenous
peoples around the world. Sámi individuals have occupations in the
modern workplace and represent a variety of cultures. The population
is spread out in the Northern European countries of Sweden, Finland,
Norway and the Kola Peninsula in northernmost Russia. The geographical
separation of Sámi communities in Norway has mixed consequences. In
Southern Sámi areas where reindeer herding has become a more important
cultural tool, there is little competition with Norwegian industry as
a whole (Jernsletten 1993, 119). In Northern and coastal areas, the
Sámi are more dependent on Norwegian fishing and trading industries
and, thus, the Norwegian language itself. Southern Sámi communities
are more resistant, in a way, to outside social and economic pressures
and the language in these areas can be more easily maintained.

A new mentality of minority rights worldwide arose out of World War
II. The new focus on indigenous language rights post-World War II came
not only from international sources but also within the Sámi people. A
Sámi movement arose with emphasis placed on furthering the Sámi people
politically, socially, and culturally (Eidheim 1997). A newfound sense
of equality and pride sparked many legislative efforts to gain land
and language rights. Since the early 1970s the Sámi language has been
increasingly considered a supportive language being used in bilingual
masses in churches and, to a lesser extent, schools (Jernsletten 1993,
116). A problem, however, is that, in Norway, Norwegian was then the
official language compared to the minority Sámi language. In
historical context, upon colonization of the Sámi lands in Norway, the
Sámi had to maneuver linguistically in a new economy run in the
Norwegian tongue. Today in the Nordic countries it is common for
children to learn Sámi solely for its use in the home and/or in the
company of family or fellow Sámi. There are resources for native
speakers in many national and local institutions, though. The Finnish
Sámi Parliament mentions such resources available to Sámi speaking
individuals, including a radio station and museum (Finnish Sámi
Parliament 1997). However, they call for more resources to be
available for Sámi speakers, particularly children, to encourage the
continuation of Sámi traditions (The Finnish Sámi Parliament 1997).

The Sámi Language Act, passed in Finland in 1992, gave Sámi people the
right “…to use the Sami language before authorities, orally and in
writing, and to receive a reply in the same language” (The Finnish
Sámi Parliament 1997). The Sámi thus have the right to interact with
authorities in their native tongue, meaning it is expected that
non-Sámi have sufficient knowledge of the language. The rights,
including those of language, the Sámi Act have given in the Finnish
constitution are an effort to raise the status of the Sámi language to
that of Finnish (Jernsletten 1993, 130). However, these rights are, in
actuality, only applicable on the local, municipal level in places
designated as Sámi areas. There are some smaller communities that lie
outside of these localized Sámi districts. Any services provided by
the Sámi Act are revoked in such areas because legislation is not
concerned with such small concentrations of Sámi. Language rights in
these non-Sámi areas remain at a standstill, as the Sámi face
difficulties in using their native tongue in business and social
situations (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001). The Parliament notes that
there are three Sámi languages adopted in Finland: Inari, Skolt, and
Northern Sámi. However, the lack of government funds to enact this has
put it on hold.

The Finnish Sámi Parliament criticizes not the Act but the practice by
local governments. The authors argue that while the constitution
expressly defines the linguistic rights of the Sámi people, they are
not outwardly practiced. The Sámi question whether this is in direct
violation of the rights given in the Constitution and ask for a deeper
look into the current practices. They then go on to propose
adjustments to the current laws and actions of Sámi and non-Sámi. Many
critics question the legal protection of Sámi rights, comparing the
decline of the language to other disappearing languages of indigenous
peoples around the world.

International minority language rights have also proven insufficient
in their guarantee:

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), for instance, the
paragraph on education (26) does not refer to language at all; in the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966),
the educational Article (13) omits reference to language or linguistic
groups (which are mentioned in its general Article 2.2)…in the
European Charter for Regional or Minority languages [1998], the
formulations in the education Article 8 include a range of
modifications. Just as in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons
Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities,
the opt-outs and alternatives permit a reluctant state to meet the
requirements in a minimalist way. (Magga and Skutnabb-Kangas 2001)

Most fail to establish specific rights and tend to give general
provisions or do not include language at all.

Nils Jernsletten (1993) details a particularly successful example of
Sámi language preservation in Southern Sámi communities in Norway.
Despite having been immersed in Norwegian culture for decades the
Southern communities have remained fixed in their traditions. Language
and business are merged in the Sámi culture. Southern Sámi cultures
rely almost exclusively on reindeer herding as an identity
(Jernsletten 1993, 115). Competition with local Norwegian herders has
led to the further isolation of Southern Sámi communities. This
isolation, and the fact that these communities are geographically
separated from each other, has placed increased importance on
establishing and maintaining strong internal bonds within the
communities through the consistent use of the language in everyday
life. The Southern Sámi, though they represent the lowest
concentration of Sámi in the Nordic countries, are the most
represented politically and socially in Sámi-interest groups. They
have established two Sámi schools and cultural centers (Jernsletten
1993, 121). Courses in the Southern Sámi dialect are offered each year
in Norway and Sweden. With small concentrations of Sámi in the south,
you would not expect the language to survive, but Southern Sámi have
preserved it by maintaining a contextual connection between reindeer
herding and language, that is, language as a cultural marker much like
herding is (Jernsletten 1993, 126).

For the inland Sámi in Finnmark, the establishment of Norwegian
schools produced the same effect (Jernsletten 1993, 119). The Sámi
rejected any outside practice taught in schools labeling it
unimportant to their traditions such as herding. In fact, many Sámi
parents thought that things their children learned in Norwegian
schools were not only unimportant but also damaging to their
traditional knowledge. It distracted their children from learning what
was important (Jernsletten 1993, 118). As the Norwegian language
became favored for teaching, the inland Sámi communities further
isolated themselves from the surrounding Norwegians. This helped in
preserving the language to some extent.

Jernsletten sees the Norwegian Sámi Act of 1990 as an effective method
for counteracting the Norwegianizing policy of the past.

As part of the ‘Sami law’, a new language law was also approved, which
equated Sami and Norwegian as official languages in six communes in
the Northern part of Norway. According to the Norwegian Sami Act,
‘Sami’ is defined on the basis of a combination of linguistic and
subjective criteria. The Act states that all persons who provide a
declaration to the effect that they consider themselves to be Sami,
and who either have Sami as the language of the home, or have or have
had a parent or grandparent with Sami as the language of the home, are
entitled to be included in the register of Sami electors in their
municipality of residence, and are entitled to stand for election to
the Sami Assembly. (Strømsnes 2004)

Variations in Sámi language rights are most likely seen from country
to country in the Nordic region. The younger generations of Sámi are
showing an increased interest in their cultural heritage. However,
limited resources remain a problem for those wishing to learn the
language (Jernsletten 1993, 131).

While laws are in place to establish and support Sámi language rights,
more efforts must be taken to ensure those rights are implemented and
protected. With such a small percentage of native speakers, education
about Sámi culture and language is important in maintaining use of the
language. Current laws have seen much criticism in recent years, as
indigenous rights are becoming an increasingly important topic.
Maintaining the Sámi language demands participation of and attention
from both fronts. The majority governments must not only be willing to
listen, but to take action instead of burying Sámi activists in
legislative paperwork. International acknowledgment and enactment of
laws pertaining to language rights of the Sámi and other minorities
would decrease the chance of those languages dying out. The Sámi as a
whole must also continue in their use of language as a cultural
identity marker. Centuries of oppression have put shame in the minds
of the people and a sense of powerlessness. The revitalization of and
pride in the culture give a new sense of power to today’s Sámi. A
power needed to push for language rights and preservation.


Eidheim, Harald. "Ethno-Political Development among the Sami after
World War II." In Sami Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sami
Experience, ed. Harald Gaski. Karasjok: Davvi Girji OS, 1997.

The Finnish Sami Parliament. “Land Rights, Linguistic Rights, and
Cultural Autonomy for the Finnish Sami People.” Indigenous Affairs,
no. 33/4 (July-December, 1997),
http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/SEEJ/sami1.html (accessed March 2,

Jernsletten, Nils. “Sami language communities and the conflict between
Sami and Norwegian.” In Language Conflict and Language Planning, ed.
Ernst Håkon Jahr, 115-132. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter,

Magga, Ole Henrik, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. “The Saami Languages: the
present and the future.” Cultural Survival Quarterly, no. 25.2 (July
31, 2001), http://www.cs.org/publications/CSQ/csq-article.cfm?id=1294
(accessed March 2, 2008).

McRobbie-Utasi, Zita. "Language planning, literacy and cultural
identity: The Skolt Sámi case.” In Linguistics. Series A, Studia et
Dissertationes 17. Zur Frage der uralischen Schriftsprachen. 31-39.

Strømsnes, Kristin. “Multicultural Citizenship as Sami in Norway.”
Paper presented at the Sixth International Conference for the
International Society for Third-Sector Research, Toronto, Canada, July
11-14, 2004.


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