The Quiet Struggle: Shame and Pride

Many thanks to Kai Turi for the translation of this Norwegian documentary episode. Watch and read along.

“Here live the Sami. We are alive and kicking!”

But it has taken many years to get here. The Sami are connected with the somewhat murky, ugly and shameful. Sami children were sent to boarding schools to be Norwegian.

Boarding schools were in many ways child abuse in the public sector.

Sami people have waged a silent battle, but not without resistance.

“It was pretty awful to find out maybe we were Sami, we just had negative opinions about the Sami when we were growing up. It was not a nice thing. I was embarrassed and did not want to know. I wish that I had received this information earlier. It took a long time before I dared to figure this out.”

Susann grew up here in Manndalen in a regular, Norwegian family. But one day she got a lesson at school that would change her life.

“All students in the class wrote down the name of the farmstead they came from. Then we saw that 90% of all the names we had written, were Sami…Up there you Ordamielli. Over there you have Rouhtu. Down there you have Ribet, Suddasluohka, Gáiskeriidi…Most places in the village had a Sami name. And it had to mean something. I was curious and began to find out more.”

The youth wondered why the village had so many Sami place-names and why older people speak Sami.

“Sami was associated with inner Finnmark, reindeer and yoik. Things we don’t do here in Manndalen. Our parents spoke Sami, but they said it was Lappish. So we had no relationship with the Sami.”

“Some called us Sea Saami, others said we’re from Finland. But we have found ourselves to be Norwegian. I have found myself that we are Norwegian, and we feel Norwegian.”

“I’ve never felt Sami. I do not know why, but I have no words…No, I will not be. I do not know what is going on.”

One reason that many people do not see themselves as Sami, is that the government of the late 1800s created a policy that would make Sami people Norwegian. Much of Kåfjorddalen and coastal areas of northern Norway were coastal-Sami areas. Coastal Sámi lived off fishing and farming. Sami on the plateau herded reindeer. And most spoke Sami. But society pushed for the Sami to learn Norwegian and be good Norwegians. Much of the Sami culture disappeared, especially from the coastal areas. Susann realized that she had Sami roots and that it was associated with much shame.

“Then I realized that there was a reason for it, and I had to overcome it. It should not be allowed to continue for several generations. One has to dare to say that history will not repeat itself, and I’m proud of my background. I am proud when I wear the jacket, and all that I see is a Sami person. This is the second kofta I got. It was a gift from my husband when we got married, so I appreciate it especially. It was a big surprise that he gave me the gift. We are eight siblings , and only two have been keen to find out more about our Sami background. It has not been entirely easy, and there have been discussions about the Sami in our family.

“I do not see my parents as Sami. I do not feel Sami. Everyone must do what they want. I have no problem that we are different. One does this and the other does that. I would call it ‘chosen to be Sami’. They have chosen it, but I did not feel Sami.”

“It is not surprising because the area here was Norwegianized, and Sami is associated with something somewhat murky, ugly and shameful. We will not be identified with it. The two of us suddenly wearing kofta, takes some Sami above the rest of the family who do not want it. And it is clear that it was tough.”

Much of the shame many Sami carry with them is linked to boarding schools in northern Norway. The Sami children were sent here to learn to be Norwegian.

“It was…It was very dark and cold. Everything seemed and smelled so strange. It was very unpleasant. I was only seven years old and often longed intensely for Mom. That was as far as I was able to stay there.”

“Most of the children are moving here for the first time to be acquainted with the school of the future and both difficulties and joys.”

“When I arrived here at seven, the housewife and teachers only spoke Norwegian. I understood nothing. I did not understand a word of Norwegian. This was my classroom.”
“The school teaches in two languages. The children will learn to write Sami, so too they must learn to read and write Norwegian. Tuition is somewhat complicated for teachers.”
“When I had to say something in Norwegian, I could not. I felt strongly that I was dumber than the other kids.”

“There are teachers of a Sami-speaking class who can’t even speak Sami. What does it mean for the teaching situation?”

“I feel constantly rather helpless. I feel like I’m not enough. That you can point to something in the picture and ask something; you point, and then you say, ‘What…’ So what did I do? I said, ‘What is this?’ Much of what I say goes over the heads of some of them in class.”

“Boarding schools were in many ways child abuse in the public sector. Imagine yourself: you are a child of 5-6 years who is taken from home to a boarding school many miles away and meet teachers who only speak Norwegian, and you can only speak Sami. What lessons can you learn? It is an incredibly frightening experience.”

“In the evening, when we were in bed, I was afraid I was going to wet the bed again. I was thinking about it and could not sleep. When I woke up in the night because I had peed in the bed I took the wet panties and put them in the dresser drawer. So I ran out of underwear. Finally I had no clean panties to wear. When the housewife discovered that I had kept them hidden it was very embarrassing because the other children heard it. And then the whole school knew. I was always afraid of Norwegians in higher positions. Even as an adult, I was afraid to promote my needs. I think it stems from growing up, because we learned to be submissive.”

Per Fugelli worked for several years as a district doctor with the Sami people. He made one of the first Norwegian health surveys among the Sami.

“The Norwegian society inflicted heavy injury to parts of the Sami population, ugly injury, no doubt! All health research shows that it is not Omega -3 and antioxidants which povide good health. The condition of good health is you are fairly confident in yourself and you are fond of yourself in who you are, your roots, your thoughts, your feelings, your language, your songs and stories. And then comes the big society of Norway and says to the Sami ‘You are worth zero as Sami. To be real people you have to be like us.’ And this we tried to drill into them from the school. Designated choir also at school.”

“That they started the Norwegianization policy may not primarily be to do with the fact that they were evil. It was probably from a thinking that this was best for the Sami. One was a Social Darwinist attitude. Sami were considered of less worth than the Norwegian population. The heavy consideration was of Norway as a young nation. Norwegianization policy started around 1850. It is not long since 1814 [declaration of Norway as independent kingdom] and it was important to build the Norwegian identity, and all should be Norwegian.”

Many boarding children were illiterate. Things went well for Solbjørg in the end – in adulthood, she trained as a psychiatric nurse.

“I was so happy. It was a great day. And my family was also happy.”

Much has happened since Susann discovered her Sami background. Today she lives in Tromsø, and her children now have the opportunity to learn Sami at school.

“Can you count in Sami?”

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”

“I wish I had learned Michael Jackson songs in Sami.”

“I have been involved in that she has learned Sami, because the children learn Sami, I think that’s very funny. It’s beneficial for them. Learning a language is good anyway. That an identity thing is related to it makes it exciting and fun.”

For many Sami it has been important to take back the language and show the original Sami names of mountains and lakes and valleys at Manndal.

“I’m standing in front of a sign that says ‘Olmmávággi’ and ‘Manndalen’, the Sami place name at the top of the sign. Many had objections that the Sami should be at the top of the sign, that the whole municipality would be identified as Sami. And it was not everyone who felt that they were Sami then. And many still think it is problematic.”

“Now to Troms where the introduction of the new Sámi Language Act creates conflict.”

“Rural communities and families split. Parents taking children out of school. Sami road signs shot down.”

“What happened to the sign?”

“Here stood the Sami ‘Gaivuona suohkan’ above ‘Kåfjorddalen municipality’. This is where Grandma and Grandpa live, and where my mom is from. Then there was a Sami community, and they wrote the sign in both Norwegian and Sami. It was not liked by everyone.”

Public Roads Administration had to be constantly putting up new signs as replacements for the ones which had been defaced.

“You do not know who was behind the vandalism. There were people who would not be identified with the Sami. Some thought that it was Norwegianized Sami who felt the soreness and would not be identified with it.”

Many Sami people of northern Scandinavia experienced that being Sami has been branded as inferior and shameful. One reason for this comes from racial biology, which particularly caught on in Sweden. At Uppsala University Library is a special photo collection: 13,000 photos that divide the Swedish people of different races. Sami was considered as an inferior race. To document that they were less intelligent men traveled round to measure, weigh and take samples of the Sami. The theory that society had to be protected against inferior races attracted interest in Europe. Before World War II, German scientists were in Sweden and exchanged ideas that we recognize in Nazi racial policies.
In the Soviet Union Sami were forced to move from the tundra and into high-rise buildings in large cities. Many gave up their Sami backgrounds to be Soviet citizens. But some are still fighting for preserve the Sami culture.

“This is my village Varzino. Here the Sami people lived since time immemorial. This was the summer village. In 1964 there was a vibrant village with houses and public use. People lived from fishing and reindeer as they had always done here. In 1968 it was decided that people should be moved from Varzino to Lovozero. They were promised modern homes and jobs. In reality people from Varzino ended up having to stay where it fell off. The scenery was part of us. We were used to living outdoors and breathing fresh sea air. All who were forcibly relocated experienced this as a great psychological burden/stress. People were torn up from their roots and the new location did not suit them.”

Nina moved eventually to Murmansk but her heart was somewhere else.

“If you pick a flower and throw it on the ground, it dies. Likewise, it is with people. Without the roots and nature of where they were raised and felt free. Tundra, my mother, I was torn away from you and sent to large foreign cities. I die. I die. I die.”

One of the highlights in life is when her granddaughter Anna comes to visit. Anna lives in Norway and works as an indigenous advisor. She is inspired by her grandmother’s struggle that the Sami culture and the language will survive.

“Gara, come, we open. Come on!”

“She and my family represent my roots. But I also know what they have been through, i.e. forced relocation. The pain they have in their hearts, I feel too.”

“It hurts my heart that the language is lost. It is really terrible.”

“There is a huge stress and trauma the Sami people have been exposed to. For the younger generation the language has virtually been lost now. I speak Sami. I have worked hard to achieve this. However, there are very few I can talk with in Sami.”

Nina has dedicated her life to the Sami cause and helped to write a Kildin dictionary.
“When the dictionary was completed, we made sure that every Sami family got one. Free. You talk about the silent battle, but my mouth can never be quiet. I will always fight for the acts of Sami life, people and culture.”

“What I fear is that I will be unable to stop the development. I do not know whether my culture is going to survive. As long as I live, the Sami live in me. Therefore, there is here and now.”

Susann sees it as a life mission to fight against the injustices committed. She has taken legal doctorate and has become the equal rights expert at the University of Tromsø.

“This is my workplace, the Legal Faculty. Everything here is signposted in both Norwegian and Sami. I think that’s very nice. Here is the first book I wrote, the first exposition of the equal rights of all. Sami are portrayed as stupid and drunks. What’s printed about them in the media, it is only about conflict. It’s tabloid spreads that are in the media in Norway today. And there is of course a role in shaping people’s perception of what Saminess is.”

To modify the negative focus Susann and her friends have chosen to be proud Sami and reveal their culture. A portion of this thread started Riddu Riddu Festival in the 90s. Today it is one of the world’s biggest cultural festivals of indigenous peoples. It is not just any festival. First and foremost, it is a symbol of revitalized coastal Sami culture.

“Riddu Riddu has primarily been an annual event with the message: ‘Yes, here live the Sami. We are alive and kicking!’ We are not reindeer, we go to university and we are not so traditional as one might think. But we live here, and we celebrate it every summer. This is a very special festival, a treasure that we have in Norway. It’s easy for me to be proud to be Sami. I was born with gold pants [a silver spoon] and a golden ticket in a Norwegian society and can choose the positive. I may be a Norwegian one day and Sami the other day.”

“It was a great shame for many of our ancestors being Sami on the occasion of assimilation. Therefore, I feel that we are not carrying the same shame, we have a responsibility to bear pride.”

“If I could choose any generation to belong to, I would choose my generation, not my parents or grandparents. I have all the possibilities they did not, especially with regard to Sami language and culture I have. We have the role of victim, of course we must not forget our history, but the responsibility is ours. It is up to us. We all have opportunities.”

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