Friday, October 11, 2013

Threats to Sami Rights in Norway

by Steven Bieszczat

Steven Bieszczat is a Political Sciece major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His blog entry on the Sami is the second entry in Linguis Europae, dedicated to Scandinavia’s indigenous migrant minority language groups. Steven wrote this blog entry in the ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ (PS 418) course in the spring of 2013.

  All dialects of the Sami language are considered endangered languages today.This is the case because for centuries the native Sami peoples of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia have been the subject of cultural oppression, territorial infringement, and rights violations. Long before the settlement of northern Scandinavia by Finns, Russians, and Nordic-speaking peoples, the Sami utilized the land for hunting, fishing, and herding reindeer. The Sami have lived in the area for thousands of years, speakers of a non-Indo European language that is related to Finnish and Estonian.2 

    Today, there are roughly 60,000 people of Sami descent living throughout these four countries, the majority of whom reside within the borders of present-day Norway.3 

  During the Middle Ages, the population of Nordic-speaking peoples increased, and many of them migrated and settled in the Sami-inhabited regions of northern Scandinavia.4 Colonization eventually led to the claim of territorial sovereignty over these lands, ultimately reducing the amount of land available to the indigenous Sami. The policies that these respective state governments would enact over the years would come to threaten the traditional Sami way of life. 

    In Norway, in particular, throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Sami were the target of state policies aimed at assimilation of the Sami and the eradication of their culture. ‘Norwegianization’ laws, such as that of 1902, forbade the ownership of land by non-Norwegian speaking peoples.5 More than anything, however, ‘Norwegianization’s’ main tool was language policy. According to Henry Minde, a professor at the University of Tromsø in Norway, the assimilation policies were strengthened in 1880 when “an instruction issued by the Directors of Tromsø Diocese … stated that all Sami children were to learn, speak, and write Norwegian, while all previous clauses saying that children were to learn their native tongue were repealed.”6 These types of edicts and laws effectively removed the use of native Sami languages from schools, and imposed Norwegian culture and language on Sami individuals.
Image Source

  The effects of such policies in Norway can be seen in the current statuses of Sami languages in Norway According to UNESCO, North Sami, the most widely spoken Sami dialect, is ‘definitely endangered’, while other dialects such as Lule, Pite, and South Sami are listed as ‘severely endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’.7 Today, however, Norway’s overtly assimilationist policies and practices are now a thing of the past thanks much progress that has been made over the last 60 years.

  In 1956, the Nordic Sami Council was created.8 Nine years later, the Norwegian Cultural Fund was established to “preserve and encourage Sami culture and literature.”9 There were major breakthroughs in the 1980’s. A 1988 addendum to the Norwegian Constitution declared it “the responsibility of the authorities of the state to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life”.10 In 1992, the Sami Parliament was created to perform specific functions in regards to protecting the interests of the Sami people.11  

  Today, the Sami language is protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages, and enjoys the status of a national official language in Norway.12 

  However, discrimination against the Sami still persists in Norway today. As recently as 2011, tensions flared in the northern Norwegian/Sami city of Tromsø, a city located within a region of Norway where both Norwegian and Sami are considered official languages. The popularly elected conservative government of Tromsø in Autumn of 2011 decided not to enact a law that would have created bilingual road signs. The idea of including the Sami language was widely opposed by many non-Sami Norwegian residents.  The Sami people of Tromsø held protests in opposition to this decision, and many wore their traditional Sami clothing inside out as a sign of their protest. The police had to be called on one occasion after an anonymous letter was sent to a Sami official that depicted the Sami flag with a swastika on it, and pictured Hitler wearing traditional Sami clothing.13 

  There have also been other instances of discrimination against the Sami and the Sami language. In 1994, for example, a conservative member of the Norwegian Parliament called a fellow member of Parliament an ‘extremist’ after she delivered part of her speech in a Sami dialect.14 

  These events and others have called into question the extent to which discrimination against the Sami of Norway has subsided. Other issues such as the actual power of the Sami Parliament to protect Sami fishing rights and the natural environment in which they live from offshore drilling by oil companies15 are in question.  While the situation for the Sami in Norway has drastically improved since the assimilation policies of years ago, hostility, discrimination, and discontent are still ever-present.

1. UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. 2010.
2. Svonni, Mikael. “Sami Languages in the Nordic Countries and Russia”. Multilingual Europe: Facts and Policies. Mouton de Gruyter: 2008. P. 235-236.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Forrest, Scott. “Territoriality and State-Sami Relations”. University of Northern British Columbia.
6. Minde, Henry. “Assimilation of the Sami – Implementation and Consequences. Journal of Indigenous People’s Rights. No. 3. (2005): P. 13
7. UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. 2010.
8. UNHCR: The U.N. Refugee Agency.,MRGI,,NOR,49749cd45,0.html.
9. Helander, Elina. “The Sami of Norway”.
10. UNHCR: The U.N. Refugee Agency.,MRGI,,NOR,49749cd45,0.html.
11. Sami Parliament Act of 1992.
12. European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Second Periodical Report, Norway. March, 2002. The Sami language.
13. “Sami-Norwegian Conflict Turns Hostile”. November 4, 2011.
14. UNHCR: The U.N. Refugee Agency.,MRGI,,NOR,49749cd45,0.html.
15. Aamb, Kristian Osnes. “Oil Development in the North – Concerted Dialogue or a Dialogue for Concern?”. 2012.


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