Norway’s human rights record will forever be tainted by its attempt to eradicate the culture of its indigenous peoples. Now young people are fighting to undo the damage done by Norway's assimilation policies.
The Sámi have lived in Norway– or rather, the area that was eventually divided between the nation states of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – for over 5,000 years. Through a variety of livelihoods, with reindeer herding and coastal fishing being the most predominant, the Sámi have made their living at the northern edges of Europe.
But the Sámi, with their distinct language, culture and customs, have for the better part of recent history not been seen as “Norwegians” by the Norwegian government, and they have been subjected to severe cultural oppression.
Over a period of hundred years, starting in 1850, they were the target of an aggressive assimilation policy, aiming to eradicate Sámi culture and assimilate the Sámi people into Norwegian society. Through limiting expressions of Sámi culture and denying them their traditional means of livelihood, the aim was to turn all Sámi into “Norwegians”.
This policy has now been overturned and the Sámi have been officially recognised as the indigenous population of Norway, but the destructive effects of the assimilation policies are still felt by the over 50.000 Sámi living in Norway today. However, young Sámi are digging up the cultural roots the government tried to bury – and many have found those roots to be as strong as ever.
Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture. – United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 8.1
Rediscovering an identity
Isalill Simonsen Kolpus, 26, is the leader of Noereh – an organisation giving Sámi youth the opportunity to experience, connect with and participate in their own culture. For her, the connection with her roots was awakened when she in her early twenties decided to try on the Gákti, which is a traditional Sámi costume.
- I felt like I was coming home when I wore the gákti, she reveals.
Isalill tells us that her Sámi identity was never a secret, but neither was it something that was talked about in her family. Before trying on the gákti, the fact that she was Sámi was something that she had to be reminded of, not an integral part of her identity.
The gákti is an important identity maker and Isalill explains that when you are putting it on, you are not just wearing it yourself, but also on behalf of your family and relatives. You are effectively making a statement about your heritage, which means making a statement about your family and relatives. This creates tensions within many families today.
Suppression through education
A generation ago, it was common practice to force Sámi children to attend boarding schools.
This had a profound effect on the grandparents of today’s young Sámi – effects that can still be felt by the current generation. At Norwegian boarding schools, Sámi children were taught not to be Sámi; they were not even allowed to speak their own language. Upon returning home, many children therefore felt estranged from their family’s culture and identity. Many would come home to their parents and say: «I’m not like you anymore»
In one move, the Norwegian government almost managed to eradicate the Sámi language in one generation, Isalill states. Even though many Sámi languages survived, numerous branches, dialects and variations of Sámi went extinct during the period of Norwegian assimilation policy.
A culture awakens
Through Noereh, Isalill attempts to make young Sámi proud of their heritage. She sees the fruits of this labour: many make an effort to learn and speak Sámi, and young people are increasingly choosing to wear the gákti to occasions big and small.
This means that despite the attempts at killing Sámi culture, it is now very much alive and well. Many talk about the “rejuvenation” or “revitalisation” of the Sámi culture and identity, but at this point Isalill is very clear:
- Our culture was never dead, it was just asleep for a while. You can try to remove us but we refuse to do what you tell us.
She is very hopeful on behalf of the Sámi:
- We are waking up, she states with a bright smile.
More of our interview with Isalill will be included in our full video on indigenous rights, to be released early 2017. Stay tuned!