The right to participate in cultural life

Imagine a whole people and a whole culture being pushed aside, because it is not the majority in the country. Imagine a heritage being lost and not being allowed to speak your own language. Maybe being forced to go to boarding school far away from home, to separate you from your family, your language and your traditions.

This is what exactly what happened to the Samí, Norway’s indigenous population. Traditionally, the Samí were reindeer herders, fishermen and farmers. 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, and the Samí's own name for the land area they cover is Sápmi. 

But the Sámi, with their distinct language, culture and customs, have for most of their history not been seen as “Norwegians” by the Norwegian government, and they have been subjected to severe cultural oppression. For centuries, there was a systemised attempt at eradicating the Samí culture. Their language, their music, their traditions – their entire way of life – were forbidden. Samí parents were forced to see their children grow up without learning anything about their own culture.

How would you feel if you weren’t allowed to speak your own language?

This process, known as “Norwegification”, has been officially abandoned, but its effects are still being felt by Samis today who are struggling to reconnect with a culture that was oppressed for so long. At the Norwegian boarding schools they were not allowed to speak their own language, which means many grew up not speaking the same language as their parents.  Now, there is a growing generation of Sami youth who are taking back their culture. They are making an effort to learn the language, wear their traditional costumes like and be proud of their identity.

In the video with Isa Lill we get to know what her grandparent generation experienced and how it has affected the Samí youth today. Isa Lill explains that she wondered about her own identity. It wasn’t until she grew older that she learned more about her Samí identity and also put the marker on herself. She is now the leader of a Samí youth organization called Noereh – which is the Samí word for youth - which works as a common meeting space for Samí youth.

Cultural Rights

Cultural rights are a written in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ESCR), which is signed by nearly all countries in the world (the most important exceptions being Saudi Arabia and Malaysia). It states that: 

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. - UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights 1966, article 27

These are all rights related to the workplace, social security, family life, participation in cultural life, and access to water, housing, healthcare and education. With cultural rights we mean the right to participate in cultural life. It also means to be able to choose your cultural identity and have it respected, and have access to your  cultural heritage.

But what does culture mean? It is a very difficult concept to define precisely, but the anthropologist Edward Tylor defines it as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Culture is a term that we use a lot, but is difficult to understand because of the variation in the meaning. We can talk about western culture, high culture, sub-culture or latin culture. Culture is something you “do”, not something you “have”. Regardless of the variations of meaning and difficulties in defining it precisely, it is clear that culture permeates everything we do and is central to nearly every part of daily life. If you suppress culture, you therefore take away a cornerstone of people's identity, habits, and lives.  

Global perspective

When a country commits to a convention like the ESCR they are responsible for following them. If they do not uphold their duties they will be breaking their international commitments. Norway is far from the only nation that has oppressed or failed its indigenous communities: the Samí struggle has a lot in common with that of indigenous people in Australia. They too lack platforms where they can practice their native language. Very few learn at school about the great works of verbal art of their communities. All too often, teaching about Indigenous arts at school is reduced to “didgeridoos, dots and damper”.

Therefore, it is important to be aware of the diversity and history of your country. Reflect on your own identity, and know that you cannot take all the things that make up who you are for granted – your language, clothing, and traditions can also be the target of oppression just like other human rights.

Activity (13+): Multicultural Circles

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