Glimpses of people and their stories on the Finnmark Heath, post no. 8; English version

My reason for bringing up the topic of the Norwegianization of the Sami is that I have encountered it – indirectly. Which is to say, I have encountered people on the Heath who have themselves had Norwegianization forced upon them by being forbidden to speak Sami in primary school. And who have recounted how they felt when being subjected to this. This is true of for instance Brita Turi Romsdal at the Joatkajávri Lodge and Per Edvard Johnsen at the Nedre Mollisjok Lodge.

Brita Turi RomsdalPer i båten2

I had, to be sure, previously read about the Norwegianization policy toward the Sami and the Kvens, and had intellectually “understood” its ramifications, but to sit and listen to people talk about their own experiences is an altogether different matter. By way of the speaker’s tone of voice and countenance, her or his childhood experience becomes palpable and embodied. It was not until I heard Brita and Per separately talk about their experiences, that I could fathom what the idea of language coercion actually entailed for the individual child.

This spring and summer there appeared an extensive and sometimes heated debate in North Norwegian media about Norwegianization of Sami Kven children and the residential schools in Finnmark and northern Troms. It is thus important for me to note that my blog posts about the people of Joatka (including my three posts about the primary school experiences of denizens of the Iešjávri heath that I have met) were in fact written last fall and winter, before this topic turned up in the newspapers. (In my rather busy life it has been difficult for me to find time to revise my rough drafts, check my recollections with the people in question, search for and elicit pictures for blog illustrations, and furthermore translate the posts into English. These blog posts were consequently not written in response to the recent media debate about Norwegianization and residential schools.)

But when it comes to the separation of small boys and girls from their parents and their subsequent years in residential schools, there can be no doubt that this constituted a traumatic experience for a good many children who came from outlying districts in Finnmark and northern Troms, regardless of whether they were Sami, Kven or Norwegian, and regardless of whether they came from the coast or areas inland.

Masi skoleinternat i 1950-årene2

(Photo of pupils and employees at Máze residential school sometime in the 1950s, reproduced by permission of Brita Turi Romsdal.)

As can for instance be weaned from first-hand testimonies collected in Ingjerd Tjelle’s book Bortsendt og internert: Møter med internatbarn [“Sent away and interned: Encounters with residential school children”] (2000), former pupils give very different accounts: Some remember their years at the residential school as positive and constructive, while others found residential living to be a harrowing and injurious experience. Obviously, this also depended on the kind of family life they had been compelled to leave and/or, not least, the particular residential milieu they encountered in the school they had to attend.

But one thing seems clear: The small children were divorced from their parents and in many cases left alone to fend for themselves in their residential accommodations, which too easily occasioned older children to furtively bully and victimize younger kids (which in some cases included abuse). That some of the boys and girls lived away from their parents for long periods – for months – made it also possible for adult authority figures and caretakers to exploit their position and power vis-à-vis these children. With all our knowledge today about the psychological after-effects of bullying/mobbing of children – and abuse of authority – many that are adults today must obviously be deeply marked by their childhood experiences, and still struggle with them.

In this and my next blog post I am above all concerned with what the language coercion itself – the ban against speaking Sami in the classroom – did with the children that had no previous knowledge of Norwegian. Here it is important to understand that random knowledge of a few Norwegian words and phrases has little to do with language proficiency, and the same holds true for Norwegian teachers’ acquaintance with a few Sami words and idioms.

In the 1940s when Brita was a small girl, Máze was – in terms of travel distance – far away from Norwegian populated areas. Brita’s father, who besides being a farmer also was engaged in transportation, used at that time two days in getting from Máze to Alta with horse and wagon. And everything that was needed of everyday goods in winter, would have to be procured in the late fall before the snow came. Contact between Máze and Norwegian society was consequently limited.

Everyday affairs and family life were – naturally – conducted in the Sami language. Those who knew a smattering of Norwegian, were few. Which meant that a great many children had no knowledge of Norwegian when starting school.

Masi skoleinternat2

(Children outside Máze Residential School some time around 1960; photo reproduced by permission of Brita Turi Romsdal.)

Teachers speaking Sami were at the same time far and few between, and it was a matter of mere chance if the children were lucky enough to get such a teacher. Brita’s older sister Dure Elle / Ellen Turi (Guttormsen) was among the few exceptions; she returned to Máze as teacher in 1959 after having graduated from Lærerskolen in Tromsø [“Tromsø College of Education”]. But even though the primary school children were happy to have Dure Elle as their teacher, it must be said to be highly ironic that Ellen broke the prevailing regulations when she used Sami in class.

Many of the Norwegian teachers were undoubtedly quite devoted to their job (quite a few were from southern Norway, with the best intentions) and taught as well as they could. On spite of this, their chances for mutual understanding and closeness vis-à-vis the children were limited by their lack of knowledge of the Sami language.

On top of this came the language coercion itself – that the Sami children were forbidden to speak their own language at school. Particularly children who were without any previous knowledge of Norwegian felt constantly unable to keep up in the classroom. This was a situation that both Brita Turi (attending school in Máze in the late 1940s) and Per Edvard Johnsen (attending school outside of Karasjok in the first part of the 1970s) today recount with the irony of adulthood, but which was certainly quite difficult to tackle in childhood. We cannot fully understand the negative consequences of Norwegianization, in my view, without acknowledging how the pedagogical inanity of language coercion was apt to impede rather than improve the learning process.

Due to their lack of language proficiency, it could actually take several years before many of the Sami primary school children on the Heath (and other places) had a good enough grasp of Norwegian to be able to understand the teaching in the other subjects. Instead they often learned the lessons by heart, and without reciprocal communication it was hard for the teacher to probe the degree of the children’s comprehension. The result of this absurd pedagogical situation was almost given in advance: It helped reducing the self-confidence of quite a few Sami children, caused them psychological injury, and made them lose the desire for education.


Written sources:

For firsthand testimonies of schooling, residential schools and Norwegian language coercion in both Máze, on the Heath and in Finnmark generally, see for instance the three books below (also consulted in the writing of this blog post):

Svein Lund, ed., Sámi skuvlahistorjá/Samisk skolehistorie, bind 3 [“Sami school history,” vol. 3] (Kárašjohka/Karasjok: Davvi Girji, 2009) ­– articles about primary school education in Máze, pp. 130-183.

Gunlaug Nøkland, Skolemor i hjertet av Sameland “School Housemother in the heart of the land of the Sami”] (2012) – about Svanhild Manneråk Lunds work as housemother at Máze residential school 1949­–1962 and reminiscences of some people in Máze from that time (including recollections told by Brita Turi [Romsdal] and three of her siblings, pp. 19-31).

Ingjerd Tjelle, Bortsendt og internert: Møter med internatbarn [“Sent away and interned: Encounters with residential school children”] (Tromsø: Polar forlag, 2000).

2017 Tekst © Fredrik Chr. Brøgger