Glimpses of people and their stories on the Finnmark Heath, post no. 9; English version.

In one important sense Brita Turi had nonetheless a more sheltered childhood in her first years of schooling than had many Sami children on the Heath who did not live in the close vicinity of a school. Brita’s parents lived after all in Máze itself. Thus she could live at home while attending primary school. The children of nomadic Sami engaged in reindeer husbandry, plus the children who lived further away from the school centers, had no choice: If private lodgings were not a possible option for them, they had to live in the school residence.

(The headline photo shows people outside the Máze residential school some time in the 1950s; picture reproduced by permission of Brita Turi Romsdal.)

To be forced to live far away from home creates insecurity, and language coercion and anxiety are not a good combination. Particularly not for small children starting in primary school. In the more remote places on the heath, vulnerable, small persons were torn away from their parents and extended family (many for large parts of the year), forced to live alone at the residential school, left to their own homesickness and perhaps loneliness as well, prohibited to speak their own language at school, and in many cases unable to understand what the teachers said. This is heartbreaking to consider. It does not take much imagination to understand that many Sami children acquired a deep aversion to schooling.

The danger about language coercion is moreover that it implies the exertion of power. There were  teachers that used the power of discipline, chastising the children when they spoke Sami. Nor should we forget that corporal punishment was more accepted in previous times – also (not least) in Christian circles. And with regard to Sami children, we cannot discount the possibility that punishment may have been combined with considerable (unconscious) racist paternalism: Those one has a moral duty to love, one chastens.

Even when the parents lived in the vicinity, they may have felt powerless vis-à-vis the school: The respect for public authorities (teachers, clergymen, officers of the law) was greater in earlier times than today. And, as for the individual teacher, punishment was probably easier to resort to in the case of children whose parents lived far away.

The outcome could be both mental and corporal mistreatment, as for instance Josef Sara reveals that he was subjected to when attending Máze residential school in the late 1950s, some fifteeen years after Brita went to school in Máze. Josef comes from Ragesluoppal (where he also lives today), a remote spot that in the summer (by way of a tractor trail) is situated some 15 miles from Máze.

Ragesluoppal

(Photo of Rágesluoppal today, reproduced by permission of Kurt-Åge Møllenes.)

Josef did not know a word of Norwegian before he was sent to the residential school in Máze. In primary school he was subjected to teachers who beat him, and in the residential quarters there were pupils who bullied him. If anyone spoke Sami in the classroom, they were shut up in the coal cellar, which had no windows. One time Josef was left sitting there, in the darkness, a whole afternoon. The fear that was engendered in him in primary school, made him afraid of pursuing secondary education.

And in an interview with NRK Sápmi (the Sami radio of the Norwegian National Broadcasting Corporation), Per Edvard Johnson from the Vuolit Mollešjohka Lodge / Nedre Mollisjok Lodge spoke about the trauma caused by his nine years in the Grensen residential school in the 1970s. Vuolit Mollišjohka is situated on the heath, almost fifty miles from Karasjok, and the Grensen residential school lay moreover ten miles outside of Karasjok in the opposite direction, towards the Finnish border. Per Edvard, too, started school without any knowledge of Norwegian. In school he felt like a failure because he was unable to do his homework and did not dare to admit that he did not understand the language.

To leave his parents in August and not see them before December again, only to return again to the school in January, year after year, made him terribly sad, and his memories from the residential school life were painful. Only later, as an adult, he has in recent years sought and received help to process and deal with the delayed trauma that his residential experiences inflicted on him.

Today Molleš Piera (Per Edvard) runs the Nedre Mollisjok Lodge together with his wife, Randi Varsi Johnsen. It is a paradise for sport fishermen in the summer – and for skiers (and ice fishermen) in the winter, which is by far the busiest season.

Nedre Mollisjok i dag

When I have stayed overnight at Nedre Mollisjok on my ramblings eastwards from Rágesjávri, Per has on a couple of occasions touched upon the school residential years of his childhood. And on one point he and Randi have been in total agreement: their children should not be sent to residential school. Randi and Per have therefore had their own residence in Karasjok in which one of them could live with the children while the latter were attending school – most of the time Randi, who works as a nurse in Karasjok, while Per has taken care of the daily running of the Lodge.

It is remarkable, actually, how similarly Brita Turi Romsdal at Joatka and Per Edvard Johnsen at Nedre Mollisjok each described to me their experiences in the classroom itself – even though thirty years intervened between their respective schooling. The sharp irony was exactly the same when they spoke of their first primary school years, and they used almost exactly the same turns of phrase when they summed them up:

“Of course I could READ! I read aloud, even. I just did not understand what I was reading.”

Brita hjemme2

Per &N.Mollisjok

It seems to be an almost universal phenomenon, this: If you belong to a minority, you tend to need a good portion of black humor. Even when the minority are a majority, like in inner Finnmark.

Language coercion and the hard Norwegianization policy through generations have caused the Sami language to be close to eradicated in coastal Sami communities in Northern Norway. By branding the Sami language – and Sami affiliation – as being inferior, it was associated with shame. Thus the Norwegianization may many places be said to have been successful, in the worst possible sense: It demolished Sami culture by undermining the aboriginal population’s attitudes to their own language and sense of self-worth.

In the districts of the Finnmark Heath, as we know, Sami culture was harder to eradicate – despite hundred and fifty years of hard pressure. Nonetheless – as I have attempted to show – the costs of Norwegianization paid by the individual have been quite high, even inland on the Finnmark Heath, and even in the period after the War and all the way into the 1970s.

That people like Brita Turi Romsdal at Joatka, Josef Sara at Rágesluoppal, and Per Edvard Johnsen at Nedre Mollisjok have become the steadfast and active individuals they are today, deeply rooted in their Sami identity, must be said to have happened in spite of the Norwegianization they were subjected to in the schools of inner Finnmark. This is both remarkable and admirable. Strong Sami family ties are surely an important factor here, combined with personal resilience.

Whatever the strict language coercion may have ruined for them, their own Sami belonging it proved unable to sway.

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An important P.S.: The proposal for the creation of a “Truth commission for Norwegianization policies and injustices imposed on the Sami and Kven peoples of Norway” was actually passed in the Norwegian Parliament in June this year. (The proposal was inspired by “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” that was established in 2008, investigating the effects of the residential school system on its aboriginal peoples.)

 (An ever so small extra P.S.: That language coercion is no longer practiced, does in no way mean that the pressure against the Sami language is gone. The perhaps greatest threat today is more diffuse – the ubiquitous assimilation mechanisms of our modern culture. When I visited Brita Turi Romsdal in Tverrelvdalen on my way down from the heath a few days ago, the language topic cropped up again as we were talking with her son-in-law Simon Áilu/Aslak Hætta. Both Brita and Simon lamented the increasing use of Norwegian among Sami speakers, particularly in connection with deeply personal and familial events. They mentioned for instance funerals they had attended, in which more than three quarters of the greetings on the burial wreaths had been in Norwegian – even in a Sami core region like Kautokeino.)

Written sources:

Josef Sara about the residential school i Máze: See the article “Før demningen brister” [“Before the dam breaks”], Ny Tid, May 4, 2005, https://www.nytid.no/for_demningen_brister/ (an article about the Finnmark law and Sami rights).

Per Edvard Johnsen about the residential school in Karasjok: See Liv Inger Somby, “Han bar på en grusom hemmelighet” [“He was burdened by a horrific secret”] NRK Sápmi, April 19, 2016, https://www.nrk.no/sapmi/xl/per-edvard-johnsen-forteller-om-opplevelsene-pa-internatskolen-1.12900990.

For other first-hand testimonials about schooling, residential schools and Norwegian coercion in both Máze, on the heath, and in Finnmark generally, see some of the material in for instance the three books below (consulted also in the writing of this blog post):

Svein Lund, red., Sámi skuvlahistorjá/Samisk skolehistorie, bind 3 [“Sami school history, volume 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 Lund’s work as housemother of the Máze residential school 1949­–1962, with some reminiscences by a few 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 Text © Fredrik Chr. Brøgger