Some comments on the book Skolemor i hjertet av sameland [”Housemother in the heartland of the Sami”] (2012) by Gunlaug Nøkland

While I was writing my three blog posts concerning people’s reminiscences about residential schooling and language coercion on the Finnmark Heath after the (Second World) War, I read among other things Gunlaug Nøkland’s Skolemor i hjertet av sameland [”Housemother in the heartland of the Sami”] from 2012 – a book about the work of her aunt Svanhild Manneråk Lund who served as housemother at the residential school in Máze from 1949 to 1962.

I found the book disturbing. It lacks analytical perspective and largely recapitulates the story of Máze with its residential school in the period from the war years to the 1960s. I find it strange that a book published as recently as in 2012, and which moreover deals with the Norwegianization of Sami children, so extensively washes its hands of the historical responsibility of reflecting on the material that it presents.

Nøklands bok

In her Preface to the book Nøkland writes that Svanhild Manneråk Lund “constitutes the center of these narratives” and that Lund “herself has written much of this”. The latter statement is a misrepresentation of the book itself: Svanhild Manneråk Lund’s recollections from Máze occupy only one fifth of the book (50 of its 250 pages); the memories of two twenty-year old women from the southernmost coast of Norway (who taught school in Máze in the year 1951–52) comprise one tenth (26 pages); the author Nøkland’s own direct presentations and depictions fill a mere 10 pages; and the descriptions and recollections by different people in Máze who have been interviewed by Nøkland take up a good half of the book’s content.

Some topics are often repeated in the interviews with various inhabitants of the village (belonging for instance to the Turi, Hætta, Gaup, Logje, and Sara families). They talk for instance about the church in Máze; about Thomas von Westen, the Father of the Sami Christian Mission who got the church built in 1721; about Læstadius and Læstadianism; about the Kautokeino Rebellion (and some ancestors’ participation in this revolt); about the war years [of WWII] in Máze and the evacuation and rebuilding afterwards; about the resident school in the 1950s and housemother Svanhild; about schooling after the War (about teachers, classroom work, and the Norwegian language coercion); and for instance about everyday life, handicraft, and customs among the nomadic as well as the resident Sami, in the old days as well as in recent times. Nøkland has done a comprehensive job interviewing various people of the village, committing this to writing, and collecting pictures for the book. The narratives by people in Máze constitute in my view the main merit of the book, even if the collective body of interviews lacks an over-all structure, and even if the material is marked by repetition and comes helter-skelter.

The book is nevertheless problematic because it lacks a critical position on two of its most important themes:1) the combination of school and missionary work in Máze; and 2) the combination of school and coerced Norwegianization in this this period. These themes are moreover intertwined with each other, but recognition of this would probably involve a perspective that would be difficult for the book to take in.

An instance of the book’s incapacity or unwillingness to view its material from a critical vantage point is found in its depiction of the teacher and headmaster Karles Lund, who married housemother Svanhild. In the book’s own portrayal he is described in the following manner:

“[Karles and Svanhild] were loved and respected – and probably also feared. At least Karles was in all likelihood a man they did not want to come into conflict with. He was a strict man who demanded discipline and obedience. This could occasionally create confrontations that, for the pupils, most probably did not go unpunished. But he became a part of the village community, and became respected for what he was. […] Even though some of the pupils came up against his demands for discipline, there were others who were fond of him” (pages 36/37).

That headmaster Karles was both feared and loved has Christian connotations, but when we read the stories by different people in the village of Máze who have been his pupils, we discover that the fear springs from something far more serious than suggested by authorial understatements such as “confrontations” and “discipline”. As one member of the village puts it: “I remember housemother Svanhild well. She was so kind and skillful. But Karles Lund we were afraid of. He was strict. […] Many received punishment, but I was never beaten” (186). The practice of corporal punishment seems at the same time to be selective: “Karles was also a strict teacher, but not to me. My mom was a school board member and thus he did not dare to be strict towards me.” The most extreme story about the headmaster’s behavior reported in the book took place in connection with the requirement that the girls were to curtsy and the boys were to bow as they came into the classroom and sat down. One boy suddenly got confused after observing the girls before him – and curtsied instead of bowing:

But then Karles flared up in anger. He thought the boy was making fun of him. He seized him by the neck and hit him in the face so his teeth broke, and then he was thrown down the stairs.

The poor boy pottered home with his smashed teeth. He did not really understand that he had done something terribly wrong – he had just confused curtsying with bowing.

His mother was shocked when she learned of what had happened, and she would have liked to talk to the teacher. But she did not know sufficient Norwegian to make herself clearly understood, so nothing more was done with the matter. (91)

This was not the only case of severe violence at the hands of the headmaster in Máze. In this day and age he would most likely have been fired and prosecuted for such actions. The story above says quite a lot about the verbal and behavioral powerlessness that not only the Sami children, but also their parents, felt vis-à-vis members of the Norwegian public authorities.

It is particularly in such connections that the book’s lack of historical perspective becomes striking. Nøkland’s portrayal of the work of husband and wife at the Máze residential school seems devoid of critical distance to its own material, and particularly, surprisingly enough, when it comes to the most contentious issue in the official Norwegian policy toward the Sami in the post-war period, namely that of the Norwegian language coercion in school. The abuse of power in this connection towards small school children is a matter brought up by several of the people who are interviewed: “I remember from my own school days that we had to raise our hands and ask permission to go the loo. We had to ask this in Norwegian. We were not permitted to go to the loo before we could say it in Norwegian” (146) – surely an effective measure vis-à-vis small children. Or as another of the villagers observes: “Schoolmaster Karles Lund was very strict. I was punished by him because he thought I was not clever enough in class. He thought I was lazy and unwilling to do my homework. So he bawled me out. But it was not easy to learn much when everything took place in a language one did not understand” (192).

Several of those interviewed speak of how it took them years to acquire enough Norwegian to benefit from the teaching, and how they learned the material by heart without understanding it; also because (as one person observes) Norwegian as well as Sami words were pronounced fairly close to the way they were spelled. Some people also mention a teacher named Anders Eira who taught them a lot because he used Sami as an additional language in his classes. A teacher from the county of Troms who declared that teaching should be done in Sami, had “a fierce discussion” with Karles Lund, but “the entire school system was organized with the single objective that the education was to be a Norwegian one. This was something that Karles strictly adhered to” (147).

It should be said in defense of Nøkland’s book that she has included these (and other) critical viewpoints from her interviews with people in Máze. However, the book’s own portrayal of its protagonist, Svanhild Manneråk Lund, is nonetheless flawed because of its lack of analytical perspective when describing her work at the Máze residential school (which is photographed below and reproduced by permission of Brita Turi Romsdal):

Masi skoleinternat i 1950-årene2

On the one hand it seems indisputable that housemother Lund made a substantial and highly respected contribution to the welfare of many children and families in Máze. This is also evident from the testimonies of people themselves in Máze. She emerges both in her own narratives and in the interviews with others as an indefatigable, helpful, and generous person.

On the other hand her work had a considerable downside, because it formed part of a process of Norwegianization that was forced on the children on the Finnmark Heath, and that Svanhild and Karles Lund devoted themselves to. In one of her accounts Svanhild writes that the school days of many children must have been an ordeal: “[…] particulularly it feels so for those who have had to leave their mother and father, home and siblings and turn to strangers, and hear and learn a foreign language.” Nonetheless things go, she says, “incredibly well”: “They get a new ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and many, many new things to both see and experience.” She emphasizes at the same time that the adults of the resident school “that served in mother’s and father’s stead” felt a great responsibility. But they also experienced the fruits of their labor:

Personally I must say that I also got to see the rays of light in the middle of the dark season. This was when the children came storming jubilantly into the house, shouting all at once: “Ædni gola!” [Eadni gula!”] [“Mother, listen!”]. And then they told everything that had happened to them in the course of the day. Likewise at mealtime when they were seated at five long tables and the food disappeared in an instant and everything was “bore” (well), and in the evening when everyone were sitting clean and tired in their beds with folded hands, reciting the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven.”

When I went on my rounds in the evening, my thoughts went to father and mother who surely thought of their children far away from home. A mother had all her five children at the school. Poor and in tears she drove the 75 miles back to her home. But at school were five bright, snug children who would acquire wisdom and new knowledge for their future lives. (130)

There is a lot of earnest empathy and engagement embedded in these lines. Svanhild Lund emerges as a caring and well-meaning person. But when we compare her version with the ways in which quite a few among the village’s inhabitants remember their own schooling, we find considerable discrepancies; it becomes evident that she, to a considerable extent, glamorizes their experiences. There is a strong strain of paternalistic maternalism in her statements – an imperious appropriation of the role of mother. In addition comes the element of the evangelization of this indigenous population’s young boys and girls who are transformed into small, “clean” children with folded hands.

Not only Svanhild Manneråk Lund in the 1950s but also the book’s author in 2012 appear blind to the negative consequences of this apparently altruistic work, namely that it also helped undermine the attitudes of the Sami to their own culture and language, and not least their ability to write in their own native tongue. Even if the social contribution of the housemother at the Máze residential school is deserving of respect, and even if she and many of the Norwegian teachers on the Heath had the very best intentions with their work, their activity was not solely a gift to the Sami children, because they also bereaved them of something invaluable – by force.

trojanske hest

In the myth of the Trojan war in Antiquity, Greek soldiers were hidden in an enormous wooden horse that was delivered as a gift to the city of Troy. This resulted in the conquest of the Trojans by the Greeks. In his famous epic The Aeneid, Virgil lets the Trojan soothsayer Laocoön declare: “I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts.”

At least in retrospect (and particularly now, in the 21st century) it is evident that the post-war children on the Finnmark Heath could very well have used the same words as the Trojan Laocoön, but then with reference to the Norwegians that so generously came to enlighten them.

2017 Text © Fredrik Chr. Brøgger