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Suffering Through the Education System: The Sami Boarding Schools

By Inga (Rebecca Partida)

Like many indigenous people of the world, the Sami have historically suffered through various types of discrimination and repression. Since the nation-states of Norway, Sweden, and Finland first began settling Sapmi, the Sami have been removed from their land, stripped of their culture and made to believe that they were inferior. Not only were the Sami subjected to such ill treatment by the emerging governments of the area, they were also challenged by Christian missionaries who sought to erase traditional Sami practices. Over time, the tactics used to repress Sami culture became more and more sophisticated. In an effort to eliminate Sami culture, the church and the governments controlling Sapmi established boarding schools whose sole purpose was to properly assimilate Sami children into the majority culture. Since their beginnings in the 19th century, boarding schools were a major part of Sami life until the 1960s, when a Sami movement began demanding reforms to the educational systems. To this day, the governments controlling Sapmi are working to establish curriculum that promotes Sami culture and works to destroy the damage done by years of attempted assimilation.

Traditional Sami ideas on education vary greatly from the ideas thrust upon them by the people who later assumed control of Sapmi. In traditional Sami culture, “knowledge is never an end in itself but is generally applied in concrete situations” (Helander and Kailo 1998). In other words, Sami children were not placed in classrooms and given formal lessons, but instead were allowed to learn through experience. This was viewed as the only way to learn since one cannot truly acquire knowledge unless they have experienced it. The Sami system of education has been dubbed the “Sami University” since the whole world serves as a classroom, and all of the people act as teachers (Helander and Kailo 1998). In this traditional form of education, the lavvu serves as the main point where information and knowledge is distributed. This status comes from the lavvu’s role as the focal point of daily and social life. Instead of receiving only one point of view, Sami children had the advantage of being taught by multiple people, each with their own set of ideas and experiences. Despite later attempts to do away with traditional Sami educational practices, this method of learning still exists (although on a much smaller scale). An example of modern respect for traditional Sami education can be seen in the poem “Mother’s University” by Rauni Magga Lukkari. Lukkari describes the various lessons that a mother teaches her daughter and how the she imparts ideas that cannot be learned in a traditional school. The lines “with eagerness she ran her school / trained her daughter” suggest that for Lukkari the school is the home (Lukkari 1998). The poem also suggests that the most valuable lessons for life (“honour your ancestors” and “never forget yourself”) can only be taught by someone in the context of everyday life (Lukkari 1998). Unlike Western culture, the Sami people traditionally value education through experience more than they do the idea of learning through textbooks. These ideas would be challenged with the arrival of Christian missionaries and the development of the nation-states.

Lutheran missionaries arrived in Sapmi during the 17th century and “insisted that the Sami drop their own language for religious purposes” (Corson 1995). The Sami were instead encouraged to speak Finnish, which was the language of the missionaries. In addition to the Lutherans, there were also Russian Orthodox missionaries with the same basic set of goals. The Christian missionaries saw Sami culture as inferior and heathenistic, something that needed to be cleansed and altered for the good of the Sami people. Shamanism was viewed as a sin and more Western ideas began to be introduced to the Sami. Several Christian schools were established in Sapmi. The goal of these educational establishments was to educate Sami men in the ways of Christianity so that they could then return to their homes as missionaries. The missionaries did not set up an educational system for all Sami children, but their training schools served as precursors for later educational systems established in Sapmi.

The beginning of nationalism within the developing nation-states that controlled Sapmi heralded a new form of cultural repression and a new method for altering the Sami educational system. The Sami people were declared inferior by the then-popular concept of Social Darwinism. During the 19th century the nation-states (in an effort to support a nationalist agenda) decided to employ the use of special schools that would “make the Sami as Norwegian as possible” (Todal 1998). At first run by the Christians, these schools would later come under the control of the governments of the nation-states. Although many accounts of the schools established come from Norwegian Sami, there were also such schools in Finland and Sweden.

The process of assimilation was most important among Sami children, who were stripped of their culture and made to feel ashamed of their people at an early age. By the 19th century, a school system had already been established across Sapmi. However, lessons in these schools were most often conducted in Sami. During the 19th century as nationalism began to play a larger role in the nation-states, the school systems within Sapmi were revised. Children were required to attend boarding schools under the direction of the Christian church. The aim of the system was to assimilate the Sami children into the majority cultures “in language, culture, and in their overall view of themselves” (Todal 1998). Sami children were denied the right to use their native language or to engage in their cultural practices. The schools also promoted the idea that Sami culture was inferior to that of the nation-states and that the Sami were citizens of their country before anything else. The ultimate goal of educating Sami children in this manner was to obliterate traditional Sami culture, which was seen as heathenistic and inferior to the Christian cultures of the nation-states. It was only a small part of the larger attempt at assimilation, which included prejudice on a governmental, scientific, and personal scale. The leaders of the nation-states believed that only through the assimilation of the Sami could they guarantee complete control over their land and thus become more powerful.

The period of the boarding schools lasted from the 19th century “up until the 1960s,” when the Sami began to gain political power and recognition (Todal 1998). At that time it was finally realized that Sami culture was an integral part of the lives of the Sami and was equal to the majority culture. However, the messages conveyed in the boarding schools for so many years have been hard to erase. The tactics employed by the schools to assimilate the Sami children were quite effective.

Much information on boarding schools can be found in first-hand accounts from the Sami themselves. Their descriptions of the methods employed by boarding schools provide a more accurate picture of the situation than any article could. Most of the accounts are similar when it comes to the basic aspects of boarding schools. Many describe their time in the schools as a traumatic experience. In an interview in the book No Beginning, No End: The Sami Speak Up, Kerttu Vuolab states that the Sami children’s feelings “of self-worth and their knowledge of their mother tongue were destroyed” by the assimilatiion process used in boarding schools (1998). Vuolab goes on to say that “at the age of seven [the children] were torn away, uprooted” from their families and homes (1998). Vuolab also asserts that in Finland “the children visited their homes… only during Christmas and summer vacations” (1998). She also goes on to describe how the children felt awkward going home “after having been all the time speaking some other language than Sami, after having eaten other types of foods” (1998). What Vuolab describes as the boarding school experience shows that education for Sami children was traumatic and confusing on a personal level. The process of removing children from their homes at a young age and subjecting them to cultural confusion caused many Sami to abandon their heritage for that of the nation-states.

The short story “The Boarding School” by Ellen Marie Vars also gives a detailed look at what many Sami children experienced in the boarding schools. Like the description by Kerttu Vuolab, the main character in the story (Katja) must live in the boarding school and cannot visit her family except for during Christmas and summer vacations. Although Katja mentions that her housemother “always says that I’m dirty,” her torment mainly comes from the other children at the school (Vars 1997). This exemplifies the social dvisions that began to form among the Sami. Laws defining Sami as being strictly reindeer herders fueled the formation of a social class system among the children. The children were taught that all Sami were supposed to herd reindeer and that all of the others were “just poor trash” (Vars 1997). In this story the ruthlessness of the Sami children in the boarding schools is highlighted. Upon arriving at the school, Katja is teased because her family do not own reindeer. She is told by her classmates that “all Sami kids have reindeer” and that she “can’t live at [the] boarding school” because “only Sami kids get to live” there (Vars 1997). The story illustrates how the Sami themselves contributed to the traumatic experiences in the boarding schools. In an effort to survive through the assimilation efforts, the Sami children formed factions. The factions represented a way for the Sami to retain a degree of power in a situation where they were essentially powerless.

More accounts of boarding school life occur in the novel The Salt Bin by Frank A. Jenssen. The novel presents many facts about boarding school life before going into a detailed description of one boy’s school experience. A few of the older characters describe Norwegian boarding schools as places where “beatings were the order of the day” (Jenssen 1998). The novel mentions that in addition to regular beatings, there were extra beatings for speaking Sami instead of Norwegian. Another character describes her experience at a boarding school as one that was “branded into [her] forever” (Jenssen 1998). The novel states that some children in the schools “didn’t understand a word of what the teacher said” since only Norwegian was spoken (Jenssen 1998). These accounts illustrate the aggressive tactics used by the Norwegians (and the other majority cultures) to force the Sami into assimilating. Later in the novel there is a more detailed account of life in a boarding school. Unlike other accounts, The Salt Bin portrays a school that allows its students to go home on the weekends. However, many of the same tactics described in other accounts are employed in the education of the children. The novel mentions that for students of the school “the humiliation feels stifling” (Jenssen 1998). Many incidents within the novel describe the cruelty among Sami children, but much of the focus is on the teacher’s abuse. One incident described in the story involves the teacher hounding the main character (Petter) for not pronouncing his words in the proper Norwegian way. Even though Petter makes an effort to pronounce the words correctly, “the teacher doesn’t let up” because the boy still has a Sami accent (Jenssen 1998). The novel adds that the younger students at the school “wet their pants” because they are “paralyzed by fear and respect” for teacher (Jenssen 1998). The Salt Bin presents the boarding schools as a place feared by the children. Instead of aiming to create a supportive learning environment, the school teaches the students through fear and humiliation.

However, not all Sami considered the boarding schools to be a completely hostile environment. Some of the prose poems of Aagot Vinterbo-Hohr describe a very different school experience. Vinterbo-Hohr’s writing describes a Sami schoolteacher working at a Norwegian school. The teacher is devoted to his students’ education above everything else, and one poem describes how the teacher “had to hold classes in the sleeping halls” because the school was flooded (Vinterbo-Hohr 1997). Another poem describes how the teacher “walked miles” to bring the students good books to read instead of the “slick weekly magazines” sent to the school through orders from the Norwegian church and government (Vinterbo-Hohr 1997). Unlike other accounts of Sami schools, these prose poems present an image of a rare educator who does his job while attempting to preserve the well-being of his students. The poems also introduce the idea that not all of the educators at the Sami boarding schools belonged to the majority cultures, and that they even experienced conflicts between the desire to preserve a culture and the duty to support the ruling government. Vinterbo-Hohr’s work introduces the fact that boarding schools were not always harsh and abusive, and that they caused just as much turmoil among Sami adults as they did among Sami children.

In Norway, children were not allowed to speak Sami in the schools until 1959. In the later 1960s, Norway allowed “instruction in Northern Sami as a first language” (Todal 1998). Since then many major changes have occurred within the school systems in Sapmi. Several schools have opened that focus on Sami content within the curriculum and conducted lessons in Southern Sami. Several other schools were established in Finland that provided training for unemployed individuals and thus led to a “handicrafts revival” among the Sami population (Pelto and Mosnikoff 1978). Schools such as these aim to emphasize “Sami traditional crafts and the ‘modernization’ of traditional occupations” such as “the breeding and marketing of reindeer” (Corson 1995).

With the reintroduction of the Sami language, the Sami education system has “gone ahead rapidly,” especially since “the early 1980s” (Corson 1995). Many of the education acts passed around 1985 “make it possible for comprehensive and secondary schools to use Sami as a language of instruction” (Aikio 1991). In Norway, many parents in Sami areas now choose to have their children educated in “Sami-medium rather than in Norwegian-medium classes” (Corson 1995). Since 1997 the Sami Education council has produced school textbooks “using the three Sami languages of Norway” and aims to produce books that “cover the entire basic school curriculum (grades 1-9)” (Corson 1995).

The reintroduction of the Sami language into the schools symbolizes the Sami’s “efforts to resist assimilation to the mainstream culture” (Aikio 1991). With the promotion of the Sami language came the promotion of other aspects of the Sami culture, and a conscious effort to resist (and reverse) the effects of assimilation began. The most visible sources of cultural repression, the boarding schools, were recognized and altered to accomodate a new attitude that promoted Sami cultrue as equal instead of inferior. However, the effects of years of cultural repression still exist. Many older Sami in Finland still “refuse to speak the language to children” since they believe “that the teaching of Sami weakens the children’s knowledge of Finnish” (Aikio 1991). Until recently, yoiking was “banned by parents themselves from schools” in parts of Sapmi “because many older Sami parents were made to feel ashamed of some of their culture’s customs” (Corson 1995). Despite the efforts to make schools more supportive of the Sami culture, there is still “widespread parental alienation” (Corson 1995). Schools still intimidate many adult Sami, who associate the education system with the abuse and embarrassment they received during their childhood. This fear manifests itself in the amount of parental involvement in the parents’ boards of the schools. Even now “Sami parents are still reluctant to take much direct control” (Corson 1995). Perhaps as Sami culture plays a bigger role in the schools the Sami adults will begin to see schools as a friendly environment, and more of the community will become involved in preserving their culture.

Modern Sami have worked hard to begin to reverse the effects of assimilation, but there is still much progress to be made. It will probably take the Sami many years to overcome the shame and feelings of inferiority instilled in them through government and church-run boarding schools. The many years of harsh, often traumatic education represent the attempts by the majority cultures to obliterate the Sami culture and to make the Sami identical to the rest of the people. Although boarding schools were not the only method of repressing the Sami people, they were one of the most effective methods of altering the Sami’s views of themselves and their culture.


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