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The Sami and the School

By Alex Knox

Though colonialism is often portrayed as happening through the barrel of a gun the truth is that those on the front line are more likely to be ministers and teachers. This was certainly the case in Sapmi. The state had an official policy of encouraging churches to form schools through Sapmi, with the purpose of making the Sami stop being Sami.i Though they have shed their religious overtones and often even teach a pro-Sami message, to this day schools remain an instrument of colonialism.

The purpose of schoolsii is not simply the passing of knowledge. A more important (though rarely stated) goal of schools is to produce “model citizens” - people who will work well in the present system. For instance, Hitler established a number of schools (he modestly named them “Hitler schools”) which had one unwavering goal: the creation of new Aryan soldiers.iii Five hours of sports and one hour of written learning. The three attributes of a good Nazi soldier were that he be dumb, blond, and buff.

The Sami never had enough division of labor that they needed formal schools to teach youth how to conform. Youth learned through being around adults and through self-initiative. Knowledge was passed down orally, through folklore, yoiks, and simple straightforward warnings. It was a process of socialization almost foreign to the modern West.

The collision of the Western and Sami modes of teaching was predictably catastrophic. The West viewed the lack of Sami schools not as evidence of a different system of socialization, but as a barbarism. Indeed, even speaking Sami came to be viewed as a retardant to a students' progress. Being good Christians they could not let the Sami be so barbaric, so they came with guns and forced Sami youth into a system of state-supported Christian schools.

The school system was typical for a religious boarding school of the time: authoritarian and coercive. In contrast to the traditional Sami mode of teaching (through the free interaction of the child in adult activities) teaching was viewed as a sort of battle, where the teacher and student stand on opposite sides, and the teacher must do everything possible to cram as much knowledge in the student's head, and the student resists.

They taught in Sami because no other language was available to communicate in. This contributed greatly to the advent of written Sami. After a while though they came to dislike the Sami language and shunned it in favour of Finnish.

The schools continued to grow and soon most Sami were attending them. This had the effect of nearly destroying Sami culture by forcibly assimilating the Sami into outsider culture. It was not fast enough, though, and in the late 1800s Norway instituted a series of reforms aimed at “Norweiganization” of the Sami. Chief among these were language schools, which required Sami to learn Norweigan, coupled with new property laws that stated that property owners must speak Norweigan.

But this plan backfired. The persecuted Sami began to form civil rights organizations, and to work together for their freedom. First small organizations formed, and they federated into larger and larger ones, until eventually international Sami institutions were created. These gave the Sami greater leverage to fight repressive schools.

However at this point a curious thing happened. The Sami didn't demand an end to repressive schools, nor did they even demand a change to schools to make them more self-directed. No, instead they demanded that the content be more Sami oriented. In a way it was a return to the original religious schools – they could be authoritarian so long as they taught Sami.

Of course the idea was that just as the state authorities had so long socialized their children into their society they would use the same tool to socialize future Sami into Sami culture. This rests on the fallacy that authoritarian schools are a part of Sami culture. They are not, and so using them is only socializing children back towards Nordic culture.

To have schools which will truly teach children to be Sami the Sami must seek a completely model of school. It is, admittedly, probably too late to do away with schools altogether, but schools more in keeping with traditional Sami methods of instruction are possible. Schools which are more self-directed would recreate the self-initiative requisite to a young herder. This would go a long way towards restoring Sami identity in the 21st century.

i Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. The Sami People. Aanaar - Inari: Kustannus-Puntsi, 2002.

ii In this essay I will mean school to refer to primary and secondary school, with the assumption that by the time one is in college it is too late - he has been hopelessly compromised by the Man and will spend his life writing essays.

iii Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. The Sami People. Aanaar - Inari: Kustannus-Puntsi, 2002.


Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. The Sami People. Aanaar - Inari: Kustannus-Puntsi, 2002.