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Sámi Youth

By Eleana Diaz

According to Veli-Pekka Lehtola, author of The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition, “From the beginning, the main aim of young educated Sámi was to build a bridge between tradition and modern times; between old lifestyles and the influences of modern society” (9). The young Sámi men and women have achieved varying degrees of success in their quest towards this goal. Both inside and outside forces throughout the years have influenced the identity that the Sámi youth have created for themselves. As a result of the changing circumstances and attitudes constituting these forces, the amount of Sáminess deemed optimal by the Sámi youth has accordingly shifted.

The history of the Sámi is very important to understanding the choices in identity that its young people have made. The Sámi are a population of indigenous people who traditionally inhabited Sápmi (for over 2,500 years), which today includes parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The Sámi now live in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and their ancestral land. In the past few centuries they have experienced progressively higher levels of colonialization and assimilation (cultural and religious) enforced upon them by the dominant populations in the aforementioned countries. This began to happen first in the southern and coastal parts of traditional Sámi territory. Over time it spread to the more isolated highland areas. The composition of the population in the southern and coastal areas started to shift and the Sámi became a minority. Those in the highlands still retained a majority but the effects of other cultures were still increasingly felt (Simms).

To understand the changing identity of the Sámi youth we must not only understand the history of their people, we must have a general grasp of the construction of identity. According to psychologists: “The development of a sense of self—‘who am I’—is a major, if not the most important, developmental task of adolescence…the self-concept is an objective statement of a teen’s personal traits (MassGeneral).” Essentially, a person’s adolescent and teen years are the formative period in which he or she lays the permanent groundwork for the type of person they will be. However, they are not the only ones with influence over this construction of identity. One’s peers can be very influential in this development of self and most especially in the development of another essential psychological element, self-esteem. Though a young person will make an assessment of who they are, “…this self-image coupled with what others think of him/her will form the self-esteem. Any ridicule or putting down will damage the self- image and therefore lead to low self-esteem” (BharatMatrimony). Those who attend school (as opposed to home schooling) are surrounded by others their age. At a time when the feeling of acceptance is something highly sought after and valued, that which a person’s peers deem important or “cool” can easily influence said person’s outlook. The actions, what this person will choose to constitute themselves, and how they will choose to represent themselves to others is very dependent on the opinions of others.

The experiences of adolescent minorities have been complicated and oftentimes emotionally difficult due to prejudice and other factors. When it comes to young Sámi men and women it is no different. Before the encroachment upon their land and traditions by more dominant cultures, the Sámi lived in small siidas (villages) and had numerous methods of livelihood such as fishing and reindeer herding. They also had their own non-Christian religion, which included polytheism and shamanism. This way of life led to a people that were intertwined and in tune with both nature and each other. As the Sámi were pushed to enter modern society their traditional way of life changed dramatically. Though in the past the Sámi had absorbed influences relatively easily the level to which the dominant culture infiltrated meant that they now had to change the core of themselves. They were forced to assimilate and adapt to new forms of technology, religion, education, and much more. For over half a century (1898-1959) schools in Norway were not allowed to teach in Sámi languages. This caused many Sámi students to lose their language. If students did not completely lose it then they were more likely not to teach it to their own children later in life (Lehtola 60). The loss has functioned as an upside down triangle with the spread of the language becoming ever-narrower generation after generation. This phenomenon is very similar to the English Only Movement, which held influence over America’s educational institutions until recent decades. During this time students would not be allowed to speak any language other than English and would be punished if they did so (Crawford). However, this attempt to assimilate young people into the dominantly Anglo culture of America did have one large difference from the assimilation of the Sámi. America did not separate the youth from their families, which frequently act as a reminder of cultural heritage through language, religion, food, traditions, and many other things. With the end of World War II and establishment of central schools during the 1960s, such a separation did occur and the affects felt by the Sámi youth were frequently negative. According to Lehtola, “Living in an environment of a foreign language and foreign opinions caused feelings of insecurity, stemming from being different and being harassed for it: intimidation was accompanied by shame for oneself and one’s background” (62). Instead of a family there to provide a sense of one’s heritage, the only family children going to these schools had were their teachers and peers. While it was certainly difficult enough to be different amongst children of a dissimilar background already in possession of a sense of what was and was not “normal”, learning in a curriculum system designed to exclude the teaching of Sámi history and language would have made it even more so. Often people feel the tendency to reject the unfamiliar and the Sámi population, as an overwhelming minority in these Nordic countries, was seen as unfamiliar and subjected to this rejection. Recognizing the disdain cast upon the Sámi, many of its people, most especially the youth, began to reject their Sáminess in favor of acceptance from their peers and the dominant society in general (Lehtola 62). Teacher Iisko Sara, addressing the attitudes of the Sámi youth in Finland shortly after the end of World War II, said that in the end Sámi wanted to become more Finnish than the Finns themselves. She said they believed that in order to succeed they and their children would have to adopt the Finnish language and value system effectively changing their identities. Considering the difficulties created for these children by their peers and the government of the dominant cultures (in the form of the curriculum they supported and taught) it does not seem particularly surprising that the Sámi youth of these times grew up with the idea that it would be better not to teach their sons and daughters the Sámi languages and, to a degree, the Sámi culture.

The sons and daughters of those raised around the World War II period ended up having a rather different experience from their parents. Unique events occurring during these young people’s lives, the lack of Sámi education received from their parents and school, as well as the attitude of others toward the Sámi coalesced into the driving force behind a change in the collective identity of the Sámi youth. These men and women grew up in the 1970’s at a point when Sámi political and cultural rights were being re-examined and heavily fought for (this was termed the Sámi Movement). According to Harald Eidheim in his article “Ethno-Political Development among the Sámi after World War II: The Invention of Selfhood,” “The Sámi, began to vehemently argue that they had been, “dispossessed of the possibility to develop as a people,” and had been, “…denied access to cultural competency” (34). Eidheim believes that this was a testament to the feelings of inferiority deeply ingrained in most Sámi as a painful complex of shame, self-contempt and unreleased aggression” (34). School curriculum was eventually changed with their efforts and the Sámi language began to be taught. However, it was the Alta dam controversy of the late 1970’s that threatened the land rights and livelihood of the Sámi, which seemed to have the largest affect on how the Sámi viewed themselves. This is especially true of the young Sámi who were very active in the cause, joining organizations and protests fighting for awareness and rights. The Sámi bonded as they rallied against a common enemy. Other visible manifestations of the changing of the young Sámi’s attitudes towards their heritage could be seen in the increase of the wearing of cultural emblems, listening to folk music, doing traditional Sámi handicrafts, and various other things. According to Harald Eidheim (32):

This awakening, which, on the level of the individual also signified a new experience of ethnic pride, fellowship, and spirit, also implied the dissemination throughout the population of a clearer perception of the Sámi’s relationship to the majority population and to the state. That is, a new perception of the Sámi inter-cultural relationships, which had been traditionally characterized by powerlessness, cultural stigma, and feelings of inferiority and ethno-political apathy, was forged.

The Sámi were transitioning from being seen as a people who needed to be assimilated into the dominant culture into a people seen as the equal of any other. One might venture to say that their self-esteem grew proportionately as the desire to hide their heritage was replaced by an intense pride. This was a time for the reclamation of the Sámi traditional identity, especially by the young Sámi. Their generation, though still surrounded by other more dominant cultures, had a unique set of experiences that caused them to buck the mainstream and crave an identity with more Sáminess (Stordahl 144-5).

Once again the identity of the Sámi youth has undergone another reinvention due to different conditions and events than in years past. As opposed to their parents, the Sámi youth of today in general do not display the same invested interest in their culture. While others might mistake this as a rejection of Sáminess, it should instead be read as an attempt by these young men and women to carve out their own identity. In a sense today’s youth are combining the two preceding generations by accepting both the dominant culture and the Sámi culture (Stordahl 143). According to Vigdis Stordahl in her article Sámi Generations,” “…[today’s Sámi youth] have received training in Sámi language and culture throughout their school years…” and therefore, “…have no lost Sámi past to avenge or mourn” (147). Unlike their grandparents who were forced to give up their culture and their parents who set about to vigorously reclaim it, Sámi youth are not actively and vehemently accepting or rejecting cultures. Rather, the young men and women recognize themselves as part of the indigenous but accept the influence of other cultures in proximity to them. Many young Sámi today see the ways and actions of their parents as “…overdo[ing] it” (147). They desire neither to possess an identity solely assimilated to the majority culture or a solely Sámi identity. They crave a more harmonious identity that includes both cultures and sees them as equals in all ways (Eidheim 31).

Still, the parents of today’s young Sámi are often confused by what they view as apathy in their sons and daughters. When comparing the youth of today to their activist parents this judgment does not seem such a leap. A certain amount of rebelliousness common at this stage of life might also be a factor in this generation’s outlook. Those Sámi who grew up in the 1970s are now in charge of the Sámi governmental system and are in other positions, which have the power to influence how Sámi history and culture is taught to newer generations. This young generation of Sámi does not want to have their relationship to their heritage be determined by others. Therefore, what may seem to their parents as a rejection of Sámi culture is instead their sons’ and daughters’ rejection of being defined by others (Stordahl 148-9).

However, despite the fact that decades worth of progress in rights and attitudes towards the Sámi have occurred, today’s youth still feel pressure to assimilate and face torment from others. Recent reports have revealed that Sámi young people have been committing suicide at disturbing rates. In regards to this trend the head of the Sámi’s youth council, Paulus Kuoljok, said, “We Sámi often face stereotypes and have to defend ourselves all the time,” he added that, “There are few employees at my own work place at [state mining company] LKAB with Sámi background. I often hear things like ‘damn Lapp’ and that we Sámi have things so good because we can fish and hunt where we want to and we always get welfare payments.” In addition to this he expressed the difficulty he and his fellow Sámi youth face the added pressure, which comes from a perceived duty to protect traditional Sámi culture (The Local). Though we should not give a blanket description of the current Sámi youth experience, manifestations of racial discrimination that still exists amongst the more dominant Nordic cultures are certainly capable of influencing the thoughts and actions of these impressionable young people. In an interview with author Charles Peterson, Dean of University Faculty at North Park University, Piera Balto, regarding Sámi in the media, Balto offers a partial solution to the prejudice Sámi youth encounter:

Although it is true that the Sámi population is not being served by TV2 and P4, a much bigger problem is that other Norwegians are not learning about Sámi culture…the result is a continued ignorance of Sámi culture, prejudice, and the subsequent discrimination toward Sámi and other minorities (Peterson).

Though the further education of Norwegians and those of the dominant Nordic peoples in general about Sámi culture will likely not alleviate the problems the Sámi youth are facing completely, it is certainly a good start. Hopefully with time the situation will improve.

Though each person is different and a blanket diagnosis of the nature of the identities chosen by recent Sámi generations is not possible, the trends are clearly visible. The issue of self-identity and self-esteem are delicate subjects, especially in regards to young adults in this formative period of their lives. The varied amounts of pressure, prejudice, and expectations put upon those belonging to a minority group can often complicate matters. However, just as Sámi youth have moved from rejecting their own culture, to rejecting the dominant culture, to accommodating both, a more accepting climate seems to be emerging and becoming more widespread over time. One can only hope that this trend will continue.

Ávdnos (Eleana Díaz).


1. Crawford, James. “Anatomy of the English Only Movement.” 23 Oct. 2008 .

2. Between Us: The Counseling Helpline. “Teenage self-esteem.” Bharat Matrimony. 23 Oct. 2008 .

3. Eidheim, Harald. “Ethno-Political Development among the Sámi after World War II: The Invention of Selfhood.” Sámi Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sámi Experience. Ed. Harald Gaski. Davvi Girji, 1998.

4. Kandes, David. “Sami Youth Shine Light on Suicide Problems.” The Local. 6 Oct. 2008. 20 Oct. 2008 .

5. MassGeneral Hospital for Children. “Self-esteem.” Adolescent Health. 23 Oct. 2008 .

6. Peterson, Charles. “Sami culture and media.” Scandinavian Studies 75.2 (Summer 2003): 293(8). Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Texas at Austin. 15 Oct. 2008 .

7. Simms, Doug. “The Early Period of Sámi History, from the Beginnings to the 16th Century.” Sami Culture. University of Texas. 19 Nov. 2008 .

8. Solbakk, John T. “Sámi Mass Media – Their Role in a Minority Society.” Sámi Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sámi Experience. Ed. Harald Gaski. Davvi Girji, 1998.

9. Stordahl, Vigdis. “Sámi Generations.” Sámi Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sámi Experience. Ed. Harald Gaski. Davvi Girji, 1998.

10. Veli-Pekka Lehtola. The Sámi People: Traditions in Transition. “Participants in Modern Society.” Aanaar-Inari 2002. Pp 57-62.