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Sámi Learning and Education

As a consequence of being a minority people, the Sámi have been subjected to the paternalistic control of outsiders that operate according to different principles, and use different languages. The Sámi’s own worldview compels self-paced experiential learning rather than the more heavy-handed Western pedagogical strategies. One fits newly acquired knowledge into previously existing frameworks – frameworks which are formed on the basis of one’s experience and cultural background. The discrepancy between the Western approach to learning and education which the Sámi have been made to be a part of, and the Sámi’s approach to understanding the world have affected the Sámi appreciably in matters of language and cultural identity (if the two can be separated). However, as the social and political environments in the circumpolar regions which they inhabit have changed, so too has there been an evolution in the types of educational opportunities available to the Sámi.

Differing Worldviews

In the traditional Sámi worldview, no distinction is made between man and nature. All things in nature have a soul, an ideology called animism. Therefore, a disruption of the wilderness is a disturbance to these souls, so individuals are expected to move through nature without disturbing it (Yli-Kuha). Further, life is cyclic, with no beginning and no end, a concept that rises out of an intimate connection with nature. This is very different from the Western idea that everything is discrete. That is, each chronological event has a beginning, middle, and an end. One’s worldview is critically important when considering the acquisition of knowledge. An individual's new knowledge is inevitably colored by her previous knowledge and beliefs. A modern Sámi, Elina Helander, explains how Sámi knowledge differs from that of a Westerner:

The Sámi also possess knowledge that Western Culture does not acknowledge as valid knowledge. A person is able to comprehend things in their totality, in a flash. But what the “flash” is, where it comes from, and what its contents are, is difficult to explain succinctly on the basis of the Western system of knowledge. Sámi knowledge is immediate in the sense that living as they do within the cyclical, nomadic circle of life, the Sámi occasionally land in situations where they can free their thoughts and open themselves up to reality without observing it consciously. A person can become part of reality without having to construct it first. Elena Helander (Helander 164)

Specifics of the Sámi worldview have changed over time, particularly as the culture has faced crises (Kasten 1989). However the importance of a respect for, and an interconnectedness with nature, and its influence on a uniquely Sámi learning style, has not changed.

Family Structure and Experiential Learning

A child’s earliest learning happens at home. Traditionally, Sámi communities were organized into siidas, which are small villages consisting of several families bound together socially, religiously, and by their recognition of tribal laws (Yli-Kuha 1998). Because distance between communities was often great, cooperation was an essential part of Sámi lifestyle. This is apparent in the Sámi worldview. Nevertheless, with the establishment of borders and the imposition of state laws on the Sámi, the siida system collapsed, and the Sámi began to become a part of Nordic communities (Lehtola 42).

The structure of individual families, at least in more recent times, is such that women do most of the child rearing:

Women were at home with children, at cow barns, and cooking in the kitchen…most often the men were somewhere else and the children were with women – Kerttu Vuolab (Helander 50).

Sons were urged to go with the men as soon as they were old enough, but daughters continued to stay with the mother (108). An importance is placed on family and community, particularly in light of the group solidarity that was crystallized by the oppression and subsequent rising up of the Sámi as a cultural group.

Behavioral and psychological problems are widely reported among indigenous populations, in all likelihood because of the “two heads” problem. An individual belonging to a minority group that lives in a majority culture may need to adapt the salient aspects of their personality to their social context. For example, one may change the language they are using, or their dialect, to suit their audience. One illustration of this occurs in the Deaf community. The Deaf have established themselves as a minority culture which is tied together primarily by their shared language, but as all minority cultures do, they must operate within the context of the majority. In fact many Deaf individuals have hearing families. This means that among their Deaf peers, they can use Sign Language, but around their hearing family members, and anytime they must operate in the hearing world, they must lip read and speak. It is often necessary to adopt the “when in Rome” attitude if an individual belonging to a minority is to be successful in the context of the majority. This “split personality” behavior could have dire psychological ramifications. The Sámi artist Petteri Laiti talks about the how many Sámi abandoned their Sámi identity:

Those who had to face oppression and ridicule at school became cultural refugees. Culture is to be found only in glass buildings or in glass cabinets. They rely more on non-Sámi ways than the non-Sámi themselves. (Helander 120)

However, despite the Sámi's place as a minority population, it seems that, on the whole, the Sámi children of today do not have significant emotional problems. It should be noted, however, that while existing research does indicate low incidences of psychosocial disorders, that research is sparse (Kvernmo 2004). Javo et al. report a low incidence of behavioral problems among 4-year-old Sámi children (2000). Additionally, compared to Norwegian peers, Sámi youth show a similar mental health status, fewer eating disorders, and less risk-taking behaviors such as drug use (Kvernmo 2004). I would suggest that the traditional Sámi belief in an interconnection to everything as well as the supportive family/community structure, contributes significantly to this. For example, in a comparison between Swedish, Norwegian, and Norwegian Sámi breastfeeding practices, the Sámi children were breastfed the longest (Larsson 1993). It has been suggested that the psychomotor and social development of breast-fed babies clearly differs from that of bottle-fed ones and leads at the age of 12 months to significant developmental advantages of the psychomotor and social capabilities (Baumgartner 1984). Breastfeeding is mentioned here not only as a point unto itself, but also as a proxy-indicator of the Sámi emphasis on the importance of and dedication to, family.

For a Sámi child, the way a parent transmits knowledge is fundamentally different from the way a Western parent might do so. Whenever possible, they are given opportunities to observe and be a part of the things they are to learn about. In the words of Elena Helander:

Sámi traditional culture is largely based on observations. Many parents’ method of upbringing is based on the notion that children make observations themselves, trusting that they will draw their own conclusions instead of being taught everything by means of direct communication. (Helander 164)

Children are expected to learn through experience. Western learning/teaching styles are much more direct. Important points are explicitly stated to ensure that the child does not miss something. Often, pupils are expected to memorize things by rote. Such methods are long-standing in Western educational tradition, and undoubtedly occur in the home as well. As an aside, more recent didactic literature promotes experiential learning as much more effective for all types of learners. Sámi children are not taught in this manner at home. They spend a large portion of time observing their parents and are able to ask questions. Active participation begins early on (Sámi Culture in a New Era 1998). Petteri Laiti speaks of his childhood experience in learning how to make handicrafts, a skill that now forms the basis of his profession:

My father taught me. I stood next to my father making observations when he was working. In the same one-room lodge (stohpu) where my parents were involved with doing crafts, the children were able from young age on to observe them and ask questions. Now that children attend daycare we have lost this: children who are curious by nature are not allowed to become knowledgeable about their culture, relatives, stories, and the traditional ways of life. (Helander 117)

When Sámi children are taught, they are taught indirectly through storytelling. Storytelling serves multiple purposes. Not only is it a channel for the transmission of cultural folklore, values, and tradition, but also it allows children to learn without being taught. They can bring their own experience into their interpretation of the story and come to conclusions without someone telling them just what they should be learning. Sámi oral tradition is a large part of childhood education at home:

I am a typical offshoot of the oral tradition. All the things that we were taught were through a story…Our mother did not do anything without telling a story about it….All situations were occasions for stories. – Kerttu Vuolab (Helander 50)

In keeping with the Sámi worldview, storytelling style is nonlinear. Eino Guttorm describes the traditional storytelling style as, “indirect, twisting, and turning” (Helander et al. 1998, 67). Being direct and to-the-point is not a part of Sámi communication style:

…it is not desirable or customary in the traditional Sámi system of communication to reveal all aspects of the topic under discussion or of the project underway. For example, Sámi storytelling is often characterized by digressions, indirect hints, narrative meanderings. – Elina Helander (Helander 173)

Again, this non-linear approach is distinctly non-Western, a point that becomes very important when considering the Sámi's attendance in mainstream Western schools.

Another issue that Sámi children have faced comes from a traditional focus on practicality. Whatever a child learns about should be able to be translated to some utilitarian purpose. Only when that individual gains expertise in the practical aspects can they begin to diverge into learning more artsy or less functional skills. Even something like reading traditionally had little use in the Sámi way of life. In fact, how skilled one is in practical matters is a measuring stick for their success as a person:

A person was accepted when she or he met the expectations of Sámi society. You could meet them by being good at handicrafts and by being a good housewife who could raise her children. But if you took up writing, it was because you were unable to do anything else…For example, if the child of a reindeer herder was not able to do any work relating to reindeer herding but took up writing they said that he or she was no good for anything else. Your value is based on how you fulfill the expectations set by society. If you start doing something out of the ordinary, you have to be so competent that you are given the freedom to be different. – Rauni Magga Lukkari (Helander 107)

As a result, literature written in Sámi is a relatively new emergence. Sámi writers, at least early on in this emergence, struggled with lack of Sámi-literate readership (Sámi were taught in majority languages in schools), and for that matter, expressing themselves in Sámi and translating the non-linear storytelling style onto paper – a necessarily linear medium (Helander 107, 179)

Education of the Sámi

Schools did not exist in traditionally Sámi culture, in part because of the impermanence of the nomadic lifestyle, and in part because there simply was no need. Children learned what they needed by participating in daily living activities with their parents and other siida members. However, when missionary work began during the early 17th century, the Sámi were seen as uncivilized heathens in need of an education, which would impart morals and religion. Some attempts were made at that point to place Sámi children in permanent schools. This often occurred against the will of the children and their parents.

Most of the literature focuses on the education of Swedish Sámi. In Sweden in 1632, a permanent Sámi School in Lycksele was established. Children were taught to read and write Swedish, but more significantly, the goal of the missionaries was to train clergymen to work among the Sámi. Later, during the 18th and 19th centuries, permanent schools were established elsewhere in Sapmi. Norwegian Thomas von Westen, started public education among the Sea Sámi in Sámi language. Another example of the oppression of the Sámi that he strongly opposed the Sámi practice of shamanism. On the other hand, he did encourage the use of the Sámi language among the missionaries and clergy. After his death in 1727 this policy was strongly opposed. From 1773 on Sámi language teaching was forbidden (Yli-Kuha 1998). In fact, a law was passed in Norway in 1898 promoting Norwegianization and forbidding instruction in Sámi. This law was not reversed until 1959 (Lehtola 60).

It wasn’t until the 20th century that control of Sámi education was transferred from the Church to the state governments. The nomadic lifestyle of the Sámi in the early 20th century warranted the opening of nomadskola, or nomadic schools in 1913 (Sámi in Sweden, 1999). These schools catered to children that accompanied their parents on nomadic journeys through the seasons. There was controversy over these schools. It was thought that special schools for Sámi children might increase their feelings of difference and isolation (Irwin 1973). Swedish was the language of instruction, and the children were educated in an attempt to allow them to have successful contact with Swedish society, at least on a rudimentary level. Nevertheless, there was no desire to integrate them into Swedish society. The Swedish government wanted to preserve Sámi culture and ways of life because they were seen as different, lesser, than Swedish citizens. A Sámi is a Sámi and should remain a Sámi. In the words of the vicar in Karesuando, Vitalis Karnell, in the report preceding the nomadic school reform in 1913:

Support the Lapps in all ways, mould them into moral, sober and just sufficiently educated people, but don't let them sip from the cup of civilization, for it will never be more than a sip. It has never and will never be a blessing. Lapp should remain Lapp. (Hedinsvägen)

This paternalistic separatist attitude was the prevalent mindset until around 1930. It affected the treatment of, and policies regarding, the Sámi. In 1913, 40 or so “hut schools” were established. These were schools that intended to preserve the Sámi way of life, but since outsiders designed them, they operated according to how the majority viewed the Sámi, but without the hundreds of years of wisdom and insight that the Sámi have gained from their way of life. That is, the Sámi were treated like heathens. They were made to sleep in huts that visually resembled the traditional Sámi hut, but lacked the same warmth. They were not allowed to eat with spoons and forks. They were cared for by matrons for months, and thereby separated from their parents (Hedinsvägen). Not only were they not getting a full education (as stated above, the goal was to provide rudimentary communication skills for contact with the Swedish) or acculturation in Swedish, but they were separated from their home and parents, and thus deprived of the same things in Sámi.

During the 1940's, attitudes changed slightly, and while they were no less paternalistic, the Sámi became more a part of the culture of the majority. Much of this had to do with the destruction of Sapmi during World War II, the Sámi’s role in the war, and post WWII reconstruction (Lehtola 52). Huts were replaced with boarding schools. The quality and length of the schooling gradually increased. The language policy was still to teach in the majority language rather than Sámi. If the teacher knew Sámi (an unlikely event), it could be used to explain confusing points, but most instruction was carried out in the official language of the nation-state (Hedinsvägen). Petteri Laiti describes the difficulty he had because of the language of instruction at his school:

I was totally without language when I went to school, I didn’t know Finnish. But in Outakoski in the first grade there were many Sámis who translated to me what I had to do. In my second year at Karigasniemi I knew already a bit of Finnish. But the first year went by so that we had a teacher who did not know any Sámi. I remember how often we had to spell and read in Finnish and only a few of us understood what we were reading. We did not understand what the teacher was saying either. (Helander 118)

This is a situation in which the child comes out the loser. It is quite obvious that there was not much educating involved, unless it involves learning coping strategies in situations in which the child is clueless. Not only is the child deprived of his home education because he is miles away at a boarding school and unable to learn from his parents, but his mainstream education is also impoverished because the language barrier means that he simply doesn’t have access to the subject matter.

The above discussion about the Sámi worldview should also make salient other difficulties faced by Sámi children. That is, the way that a Westerner approaches daily life, and the way that a Sámi does, are fundamentally different. For a Sámi child under the paternalistic supervision of a Western school system in which they must not only be educated, but live, there are bound to be some conflicts for the child. This predicament is best described by a Sámi who lived through it. Kerttu Vuolab describes her experience in a boarding school:

Nature is so great and mighty in its power that we should not try to compete with it. We could easily lose our lives playing around with it. We were not brought up with this knowledge because we were forcefully removed from our home and imprisoned within the four walls of a boarding school. There they had a clock that told us when to eat, when to get dressed, when to wash up, when to do our homework. It was a totally different system and worldview that we were forced to get rooted in. During that time we lost touch with the things that were happening at home. (Helander 50)

In 1953, after the start of the organization of national Sámi interest groups, teaching materials again became available in Sámi (Lehtola 60). It was not until 1962, however, that Sámi instruction was even available to Sámi children, leaving a whole generation of Sámi children without fluency in the Sámi language (Hedinsvägen) (and I might add, sometimes without much benefit from their education at all).

The boarding school system caused rapid assimilation of at least the first generation that experienced them. Most Sámi children lived in boarding houses during the week in order to be able to go to school. For some, the long distance from home made it impossible for children to go home more than twice in a school year. The schools were taught in the majority language and from the standpoint of the majority worldview. This was a catalyst for assimilation. The combination of the disconnect from their home environment, language, and culture, and the pressure from the majority school and peers to fit in, resulted in the adoption of mainstream views and literacy in the majority language. Sámi parents may even have encouraged this, seeing it as a way for their children to have an advantage in the modern world. By the start of the 1970’s, however, the children of the first boarding school generation began to rebel against the loss of their Sámi identity. The cultural revival took place through the arts, media, and politics (Lehtola 62,70). The emergence of the Sámi nation as a political entity began an education reform for Sámi children. As the Sámi struggled to preserve their culture, they recognized that preserving the language was critical to this end. In the 1970’s, different types of bilingual education were put in place in Sámi schools. Some used Sámi as the principal language and introduced the majority language later as a foreign language. Others used Sámi for only the first few years of education, then switched to the majority language (Irwin 157).

In Sweden in 1980, a Sámi School Board that was Sámi run was established. It is this board that now influences decision-making about Sámi education (Hedinsvägen), from the early grades to the completion of high school. More and more, educational opportunities are available for Sámi in their mother tongue. In Sweden, for example, Sámi children can now go through their education up to 9th grade in one of six state-run schools that offer education in both Sámi and in the majority language. For those that do not attend these schools, there is a special program called the “home language program” that offers extracurricular Sámi language classes. Beyond 9th grade, compulsory schools are attended, at which the children begin to specialize in certain subjects. Among these subjects are Sámi language and culture (Sámi in Sweden 1998).

Interestingly, while materials and schools become more available, Sámi participation seems to be declining. The majority of Sámi parents feel that their child may be at a disadvantage if they attend Sámi schools. Consequently, less than 10% of all Sámi children overall attend Sámi school programs, though these children do continue to use the Sámi language later on (Sámi Fact sheet 1999). The growing need to be able to live and function in a modern technological (and global) society inevitably makes minority languages less useful. At the end of the 1980’s, and again at the beginning of the 1990’s, a study was conducted among Swedish Sámi about the proficiency of the Sámi language among Sámi-educated children. Results indicated that language instruction was on the whole unsuccessful and that there was an ongoing shift from the use of Sámi to the use of Swedish (Svonni 2001). This begs the question of whether the Sámi movement came too late. The Sámi had already assimilated widely by the time they gained political rights to a Sámi education. It remains to be seen whether there will be enough interest in the preservation of Sámi culture as more than a museum exhibit. It will take strong leadership, and a growing sense of national solidarity among the Sámi.


Because of growing Sámi cultural consciousness and sympathetic official minority policies, there is good cause for believing that the Sámi will survive as a viable ethnic and cultural group. Their survival so far has hinged on their ability to adapt to political and social circumstances without sacrificing the basic essence of their worldview. It is my opinion that this will continue to be the case. The Sámi's own actions and self-conception will be decisive in forming the future of what it means to be Sámi. Up to now, the educational system in which the Sámi participate has been a pivotal influence. As modern society becomes more global, and cultures everywhere become more diluted, it may be that Sámi education becomes one of the last threads that holds the tapestry of Sámi identity together.


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