Tuesday, 6 February 2018
Sámi National Day 2018
Buori sámi álbmotbeaivvi!
Vuorbbe sáme álmmukbiejvijn!
Læhkoe saemiej åålmegebiejjine!
Šiõǥǥ saa´mi meersažpeei´v!
Pyeri säämi aalmugpeivi!
Шӯрр сāмь пēййв!
Today, February 6, is the Sámi National Day. It commemorates the first Sámi congress, held in 1917 in Trondheim, Norway. The Sámi National Day is a day to be celebrated by all Sámi, regardless of where they live or what Sámi group they belong to. Today, the Sámi flag (image above) is flown and the Sámi national anthem, Sámi soga lávlla, is sung all over the Nordic countries and the Kola Peninsula and beyond.
I will not copy the whole history of the Sámi people into this blog post; the English-language Wikipedia page gives a good summary, and there have been many good books written on the subject. The Sámi are recognized as the indigenous people of (at least part of) Scandinavia, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. They speak a number of closely related Uralic languages, known as the Sámi languages. In my country, Norway, four Sámi languages are spoken:
Northern Sámi - the largest Sámi language, and the least threatened, with approximately 25000 native speakers in total;
Lule Sámi - much smaller, with 1000-2000 native speakers in total;
Southern Sámi - a severely endangered language, with around 600 native speakers in total;
Skolt Sámi - also severely endangered, with 320 native speakers according to Wikipedia, mainly in Finland. It was spoken in the village of Neiden (Skolt Sámi: Njauddâm) in the extreme northeastern tip of Norway, but is now more or less extinct there.
In addition to these four, an additional two Sámi languages were traditionally spoken in Norway, but are now extinct there and only spoken in Sweden. These languages are Ume Sámi and Pite Sámi. However, although knowledge of the languages has been lost, there are still people in Norway who consider themselves Ume and Pite Sámi in terms of ethnicity and heritage.
Northern Sámi language and culture were part and parcel of my early childhood. From the time I was six months old to the time I was four and a half, my parents and I lived in the tiny town of Lakselv/Leavdnja/Lemmijoki, which lies in the middle of Sámi country and is part of Norway's only trilingual municipality, Porsanger/Porsáŋgu/Porsanki. In this multi-ethnic area, Norwegian, Northern Sámi and Kven are spoken side by side.
The Sámi people have been subject to harsh abuse from the majority groups in the countries where they live, and especially from the national governments. In Norway, the policy of "Norwegianization" saw Sámi children forcibly enrolled in boarding schools where speaking Sámi, or singing the traditional Sámi joik, was severely punished. Generations of Sámi grew up with ambiguous feelings and sometimes shame about their culture and ethnic identity, leading to conflict both within the Sámi community and between the Sámi and the majority population. However, in recent decades there has been a cultural revival and a resurgence in Sámi ethnic pride, and today many young people are reclaiming their Sámi roots and celebrating them. Some people are even learning the Sámi languages of their ancestors, and in Norway, Southern Sámi is experiencing a spread as an administrative language. Work is even underway to create a dictionary of the Ume Sámi language, which today is spoken by only about 10 individuals in Sweden; this project may well save the language from extinction.
I am not Sámi, in the sense that I do not have the language and culture and can never appropriate Sáminess and indigenousness for myself. However, like many Norwegians, I do have some Sámi ancestral roots, and I feel very much connected to them. My 6th great-grandmother Elen Olsdatter (on my paternal grandfather's side) was born in 1769 in the village of Stod in Nord-Trøndelag county, a village which is located within Saepmie, the traditional homeland of the Southern Sámi people. Through painstaking elimination work using church records and the 1801 national census, I have come to the conclusion that my ancestor Elen was very probably the sister of a woman called Karen Olsdatter, who was baptized in Stod in 1770 and is described as Sámi in the 1801 census. They both seem to have been daughters of a man called Ole who lived on land belonging to Østby farm. I've been unable to find more information about him, either in church records or in works on local history (bygdebøker). In fact, the bygdebok for this area almost seems to deliberately omit any reference to local Sámi individuals.
Karen Olsdatter and her family are described as beggars, so they were obviously very poor. They were what is known as bygdesamer, "village Sámi", meaning Sámi people whose lives were partly or fully integrated into Norwegian farming society. These people were only marginally involved in "typical" Sámi economic activities such as reindeer herding.
Elen Olsdatter, unlike her probable sister, is not explicitly described as Sámi in the 1801 census. This might well be due to the fact that she had married a blacksmith and lived a sedentary life similar to the majority population. Her lifestyle would not have been commented upon. However, even though the family lived very much like ethnic Norwegians, it is very possible that Elen's children did learn some of the Sámi language (which would have been Southern Sámi in this case) and culture from their mother. I'm still working on finding out whether Elen's husband, Peder, also had Sámi roots.
Elen's daughter, my 5th great-grandmother Olava, was born in 1794 and died in 1874. This means that some aspects of Southern Sámi culture - or at least memories of it - probably survived in our family until the late 1800s, perhaps even into the early 1900s.
The map below shows the Sámi languages in the context of the wider Uralic language family. The village of Stod is highlighted.
Map by Martintg at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Original map (without highlighting of Stod): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFenno-Ugrian_people.png
In 2013, Anders Pålsen, administrator of the Fennoscandia Biographic Project, analysed my autosomal DNA and estimated that I have Sámi DNA equivalent to a great-great- or great-great-great-grandparent. In other words, Elen Olsdatter is certainly not my only Sámi ancestor. This is not surprising in the slightest, considering that most of my paternal grandfather's ancestors lived within modern-day Saepmie or in areas formerly populated by Southern Sámi. Some of our ancestral mixing probably took place in ancient times and would not have been recorded in writing; however, some of our unknown Sámi ancestors may well have lived in historical times, possibly waiting for us to find them in a note in the margins of some dusty church book. This is one of the challenges that makes genealogy exciting and fun!
By the way, in my opinion, the Southern Sámi have the most beautiful joik styles of all Sámi groups. This makes me especially proud to have Southern Sámi heritage. Several Southern Sámi musicians have fused traditional joik with modern musical expressions very successfully. Listen, for instance, to Sïlpelibjh by Marja Mortensson, which is one of my favourite Southern Sámi songs.