It’s perhaps not widely known that Norway practiced sustained and systemic discrimination against its Sami population for several centuries, discrimination now known as Norwegianization [fornorsking].
One of the results of the prohibitions against schooling in the Sami language (largely Northern Sami as spoken in Norway), including sending many Sami children to boarding schools away from their families, is that a great number of Sami, especially those who grew up outside certain districts in Sápmi, such as Finnmark, never learned the language. Finland and Sweden had their own forms of suppressing Sami languages and culture.
What does that mean for Sami literature, and for authors who identify as Sami but who write in one of the Nordic languages, either to reach a wider audience or because in many cases they never learned one of the Sami languages due to state policies that discouraged or forbade it?
|Linnea Axelsson, author of Ædnan|
In Sweden, it is notable that the esteemed August literary prize for 2018 was awarded to Ædnan, by Linnea Axelsson, a Sami author from Porjus. Ædnan, written in Swedish as an epic poem, is almost 800 pages long. You can read an excerpt in Saskia Vogel’s translation, published in Words Without Borders, and interview between Axelsson and Vogel here. The book has received rave reviews in the Swedish press. For many readers it brought the history and struggle of the Sami in Sweden to life for the first time.
Today I happened to read an article in Norwegian, originally posted on NRK on June 20, 2019 and cross-posted on the website of the Norwegian Writers’ Union about recent rules in the Sami Authors’ Union that prevent Sami authors who don’t write in Sami from becoming members of the association.
I’ve translated it into English below:
Historically untrue and discriminatory
Several authors respond to the Sami Authors' Union excluding Sami who do not write in Sami. This has created great divisions.
After this year's annual meeting, it was made clear that Sami who don’t write in a Sami language cannot become a member of the union. If you write in Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or Russian, you are thus excluded. If you are not a member, you also cannot receive a fellowship or be nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize.
Author Susanne Hætta believes it is shocking that the union is excluding "their own." She says, “I think it's historically untrue, it's exclusionary, and it's discriminatory.”
Hætta herself writes in Norwegian, and became a member before the membership criteria changed last year. Despite resistance, a change of last year's decision was voted down in the recent annual meeting. Hætta believes "language discrimination" is extra-shocking when the reason why many Sami do not have Sami as their mother tongue is former Norwegian-language policy.
And Hætta is not the only member of the writers' union that is shaken. Lene E. Westerås believes the decision is in violation of the Gender Equality and Discrimination Act. “What was adopted is against Norwegian law and it was initiated by racism. I get chills in my body thinking about it.”
The chair of the Sami Authors’ Union, Inga Ravna Eira, says that the reason for the decision has to do with concerns that an increasingly smaller part of the Sami population speaks Sami. She responds to the criticism: “I can understand their reactions very well. But our intention was to save the Sami language. It was not our goal to discriminate against anyone. But when making such a decision, these are the consequences.”
Eira is supported by the deputy chair Karen Anne Buljo: “I respect the members' feelings, but we are in the middle of Norwegianization [fornorsking] which is completely unstoppable. Therefore, it is important to take a position.”
Susanne Hætta criticizes the leadership style, believing that they now have an authors’ union that that appears anything but unified. “We are a divided union. The leader used a divide-and-conquer technique, and it has worked well for what she has tried to do.”
Eira denies that she has tried to divide the union, only to protect the Sami language.
But Susanne Hætta still believes that the decision is a loss, not just for the authors who can’t get membership, but for all of Norwegian literature. “It is wounding, it is very sad for all those who cannot write in Sami. And Sami literature is not just related to the "correct" language.