Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Elsa Laula, Sami political pioneer

About five years ago, when I first began to look for information on the Sami politician Elsa Laula (1877-1931), I couldn’t find a great deal. I knew she had published an influential pamphlet in 1904, Facing Life or Death? (Inför Lif eller Dod?), the first written work by a Sami woman that covered a large number of important issues in just 30 pages. A fiery speaker, she was fearless in standing up to power in both Sweden and Norway. Elsa Laula Renberg (her married name) was considered a “foremother” and a “pioneer,” but according to some she’d never been given full credit for her role in helping found the twentieth-century movement for Sami self-determination.

Recently, when I went searching for her again on the Web I found that she was in the news in northern Scandinavia. A new one-woman play about Elsa Laula opened in Trondheim, Norway in February as a joint production of Nord-Trøndelag Teater and Åarjelhsaemien Teatere (a Sami production company). It will be shown again in the fall of 2012 and at a string of festivals as well. A video on You Tube shows snippets of Cecilie Persson’s performance (in Swedish).

There’s also a recent short video about Elsa Laula, in Swedish and Norwegian.

Elsa Laula, Sami political pioneer
Born in 1877 in the south of Sápmi, Elsa Laula went to Stockholm to further her midwifery studies. There she came into contact with Swedish feminists, including the progressive Ellen Key and the editors of the journal Dagny, which published news of Laula’s efforts on behalf of the Sami. Laula’s political work always included Sami women and in 1910 she founded the first Sami women’s association. She saw the contributions of women as essential to changing society. But she had begun her organizing as early as 1904, when she gathered a group in Stockholm to found the first association of Sami, which had its own newspaper. In 1908 she married the reindeer herder Tomas Rehnberg and moved to Norway, where she eventually had six children. But she continued her political work, giving speeches, writing articles and letters to the authorities, never giving an inch in her pursuit of justice for the Sami. In 1917 she helped convene the first Sami National Assembly in Trondheim. Elsa Laula died in 1931, from tuberculosis.