It’s Santa Clause, not Sami Clause, stupid!

14. August 2016 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

The weather gods (or is it the ghost of global warming?) have somehow contrived to spoil the fun for me. The third day with a typically Nordic rain pattern hovering between cold showers and a dismal drizzle has punctured my courage, and I will now let cycling be for the moment. This also gives me time and space to concentrate on my school visits and on reading up on minority languages in the far north, or the North Calotte, as some call it.The visit at Saari School in Rovaniemi was interesting and instructive, and significantly, the „rettori“ there spoke of the primary school’s language specialisation with „language showers“ in English, and compulsory Swedish from Grade 6 on, with French, Spanish and Russian as options in Grade 5. The 6th graders, to whom I gave a photo and film-based account of my travels, were able to follow my talk and engaged in a dialogue readily when I prompted them with some questions. To my surprise, their reactions when I asked them about the Sami and their languages were – zilch. The teacher had to remind them of the „people wearing colourful costumes“. But the kids promptly offered me the Finnish words for reindeer and elk when I showed them the pictures of what I had seen along the road. Although Rovaniemi is a focal point of arctic tourism, styling itself as the official home of Santa Clause with a themed village sporting a souvenir shop full of imitation Sami garments, shoes and accessories, the general awareness of ethnic groups living in the surroundings seems to be low. 

Tellingly, the Swedish government used to have two distinct Sami policies: thoseindigenous groups who kept on living in their reindeer-farming mode could do so in designated areas, but the others who drew their income from other trades or from state subsidies had better integrate themselves and forget about their ways and language. Now, through the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages and other well-intended policy agreements, Sami and its varieties have been recognised in three of the four nordic countries (Russia has not ratified the charter yet), but the levels of support differ between the Scandinavian states. The question is, in any case, how changes in awareness and attitude can be brought about. The commodification of ethnic-inspired tourism seems to introduce more of a divergence than a convergence: perhaps creating a few more workplaces in Santa Clause village for Finnish youngsters who have enjoyed English language showers from Grade 2 onward?

Yet I am probably looking at all of this with too much of a critical adult perspective. Jatta, the class teacher, needed to remind me that her pupils still lived in the smaller world of childhood, with games and in-group activities dominating their everyday lives. True, but there was one whiff of worldliness at the good-byes: a girl said „hvala“ (Croatian for thank you) to me: she had picked up the word on her family holiday near Zadar and I had shown some pictures from my Balkans jaunt. Dobro!

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