The Distance Between Home and School

Assimilation of the Sámi in Norway Through Education

Sydney Branom, Fall 2017


It’s not difficult to find instances in world history where countries display nationalistic tendencies. Whether the members of a nation feel their integrity is being threatened, or they are in an especially prosperous period, nationalist ideals can occur and cause countries to propagate themselves and their way of life, eliminate or distance themselves from others’ way of life, and/or fight against outside influences. However, nations that display these nationalistic tendencies are not limited to only excluding those who physically fall outside the borders of their country. Common victims of nationalism and the policies influenced by it are minority populations living inside the country itself.

A minority population is a group of people living within a larger population from which something about them sets them apart. There are several different factors that contribute to one’s identity for which they can find themselves a part of some kind of minority. There are social minorities, such as the queer community within a predominantly straight culture. There are religious minorities, who have different religious affiliations than the majority of the population they belong to. There are also ethnic minorities, who will practice different cultural or national traditions than the larger part of the population.

Ethnic minorities are often people who immigrated to a country, or are descendants of people who did. However, ethnic minorities can also be people whose ancestors have been present in the area all along, long before the people in the majority, or even the nation itself. The indigenous populations of countries can be some of the mostly harshly targeted minority groups. This is likely due to the fact that their presence is often an obstacle for the majority group’s expansion and adaptation, as well as challenge to the majority group’s national identity and claim on the land.

Strict assimilation policies targeting the indigenous populations of a country are often the product of nationalist ideology. Even governments of nations thought of as modern and progressive, such as the United States or the Nordic countries, make an intentional effort to invalidate the indigenous peoples’ historical claim on the land, some even going so far as to insist the native people weren’t there first at all.[01]A specific instance of this occurring in modern history is an ongoing legal battle in Sweden, in which the Swedish government refuses to acknowledge Sámi rights to the land on the basis that they … Continue reading

One nation that imposed nationalist policies onto its native people with the goal of assimilation is Norway. The northernmost part of Norway is a part of a larger transnational geographic area called Sápmi, the traditional homeland of the indigenous people of Scandinavia, the Sámi.[02]Sámi and Sápmi are the terms chosen by the Sámi about how they would like themselves and their homeland to be addressed. They were referred to as “Lapps” and their homeland “Lappland” … Continue reading The Sámi have historically been the target of Norwegian policy-makers attempting to usher out their traditional way of life by making it extremely difficult to practice legally. Traditional Sámi religion, dance, song, language, and economic practices were all heavily regulated or outright made illegal. The way Sámi learned about all these facets of their culture was controlled as well, through strict anti-Sámi education and language use policies.

In this paper, I will argue that Norway used education as a way of assimilating Sámi people into common Norwegian culture, and the control of Sámi education was one of the most important and effective steps to making them forget their way of life and adopt a lifestyle much more similar to the majority.

Nationalism, Protecting the Minority, and Oppression

Nationalism can be defined as having a group within territorial proximity of each other whose members are together in their belief that their group is unique and necessary in relation to other groups of people. They don’t need to share a large amount of cultural background with each other, as long as they value being part of the nation as a part of their identity, alongside the other aspects of their backgrounds.

Members of the nation may have different backgrounds, cultural practices, and other lifestyle differences, as long as they wish to be a part of the nation. In return, the nation must provide equal protection for the rights of different cultural or social groups that make it up by using the law to avoid prejudice. It is the responsibility of the nation’s governing body to make sure that oppression based on cultural differences does not take hold, and step in if it does. The most effective strategy to halt prejudice is prevention. This can be done by educating young generations of citizens to be accepting of different identities and encouraging existing members to be proud of the nation’s diversity. Education is an invaluable tool in shaping future public opinion, and thus, education policy can strongly influence the life and attitudes of those under its jurisdiction.

Sometimes, or more accurately, oftentimes, smaller sub-groups within the nation will be treated as outsiders by the rest based on differences in country of origin, religion, or language. These are what we think of as the minority population. They are often targeted, intentionally or unintentionally, by the majority population, making up the most common set of background attributes, who set the “norm” of the nation, and by extension, who falls outside of it. Sometimes there are indirect actions of othering, such as being left out of national-level decisions such as official holidays, languages, laws, etc. due lack of representation. However, cases of majority-on-minority prejudice often go much farther, manifesting themselves in blatant racism, threats meant to target an entire culture or ethnic group, and violence.

This oppression is not the fault of the minority. One should not be othered in a nation by practicing (or not practicing) a certain religion, having (or not having) a certain ethnic background, speaking (or not speaking) a specific language, and so on. In this time of technological advancement, making cross-cultural, as well as long-distance communication and travel, easier than ever before, there should be no issue with smaller sub-groups of people from different cultural backgrounds co-existing with each other in one geographical area. So long as everyone wants what is best for the collective nation, and works to make improvements to the nation for all who live there, there should be no hard boundaries for who can and who cannot apply to be a part of it.

My definition of nationalism borrows from aspects of several different scholars of nationalism and identity, as well as my own personal perspective based on thoughts and experiences. When it comes to the insignificance of a shared historical background and common language, I agreed with theorists such as Weber and Gellner. They make it clear their writing that they do not see the importance of details such as these when it comes to building a national identity.[03]John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 1994), 21-25, 55-69. People can have differences in their day-to-day lives and still contribute to the same belief of a unique and irreplaceable nation.

My definition is also communication, transportation, technology, and education based. This aspect of my definition was inspired by selections from Gellner, Deutsch, and Anderson. Deutsch and Anderson argue that communication and recognizing common symbols, such as a flag, are the essential building blocks for nationalism.[04]Ibid., 26-28, 89-95 Advances in technology have made long-distance travel and communication exponentially easier, meaning a more diverse and geographically spread group of people can be connected into a nation together, as long as they share positive ideals for that nation. Gellner wrote about the importance of education to the nation, and how a collective identity can be taught from a young age to create a sentiment of togetherness.[05]Ibid., 55-69 This homogenization of the young population will lead to an adult population with similar values to each other, and that is more important to a nation’s success than making sure everyone speaks the same official language.

The definition of nationalism relates to the issue of minorities because the ideals of the nation dictate who is in the majority and who is an outsider. If nationalism is defined ethno-centrically, those outside the common ethnic group are most likely the minority. This minority will not be treated in the same way in the eyes of the nation that a member of the majority would be. In the case of ethnocentrism, ethnic minorities would be less likely to be given the same rights and protections under the laws of the nation, and may be encouraged, or even forced, to assimilate to better fit the national image.

Those minorities being assimilated into a nation’s majority population will lose important cultural history and traditions. This is/was the case for the Sámi population in Norway. They were seen as an inferior race of people for many years, and the Norwegian government did their best to stomp out what made them different from its non-native inhabitants. Cultural practices of the Sámi were outlawed, as well as worshipping ancient Sámi gods and partaking in Sámi religious gatherings. When that wasn’t enough, Sámi children were sent to boarding schools to educate them in the ways of the “regular” Norwegian population, where they learned nothing of their ancestors and speaking their mother tongue was forbidden. Nationalism is reflected in the way Sámi populations were forced to assimilate into Norway’s majority population, as the nation’s strategy to make the Sámi merge into “regular” society was to wipe their cultural memory by controlling the education of Sámi children.

Historical Overview of Sámi in Norway

The Sámi are an indigenous people who come from the northernmost regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as Russia’s Kola Peninsula.[06]Jon Todal, “Minorities with a Minority: Language and the School in the Sámi Areas of Norway,” in Indigenous Community-Based Education, edited by Stephen May, (Clevedon England, … Continue reading This area that the Sámi traditionally populated approximately ten thousand years ago is called Sápmi.[07]Keskitalo, Pigga, Kaarina Määttä, and Satu Uusiautti, Sámi education, (Frankfurt, M., Lang-Ed., 2013), 9. When the Nordic countries began to draw borders in the fifteenth century, they were drawn without consideration for the people that already lived there. This divided Sápmi arbitrarily and split Sámi populations between the jurisdictions of different countries. The situation was further complicated over the next three hundred years by frequent border changes and Nordic countries losing and gaining independence from one another and Russia.

The Sámi do not have one unified culture, but all share the identification of Sámi and use a unified flag. This is partly due to the large geographical area they inhabit, which required different groups of Sámi to specialize in different survival skills and learn to live in different terrains. Before the Nordic countries began to take control of their land, the Sámi “were divided by livelihood and region into reindeer herders, fishermen, and forest Sámi.”[08]Ibid., 9. Additionally, communication was sometimes limited between different groups of Sámi, as there were eleven different Sámi dialects. Of these eleven, only nine still exist, and all are considered endangered.[09]Ibid., 9. Despite their differences, Sámi choose to identify as one indigenous group. They fly one flag, wear variations of the same traditional outfit, and have a shared Sámi national anthem as a way to create connections between Sámi groups in the face of global adversity.[10]Veli-Pekka Lehtola, The Sámi people: traditions in transition, (Aanaar-Inari, Kustannus-Puntsi Publ., 2010), 9.

One important shared tradition between all Sámi peoples is the connection to the land. The Sámi alter their lifestyle to fit with the land as opposed to working around it, ask it for permission before hunting, gathering, or otherwise altering it, and traditionally worship shamanistic entities such as the spirits of different parts of nature. Having invisible borders drawn by new nations when deciding on their territory disrupted many of the land-based traditions carried out by the Sámi. They were no longer free to travel where they needed to as necessary, but were forced to stay in the confines of the nation they had been drawn into. A very important part of reindeer herding in Sámi culture is to escort the herd long distances before and after the harshest part of winter every year to ensure the safety and continuation of the herd. This journey became impossible for many reindeer herders, who were now subject to the borders and laws of the Nordic countries.

The movement to assimilate Sámi into newly established national boundaries varied from nation to nation, but they all followed the same trend. The nation would begin with religious conversion, then later increase attempts at assimilation due to a rise in nationalist sentiment in Europe, and finally, within the last couple generations, a shift toward the return of cultural freedoms to the Sámi people.

Education as a Method of Assimilation

Norway’s actions and policies toward the Sámi are what this paper will be focusing on, with special focus on the use of education in the assimilation of their Sámi people. The most significant changes in Norwegian education policy in regards to the Sámi can be broken into three main stages: the seventeenth century push for boarding schools to promote Christianity, the wave of restrictions on Sámi language use during the “Norwegianization” period between the mid nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and finally the rolling back of many of the restrictive policies beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century and continuing on through today.

The first steps toward assimilation began in the seventeenth century and was a concern of Christianity over Shamanistic ritualism. Christian missionaries were sent to convert Sámi populations in northern Norway from the seventeenth century to as late as the mid twentieth century.[11]Todal, Minorities with a Minority”, 127. Shaman drums, a religious item used in pagan worship by many Sámi, were banished by travelling clergymen.[12]Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, Greetings from Lappland: The Sami, Europe’s Forgotten People, (London, Zed Press, 1983), 66. Death sentences could be given to any Sámi who would not willingly convert. People were killed for doing something as harmless as singing a yoik, a unique form of Sámi expression where the singer vocalizes the essence of something important to them.[13]Ibid., 66.

A strategy used early on in conversion attempts was the implementation of Christian boarding schools. Sámi children were taken from their families and sent to these schools, where they were forced to learn Christian stories and values, beaten, and insulted with racial slurs. As the children got older, they were allowed to visit home less and less, and thus became more separated from their culture. As noted by a Sámi poet who was forced to attend one of these special Christian boarding schools, “The distance between home and school widened the older one became.”[14]Lehtola, Traditions in Transition, 62. The distance the poet is referring to is likely mental as well as physical, a noted separation between the life a Sámi child could live at home with their parents, immersed in their own culture, and the Christian persona they were forced to adopt during their time at school.  While it was not illegal to practice non-religious Sámi traditions and speak the Sámi language, communicating and acting Norwegian were highly encouraged, both for children in a classroom setting and in adult life.

Nationalist ideals in Norway began to rise in popularity just before the mid nineteenth century. Norwegianization was the time period between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-1910s where there was an emphasis on the supposed superiority of European Norwegian’s society and individuals, while “lower” cultures should be forcibly “developed” to be more modern, or risk dying off permanently[15]Ibid., 44. Norway began passing laws that affected the entire northern area of the country, targeting both the Sámi minority as well as the coastal Finns who settled in the north, the Kvens, whom Norway didn’t trust and wanted to assimilate along with the Sámi.

Strict government policies were put into place starting in 1851, in which Norway ordered that Sámi language schools were to function mainly in Norwegian[16]Ibid., 44. In 1864, the first law giving priority to Norwegian speakers in situations involving property ownership was passed. Norwegian speakers would now have priority when purchasing land from the government, and one had to be able to speak and read Norwegian to pass.[17]Ibid., 44. Between 1871 and 1879, laws were passed forbidding “foreigners” from owning their own fishing equipment and settling in designated land areas, indicated to be for Norwegian citizens only.[18]Ibid., 44. This was an obvious breach on the Sámi way of life, as many Sámi make their living fishing, and they would be forced to give up their fishing supplies if they don’t identify as “Norwegian”. In 1880, Sámi, as well as Finnish, was only to be used as a support language in any educational institution, and boarding houses were added onto schools to promote the internalization of Norwegian values.[19]Ibid., 44.

In 1895, the Norwegian government declared free land for any Norwegian citizen.[20]Ibid., 44. The method of determining who qualified as a Norwegian citizen rested on one’s mastery of the language. By giving huge incentives like this to only those who are fluent in the language, Norway gave Sámi children a reason to put effort into learning Norwegian instead of Sámi in school and speak Norwegian regularly. This self-supporting language education/language incentive strategy also worked on Sámi parents who wanted their children to have more opportunities to succeed, and opted for them to learn Norwegian instead of their mother tongue.

Previously, as a recognized separate people within Norway, Sámi were exempt from being taxed by the state, as well as from signing up for military service. These exceptions were removed in 1897, earning more money and soldiers for the state as well as bringing the Sámi closer to the rest of the population.[21]Ibid., 44.

By 1898, no Sámi languages could be spoken in any school in Sápmi.[22]Ibid., 44. Shortly thereafter, in 1902, laws on land ownership were more firmly connected to the language by assigning Norwegian names to properties, following the pattern of tightening education laws on speaking Sámi in schools and then giving more advantages to those who were fluent in Norwegian. By banning the use of their mother language and rewarding Norwegian speakers with citizenship and significantly increased landowners rights, Norway manipulated the education system to erase Sámi languages from the minds of multiple generations of Sámi. This was their way of eliminating Sámi culture and assimilating the minority.

The importance of education in Sámi culture is invaluable due to language-learning and communication. Those who didn’t speak Sámi were disconnected from their culture due to oral history being so important to Sámi learning. The way the children would learn about their heritage, family, traditions, legends, and methods of worship was by hearing one’s parents, grandparents, or other trusted elders tell stories about them. By only educating in Norwegian and making it expressly illegal to use Sami in an educational setting, Sámi stories, history, and culture were lost in translation between generations. Norway used education to effectively cut off a whole generation from knowing where they came from, so they would only know how to be Norwegian.

Reclamation and Self-Expression

Nationalism as a blatantly expressed ideology and motivation behind government policy came to a screeching halt after the atrocities of World War II demonstrated the danger of extreme nationalistic ideology. Attitudes shifted to putting more value into the individual, and protecting small groups emerged as a goal on an international scale.[23]Ibid., 58. In the late 1960s, Norway officially allowed Sámi language use back into the school system, and in 1987, curriculums were teaching it as a second language as well.[24]Todal, “Minorities with a Minority”, 127. By 1992, Sámi was declared an official language of Norway, giving its speakers equal rights in the scope of the law.[25]Ibid., 127. By 1997, the new curriculum for the core Sámi-populated areas was to instill “functional bilingualism” in students, with Sámi as either a first or second language.[26]Ibid., 127.

This turn toward Sámi rights in policy regarding language rights and education is important, but it doesn’t mean that relations between the Sámi population and non-Sámi Norwegians were instantly repaired. The damage of years of oppression left most Sámi completely in the dark about their own culture and history. Too many generations were forbidden from practicing, or even knowing, the traditional Sámi way of life. Stories were lost with the passing of time. Those who could still remember and share their perspectives were often too scared to do so, the memories of punishment for those who spoke up in the past too oppressive.

Despite the fear ingrained in the memories of many Sámi, there is still a significant amount of self-expressive artwork being produced, both celebrating the reclamation of Sámi culture, and mourning the loss of knowledge under nationalist rule.[27]Due to the educational/language based focus of this paper, I’m not going to go into environmental policy-based protests such as the Alta controversy, which were extremely significant in the … Continue reading Sámi poetry, music, and cinema has been gaining attention in the wider sphere and giving a voice to Sámi artists and activists. One such artist, Paulus Utsi, combined his job teaching at a Sámi folk school with writing poetry, to produce works that drew attention to the situation of recovering Sámi heritage. He wrote poems in Sámi language about the disappearing Sámi way of life, comparing them to ski tracks that are covered up by more snow before anyong can see them.[28]Harald Gaski, Sami Culture in a New Era, (Kárášjohka, Davvi Girji, 1997), 12. More mainstream attention was given to the tumultuous history between the Sámi and Norwegian government with the release of the film Same Blood, a historical fiction of a young Sámi girl attending a state-sponsored boarding school, and being constantly reminded that she is less than her peers because of her heritage.[29]Amanda Kernell and Lene Cecilia Sparrok, Sameblod, (Nordisk Film, 2017), DVD.


Norway used several different tactics to assimilate the Sámi population, in the hopes of making them more “civilized” to fit in with non-Sámi Norwegians. These tactics ranged from boarding schools teaching Christianity to giving Norwegian speakers free land. The common thread between the nationalist strategies that Norway implemented is the use of education. By making access to Sámi language and culture difficult, and simultaneously offering rewards to those fluent in the country’s “official” language, Norway was able to effectively stunt the growth and spread of the Sámi way of life for generations. The end of World War II changed attitudes about nationalist ideology, and Sámi activists were able to use this momentum to get laws passed in their favor to reclaim as much of their culture as they could. This effort still continues today, through artists and activists that produce work to call attention to their cause, and refuse to let their struggle be forgotten, nor repeated.


01 A specific instance of this occurring in modern history is an ongoing legal battle in Sweden, in which the Swedish government refuses to acknowledge Sámi rights to the land on the basis that they will not legally accept the Sámi populated the area before non-Sámi Swedes. For more on this, see Patrik Lantto & Ulf Mörkenstam’s article in Volume 33 of the Scandinavian Journal of History, “Sami Rights and Sami Challenges: The modernization process and the Swedish Sami movement, 1886–2006”.
02 Sámi and Sápmi are the terms chosen by the Sámi about how they would like themselves and their homeland to be addressed. They were referred to as “Lapps” and their homeland “Lappland” officially until the mid twentieth century. These terms are considered derogatory, as they were assigned to the group instead of chosen by them, and they will not be used throughout this paper, with the exception of a book title that will appear in the references section.
03 John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 1994), 21-25, 55-69.
04 Ibid., 26-28, 89-95
05 Ibid., 55-69
06 Jon Todal, “Minorities with a Minority: Language and the School in the Sámi Areas of Norway,” in Indigenous Community-Based Education, edited by Stephen May, (Clevedon England, Multilingual Matters, 1999), 124.
07 Keskitalo, Pigga, Kaarina Määttä, and Satu Uusiautti, Sámi education, (Frankfurt, M., Lang-Ed., 2013), 9.
08 Ibid., 9.
09 Ibid., 9.
10 Veli-Pekka Lehtola, The Sámi people: traditions in transition, (Aanaar-Inari, Kustannus-Puntsi Publ., 2010), 9.
11 Todal, Minorities with a Minority”, 127.
12 Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, Greetings from Lappland: The Sami, Europe’s Forgotten People, (London, Zed Press, 1983), 66.
13 Ibid., 66.
14 Lehtola, Traditions in Transition, 62.
15 Ibid., 44.
16 Ibid., 44.
17 Ibid., 44.
18 Ibid., 44.
19 Ibid., 44.
20 Ibid., 44.
21 Ibid., 44.
22 Ibid., 44.
23 Ibid., 58.
24 Todal, “Minorities with a Minority”, 127.
25 Ibid., 127.
26 Ibid., 127.
27 Due to the educational/language based focus of this paper, I’m not going to go into environmental policy-based protests such as the Alta controversy, which were extremely significant in the fight for Sámi rights, but do not fit the theme of this particular study. If you are unfamiliar with the Alta controversy and other political protests related to Sámi rights to the environment, check out the short article by the Global Nonviolent Action Database here, or for a more recent example involving policy on reindeer husbandry, here.
28 Harald Gaski, Sami Culture in a New Era, (Kárášjohka, Davvi Girji, 1997), 12.
29 Amanda Kernell and Lene Cecilia Sparrok, Sameblod, (Nordisk Film, 2017), DVD.