Worlds of Education

Young Sami woman in front of traditional tent
Young Sami woman in front of traditional tent

Truth and Reconciliation: the responsibility of education and teachers towards Sami, Kven and Forest Finn communities in Norway

published 8 August 2023 updated 1 August 2023
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In 2018, Norway’s Parliament established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine historic policies and activities relating to Indigenous Peoples, including attempts to assimilate them. On 1 June 2023, after five years of work, the commission presented its report, based on interviews with more than 700 people, illustrating very clearly that the wounds are yet to be healed.

Through these testimonies, individuals or small groups have communicated their feelings and experiences relating to the Norwegianization policy and injustice. The most frequent topics that are linked to Norwegianization are language, discrimination, schooling and identity. Therefore, the Norwegian school system has unfortunately played a significant role to carry out the state’s intention to assimilate the Sami and the national minorities, the Kven and the Forest Finn.

In the hearing in Parliament and at the Education Conference organised by the Sami Parliament, the Union of Education Norway shared its concern regarding this painful history and the need to look forward, repair what can be repaired and, most importantly, ensure this never happens again.

In his speech in Parliament in March, the President of the Union of Education Norway, Steffen Handal, started by saying:

“The fact that school, which is both publicly and politically governed, has contributed to the Norwegianization of the Sami people, is indisputable. With roots going back more than 130 years, our union has organized many of the teachers who have taught Sami, Kven, and Forest Finn children and young people for several generations, and we must thus acknowledge responsibility for the assaults on their identity and self-understanding. It is unpleasant to take in.

We know today that the neglect of the Sami language in schools, lack of language training, and suppression of the Sami people during the period of Norwegianization have impacted Sami culture and influenced the Sami’s view of themselves.

Teachers have worked for, and not against the abandonment of language, identity, and way of life for Sami and Kven pupils to become as similar as possible to Norwegian pupils. The consequences of this are families who have left their own cultural affiliation to become part of Norwegian society.

Indeed I wish that the history of teachers in this context would have been a completely different one.”

In the middle of June, the Sami Parliament invited UEN to address a conference in the North of Norway, to discuss the situation of Sami schools and Sami education today. It is a fact that there is still a lack of Sami teachers and that Sami students do not receive the cultural and language education that they are entitled to, according to the Norwegian Constitution and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 29). UEN Executive Board member Thom Jambak stated:

“The statistics tell us that every third child quits Sami education in school with the consequence that Norwegian becomes their main language. This is alarming. The government cannot ‘wait and see’ and hope for a better future. There is a need for political action. Sami education needs to be a clear right and an integral part of every Sami child’s education, regardless of how many other children in the municipality claim the same education.

School is still a central arena for implementing state policy towards the Sami. There are many indications that the guidelines in international conventions do not correspond with what Norwegian schools do. Textbooks, curricula, and teaching practices do not guarantee Sami students equal education. It is therefore high time that national authorities take greater responsibility for Sami pupils' rights, and that these are regulated in legislation.”

UEN proposes that, among others, the following initiatives are important to strengthen the rights of Sami children and pupils:

  • Individual right to enrol in a Sami-language kindergarten or department.
  • Statutory right to teaching aids in the three Sami languages.
  • Right to training in a Sami-speaking environment.
  • Inclusion of Sami language as one of the subjects in the Norwegian teacher training courses.
  • Award-winning doctoral scholarships in Sami language and culture.

On 30 August 2023 the union’s Sami Advisory Committee will host a seminar on “Norwegianization and Reconciliation in Early Childhood Education and in Schools”. The Seminar will focus on the current situation and will look ahead. To what extent are the rights of Sami children safeguarded in schools and in early education institutions – for instance when it comes to Sami as language of instruction and teaching material and pedagogical tools in Sami languages? Furthermore, do all children in schools and in early education institutions get to know about Sami languages, history and culture according to the Framework Plan for the Content and Tasks of Kindergartens and curricula in schools? What needs to be done to safeguard these rights and learning objectives?

UEN insists that, since school has been an arena for Norwegianization, school must also serve as an arena for correction. It is important for the Union of Education Norway to contribute to making school a space for revitalizing Indigenous People’s language, the Sami way of life and traditions.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.