Embracing Saami Culture with the Help of Literature

In November 2009, on Universal Children’s Day, a group of Inari Saami teachers, parents and children travelled to the capital to meet Finnish politicians including President Halonen. The purpose was to campaign for more school books in Inari Saami language. An official complaint about the situation was presented to the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman. The situation has gradually improved since but there is still a severe lack of culturally appropriate learning materials for Inari Saami speaking children.

Anarâškielâ Servi ry (Inari Saami Language Association) was established in 1986 by Veikko Aikio, Ilmari Mattus and Matti Morottaja. The Inari Saami language nest was later established because there was a genuine concern the Inari Saami language might disappear and be lost forever. At first learning materials for Inari Saami speaking children were so scarce, the language nest staff had to translate books from different cultures by glueing the new text on books to cover the original story. One might wonder why Northern Saami books were not used as there was already a decent selection of children’s literature available. For an outsider it may be hard to understand that these are two different although closely related languages. The idea would be similar to suggesting to Estonians to start learning Finnish, a bigger language, instead of their own language.

There are more books and materials to choose from in Northern Saami because there are approximately 30,000 Northern Saami speakers. It is the majority Saami language spoken in Finland but also a language spoken in Norway and Sweden, so resources are not limited to Finland alone. There are still only approximately 450 Inari Saami speakers, along with Skolt Saami, it’s still a minority’s minority language amongst Saami speaking people. All three languages are represented in the local school in Inari. I wanted to help with making learning materials for Inari Saami children because my children attended the language nest. The language nest is a total immersion language nursery, where the core work for language revitalisation is done. Below is a link to a documentary telling about the language nest and the language revitalisation work of Anarâškielâ Servi ry. After leaving the language nest the children usually progress to the Piäju, similar to the language nest but for older preschool children. From there the children can progress to school, where they can continue their education in Inari Saami language. As more children progress from the language nest, the number of Inari Saami speaking people has increased since the making of this video: Reborn (YouTube).

I have been cooperating with Anarâškielâ Servi ry to publish bilingual Inari Saami/English children’s books to help the learning materials situation. I write the stories in English, illustrate the books and then they are translated into Inari Saami by Petter Morottaja, the son of one of the main people in the revitalisation work here in Inari. My wife is also Inari Saami and a folklorist, so she is able to help me with the stories. First of all I wrote and illustrated a book for older children called “The Forgetful Squirrel” and was then asked to make books for younger children. The main character of the original book, an Inari Saami boy called Sammeli, was the inspiration for the series of books which tell of him and his adventures in the “Eight Seasons of Lapland”. The books are in Inari Saami to provide much needed materials for the children learning Inari Saami in the language nests and local school. This way there are culturally appropriate learning materials for Inari Saami speaking children, that also offer them the opportunity to learn English. Tourists who speak English can purchase the books from Sámi Duodji, Siida museum, Hotel Kultahovi in Inari and other places including Arktikum in Rovaniemi and online from Anarâškielâ servi ry.

This way they can learn about the local language and culture, and the revenue can help to fund further books and learning materials for the future.

When I was asked to write this blog, I read about the philosophy behind
Culture for All and was proud to contribute to something so worthwhile. I thought about a seminar for the project “Toward a More Inclusive and Comprehensive Finnish Literature” I was invited to attend, hosted by the Finnish Literature Society (SKS). The seminar led to an anthology “Opening Boundaries: Toward Finnish Heterolinational Literatures”, in which I was very happy to be included. It’s wonderful that there is a concerted effort being made to foster and promote the inclusion of immigrants in Finland and to celebrate their contribution to Finnish society. People have different talents, whether they are writers or artists or make a positive contribution to the wealth of the country in some other way. Similarly Finnish people living in other countries can take their ideology and talents with them to a new country, where they have the chance to make a positive contribution to their new environment, whilst sharing and promoting knowledge of their home country. In the acknowledgements, editor Mehdi Ghasemi wrote “Without their invaluable support, the implementation of the project and the publication of this book would not have been possible.”

There is an African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” Without the persistence and endeavour of countless people working for Anarâškielâ Servi ry in the language nest or Piäju, school teachers or kind people providing grants for Inari Saami literature, there would be even less learning opportunities than presently. Chances are the Inari Saami language would have disappeared like other forgotten Saami languages. Even if you just took the time to read this blog, you made a contribution. One more person understands the need for Inari Saami speaking children to have learning materials in their own language.

Lonottâllâm – Sharing, Autumn story (PDF)

The children, who have attended the language nest, Piäju and school in their own language, have now started to make their own contribution to Inari Saami culture. Some have written articles for the digital magazine Loostâš, Wikipedia articles and translated books from other languages into Inari Saami to increase the volume of literature available. Reading about different cultures is a very good way to learn and increase understanding and appreciation of those cultures. If Finnish people had an opportunity to read Inari Saami literature in Finnish, they would have a chance to learn about a language and culture indigenous to Finland, adding to the collective wealth of the country. In the same way that Finnish literature and books from writers of other countries have added to the wealth of Inari Saami literature, Inari Saami children should have the chance to see themselves represented in Finnish culture and shown in a positive light. Usually Saami children only see themselves in adverts encouraging tourism to Lapland. They grow up seeing Saami people shown often unfairly and inaccurately, sometimes even disparagingly, on postcards or comedy programmes from which negative stereotypes can endure for decades.

There is still a chronic shortage of culturally appropriate learning materials for Inari Saami speaking children, and funding for Anaraskiela Servi ry is a constant struggle. If bilingual Finnish/Inari Saami literature was included in the school curriculum, there would be sufficient funding for books, and both Finnish and Inari Saami children would benefit.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child covers essential rights regarding social welfare including political, social, economic and cultural rights. It states that children should have the right to develop to the fullest. Inari Saami speaking children should have the right to learning materials in their own language in their indigenous country, and Finland should give them this opportunity.

A quote from American philosopher William James says: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” It’s very easy though to lose motivation when you don’t feel valued or appreciated. We are all to some extent products of our environment, and when Inari Saami speaking children aren’t represented and made to feel they matter, they are at an immediate disadvantage and consequently may not accomplish their potential.

Finland is often applauded for having one of the most progressive education systems in the world. Supporting Inari Saami language revitalisation and the indigenous children of its country, would give Inari Saami children a voice and a chance to add to the narrative of Finland.


Lee D Rodgers

Lee Rodgers is originally from Manchester, where he worked as an artist before attending university in Manchester and Helsinki. He lives in Inari with his Inari Saami wife and family. He has been cooperating with Anarâškielâ Servi ry, The Inari Saami Language Association to help with Inari Saami language revitalisation. Lee Rodgers has written a series of bilingual Inari Saami/English books based on the adventures of a young Inari Saami boy called Sammeli in the “8 Seasons of Lapland”. For more information please contact rodgerslee9@gmail.com or www.anaraskielaservi.fi.

Call to action – the Indigenous language challenge!

This year we celebrate the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. The purpose of the year is to make the situation of the Indigenous languages of the world more visible. In order for the linguistic rights of the Indigenous people to be guaranteed and the languages ​​preserved and transferred to future generations, strong investments, knowledge and will to preserve the languages are needed.

The different Sámi languages spoken in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia, as well as the Inuit languages spoken in Greenland belong to Indigenous languages. Like many of the Indigenous languages ​​around the world, the Sámi languages and Greenland Inuit languages ​​are on UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. Some of the languages like the South, Lule, Inari, Skolt, and Kildin Sámi are defined as severely endangered, others like the Ume and Pite Sámi are seen as critically endangered and others like North Sámi, East Greenlandic/Tunumiit oraasiat and North Greenlandic/Qaanaaq Inuktitut are seen as definitely endangered. West Greenlandic or Kalaallisut is the official language of Greenland and it is defined by UNESCO as vulnerable.

Multilingual Month calls out to the Nordic organisations, institutions and individual agents on the fields of arts and culture as well as the educational field to participate in the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages by highlighting the situation of the Indigenous languages in the Nordic countries, by arranging events in relation to the theme, by spreading information in the Sámi languages and Inuit languages and by increasing contents and programs in Sámi languages and/or Greenlandic languages in their activities!

The Sámi and Greenlandic languages, literatures ​​and cultures should be made visible in the schools and universities in the Nordic countries, as well as in Nordic media and culture! We can all contribute in various ways to strengthen the visibility and awareness of the Indigenous of the Nordic countries.

Some ideas on how to promote indigenous languages in the Nordic countries


In this picture you see Rita PaqvalenRita Paqvalén is the Executive Director of Culture for All Service. She has a background as a researcher and lecturer in Nordic literature and is one of the initiators of the Nordic research network DINO – Diversity in Nordic Literature.  Since 2013 Paqvalén and her team at Culture for All has been working with several projects related to multilingualism in the field of literature and culture in the Nordic countries, and has produced publications, as well as arranged several seminars and events in relation to the subject. Culture for All is the initiator of the Nordic Multilingual Month and one of the main organizers of the Finnish version of the month Satakielikuukausi.

Indigenous Languages


Blog-entry by Sebastian Drude

The year 2019 is the ‘International Year of Indigenous Languages’. On this occasion, you may have wondered, “what exactly is an indigenous language”?

So, what exactly is an indigenous language? Starting with the expression itself, there are two words, and the meaning of each, “indigenous” and “language”, seems at first straightforward. Things are more interesting, though.

Let’s first consider “language”. It is clear that in this context, we do not mean “language” in general, a not countable word (similar to “wisdom”) referring to the human capacity to communicate via highly structured symbolic systems of sounds, gesture signs, written characters and the like. We here speak of individual languages, entities such as what we call “English”, “Finnish” or “Rapa Nui”.

For individual languages, there is the hairy problem to draw a line between a language and a dialect. And here we do not use “dialect” in the often pejorative and usually prejudicial sense of “inferior, underdeveloped, oral language”, often applied to indigenous languages. This use should be abandoned altogether. Instead, “dialect” is used here in the usual neutral sense of “linguistic variety of a language which is specific for a certain geographical region”.

…socio-cultural factors such an official status in a country, an established orthographical norm and an independent literary tradition may also make mutually intelligible dialects to be recognized as different languages.

The main linguistic criterion to establish whether two varieties are different languages or not is mutual intelligibility – if speakers of one cannot understand the speakers of the other without learning it, then these must be different languages. There are, however, complications, asymmetrical intelligibility for instance, or dialect chains, such as the Sami languages. Then, socio-cultural factors such an official status in a country, an established orthographical norm and an independent literary tradition may also make mutually intelligible dialects to be recognized as different languages. Taking such cases into account, most linguists would agree that there are roughly 6500 known languages, of which around 6000 are still spoken in the world today.

In turn, “Indigenous” originally means “native”, or being original to/from a certain place. If this was all to it, then any and every language would be “indigenous”, as they all come “originally” from some place – even abstracting from the problem of how far back we go in history to determine the “origin” of a language. But obviously, it would feel odd to call “English” an indigenous language, not even an (let alone the) indigenous language of England. Intuitively, it would be more natural to call, to stay on the British Islands, the Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh, Scottish-Gaelic, Manx, …) “indigenous”, although we know that their speakers, too, arrived some 1000 years earlier. Going back far enough, one could argue that only Basque and possibly the Sami languages are the true “indigenous” languages of Europe.


…the international year is a good moment to remind ourselves of the importance of linguistic diversity, and that languages are an asset for a society, even if they are not native (such as languages spoken by immigrants) nor minority (several languages, for instance, are endangered although they are spoken by a majority of a certain region).

Therefore, “indigenous” does not only mean “native”, but it implies a contrast with another people or, in our case, language, which arrived later and which to some degree is more hegemonic in the wider area. This is obvious in a colonial context, where the languages of the colonial powers were imposed over the languages which were spoken in the Americas and large parts of Africa and Asia before their arrival. In this sense, an indigenous language of a certain area is typically a native language to that area which is now a minority language co-existing with some other, socio-politically stronger language which has arrived later to the same region. The term is highly politicized and sensitive – for instance, the Chinese government claims that there are no “indigenous languages” in China, possibly to avoid problems of legal liabilities which come with the status of “indigenous” – internationally it is recognized that the rights of indigenous groups need special protection. Independently of such fights over words, it is clear that the coming year of indigenous languages covers all native minority languages, whether they are being recognized as “indigenous” by their respective governments or not. I would also defend that the international year is a good moment to remind ourselves of the importance of linguistic diversity, and that languages are an asset for a society, even if they are not native (such as languages spoken by immigrants) nor minority (several languages, for instance, are endangered although they are spoken by a majority of a certain region).

“What does this all have to do with multilingualism?”, may you, reader of this blog on this topic, have asked yourself. There are several answers to this question.

One interesting fact to point out in this context is that historically and even nowadays, multilingualism is much more common among speakers of indigenous languages than among speakers of non-indigenous ones. In many regions of the world, speaking not only your ‘own’ language, but also that of neighboring groups and peoples, was and is normal, the default case. In some regions, for instance in Central and Western Africa, it even does not make sense to single out one specific language as one person’s single mother tongue, as people grow up with several languages which are connected to several places or social groups to which they all belong in one way or another.

It is in the decision to use the indigenous language in different situations, especially with and among the youngest generation, that the fate of the survival of a language is fought.

Even more obviously, as follows from our clarification of the meaning of the term, an indigenous language is by definition in contact with another hegemonic language, and that means that many, often all, speakers of the indigenous language are at least bilingual. It is in the decision to use the indigenous language in different situations, especially with and among the youngest generation, that the fate of the survival of a language is fought. For most endangered languages, and therefore for the preservation of linguistic diversity itself, they key for their staying alive is a stable, actively maintained bi- or multilingualism.



Sebastian Drude.

Sebastian Drude is the Director of the Vigdís World Language Centre at the University of Iceland. He obtained a Dr.Phil.-degree in linguistics at the FU Berlin in 2002. From 1998 on, he studied the Awetí language in central Brazil. He held a Dilthey-Fellowship at the University Frankfurt, was later Head of ‘The Language Archive’ at the MPI in Nijmegen, and General Coordinator at CLARIN ERIC.

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