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.

From Tarzan to Ananse – how African traditional children stories could promote multiculturalism

Have you heard the story about how the Spider captured the Python, a bunch of bees and the Leopard? What about that one about how the Hare managed to steal milk from Buffalo? Well, I could go on, and on, and on about these Ghanaian traditional children stories that are little known here. Story-telling has been a long tradition among many cultures in Africa, passed down from several generations.

Long before the days of radio and television, even before the appearance of the automobile, Africans entertained themselves with story-telling. Growing up in rural northern Ghana, we the children used to pile up on straw mats after dinner like canned fish, listening to each other’s stories in the open yard of the compound or jostling to sit in a semi-circle closer to grandpa or grandma to narrate the stories to us. Most of these stories were often accompanied with a song and everyone would join in a chorus. This would go on well into the night until our voices begin to fade and we drop off, one after the other in sleep.

Ananse as hero and villain

Spiders may be viewed elsewhere in the western world as scary and fearsome but in many of these folktales the Spider is very often the hero. Indeed, in the Akan language, one of the numerous Ghanaian languages, ananse is the word for spider. Indeed, the word ananse has become synonymous with story-telling. Anansesem means stories, it also means saying things that are too wild to be true. In other stories, it is the Hare that is the hero. These two creatures are portrayed as very clever, cunningly manipulating other animals and dominating them with the sheer use of their wit.

In one story for instance, Ananse, comes upon a lion who has captured an antelope and just about eat her. Meanwhile the antelope is protesting loudly and yelling for help:

“Please let me go, let me go. You promised you won’t eat me. How can you be so ungrateful after what I have done for you?”

“No, no, no”, roars Lion. I have been in the ditch for three whole days and haven’t had anything to eat, says Lion”.

“You are the only piece of food around and, even though I promised not to eat you, if I let you go, I am going to die of hunger”.

And then just when Lion opens his jaws to crack Antelope’s head, Ananse appears on the scene.

The Lion had fallen into a deep ditch and Antelope had helped him out with the promise that the Lion would not eat her. But no sooner had the Lion climbed up from the ditch than he had pinned down the antelope and about to eat her.

When Ananse bursts onto the scene. He finds Antelope crying and pleading to be released. After hearing the narration of Antelope, Ananse realizes that not only has Lion been ungrateful, he had also broken the promise he made to Antelope.

Ananse feels sympathy for Antelope and wishes that he could help her. But how? He comes up with a simple trick. He first rebukes Antelope for being gullible enough to believe that Lion would keep his promise knowing that Lion eats antelopes for a living. After that he turns to Lion.

“Lion, I don’t understand, I don’t believe the story”, pretends Ananse. “I am not at all convinced that compared to you, how a small creature like Antelope could help you out of that steep ditch”, says Ananse.

“Show me how it happened”, he says.

At that point Lion releases Antelope and jumps back into the ditch in order to demonstrate how it was until Antelope passed by and helped him out. Of course, Antelope would no longer stay around to help Lion climb out of the ditch for the second time. Neither would Ananse, after tricking Lion out of his meal for the day.

The stories are hugely entertaining, full of fun, drama, suspense and intrigue. For instance, even though Ananse and Hare are always playing the tricksters who can fool other animals, events can also sometimes turn them into villains when they overplay their hand.

In another instance, Ananse’s son Ntikuma, returns home with lots of food and a magic drum that can throw up plenty more food whenever the drum is hit. Ntikuma instantly becomes the darling and hero in Ananse’s household because it is a difficult food scarcity season. Ananse is not pleased that his son has become the centre of attraction and not he.

Ntikuma provides him all the instructions that led him to the big find – it is from a very, very deep well where an old lady resides. She is surrounded by a lush farm with different kinds of food crops and vegetables.

The next day Ananse heads straight to the well determined to surpass his son. He does find the old lady but instead of following her instructions, Ananse defies every one of them. In fact, he is not particularly polite to the old lady. So, he refuses to pick the small drum and instead grabs the big one, thinking that it would contain twice the amount food and perhaps, more of something else. 

Upon returning home Ananse orders the whole village to come to his house for a special feast. He announces to everyone what was to happen and after that began to hit the drum as instructed by the old lady. To the horror of the starving people who came eager to fill their stomachs, instead of the promised delicious food, human eyeballs begin popping up and dropping all around them.

Instruments of cultural transmission

Besides entertainment, these traditional folk stories were the vehicles through which the elders transmitted the culture and societal norms to the younger generation. The stories invariably carried educational messages about proper conduct in the society such as humility, open-heartedness and respect for adults and elderly people.

There is a case to be made that making these stories available to Finnish kids in their own language could play an important role in minimizing racial, ethnic and anti-immigrant attitudes in Finland and thereby help bring down barriers to multi-culturalism. When Finnish children gain access to the stories through animated cartoons, radio programmes in books, the stories would most probably be their first form of contact with Africa, so to speak. It would help create a positive perception of a distant and little known Africa, contrary to earlier generation of kids who grew up absorbing stories about Tarzan, which generally portrayed Africans as primitive savages. To a very large extent, the enduring negative attributes about Africans still held by many Europeans stem from misrepresentations in early writings about Africans by Europeans such as stories of Tarzan and Tintin. Perhaps, it is now time to flip the narrative by replacing the images of Africa represented by Tarzan with that of Ananse and the Hare.

However, a vast quantity of the stories from these various African cultures remain undocumented. A few of them are randomly published in English and French, and there may be a few others in Finnish and in other Nordic languages, but they are hard to come by. Therefore, there is a need to put in an effort to have these stories documented and consistently published in accessible languages to children around the world, in order for them to enjoy some aspect of African cultural heritage.

by Linus Atarah

Featured image: The illustration on the cover of the book The Pot of Wisdom. Ananse stories by the Canadian-Ghanaian author Adwoa Badoe and illustrated by Baba Wague Diakite.


Kuva_AtarahThe writer Linus Atarah is Ghanaian-born journalist. He studied Mass Communication and Sociology in Tampere University. Linus is a double-award winning journalist who has won journalists’ awards in Finland and in his home country Ghana.