Thursday, May 2, 2013

Call us by our Name: "Sámi"

by Natalie Cartwright

“My home is in my heart, it migrates with me” is a quote that resonates with the Sámi people whose homeland has been under pressure creating a need for further migration north. The Sámi are an indigenous people who have inhabited the Sápmi area consisting of northern territories in what is present day Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia for the past 5,000 years. The Sámi have been struggling for the rights to what is and always has been their land, causing disagreement in national dialogue. In recent years the Sámi have been faced with extreme racism through judgmental stereotypes like, “those people who reindeer herd”, and “weak, unintelligent and oppressed…of primitive stock,” but throughout the years they have proven their cultural resilience, even when faced with the challenge of being referred to as something pejorative.

Troy Storfjell, a professor from Pacific Lutheran University, who himself identifies as Sámi, spoke about his people and their necessary resilience in the emergence of cultural attacks, ranging from hate speech and harassment on the streets to bullying in schools and even death threats. While the human race should not reduce itself to racial discrimination, the questions of identity, territory and belonging seem to add fuel to the fire of negatively stereotyping others who do not fit the type caster’s ideology. Discrimination raises more questions to the continuous debates of what is Europe and who is European and when discussing either of those hot topics, questions regarding migration and migrant groups are bound to arise. While the Sámi are not a community of migrants, they receive the second hand treatment that many migrant communities suffer from on a daily basis.  While the national authorities of Finland, Norway, and Sweden are now aiding in the promotion of Sami culture and language, whether it is enough effort is questionable. There still lacks one area where significant reform needs to occur.

While Sámi people always reference themselves by the endonym of “Sámi” they are more frequently referenced in other languages by the exonyms of “Lapp” and “Laplanders”. Outsiders’ depreciatory name-calling is viewed as a judgmental sneer in the eyes of Sámi. It is intriguing as to why and how so many major European languages came to refer to the Sámi in demeaning terms, and maybe cultural insensitivity or ignorance is the only answer, neither of which are acceptable (see map). By accepting an ethnic group’s preferred name, a feeling of appreciation instead of insult is felt and a common ground of values based on respect transpires.  Europe and the European Union (the largest peace project in the world) are about the uniting of nations by common values. However, by treating certain minority groups as second-class citizens, this is a sorely neglected objective.  While changes to a language are difficult, time consuming and not ideal, it is a step in the right direction that needs to be taken and would reflect positively on European nations. The EU and its nations tend to exude attitudes of inclusion, but in regards to the poor treatment of their own, the Sámi, tones of exclusion are more prevalent.

While others may not understand who the Sámi are, the Sámi themselves have stayed true to their identity and culture throughout the hardships they faced in the past 5,000 years and that alone is something to honor. Maybe it is because their “home is in their hearts, it migrates with them,” an enduring outlook that has gotten them through many of their hardships.

Natalie Cartwright is a second-year MA student in European Union Studies. She received her Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2011. Her interests include migration flows, environmental sustainability, Italian and Turkish. Natalie has spent the summer studying Turkish language at Ankara University TÖMER and will spend the fall 2012 semester studying at Bogazici University in Istanbul, in both cases with support from EU Center Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships.  

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons,


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