Sámi Struggle and the Global Extinction Crisis

lake inari
Published in
May 2009

There are several different etymologies of ‘Lapp,’ the term formerly used to describe Europe’s only indigenous population. One theory says the name is derived from a word meaning a ‘scrap of cloth,’ suggesting raggedness and poverty. Another says it comes from ‘periphery’ or ‘margin.’ In Finland I’m told another theory: the word Lapp is associated with ‘loss.’

The term is now considered offensive, and the people who inhabit Europe’s far northern fringe – a forested wilderness stretching through Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula – prefer to call themselves Sámi. However, the connotations stick. The Sámi are a peripheral people, existing on the outer limits of European consciousness as well as on the edge geographically, and their culture has long been marginalised by Scandinavian societies.

The idea of loss also resonates strongly, not least in regards to language. Of the 11 distinct languages once spoken by the Sámi, two are already extinct (the last speaker of Akkala Sámi passed away in 2003), five are listed as ‘nearly extinct,’ and three as ‘seriously endangered’ in the UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages. Even Northern Sámi, which is merely ‘endangered,’ claims no more than 25,000 speakers.

In remote Finnish Lapland, deep inside the Arctic Circle, two mutually-unintelligible tongues cling on around the shores of Lake Inari. Skolt Sámi and Inari Sámi (both ‘seriously endangered’) number around 300 speakers, teetering precariously on the brink of language death. When I visit in mid-December it’s a frozen landscape of snow and ice, huddled under the darkness of kaamos, north Finland’s long ‘polar night.’ Sámi communities have subsisted here for thousands of years from fishing and reindeer herding, accumulating centuries of knowledge that has enabled them to survive in such an extreme environment.

But the culture’s future is now uncertain. This fact is immediately apparent from a visit to the school in the tiny Skolt village of Sevettijärvi. ‘When I was at this school, there were 100 students,’ says teacher Seija Sivertsen. ‘Now there are 11.’

The story of this endangerment is only too familiar to linguists studying the phenomenon of language death; or, as the Finnish linguist Tove Skuttnab-Kangas prefers, ‘linguistic genocide.’ This term drives home the fact that languages rarely disappear by chance; often their demise is intentional, or at least approved. Demographics and ethnic discrimination, backed up by oppressive government policies, have combined with specific historical upheavals to erode the resilience of minority communities, undermining their sense of identity and severing connections to their past. In the case of Inari Sámi, the dominant Finnish population has long played a colonial role, looking down on their culture as primitive and backward, and discouraging the teaching of the language to the young. The Skolt Sámi have suffered even worse. Dispersed and uprooted when their homeland passed from Finnish to Russian control in World War Two, they became a minority within a minority, suffering discrimination even more than other Sámi groups.

This resulted in what many Sámis refer to as the ‘lost generation,’ the post-war generation of adults who – often of their own volition – ceased passing the language on to their children. ‘It became a taboo,’ explains Annika Pasanen, a Finn who has been working with the Inari Sámi for the past 20 years. Annika’s work involves the revitalisation of Finno-Ugric languages from Inari Sámi to Russia’s Karelian, minorities under similar historical pressure to assimilate into a majority culture. ‘They were told that they must be civilised, their language and culture were not important, so they taught their children Finnish. A kind of trauma has been caused. People were made to feel ashamed of what they were.’

‘People said the Sámi were uneducated,’ agrees Tiina Sanila, a young Sámi woman who fronts the world’s only Skolt-language metal band. ‘They were stupid, dirty, living from nature, old, drunk, living in tents. This caused a kind of shame, a feeling that it was better to be like others.’

This parallels the experience of indigenous cultures from Australia to the Americas, and the story of Sámi language endangerment reflects the great extinction crisis currently taking place across the world. Minority languages are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Despite flashes of media attention – global headlines were made when the last speaker of the Alaskan tongue Eyak died in 2008 – the scale of the catastrophe mostly passes unnoticed. Incredibly, the UN estimates that one language disappears every fortnight, and that half the languages spoken today will have vanished within the next century.

It’s impossible to know what impact this will have on human culture across the globe, because nothing like it has ever been witnessed before. Of course, languages have always gone extinct – Carib, Etruscan, Tangut, Manx, history is littered with the names of vanished tongues – but never at such an extraordinary rate as this. In an attempt to understand the potential implications, linguists have drawn parallels with the other major extinction crisis taking place in the world today: the decimation of the planet’s biodiversity. While we should be wary of conflating two different processes, there exist similarities that can provide an insight into just how much our world looks set to change.

Luisa Maffi of Terralingua, an organisation that studies what’s known as ‘biocultural diversity’ – drawing together the three diversities of language, culture and biology – writes that ‘loss of diversity at all levels spells dramatic consequences for humanity and the earth.’ It’s argued that linguistic diversity has been as essential for human development as the diversity of the environments in which our cultures have grown. She draws on the work of linguist Dave Harmon, who describes the intricate links that exist between nature and culture as ‘the pre-eminent fact of existence, the basic condition of life on earth,’ and suggests that if biocultural diversity continues to be lost, it will endanger the very evolutionary processes out of which human society has grown.

But what, in practical terms, does this mean? We know that eroding biodiversity is bad because the planet’s natural systems are inextricably bound together, and damaging one part of the whole inevitably produces a reaction elsewhere. For example, we know that when a forest is felled, it causes a reduction in precipitation and erosion of the soil. How does this relate to languages? The disappearance of one language or another won’t necessarily have a knock-on effect on other existing forms of expression – although we know that different languages do influence one another profoundly – but what it may do is weaken the resilience of human culture itself. As anthropologist Russell Bernard notes, ‘any reduction of language diversity diminishes the adaptational strength of our species because it lowers the pool of knowledge from which we can draw.’

In the words of K. David Harrison, an expert in Siberian languages, ‘most of what humans have learned over the millennia about how to thrive on this planet is encapsulated in threatened languages. If we let them slip away, we may compromise our very ability to survive as our ballooning human population strains earth’s ecosystems.’ If minority languages vanish, he says, ‘so will important, long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human-environment interaction for millennia. We stand to lose the accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world … The sobering fact that both animal species and human languages are going extinct in tandem portends an impending loss of human knowledge on a scale not seen before.’

Like other indigenous tongues, Sámi languages have evolved as highly nuanced repositories of knowledge about the ecosystems around them. They possess 30 words for different types of snow, and hundreds of words pertaining to the intricacies of reindeer herding, describing the animals’ age, size, colour, shapes of antlers, and even how they walk. While some Skolt or Inari Sámi might have switched to speaking Finnish at home, the old languages still cling on in jobs like reindeer herding or fishing – jobs in which traditional environmental expertise is essential - because Finnish lacks the gradations needed to describe them accurately. If Skolt and Inari disappear, sophisticated systems of classification, taxonomies accumulated over centuries of painstaking observation, will vanish with them. ‘If people feel their knowledge is worth keeping, they will do so,’ writes Harrison. ‘If they are told, or come to believe, that it is useless in the modern world, they may well abandon it.’

Jarmo Pyykkö, a Finnish environmentalist who works with local Sámi communities, provides an excellent example of how indigenous systems of knowledge are being disregarded. He’s fighting a long-running legal battle on behalf of Skolt reindeer herders whose forests are being systematically felled by the state logging company Metsähallitus. In a recent court case, the herders provided evidence that their animals were going hungry in the winter because of the loss of the tree-hanging moss on which they depend when other food is scarce. ‘The authorities were too prejudiced to listen to what they said,’ he claims. ‘What other explanation can there be for scientists, politicians and policy makers to leave aside the views of the people who know the most about the forests, the true experts in local ecology? They refuse to recognise that these people have vast expertise in this area. If you are taught that your language, expertise and opinion are of no value, what power do you have?’

When linguistic diversity is eroded, not only is vital knowledge lost but cultural cohesion vanishes too, weakening minority communities and laying them open to exploitation. Indigenous groups around the world have succumbed in similar ways, losing their heritage, sense of identity, and pride in the individuality of their culture. Their societies may become diluted and assimilate into the majority, break down with alcohol and substance abuse, or, in the worst cases, vanish off the face of the earth. ‘If you lose your language, it is the worst form of subjugation,’ confirms Tiina Sanila, who struggles against this legacy today through music and politics. ‘Sometimes it feels as if we have already lost everything.’

There’s a tendency among many people – especially us majority language speakers – to downplay language extinction by claiming it’s an inevitable part of history. It’s described as survival of the fittest, a process of natural selection that simply can’t be stopped. It’s even innocently claimed that less languages will lead to greater human harmony, because everyone will understand one another better. I’d argue there’s nothing natural about government policies that discourage or forbid a language being spoken by children, or about the forced displacement of groups like the Skolt due to war. There’s nothing natural about the feelings of shame reported in the ‘lost generation.’ And the fate of so many indigenous societies has taught us that the erosion of culture leads not to harmony, but to exploitation.

Like the wholesale destruction of the planet’s biodiversity, language loss is not a natural phenomenon, but brought about by people. Overwhelmingly it’s a result of the colonial attitudes of nation states locked into destructive patterns of dominance and expansion (even if such policies have ended now, as they have officially in Finland, their corrosive legacy continues). But language loss on this vast scale is no more acceptable or ‘inevitable’ than the mass extinction of species. What’s needed is the will to stop it before it becomes too late.

In Finnish Lapland, I discover, this will exists. The Sámi communities I visit might provide a solution of sorts, or at least a starting point for hope. While the future of Skolt may indeed look bleak – with the legacy of displacement that put them at the bottom of the bottom of the pile – Inari Sámi seems to have remarkably bucked the global trend, slowly but surely reversing the losses of the past 100 years.

In 1997, at the point when Inari was practically moribund, with almost no new child speakers – the beginning of the end for any language – a local man called Matti Morottaja launched a pioneering ‘language nest’ programme, a last-ditch attempt at revitalisation when it appeared all was lost. The concept was simple: a kindergarten in which only Inari was spoken, immersing children in the language from a very early age. Initially there was scepticism from parents and authorities alike, but twelve years after the programme’s inception, the number of speakers is actually growing for the first time in decades. Many children are now growing up bilingual, familiar with both Finnish and Inari, and finding themselves in the strange position of sharing a language with their grandparents that their parents – the ‘lost generation’ – never learned to speak. Rather than coming to a dead end, Inari has skipped a generation. A small number of determined people have kick-started it back to life, and now it stands at least a fighting chance of survival.

‘It’s not an exaggeration to say the entire language and culture would have died if a handful of people, maybe only five or so, had had an accident in a minibus ten years ago,’ says Kaisu Nikula, an Inari woman who studied in Helsinki and Manchester, but moved back to the Sámi homeland to run the nearby Inarin Kultahovi Hotel, built on the banks of the river her family has fished for generations. ‘If I hadn’t returned here after completing university, I would never have learned Inari, my children would never have learned it. They would not have had anything left. My children would have been the end of the culture.’

The fact that the language has been revived, despite the near-fatal continuity breach, shows the extent to which the community recognised, albeit belatedly, that they stood to lose something inherently valuable. Matti Morottaja and others successfully tapped into this awareness, reminding people that their ancestors’ language deserved better than a slow fade into extinction. Crucially, though, the Inari have realised that it isn’t simply an ancestral tongue – something that must remain fossilised, locked in the distant past – but a living language that can adapt to describe the modern world. Perhaps the most optimistic sign is that Inari’s vocabulary is growing, as well as its number of speakers. New terms are being coined as the lexicon expands to envelop new technologies, ideas and objects; most recently a newly-discovered species of mushroom.

‘Language has to change, otherwise it dies,’ says Annika Pasanen, who is now fluent in Inari herself, and whose child attends the language nest, despite being non-Sámi. ‘If it’s kept in a museum, it cannot live.’

The revitalisation of the language in the young has been accompanied by a flowering of Inari literature and music, and the language is broadcast every day on Sámi Radio. Matti Morrotaja’s son Amoc has found success across Scandinavia as an Inari-language hiphop artist. There’s a sense of youth and vigour, a renewal of Inari identity, slowly but surely replacing embarrassment in indigenous culture with pride.

Pride is perhaps the essential factor in endangered languages’ survival. Not pride in tradition for tradition’s sake, but in the intricate systems of knowledge, the detailed environmental taxonomies, that have developed over millennia, and which K. David Harrison calls perhaps ‘the greatest accumulation of knowledge of the natural world humans possess.’ Strengthening minority tongues is crucial not only for preserving this knowledge, but for empowering the indigenous cultures that are, most often, the best custodians of the ecosystems we all depend on. In a globalised and connected world whose environment is increasingly threatened, the destruction of culture in one place or another – whether in the Arctic Circle, the Andes or the Amazon jungle – can no longer be seen as isolated, a hermetically-sealed event. As with the destruction of biodiversity, it affects us all.