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Sara and Skolt Sámi

There are only two journalists in the world who report in Skolt Sámi. Pauli Orava spoke with Sara Wesslin from the Scolt Sámi regional unit of the Finnish broadcaster YLE for the European Day of Languages.

The Sámi are the European Union’s sole indigenous people, inhabiting a territory spanning Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. Altogether the Sámi population is between 60,000-100,000. There are nine different Sámi languages, the most widely spoken being Northern Sámi. Other Sámi languages spoken in Finland are Inari and Skolt Sámi, both of which are classified as endangered.

Sara Wesslin is one of only two journalists in the world who report in Skolt Sámi. Last year she was the only Finnish citizen to be included on the BBC’s “100 Women 2019” list of inspiring and influential women. This year, she has been nominated for the One Young World Forum’s ‘Journalist of the Year’. For our blog, Wesslin shares her thoughts on the meaning of mother tongue from a minority language perspective. The interview was conducted by the Finnish Institute’s former intern Pauli Orava.


Your career seems to be on the rise. What are you doing next?

Oh, I never would have thought I’d be nominated for something like the “100 Women of the Year” list. From a global perspective, I work for a fairly small audience. The Skolt Sámi news reports are part of the Finnish broadcaster Yle and contribute to their current reporting. This step forward is a really big deal for me personally but also for our team. I’m happy when the Sámi language media gains international attention.

I’m continuing my work at Yle Sámi happily and with more motivation than ever. The Skolt Sámi union representative election was an important topic this autumn, and there are also many other new projects with which we’re going to continue. As a journalist, there are many challenges and opportunities that come with the Sámi language, and in my work I’m out of my comfort zone on a weekly basis.


But let’s go back in time for a minute. How did Skolt Sámi become a part of your life?

My first memories of Skolt Sámi are connected to my grandma Olga. She spoke Skolt Sámi with other older people from Sevettijärvi and I didn’t understand the language. Skolt Sámi had somehow been a part of my innermost being, and I felt bad that I hadn’t learned it. Already when I was a child it was said that the Skolt Sámi language was dying and nothing could be done about it.

The first time I was able to study the language properly was when I was around 20 years old, at a technical college.


What was easy about studying Skolt Sámi? And what was difficult?

The Skolt Sámi language took me away. The more I learned, the more I wanted to use it and learn more. There are many sounds in Skolt Sámi that differ from most other languages. It took a lot of work to be able to pronounce them correctly. For example, the word bear, kuõbǯǯ, almost doesn’t move at all from the top of the tongue. The grammar was and still is challenging, and there is much to learn. However, I believe that no matter what the language, it can only be learned through practice. It took a lot of courage for me to start talking, but once I dared to do so, my mouth hasn’t shut since.


Are other Sámi languages easy to understand with the help of knowing Skolt Sámi?

The Sámi languages have a lot in common. The vocabularies resemble one another, and so does the grammar. However, one needs to become competent in listening and hearing the other Sámi languages. There are three different Sámi languages spoken in Finland, and I can understand the others without any difficulty. But when going to Norway or Sweden, where many other kinds of Sámi languages are spoken, I really have to concentrate in order to understand. It’s important to keep an open mind and have the courage to ask if you don’t understand something. The joy that comes from Sámi speakers when they can use their own language with others is incredible.


How has learning Skolt Sámi affected your way of thinking?

Above all a great feeling of determination came over me to keep the language alive. That I would do everything I could so that the language is seen and heard. And that it becomes normalized in Finland. Often the general population isn’t aware of the struggle of minority speakers to keep their language alive. The Skolt Sámi language is still only taught for two hours a week in Finnish primary schools; that’s already a violation of the native Skolt Sámis’ rights to receive basic education in their mother tongue. Lots of progress still needs to be made, but we need to be involved in the decision-making process.

Skolt Sámi is a much richer language than Finnish, my mother tongue, in regards to many words. Nature and it’s characteristics can be described in much greater detail. Skolt Sámi has in that sense brought a lot of richness and colour to my life. I feel that it brought more balance to my life as well.


In every language there are words tied to a cultural context which are very difficult, if not impossible, to translate. Could you give any examples of these kinds of words in Skolt Sámi?

There are definitely a lot of them, but the first things that come to my mind are mysteriousness and pseudonyms. The Skolt Sámi hold many beliefs related to nature, and animals are highly respected. This can also be seen in the language. The bear, for example, is sacred to the Skolt Sámi people, but the word kuõbǯǯ hasn’t necessarily always been used. It has had many pseudonyms. For example, in Skolt Sámi folklore, the bear often appears as kaampâr, which is a kind of alias for bear. The bear has many names, which can be used differently in different contexts.


What do you think is Skolt Sámi’s most fun trait? It could be a word, sound or grammatical feature.

We young people who have learned Skolt Sámi are often criticised for our language being too harsh. It sounds hard, and we pronounce the language too sharply. The best instructions I’ve received for pronouncing Skolt Sámi are to imagine speaking with a marshmallow in your mouth. It helped and taught me a lot. Skolt Sámi is soft and flowing and wonderful. I especially love to hear the speech of older Skolt Sámi people, who still have a vocabulary that inevitably someone born in the 90s can’t even use. There are a lot of nuances and tones in the language that I want to learn every day.


You are the reporter of Yle’s Sámi-language news programme Ođđasat. What kinds of topics do you report on in Skolt Sámi?

Most recently I did a news report about the production of sound samples for Moomin Valley in Skolt Sámi. The Skolt Sámi version desperately needed more sound tests from people who spoke the language, so that the Moomin programme could be produced in the Skolt Sámi language as well – indeed a historic event. This summer, I’ve also been working on stories about old Skolt Sámi handicrafts, language transfer to children and seine fishing. The topics are often culture-based. I like to elevate the history and experiences of the Sámi people through different themes, but above all through the issues and topics that are relevant today.


One could think that Sámi-language news topics only pertain to northern Sámi regions. Is that true?

Completely true. One could think that, and for the most part that’s exactly how it is. But today, so many gazes are directed north. Personally, I see indigenous people and Arctic issues as important to all of us. I do my own news work from Inari, but the work extends across regional borders and internationally. From above the Arctic Circle we’re watching what’s happening to the indigenous peoples of the tropical climates. How did the Aboriginal people cope during the massive forest fires in Australia? How do the indigenous peoples of the Amazon cope under political pressure? Why do indigenous peoples in Canada fear for the women in their communities? Local reporting is important, and that’s where our greatest focus lies, but we’re also following what’s happening further away.


What makes you smile in your work?

Interviewees and their stories. I also get excited about diverse and constructive discussions, for example in conflict situations. In news work, it often occurs that you’re face-to-face with someone and the moods can be very charged on both sides. If I’m able to initiate discussion and communication with my journalism, that’s what makes my own work meaningful.

Anyway it feels like the atmosphere is changing. Organisations, communities, and individuals want to work amicably and not create new conflicts. Listening and discussing difficult issues should be safe. It’s also important as a journalist to admit mistakes and learn from them. Things are really moving forward. Above all, meeting people and being in a diverse work environment makes me happy.


What is the importance of mother tongue support, especially for linguistic minorities?

For a linguistic minority, supporting the linguistic environment, teaching and education as well as other activities is the key to language revitalization. For example, it has long been a challenge in Finland for Skolt Sámi-speaking children to maintain their language environment from early childhood into school, as there is very little teaching available in Skolt Sámi. In this case, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as plans have been made to establish a Skolt Sámi class for the first time, in Ivalo. Children would be able to learn their language at school, in their own class, and not just remotely. Next autumn, for the first time in Skolt Sámi history, it will be possible to major in the language at a university level. The Skolt Sámi language then has a continuum from pre-school to university, which is a big step in language revitalisation.


Oftentimes the importance of a particular thing is only understood when it is lost. What could Finland, for example, lose if linguistic minorities were not taken into account?

That’s a big question. We would lose an entire people along with the language. Language has such great personal value, and we have seen throughout history what happens to a person when their own language is banned. What happens to generations who haven’t been allowed to grow in their own language? With the loss of language, we would lose human dignity. Imagine what it would be like in Finland if we didn’t have our own language, but spoke Swedish or Russian instead. What if history had claimed our language? Language is me and my identity. It cannot be taken away.


How has the support for the Sámi languages concretely reflected in the daily lives of the Sámi people?

A better understanding of the preservation and revitalisation of the Sámi languages has helped to take big steps forward at the municipal level, but also nationally. Attitudes have changed and the Sámi languages are being recognised. But there are still major human rights violations in Finland related to the Sámi languages, such as the availability of services. The Sámi and Sámi-speaking people should be involved in the decision-making process so that the language can be given a platform.


How would you like to see the status of the Sámi languages in ten years?

I would like the Sámi languages to no longer be such a foreign concept. In Finland, the Sámi languages are usually put into an ‘exotic’ category, while instead we should be part of society. It is already a pleasure to see how more and more young people get excited about studying the Sámi language and want to learn it. Things are moving forward, and we have the means to maintain the languages. I believe that in the future we will live in a Finland where there are more and more children and youth who are fluent in Sámi.


The European Day of Languages is just around the corner. What would be essential for other Europeans to know about the Sámi?

The Sámi are their own people among Europeans. We live in the Arctic, in four different countries. We have nine languages, all of which are endangered. Life as a Sámi sometimes seems to be one long struggle to exist and for us to be able to preserve our language and culture for future generations. A lot of progress has been made in recent years on language revitalisation, but we’re still looking for our own place and to make our voices heard. I encourage people to get to know Sámi culture and, above all, the situation of our languages and under what threats we live in the northernmost part of Europe.


Finally: How do you say “Happy European Day of Languages” in Skolt Sámi?

Šiõǥǥ Eurooʹp ǩiõlipeeiʹv!


Translated from Finnish to English by Ramona Tyler.


As a member of the European National Institutes for Culture in Berlin/EUNIC Berlin, the Finnish Institute in Germany is also involved in various activities on the occasion of the European Day of Languages in September 2020 − from mini language courses for school classes to improv theatre.

Pauli Orava hat an der Universität Tampere seinen Abschluss als Übersetzer (Russisch, Deutsch) und Sprachlehrer (Russisch, Deutsch, Schwedisch) gemacht. Von August 2019 bis Juli 2020 war er als Volontär am Finnland-Institut tätig.

Pauli Orava opiskeli kääntäjäksi ja kieltenopettajaksi Tampereen yliopistossa. Hän toimi harjoittelijana Suomen Saksan-instituutissa elokuusta 2019 lähtien heinäkuuhun 2020 saakka.

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