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Making a statement

The new head of Norway’s Saami assembly broke with tradition and gave her New Year’s address in Norwegian. Some of her countrymen wish she would have stuck to the script
A majority among the minority (Photo: NRK)

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If she had wanted to, Vibeke Larsen, the president of Sámediggi, the legislative assembly for Norway’s Saami, could have made her New Year’s address in the Saami language.

That Ms Larsen (pictured above), who took office on December 8, did not reflects, as she later explained, the fact that she considers herself to be “language-less” as a result of policies to introduce Norwegian into Saami communities.

“Norwegianisation,” she said in her address, “took our language, and I have not been able to take it back.”

SEE RELATED: Giving a big voice to a small language

In that respect, Ms Larsen is not unlike the majority of Saami: an estimated 15% of the 100,000 or so Saami in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia are not literate in a Saami dialect. About 30% can speak a dialect functionally.

Ms Larsen has, by and large, been with met understanding from Saami who are in the same situation. The most supportive suggest her address has removed some of the shame they have felt about having to communicate in Norwegian.

This year’s address was the first time since the Sámediggi was set up in 1989 that the president’s New Year’s address was not given in a Saami language. For those who could understand Saami, subtitles where provided, but this only made matters worse for those who felt Mr Larsen should have made more of an effort to stick with tradition.

“I thought it was awful, I couldn’t watch,” Brita Julianne Skum, a Saami language teacher, told NRK, a broadcaster. “I had to go read the speech on the internet later.” 

SEE RELATED: What’s language got to do with it?

During her address, Ms Larsen made it clear that she knew her choice of Norwegian would disappoint some Saami, but, afterwards, she explained it had been a personal choice.

“I am a Norwegian-speaking Saami,” she told NRK, a broadcaster. “Of course I could have stood there and read a speech, but that wouldn’t have felt right. I wanted my first address to reflect who I am, not someone else.”