Reindeer herders, an app and the fight to save a language

The gates open and the herders consider us into a 300ft-broad circular pen. Away at the other end, 200 reindeers are running in a tightly-packed circle. Amid the silence of the forest, all you can hear is the strange, dull “clck clck” noise of the tendons in their feet.

It is December and I’m deep in the snow-covered forests in Lapland, north Sweden with a group of Sami herders – the indigenous folks of this area – and their reindeers. Whilst it feels as if I’ve been dropped into an animated Christmas card, it is the herders not the reindeers that I’m here to meet and the conversation is not precisely festive.

The herders are amid the final speakers of Ume Sami, one particular of at least five Sami languages spoken in Sweden. Right now, it is spoken by fewer than 50 folks.

Comprehending why the language has turn out to be endangered is extremely hard without having unpicking the challenging past and existing of getting a Sami in Sweden. “There is a deep wound in Sami culture and it is nevertheless bleeding,” says Oscar Sedholm, our guidebook from the NGO Såhkie Umeå Sami Association.

Prejudice, tourism and wounds that are nonetheless bleeding

The herders determine themselves as Sami, a recognised indigenous population from Sapmi – a area that stretches across the nationwide borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Samis are 1 of the five national minorities of Sweden and there are an estimated twenty,000 in Sweden right now. Reindeer herding has been a standard Sami livelihood for centuries, but fewer than two,500 men and women are nonetheless actively involved in this kind of function.

In the previous you weren’t permitted to speak Sami in colleges it was unsightly, you have been ashamed to do it

Katarina Burruk

To be a Sami in Sweden has not been in easy in the past and is not with out its issues today, but you would be forgiven for remaining blissfully unaware of this as a tourist. They, alongside the snowmobiles, northern lights and the sights of Stockholm, are a central tenet of the Swedish tourism brand. You can pay to visit Goahti – their conventional housing. You can get models and postcards of them in their colourful traditional clothing – or Gákti as they are called – in present stores. A Sami doing a conventional Yoik won Sweden’s Received Talent this yr. The Sami culture has been embraced and boldly put forward as a central element of the programme of the Swedish city Umea festivities as European Cultural Capital of 2014.

But the kitsch, celebrated version of Sami culture neatly packaged for tourist consumption is at ideal incomplete, and at worst misleading. The speakers of Ume Sami inform a diverse story: one of an institute set up in the 1920s for racial profiling, local community fragmentation, title changing and these days especially higher suicidal behaviour amongst Sami girls and reindeer herders. Like so many indigenous men and women close to the world, Samis have located themselves, their rights, and their livelihoods intertwined with conflicts more than land rights and organic resources. In 2011, the UN unique rapporteur strongly criticised Sweden for its failure to tackle some of the most pressing issues for Sami individuals and to date it has yet to ratify the ILO convention 169 created specifically to defend indigenous rights.

Whilst, usually speaking, social attitudes have enhanced in Sweden, prejudice remains: some of it subtle, some explicit. My hotel is in the centre of the northern city of Umea, and it does not get extended for glimpses of prejudice to start chipping away at the smiling tourist veneer: in snide remarks at hotel bars overhearing the use of “Lappish” to pejoratively describe Samis or when a Sami friend sporting the very same conventional Gákti that you see on tourism posters is heckled outright in the street.

At the far more severe finish of the spectrum is Björn Söder. Even though he has claimed he was quoted out of context, and his views had been broadly criticised, in an interview last week the Swedish Democrat said that it would be problematic if there had been as well a lot of men and women “who belong to other nations” and had non-Swedish identities. He singled out Samis alongside Jews and Kurds in Sweden.

A lost mother tongue

The irony is that for a lot of Samis this assimilation into Swedish culture and the shedding of Sami identities has already been fantastic, and the charges have been dear. One of the greatest casualties of this approach has been their language.

Patrik Lundgren shares the identify he has offered for the marking on his reindeer’s ear.

Ume Sami, along with the a lot of other Sami languages, stems from the Uralic linguistic family and is wealthy in phrases to describe the all-natural setting with uncommon precision. It has at least a hundred phrases to describe snow, how it behaves, and how it might behave tomorrow. There are phrases certain to reindeer herding that cannot be immediately translated into Swedish or English. The herders tell us that a single illustration of this is the name offered to the intricate and individually unique markings produced on a reindeer’s ear to indicate whom it belongs to. Right now, this language features on the Unesco endangered languages record beneath the group of “critically endangered”.

Katarina Burruk, a youthful Sami speaker and passionate advocate for entry to language schooling, says the recent state of the language can only be understood with reference to its background: “We are living with the consequences of the previous … prior to you weren’t permitted to speak Sami in colleges it was ugly, you had been ashamed to do it. People refused to speak or to pass it on.”

Susanne Stenberg, a Sami teacher in the northern town of Arvidsjaur, spoke about the methods in which she even now carries around the legacy of her family’s experiences. Whilst her grandparents have been native speakers, her mother was forbidden to speak Ume Sami and as a young little one Susanne was asked to leave the room if her grandparents had been going to use the language.

Anders Ruth, a single of the reindeer herders I met on my 1st day, spoke passionately about how the societal shame of the language was mirrored in his family members home: “To protect me, my grandmother refused to educate me Sami.”

The good news is, the place of Sami languages has improved in the Swedish schooling method. In 1998, the Swedish government apologised to the Sami folks for the country’s oppression of the Sami. The refusal to let them speak and learn the language was, along with forcible displacement, cited as an example of such oppression. In 1999, the Swedish Riksdag accredited the ratification of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the protection of national minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In 2009, the government launched a new minority policy that outlined a obligation for guarding and advertising the languages of the country’s national minorities.

Anders Ruth
Anders Ruth: ‘To shield me my grandmother refused to teach me Sami.’ Photograph: Pete Stovin

Even though generally welcomed as indications of progress, these stay largely rights in theory than in actuality. Access to schooling can vary from place to place, but Susanne describes how in fact kids acquire following to practically nothing of Sami language schooling. In Arvidsjaur, the place she operates (a town with a powerful Sami heritage), the tuition is patchy and inconsistent. “After New Year, we do not have anybody to teach. Not for the small youngsters, not for people in colleges, and not for my daughter.”

“We do have rights. By law we have the correct to study Sami in school in Sweden, but it is never that basic or simple. You usually have to argue,” says Katarina who, as a native speaker of Ume Sami has been left exasperated by her experience of the Swedish schooling system. “We [Katarina and her brother] have been fighting our total lives to just get one lesson a week in Sami.”

Estrangement from the language has left a lot of with complicated feelings about their Sami identity. Henrik Burruk, Katarina’s father and an academic functioning on the orthography of the language, stated: “If you are Sami then you feel if you cannot speak it, or express by yourself in the language … You are in discomfort.” Susanne, who is finding out the language as an grownup, describes the feeling as “a part of you missing and you don’t know what it is.”

Younger Samis healing previous wounds

It would be organic to presume that Ume Sami, with fewer than 50 speakers, to be just 1 of the a lot of stories of “dying” languages: quaint historical relics in the tragic but inevitable slope to extinction.

The Ume Sami speakers I met had been undoubtedly mourning the mom tongue they felt they haven’t had the possibility to voice. But the other half of the story is a single of growing pride in Sami identity and a passionate push to revitalise the language.

The battle to preserve and reinvigorate the language has had a sturdy injection of enthusiasm from youthful Samis. Hugo Lundgren, 17, who is presently working alongside his father to discover the capabilities of herding, is incredibly shy until finally we get onto the topic of his Sami identity, where he seems to neglect any social inhibitions and gets animated and forthright. “Our generation has realised there is practically nothing shameful about getting a Sami. It is alternatively a power.” Despite knowing only one particular other young Ume Sami speaker, Hugo is taking lessons in his spare time on best of his college research.

Hugo Lundgen
Hugo Lundgren says Sami language and identity is no longer a source of shame. Photograph: Pete Stovin/Pete Stovin

Katarina describes how this power is being channelled into a “cultural explosion” in Sami artwork, music and movie. She is currently recording her very first album employing Ume Sami lyrics and influences from the conventional Sami Yoik.

Amanda Kernell is a young Sami filmmaker whose most current brief Stoerre Vaerie (Northern Wonderful Mountain) has been shortlisted for 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The movie utilizes Sami actors, sections of Sami dialogue, and is the initial-ever Sami film to compete at the festival. This is a important minute for the Sami neighborhood “Sami men and women are not represented at all in mainstream Scandinavian movie,” says Kernell.

The main character in the film is an elderly lady who was born into a Sami family members and grew up speaking the language but has grown bitterly prejudiced against Sami men and women. It is a personalized tale deeply acquainted to several Sami families, says Kernell. “Everyone understands a person who left [their Sami community] and actually minimize off all bonds.”Many of the Sami extras in the film explained they previously knew this exact story.

Amanda says it has been less complicated for her generation to address “wounds” in Sami culture that were usually as well unpleasant for her grandparents’ generation who grew up with the racial profiling of the 1920s and 1930s, and what she describes as an apartheid-style schooling method.

The story feels like an elegy to those who left their Sami identity behind and reincarnated as Swedish. However the film is also about atonement, symbolised by the use of language. The death of the main character’s sister forces her to confront a heritage that by “becoming Swedish” she has prolonged denied. In 1 moving scene at the wake, the female whispers, “I’m sorry” in Sami into her ear of her dead sister.

Language revitalisation

Youthful Samis are lifting the lid on the unpleasant experiences of previous generations and increasingly ready to talk their mother tongue without having shame. But with handful of speakers, fewer teachers and levels of funding that Susanne describes as “absolutely ridiculous”, there are even now massive useful troubles just before many can inform their own stories in their personal words.

Anders Ruth describes two diverse types of snow in Ume Sami.

When I meet the community of speakers, I uncover they are putting their hopes in an app. The Memrise learning app is a platform that makes it possible for customers to input phrases or phrases and create their own language program. The Ume Sami neighborhood began to use the app without the company’s expertise and are now experimenting with making use of video clips to capture correct pronunciation and inject character into the on-line documentation of the language. “When you haven’t heard the language for one generation, it is very difficult to carry it back. To have it orally is quite essential,” explained Henrik. It is now currently being used by other endangered Sami languages such as Pite Sami.

Employing the app as a finding out tool has distinct positive aspects. Firstly, it connects the speakers to each other. Although even now joined by loved ones hyperlinks, most of the speakers are scattered across the area. Exactly where Ume Sami studying and conversation is taking area, it is in modest, informal groups and quite dependent on voluntary community efforts. The app has the possible to bring collectively these individual efforts into a collective, tangible resource. Secondly, it could potentially plug glaring gaps in formal teaching and entry to finding out sources in the Swedish schooling technique.

Yet the process of digital documentation is seeing its share of teething troubles. The truth that the language is not nevertheless formalised is 1 of the greater obstacles. Other than a 17th century bible written in Ume Sami there are number of written examples of the language and it does not nevertheless have an official dictionary.

I would have been doing work for some thing else if I felt for a single minute that it wasn’t achievable to revive the language.

Henrik Burruk

Surviving in isolated little pockets and individual residences, it has evolved with distinctions in spelling and even word meaning from speaker to speaker. This has resulted in internal frictions in excess of how the language should be preserved. Fluidity and variation are widespread to most languages, but in the situation of Ume Sami, it might not have time for internal stalemates.

However, most speakers are stubbornly optimistic about the future of the language. “I would have been functioning for some thing else if I felt for 1 minute that it wasn’t feasible to revive the language,” said Henrik, who is functioning on the 1st official Ume Sami dictionary.

How far an app can go in saving an endangered language stays to be witnessed. As does the query of whether the speakers can balance the desire for authenticity in the formalisation of the language against the ticking clock.

What is clear is the power of emotion binding these speakers to the project. For some, the language is the phantom mom tongue they really feel an urge to make the sounds of but don’t have the teachers to inform them how. For other folks, it is a language they can communicate but no longer have anyone to pay attention.

For a excellent numerous, it is the language they experimented with to overlook but couldn’t entirely exorcise. The husband of a lady who performs in the outdated people’s residence tells me that numerous of the residents who grew up in the generation that was forbidden to communicate Ume Sami, return to their mom tongue when they get dementia.

Meeting the speakers of Ume Sami was a moving insight into something, specifically as a native English speaker, I had discovered difficult to entirely comprehend: what stands to be misplaced when a language dies. With no this recognition, it’s simple to remain ignorant of how far the language you determine as your very own shapes how you see the planet and who you think you are.

When the last speakers tried to explain in interviews, it was not only the sounds and phrases that stood to be misplaced, or the hundreds of many years well worth of knowledge that they carry, but – as they resorted to hand movements – something beyond phrases.

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