På norsk Sámegillii

Article in the book Sami School History 2. Davvi Girji 2007.

Asta Balto:

My loyalty was in the Sami community

Written in co-operation with Svein Lund

English translation: Inga Hild Lykka

Asta Balto
(Photo: Svein Lund)

Asta Mitkijá Balto (Mienna-Márjjá Máret Asta) has been a central person in the development of Sami education for the last couple of decades. She was born in 1948 and grew up on Fárpenjárga in Karasjok, 16 km from the church site. At that time those who came from the outskirts had to live at dormitories during their schooling.

At the age of 18, Asta Balto started at the teachers college in Tromsø, and afterwards she worked in primary school in Porsanger and Alta. She has taken undergraduate in Sami (in Alta), Finnish (from Lappeenranta) and her main subject studies are social education (from the University of Oslo). Based on her main subject dissertation, she has later published the book Samisk barneoppdragelse i endring. (Sami child-raising a-changing).

Asta Balto has worked as a teacher at the college in Alta, as a scholar at the Nordic Sami Institute and as director at the Sami Education Council. She has taught and researched at the Sami University College (Sámi allaskuvla) since 1994, and she also held the position as principal 1996-2000. She has held many positions within Sami and Norwegian education and research, including being a member of the Board of the Coordination Commitee for Finnmark Education Region (SUFUR)[1], Teacher Educaton Council (Lærerutdanningsrådet) and the national research ethnics commitee. She has worked eagerly for the internationalisation of the Sami education system and established relations with other indigenous peoples and minorities.

Asta Balto has written various articles concerning Sami schooling and she has edited the book Kunnskap og kompetanse i Sápmi (Knowledge and competence in Sápmi)

Norwegian at a 'good morning'-level

At home we only spoke Sami, but at school, everything should be in Norwegian. My first teacher was Anna Mørk. She taught in Karasjok for a long time, and she had also been my mother's teacher. She was Norwegian, but she knew Sami. I remember the first day at school, when she asked how many of us knew Norwegian. I raised my hand, because I could say "God dag!" (Good morning!). Then I helped my cousin, who sat next to me, to raise her hand, because I knew that she knew just as much Norwegian as I did. The truth was that none of us knew much more than these two words. Anna Mørk mainly taught in Norwegian, but she explained to us in Sami when we did not understand. Because of that it became easier for us to understand the first years in school, and later, when we had other teachers, who were not proficient in Sami, we had already begun to understand Norwegian.

As we were always supposed to speak Norwegian in class, schooling did not improve our proficiency in our native language. On the contrary, our native tongue was weakened at the dormitory, because we only heard Sami spoken by children at the same age, and thus our development of Sami stagnated at that stage. In my environment back home, Sami had a strong position, and when we came home, our parents would correct our language. I still remember their advices, and how they over and over again referred to that "in Sami we do not talk like this, but like this".

School strike

I had to live at the dormitory through the 9 years of primary school. The first time I lived at the school's dormitory in Karasjok, at the church site. We went home every Saturday, and even though we had to walk pretty far, because the bus only drove half the distance, it was always good to be home for a night.

When I was in 3rd grade, it was decided that the children from the outskirts should go to Grensen school, a school located 20 km in the opposite direction of the church site. This more than doubled the distance back to our homes, and we could only go home barely once a month. My father was in the local council and he tried to counteract this politically, but he did not succeed, and then he and some other parents went out on strike. They kept their children home for three weeks. All the parents did not join in on the strike. Many people were short of money, and some parents had calculated that they could save a bagful of flour if the children did not come home that often.

At Grensen dormitory we lived 6 girls in one room. I remember the first day at school when my sister and I took out our clothes from the clothing-box our dad had made, and placed everything neatly in the closet. While we were away, our new roomies had thrown our things pell-mell around the room. This is probably the worst welcoming I have ever received. The children were often left to themselves, free to exclude others when no adults were around. I was a different child. When the other children played, I read books and I read everything in the school library. Ever since I began to understand Norwegian, I was interested in reading and I read all sorts of literature.

Skillful teachers

I went to Grensen school for 3 years and I was content with the teachers; Trygve Madsen and his wife, Randi[2], Inger Johanne Kåven and Rolf Presthus. I particularly remember Randi Nordback Madsen, whom I learned a lot from. She was my teacher in the 6th grade at Grensen school, and later also my teacher in parts of upper primary school (7th-9th grade) at the church site.

In 7th grade my teacher was Inez Boon and she was a skillful teacher. At that time I had no idea what an important role she had in the creation of elementary courses in Sami.[3] When I studied in Oslo I met her again, and at that time she worked at the Universitetsforlaget (Scandinavian University Press). Our teachers in the first part of secondary school were overall skillful and had higher education. Among them was Inger Sophie Bolstad, the priest's wife. The priest, Jo Bolstad, created a good and positive environment for the young people, and he was regarded as the priest of the youths. Among other things, he wrote a play with us, and it was staged at the Sami folk high school[4], and many people came to see the show. My parents were also there, even my grandmother who was a laestadian (a pietistic revival movement) and did not like theatre very much. Everything went alright until a youth came up on stage and played Jesus: my grandmother jumped up from the bench, left the room and did not return.

I spent the first years in primary school learning Norwegian. I worked hard with it, and my knowledge in the other subjects were rather poor. I often came home with the lowest grade in subjects such as mathematics, history and science. My grades did not improve until I reached 5th-6th grade, and my proficiency in Norwegian had become rather good. In 8th grade I had a classmate from Kongsberg (her father came as a captain to the military base Porsangmoen) and that became useful to me. They spoke Norwegian with a southern accent, as did the teachers, and by copying them I learned that accent too. When I graduated from the first part of secondary school, I received top grades in Norwegian. I even did better than many of my Norwegian class mates! It was satisfying to see that all the hard work had finally payed off.

When I chose the theoretic course of study in the 8th grade, all my former class mates chose the practical course, and thus I became the only one left, at my age, in the dormitory. My new class mates lived in private flats at the church site. They came from other places like Kautokeino and Porsanger. The life at the secondary school's dormitory was not so bad. I had grown used to it, and I had also grown up myself. The only negative aspect of life at the dormitory was curfew hours. We had to be back by 9 p.m. When we had a lot of homework at school, I could barely make time to hang out with my classmates. My father wanted me to have a good time at school, and he asked for special arrangements to be made for me so that I could stay out of the dormitory later than the others, to be able to spend time with my class mates. It was a very special occurrence when the headmaster gave the permission for this. To me this felt as an enormous statement of trust, and I promised my father that I would not breake any rules! To me, this became the first time I learned what it meant for a child to have trust and responsibility; the self-confidence grows. The matron at the dormitory had a hard time accepting that I was allowed to bend the rules, and she tried to argue with me, but I did not care about that. My father and the headmaster had made the decision! I will never forget that occurrence, which has shaped and coloured my pedagogical way of thinking ever since.

I attended a voluntary 10th year in secondary school. During that year I learned German from Einar Gullichsen. He became the person who inspired me the most to apply for the teachers college.

A rounded childhood home

In those days, a fierce debate took place in Karasjok, concerning the language of education. It was a widespread opinion that the Sami language would not survive, and some Sami-speaking parents began to speak Norwegian to their children. At home we spoke Sami, but my parents still did not want us to learn Sami at school. They firmly believed that we had to learn Norwegian to be able to manage in the greater society. My father also signed a petition against the Sami committee's propositions. He was an active member of the Labour Party whose propaganda and fundamental view was that in these new times, development could only take place through the Norwegian language. This must have been a huge dilemma for my parents. At home they followed our Sami language-acquisition closely, and they always told us to speak correct and distinct Sami. Many years passed before they began to understand that Sami, as a language and a cultural heritage, was important, not only in the private sphere, but also in general public, the judicial system and within the school.

My father was a Laestadian preacher, but he was also a socialist. This meant that in our home you could joik (traditional Sami chanting), sing a psalm or political tunes like The International. My father was a talented joiker and, even though the laestadian movement and the church had banned the joik (it was regarded a sin), he made joiks to his children. Our mother used to dance and she taught us how to dance with her on the kitchen floor. None of these activities were regarded as normal activities in the homes at that time.

Our childhood home was rounded, not only in terms of opinions, but also in terms of who came to see us. We had a little farm, and in addition to the livestock we had our own reindeer[5] All sorts of people came by our home; rich and poor, settled and nomadic Sami, relatives and strangers, local people and travelers, Sami friends from Kautokeino, preachers, clergymen, politicians, tourists and other travelers.

Later, I have regarded my open childhood home as a great source of wealth. Naturally, my parents view of human life affected their Christianity to become more loving than judging, and maybe their human receptiveness became further strengthened during the war (WW2) when they were refugees in Sweden. Their receptiveness towards others did not weaken their sense of belonging to Sápmi and they had a strong Sami identity. They emphasised the fact that all human beings have the same value, and I have kept those words in my heart. As an adult I am deeply grateful for the view of human life my childhood home created, namely a view that gave equal status to everyone and a view that has been of great value both in terms of personal life and in my work. I know that a human being is not necessarily completely black-and-white, and it is possible to feel confident even though different aspects of life call for different mindset.

Many years went by, and my parents had grown used to the idea that Sami should be heard within the schools as well. This became a huge source of support for us (the children). My family had kept our Sami surname, Balto, and they did not replace it with a Norwegian name, such as the Norwegian name of our farm, Randberg (The Sami name was Fárpenjárga). Many of the Sami inhabitants in Karasjok changed their surname as a result of the Land Sales Act that took effect in 1902.

A new challenge concerning our exchange of views came with the development of the Alta-Kautokeino-watercourse. The older generation feared the Norwegian government, and was afraid of a new war and conflicts similar to what they had already experienced. Some of us participated in the demonstrations against the Alta-development. Our parents tried to dissuade us from going: "- Do not go there to start a war". As far as they were concerned, the thought of their children being taken care of by the police, was awful. I had to disobey. My conscience forced me to oppose - to care for the Sami future. Even though my parents did not approve, they helped us prepare for the demonstrations in the cold winter climate by providing us with warm clothing such as traditional fur shoes, fur coats and skin trousers.

These stories illustrate the different and difficult choices Sami people have come across. On one hand they wanted to protect and carry on their own heritage, both in terms of language and culture. On the other hand they feared that this would lead to reluctance towards the Sami people.

"How do you experience being a Sami?"

In my years of youth I wanted higher education, but at that time it was not that easy. My parents could not afford to have all the children in gymnasium, and scholarships and loans were not provided at that level. The only possibility I had was applying for 4 years at the teachers college. In 1966, at the age of 18, I started at the teachers college in Tromsø. They did not teach Sami at all at that time. We did however have an interesting teacher in Nils Jernsletten[6] who taught us Norwegian. I remember he asked me to write an essay on "how do you experience being a Sami?" My immediate thought was: It is not hard to be a human being, hence it is not hard to be Sami. It is all up to yourself. If you are nice to others, they will be nice to you. A kind of "smile-to-the-world" philosophy. The feed-back from Nils suggested that I needed to take this matter into deeper consideration. Later I got to learn that neither my own nor other's life as a Sami was as easy as I had predicted.

During my time in Tromsø, I often longed for the life back home and I missed the Sami language and joik, and also the nearness to my grandmother. I used to joik my closest relatives and friends to me, so that they would fill up my little room. That way I became happy. There was not an established Sami society in Tromsø (there were for instance no such thing as a Sami Association). Our main input of Sami was through Sámi Radio where we could feel like home in Kathrine Johnsen's office.

Now I know that there were many Sami people in Tromsø, but only a few admitted who they were. We were approximately 20 students in my class, and I knew that 4 of us were Sami. When we had our 25-years-reunion in 1995, it turned out that half of our class were Sami!

A teacher without textbooks

My first job as a teacher was in the school year 1970/71 at Skoganvarre school in Porsanger. Sverre Hatle had etablished basic training in Sami at this school.[7] During my year at Skoganvarre he was on leave in order to write Sami textbooks and curriculums. I had two colleagues, one who spoke Sami, and one who spoke Norwegian. Most of the children spoke, and the rest understood, Sami.

I taught the smallest children in 1st-3rd grade. There were no such thing as textbooks, so we had to use flannelboards[8] and cuttings of letters. We had to make new words for our classes every night. I had never learned to write Sami, and I did not learn it until i took a basic course in Sami in 1979-80. The course took place in Alta, but the University of Tromsø was responsible for the course. Håkon Henriksen and Odd Mathis Hætta taught in Norwegian, and by our opinion, this was both inconvenient and unnatural. We tried to change this, but we did not succeed. The argument was that our group contained students who spoke Norwegian and hence the lessons should be in Norwegian! I found great amusement in reading Sami, even though the orthography was changed in those days - it had not yet been decided whether we should learn the old or the new spelling, and there had not yet been written any books after the change in orthography.

During the 1970's, Asta Balto worked as a teacher in the primary school in Alta. Here she celebrates the Norwegian national day with her students, 17.05.1974.
(Photo: contributed by Asta Balto)

At the beginning of the 80's, I worked a few years as a teacher in the Sami secion at the college in Alta. The teachers who taught Sami there were Veikko Holmberg, Odd Mathis Hætta, Liv Østmo and Máret Sárá. Máret and I taught Sami-related topics such as culture, ethnicity, politics concerning minorities, methodology and didactics. We were also responsible for the student's experience in teaching and to maintain contact with the schools in which they were placed. The Sami section was a powerful means in terms of lifting the consciousness and confidence among the Sami students and the position of the "Saminess" to a higher level.

One of our own is finally writing about our inheritance.

I studied social education at the University of Oslo, and most of the teachers hardly knew anything about Sami conditions. My 4 years of studies in Oslo would have been rather boring if professor Anton Hoem had not worked there. When I entered his office it was almost as if I entered my own "Sami home". In my last year, Anton was granted a leave of absence, and went to the USA. His replacement as a supervisor was a man from the social set of the Coast Sami: Asle Høgmo. I am deeply grateful that I, through their splendid support end supervising, received such good results for my examination.

On the 1st of May 1984 Sami demands had entered the protest march: "Recognition of Sami rights" and a demand that Sami should be included in the schools in Oslo. At that time, Asta studied in Oslo and on this photo she is with her live-in partner Magne Ove Varsi
(Photo: Klassekampen)

Working on my main subject was hard, but at the same time it gave me so much because I had the possibility to talk to and interview people in Karasjok on the subject of raising children. They were so grateful that they were given the opportunity to tell their stories and share some of their knowledge. Some of them said: "Finally, one of our own is interested in writing about and preserving our knowledge about this". This taught me a lot about generosity and sharing: people want to share their experience and knowledge of traditions in order to carry on this knowledge to younger generations.

Asta Balto has published this book (Sami child-raising a-changing) on the basis of her own main subject dissertation. It has been published in both Norwegian and Sami, and it is used as a textbook at the Sami University College and other educational institutions.

Where is the loyalty?

In 1989 the director of the Sami Education Council, Edel Hætta Eriksen, reached the retirement age[9] I was encouraged to apply for that position, and after applying I was called in for an interview. The interviewers referred to, among other things, the rules at the time which demanded that people in higher office had to sign a declaration of loyalty. I though it was a bit funny when they asked me what I would do should I ever disagree with the employer, the ministery, so that an conflict of interest could occur. I answered them straight-forward that my aim was to build up a Sami system of education, and if the ministry prevented me from doing so I would resign! My loyalty was in the Sami community. No representative from the ministry was present during the interview, and I don't know if anyone from the ministry got to know what I answered. The loyalty-demand for officials was withdrawn during that time and I never had to sign any such declaration.

There were major challenges working in the council and it was fun to continue on the good foundation Edel had laid. The first was to make the authorities understand how large the needs of the Sami education-sector were. We put a lot of effort into finding out how we, in the best way possible, could show how the pupil-, teacher- and teaching-material situation really was. We made statistics and graphic presentations every year which showed number of pupils, and how many who had Sami as a first and second language.

Prioritise teaching of second language?

The information we gathered from the schools showed a large increase in number of pupils who has Sami as a second language. At the same time the schools, pupils and parents stated that the results of the second language teaching was not satisfying. It wasn't enough teaching-material and the teachers lacked academic and/or pedagogic education. It was as a whole little knowledge, also among the educated teachers, on how to teach second language in such a way that the pupils would become active speakers of it. It became my top priority to work to improve the language situation for those kids and young people who had lost their mother tongue and wanted to take it back. I saw that we did not have the knowledge we needed for second language teaching in Norway. We had to look into what was happening elsewhere which we could compare ourselves to. And when I was invited to an international conference for minority languages in 1991, I realised that we could have an advantage with contacts abroad. The conference was about regional minority languages in Europe and was held in Wales.

Later many Sami delegations have travelled to Wales and I was the one who set it into motion when I established contact with them. I discovered that among the European minorities there is a lot of people teach minority language as a second language. In Wales they have worked on it for a long time, and the results have been good. They emphasise the communicative perspective, teaching grammar is not the most important thing. In our teaching of Sami the formal way of teaching language dominated for a long time. We visited Trinity College, where teaching of second language is a separate subject in the teacher education and one could also study this as a separate subject all the way to the doctoral degree.

Asta Balto was the first Sami school representative who went on a study trip to Wales, and thereafter a lot of teachers and students from Sápmi have. This picture shows the second language pedagogy class from the Sami University College visiting a laguage centre in Wales in 1993.
(Photo: Svein Lund)

When I came back I decided to take the initiative for a major conference about second languge education/teaching and emphasise the communicative aspect of teaching language. The main issue became the revival of the Sami language. It was the first time second language teaching received this kind of attention in Sápmi.

The next step of the work with language was a course in second language pedagogy, which the Sami Education Council arranged together with the Sami University College in 1992/93. We invited teachers from Wales to teach on this course and the students went there on a school trip. This course was a trial project, no study points were awarded, but it was very valuable for giving the schools new ideas and to build a foundation for the Sami University College to two years later offer a permanent study-programme in bilingual pedagogy and it also lead to bilingualism becoming a subject in the teacher education.

The experiences from Wales showed that the schools alone could not revive the language, one has to look at the situation in society in general. Important tools are language centres, language nests and also the media. The guest lecturers mentioned all of this at the conference in 1991, and we took the language centre concept from Wales and adapted it to Sami conditions. We, among other things, emphasised that it should not be purely a language centre, but both an language- and culture centre. The education division was not the only ones who made contacts in Wales. Other institutions visited as well, the Sami Radio for example got to know Welsh media-institutions.

I started a proccess writing a book about second language teaching Duostta hupmat / Våg å snakke (Dare to talk), where experiences from both Wales and Sapmi surfaced. It was the first time such a book was available to everyone. The Education Council also made the film Čoavdda guovtti máilbmái / En nøkkel til to verdener (A key to two worlds), which was aimed especially at motivating parents to talk Sami with their children and choose Sami subjects at school.

Kvens are also minority language speakers

When we started to announce the new ideas about second language teaching, we got a lot of critique for not taking the Kvens' situation into consideration. One Kven teacher who participated in the conference explained that these new teaching-methods were just as useful for them. The Sami and Kven community had the same interests, which lead to the Sami University College arranging courses in multi-lingual pedagogy, some years in cooperation with the division of Finnish at the Finnmark University College. Among the students were teachers of both Sami- and Finnish and others who were interested in improving teaching of Sami and/or Finnish.

Establishing a centre for teaching material

The second major challenge I worked on was to improve the teaching material situation. It was a known issue that there was a huge lack of teaching material and that the schools were suffering as a result, but it was difficult to get the ministry to understand it. We conducted a thorough investigation into how much, or rather how little, teaching material was available in Northern-, Lule- and Southern Sami for each subject and class.

The goal was to offer each subject and class a set of books: textbook, workbook and a teacher's guide. The survey showed how serious the situation was. A graphic presentation showed that we in most subjects failed to meet the minimum goal, and the situation was rather that many subjects did not have a single approved teaching material available. In the Norwegian school and the Norwegian language education there were not only rules but also room to chose between different sets of books, and in addition choose additional books, reference- and handbooks for each subject. That way of visualising the situation gave results. In the ministry they started to realise how much of a hinder the lack of teaching material was for the Sami schools and language aquisition.

The allocations to the production of teaching material were so small that with the present speed it would take at least 50 years before all the subjects would meet the minimum target. But the lack of money was not the only problem. We also needed authors of teaching material, and it was usually teachers who could write textbooks. When it was a significant lack of teachers at the same time, it was natural for the schools to feel that the work with teaching material stole teachers from them. The teachers had a large workload and making teaching material required additional knowledge. We arranged a course in producing teaching material, where we received help from the national centre of teaching material and from Sami publishers.

In 1991 we managed to squeeze a small sum of money out of the ministry to investigate the teaching material situation and establish centres for teaching material. The idea was that if we wanted to highlight on the teaching material situation, we needed our own centre for teaching material. It was not supposed to be a part of the normal work of the education council. It should be our own employees who worked on just that, and it should also be a showroom were everyone could see the teaching material that existed. The ministry appointed a commitee that I was in charge of. In the commitee with me was my colleague Kristine Nystad and people from both county and ministry. Vi surveyed the teaching material situation in Sápmi and compared it with equivalent areas when it came to the size of the language. We surveyed the Faeroe Islands and Greenland and found out that there were good examples which we could take advantage of. Among other things were own teaching material centres.

Relocation of the education council to the Sami Parliament

From its inception in 1976 the Sami Education Council had been a consultative body for the Ministry of Education. And although much had been changed in the Sami policy in the period, the organisation of the Sami education sector had not.

In 1991, an inter-ministrial work group evaluated the transfer of functions and powers to the Sami Parliament. The group said about the Sami education council: The work group assumes that it might be natural at the moment to wait for a while with the transfer of authority from the central authorities to the Sami Parliament in terms of the Sami Education Council's operations. However, one should as a start immediately be able to transfer the authority to appoint the Sami Education Council to the Sami Parliament.

In 1993 the Sami Parliament appointed a commitee that studied how the Sami education sector could be organised. I was in charge of this commitee, and with me was Randi Nordback Madsen from the Ministry of Education, Mikkel Nils Sara from the Sami University College, Jon Meloy from the Sami Secondary School and Reindeer Herding School and Ella Holm Bull for the Sami Parliament. Our report was called "Utredning av omorganisering av den samiske utdanningssektoren. Innstilling fra et utvalg oppnevnt av Sametinget". ("Report of reorganisation of the Sami education sector. Recommendations from a commitee appointed by the Sami Parliament".) The report was only published in Norwegian. The commitee lined up 6 possible ways of organising and advocated for the one that gave the most power to the Sami Parliament. Among other things we suggested that the Sami Parliament should have the mandate to decide the content of the Sami school so that they themselves could decide the curricula.

Some parts of our proposals were implemented, but the Sami Parliament did not get as much power as we had expected. We proposed to place the Sami Education Council under the Sami Parliament. This happened, but when the Sami Parliament got power over the organisation of the Sami education administration they decided to close down the entire Sami Education Council. The education council disappeared in the Sami Parliament's process of changing the organisation, and so the politically elected academic community that had been highly visible in the Sami community disappeared as well. All that was left was one administration: The Sami Parliament's education division. Above this was only the Sami Parliamentary Council, with members without any special expertise or interest in school related issues. In the council there were 5 politically elected representatives who were supposed to govern all aspects of the Sami policy.

Difficult birth for Sami curricula

When I started working in the Sami education council we had the standard curriculum M87, which had some Sami curricula. We did not do curriculum work then, the main issue was rather to make strategies for work with Sami teaching material. But we did not get to work in peace for long as the Minister of Education, Gudmund Hernes, started working on reforms. First came the common general curricula for primary, upper secondary and adult education. Start-up conferences was arranged in each county, and I represented the Sami interests at the conference in Vadsø in 1991. There I made our needs clear and also Norway's commitment to treat the Sami perspective seriously when working with the curricula. But what came in the general part was very poor. It was in no way acceptable to us. Then came the Reform 94 for secondary education, but the Sami education council had little capasity to work with this, so we sent a policy statement. We had to prioritise the primary school. And we only had one consultant working with cases concerning secondary school teaching. In our council there were mostly primary school people as well.

I quit the education council at the end of 1993, but continued a little with curricula work in 1994, as the ministry had appointed me for a reference-group working with curricula. The ministry's idea was that it should be only one curricula for everyone, and that some Sami subjects fitted into the national curricula. The Ministry of Church-, education-, and research wrote in a letter of 14.01.1994 that the ministry had promoted: The idea that the new standard curriculum should be a national curriculum which includes all teaching given to the country's primary school pupils, also those in the Sami core areas. The argument for Sami subjects was that it is important for all students in the Norwegian school to obtain a better and broader understanding of the Sami population's culture and history. That means that the ministry used the Norwegian students' need for learning about the Sami as an argument against a separate Sami curricula! We could obviously not accept this. We had recently got a Sami curricula in some subjects, so we could in no way accept that the Sami content in Sami schools should be weakened when the Sami legal position was stronger than ever. The Sami education council answered on 04.02.1994: "The Sami education council disagrees in that there should be a common national curriculum. A separate curriculum has to be made for the areas that are covered by the language rules of the Sami law. It has to, in addition to containing curricula on every subject, contain a general part". Three days later there was a meeting with the reference-group for the work with the curricula. It is obvious from the meeting report that I disagreed with the ministry: "Asta Balto made a reservation according the refered comments under the headline Sami language, culture and Sami pupils, second last bullet point. There is a need for individual Sami plans. She distributed a new note with clarifications of her earlier input to the reference-group".

In the note I explained more thoroughly the Sami school situation, our collective rights and why there was a need for both individual Sami curricula and subjects in the national curricula. After the meeting I sent a letter to the leader of the group, where I explained what I meant with individual Sami curricula like this: The first paragraph signals that the Sami content for Sami students is local information. The possibility for local adaption is okay, but it must not be replaced with, or be at the expense of, the possibility for a joint Sami design for the schools. I would like to remind you that the Sami people has collective rights to develop a school with basis in the Sami community, šhich must be regarded as something different from simply local emphases and specialisation in Sami language and culture. It rather conserns curricula based on the Sami language and culture. It involves a joint Sami knowledge-, culture-, and value base from Elgå in the south to Kirkenes in the north, and not least a commuity that also reaches beyond the borders, to Sweden, Finland and Russia.

The ministry did not seem to understand this yet, because on 24.02.1994 director Hanna Marit Jahr wrote: "I also refer to the meeting with SUR (Sami Educational Council) in Oslo 30.11.1993, were it was said from all quarters that Sami pupils should be ensured the same knowledge fundation as any other pupil in the primary school. It is also in line with the ILO-convention's chapter 2, that members of these peoples enjoy the rights and opportunities that national laws and regulation secures for other members of the population, in line with these". This is secured through the joint mandatory teaching material for all pupils. It also secures the Sami pupils equal qualifications after completed primary school.

They still had the old-fashioned notion that equal status was the same thing as learning exactly the same, that is to say that everyone should be treated in the same way; as Norwegians. The Sami commitee had explained this important difference as early as in 1959, and this difference had a clear political significance for Sami people and other indigenous peoples. To include Sami content into the reform was heavy and hard work and one can not boast about minister Hernes' interest for Sami issues. We had to hurry to mobilise the leading politicians in the Sami Parliament in order to save the Sami part of the reform. At the end of the process Hanna Marit Jahr had started to give in to the Sami demands about an individual Sami curricula, and Sami subjects in the national curriculum was the result. As long as I worked in the Sami Education Council we did not have any direct link to Hernes and he never asked us for advice, not a single time. He never visited the education council nor Sami areas in my time, even though we invited him multiple times.

Southern and Lule-Sami threatened

In my role as director I got to know various Sami affairs, and I became worried when I saw how threatened the Southern-Sami and Lule-Sami languages were. There were barely children who spoke Sami as their first language and researchers claim that it is a sign of language death. If the children does not learn the languages, who will then transfer them to future generations? They had poorer teacher- and learning material situation than in Northern Sami areas.

Lule Sami representative in the Sami Education Council was Anne Kalstad Mikkelsen, who also was one of the parents who started Lule-Sami kindergarden in Tysfjord. They managed to get the children to talk Sami to such a degree that when they started in primary school they had Lule-Sami as their first language. It was such a large success that it was striking and the parent group later received the Sami Parliament's language awards. It was heart-warming when they thanked me for my support in the acceptance speech.

The Southern-Sami representative in the education council was Sig-Britt (Pia) Persson. She was eager to start a Southern-Sami kindergarden in Snåsa. The idea was to set up a language nest, where there would be room for 12 Southern-Sami children. We had great expectations and were delighted that we had managed to recruit two Southern-Sami teacher-students from Sweden and that enough children had been signed up. When we were supposed to start the in the autumn, several parents pulled out, without us knowing why, and with only two children left we could not start the project. We had to abandon the plan, and because of this the Southern-Sami language did not receive the help it sorely needed, and which could have contributed to preserve and develop the language and form a foundation for today's language work in this area. Many years of struggle and trial was in vain.

Now (2006) I am working a bit with language in the southern Sami areas. I am in the steering group for the language motivation project the Sami Parliament started in 2001. The aim with this is to revitalise the language of the kindergarten generation, the language their grandparents speak, but the parents don't know.

Asta and her daughter, Áila Márge Varsi Balto, meeting natives at Hawaii, 1999.
(Photo lent by Asta Balto)

Sami University College – design of higher education

When I began as a teacher at the Sami University College in January 1994 the first thing I got to teach was multicultural pedagogy, or as it was later named; Multicultural understanding. I had made the course-plan myself together with Vigdis Stordahl and Liv Østmo.

In those days one had begun to develop so-called migration-pedagogy in Oslo and Bergen, among other places. When we compared those courses with out own we found a major difference: Their courses were made on the terms of the majority-society, they viewed multiculturalism as a problem, not as a treasure. Our basis was that our cultural knowledge is a treasure, but we have to use it to move on. We should not only mind our own business.

A lot of Sami people think that our cultural knowledge is so strong that we don't need to write about it. My though has rather been that we need the theory as a foundation for understanding our own culture in the encounter with other cultures.

Multicultural pedagogy back then was the only course on offer at the Sami Community College that was taught in Norwegian, because we wanted this course to be a course were cultures met. Sami-speaking Sami people, Norwegian-speaking Sami people and non-Sami people should all be able to participate. The students were not only teachers, they also came from other professions, for example journalists, social- and health workers, psychologists and culture workers.

It was a very popular subject, and in addition to the courses that have been in Kautokeino, we have arranged lessons i Snåsa, Tysfjord and Vadsø. Cultural understanding has become part of the general courses, just like the journalism- and teacher course. We have also held a number of short courses. The need is much larger than what we have capasity for.

I have learned that this course has really changed the students' minds. I remember a student who said: "If I had learned this when I was 20 years old, my life would have been completely different."

My main idea with this course has been to build peace and bridges between different people and peoples, and that knowledge, understanding and communication are useful tools for achieving that.

Collaboration between higher education for indigenous people.

In my time working at the Sami University College I have been allowed to take part in a lot of interesting work. International cooperation is one of the most important areas. I don't think that the University College would have come so far as it has today if we had not nurtured the contact with other indigenous people. This contact has strenghtened and motivated us in the work to promote higher education and research in Sami. Sami and other indigenous people have exchanged experiences and knowledge about the effects of colonisation etc.

Asta Balto has visited many countries and researched the education- and teaching material situation for indigenous peoples and minoriites. Here she is in Canada looking at textbooks written in Inuktitut after the curious alphabet of the Canadian inuits.
(Photo: The education council in North West Territory)

We have a lot of times thought that what others can do elsewhere, we should be able to do as well. I can mention one excample from Canada, where the Dene-people have managed to create their own curricula, "Dene Curriculum". This is a real indigenous people plan, built on their own traditions and way of thinking. Unlike Norway, where the Sami curriculum of 1997 is nothing else than the Norwegian curriculum adapted to the Sami people. It has also been a huge inspiration to see how other indigenous peoples use the knowledge of others in school and production of teaching material. Some institutions have individual courses where they learn methods to gather and make use of indigenous peoples knowledge in education and research.

And I also hope that the experiences of the Sami University College can be useful for other indigenous peoples.

[1] Finnmark was a seperate education region in the period 1988-99.
[2] See interview with Trygve and Randi N. Madsen in Sami School History 2.
[3] See Inez Boons own story in Sami School History 1.
[4] Folk high school (Folkehøgskole) is a Nordic type of school. a college without any formal curriculum and exams. 1936-2000 there was a folk high school especially for Samis in Karasjok.
[5] In Norwegian this was called "sytingsrein"; reindeers owned and marked by private persons, but looked after together with the larger herds.
[6] Nils Jernsletten later became a professor in Sami language at the University of Tromsø
[7] See Sverre Hatle's story from Skoganvarre school in Sami School History 1
[8] A board of felt on which you can attach figures made of flannel
[9] See Edel Hetta Eriksen's story in Sami School History 1

More articles from Sami School History 2