På norsk Sámegillii

Article in the book Sami school history 1. Davvi Girji 2005.

Harald Eidheim:

Emergency teacher in Samiland: experiences and reflections

English translation: Ane Helga Lykka

Harald Eidheim and his pupils in Polmak. The pupils are: Nils Johannes Porsanger, Frøydis Aslaksen, Ingrid Dolonen, Elna Holmgren, Marit Tapio, Edvin Johnsen.
(Photo borrowed from Harald Eidheim)

Harald Eidheim was teaching at Meskelv school in Nesseby autumn 1946 and at the governmental boarding school in Polmak 1947–48. He was born in 1925 in Volda at Sunnmøre. While he was working as a teacher in Finnmark his only education was the gymnasium.

After the time as "emergency teacher" he started to study at the University in Oslo and did the masters degree in social anthropology with the thesis "Erverv og kulturkontakt i Polmak" (Occupation and cultural contact in Polmak), which was published in 1958. He has done fieldwork in different places in Sápmi from the 1950s and onwards, and published works on etnopolitical and cultural aspects of Sami social life. His collection of essays Aspects of the Lappish Minority Situation is most known.

Harald Eidheim has worked at the universities in Oslo, Stockholm and Tromsø. He was the first professor of Sami studies at the University in Tromsø, and after his retirement he still held the position as second professor at Tromsø Museum. He is still working freelance as a project collaborator there.


The epoch which in Norwegian and North-Norwegian history is known as the era of reconstruction begun when the second world war ended. During this epoch, which lasted until the 1960s a new base for a more normal community life was gradually constructed. One of the central assignments was to start and normalize the teaching in the elementary school which lacked both school buildings, teaching material and educated teachers. There was a shortage of teachers all over the country, and through the radio and newspapers they encouraged also people who had done upper or lower secondary school exam or equivalent education to sign up to rebuild the school in the north.

I was one of those who followed this encouragement, and a day in the end of September 1946 I boarded the old "Midnattsol" in Ålesund with the suitcase in my hand and a telegram from the superintendent of schools in Finnmark in my pocket. Destination Vadsø. The telegram said I had to keep it, because it was the proof that I had the right to pass through the passport control in Tromsø. Furthermore it said I had to be able to demonstrate a certificate that I had shown the right national attitude during the war. As I boarded I also had one of those in my pocket.

For the first time in my life I got to experience the marvellous North-Norwegian coast along the shipping lane – dramatic scenery which made the excitement of the new and unknown even stronger for the 21 year old.

At Prostneset in Tromsø there was a shed where all of us who were travelling further had to pass. It was a checkpoint to control whether the travellers could show papers that they had valid reasons to travel further north and east. The ones who were allowed to pass were with no exception deloused with a munificent amount of DDT. In the male room we got a portion down the shirt collar and one down the waistband. Deloused and approved Midnattsol took me further north and east, as my first polar night drew closer.

There was a whole lot of people who travelled further from Tromsø. A lot of families were returning home after they had been evacuated to the south after the burning – returning to the site of a fire, and a life in sheds – but all with expectations to refind, reconquer and continue to live in the part of the country they had been forced to leave. Several of them had brought sheep which were kept on the gallows deck. Others were southerners, single men who were to take part in reconstructional work of different kinds. – There was an atmosphere of reconstruction among the passengers, a new time was imminent, new opportunities had opened.


After leaving Tromsø Midnattsol met rough weather – an increasing gale, and she had to skip all the stops before Vadsø at the Varangerhalvøya. We arrived there a cold morning at about five o'clock, and I saw the grey city of barracks which appeared as the twilight gave in to the daylight. Being so close to this visible expression of what had happened during the burning and afterwards gave room to a strange feeling.

I talked to one of the workers in the dock and told him about my errand there. He told me that I shouldn't go up to the city at this point, but that I could stay in the restroom of the dock workers until it was day. In the dock and the restroom the workers talked a language between themselves which was unfamiliar to me. I thought it could be Kven since I had heard that there could be Kvens in Vadsø.

The barrack city which was there so silent and grey in the twilight, and the unknown language which sounded so unfamiliar in my ears gave me a sensation of being far away from home, I was in Norwegian borderland. My body was tingeling with excitement. As the clock drew close to nine I called the office of the superintendent of schools – where I talked to the superintendent himself who wished me welcome in the dialect of Sunnfjord (again an unexpected contrast). He told me he would send his son to pick me up. And like that I, as many other novices, came to the home of Lyder Aarseth and his wife, who at the time were living in their cottage in Anderselv. Of all the memorable days I experienced and still can recall in my memory, this is one of those I remember most vividly.

I got a hearty and friendly reception in the Aarseth home – as if I were a guest of honour (later I've heard that there were many others who had the same experience). He and his wife used a big part of their day orienting me about the general situation in Finnmark and of course about the precarious situation in the elementary school, about the boarding school system and the multilingual problem. I also had to tell him about my own background – about my native district – and why I applied for a job in Finnmark. The latter was a difficult question, and I don't remember what kind of answer I improvised, because I still hadn't figured out what kind of occupational path I'd like to follow in my life – under all circumstances I didn't want to become a teacher. Aarseth told me that I should teach at Meskelv school in Nesseby commune, which was a community school divided in two, that the school building was a barrack with one classroom and a bedroom and a kitchen for the teacher. Most of the pupils were bilingual Sami/Norwegian, but "not all of them are fluent in Norwegian", he added. Otherwise there were no instructions for the greenhorn, except that I was starting an important work and had to do my best.

The next morning he told me half absent-minded, oh, you need to get a bed you can bring. He called on one of his sons, "Ola, you have to follow this boy to the maternity barrack and see if you can get hold of a bed for him there." "And a mattress too", added Mrs Aarseth. With that I got to place a collapsible military bed and a mattress on the roof of the bus which were driving in direction Varangerbotn, and the driver was asked to let me off near Meskelv school. In the bus there was a man in traditional Sami costume who was speaking to the driver in a language similar to the one I had heard on the dock in Vadsø. I thought it had to be Sami. And then I was let off the bus with my three pieces of luggage, and met the teacher who in a couple of days was to take over a teaching position in Vadsø.


After having inaugurated the new bed by sleeping in the classroom for a couple of nights and the former teachers couple had moved out – I was the master of my own house with a bedroom and kitchen. The school district chairman, the friendly and helpful Isak Maja, came to wish me welcome. He had made sure there were a lot of firewood for the school and me, and had made an arrangement for me to eat dinner at the house of Inga og Julius Johnsen, there was also a girl who had been assigned the job of lighting up the stove in the schoolroom and in the kitchen of the teacher every morning. And if there was something I needed I should let him know.

In October came gales, blizzards and frost stroke, and I discovered why the teacher who had a wife and a baby would get up in the middle of the night to lit the fire in the stove. To put it mildly the barrack was badly isolated and leaky and didn't hold on to the heat. The cold eastern flow from Varangerfjorden easily found the way through the glass frames and the wall. My breath had left frost on my sleeping bag when I woke in the morning. Inga and Julius, who where among those who had been able to build a new house, thought it was a shame that I was living in the cold barrack, and invited me to live with them, an offer I gladly accepted. At this point I also got hold of my first pair of fur shoes, and was introduced to the ancient Sami art of arranging the gradd for fur shoes (mainly Carex vesicaria and Carex rostrata) correctly.

I liked it there, it was easy to collaborate with the pupils, I socialized with people of my own age, played bridge etc. and where thinking of setteling down there. At least until summer.

It was a strange and intelectually groping phase of my life which opened here, especially through being pulled into what I would later learn refer to as "the ethnic situation". The younger people I talked to weren't interested in discussing this theme with me – I got the impression it was better if I didn't touch questions of this character. Inga and Julius were bilingual –they used both Sami and Norwegian, but only Norwegian at home. They were more open. They called me Norwegian, which was very unfamiliar to me, and I couldn't decide wether I liked it or not, I felt like it was something negative which were attached to me – or in other situations – that it was a sign of a privilege I had. Julius refered to himself as a bastard, a bit of everything, but said that Inga was a real Sami, which she didn't mind at all. At their kitchen table I slowly got my first simplified overview of the area Varanger, Tana and Polmak and a glimpse of the ethnical ranking. I sensed that I had entered a way of socializing which was completely unknown to me and my tools for thinking weren't sufficient to systemize and understand it. As many others I arrived more or less straight from the gymnasium and had barely seen anything but the life in the countryside in Sunnmøre. I was more or less blank when it came to knowledge about Sápmi. I had probably read Friis' novel – a book by Fønhus and other travel literature – and I had listened to Sami-mission travelling lay preachers, but I soon realized that this weren't applicable in my situation. And I wasn't a pedagogue either. My own curiosity and my moral compass I had from home became my tools for navigation.

This taste of Varanger was interesting, but it was short. A day in the beginning of December a small car from before the war stopped in the road. I could see from the classroom that it was the superintendent of schools who came to visit. I told the children that if someone entered the classroom and greeted them they had to stand up and greet them back – and so they did. Aarseth exchanged a few words with the children and asked me to give them an extra break – there was a matter he'd like to discuss with me. His errand was this – more or less in his own words: The manager at the boarding school in Polmak were to have a years leave and a female teacher would be replacing him from January and during his leave, but as it was at the moment, there would be too few men in the teaching staff in the new year, he told me. There are many practical problems to solve in a bording school, and he was of the opinion that with my background from the northwest-coast I could be of great help in this situation. I argued that I had settled in here in Meskelv, and was just starting to get the overview of the teaching situation, and that I'd like to continue my work here. But clearly my arguments didn't count, I realized quickly that the superintendent of schools hadn't stopped here to give me an offer. It was more a matter of an order, the superintendent of schools had great influence, not to say authority when it came to engaging teachers in those years.


That's how I, just after celebrating my first Christmas in Finnmark with Inga and Julius, again found myself in the bus one of the last days of 1946 – this time without bed and mattress – heading south and east in Sápmi. I was picked up with a horse and sleigh in Skipagurra. Little did I know that this could December day would mark a change of course in my life.

Polmak, which was a fairly outstreched and narrow commune (now a part of Tana), offered a lot of new and strong impressions. Hundred percent of the settlement is situated alongside the immense and salmon-rich Tana river, which is divided by Norway and Finland for about 120 kilometres along the deepest part of the river. At the time the river was the only way to get to Polmak – with a riverboat in the ice-free season, and mostly with horse and sleigh in the wintertime. From time to time they would clear the ice on the river in order for trucks to be able to pass. Westwards in the western plain you find fishing lakes and rivers, pastures for reindeers and marshes with cloudberries. The distances seemed enormous to me. And it was incredible to experience how the parents in the cold of January would bring their children all the 100 kilometres from Leavvajohkgiedde with horse and sleigh to get them to the boarding school.

The old boarding school in Polmak.
(Photo: Ivar Skotte)

This schoolyear in Polmak (1946–1947) the school was split into 7 classes, and in addition a special educations class for children with special needs. The school year was organized in a rotation, where each class had 6 weeks of teaching and 6 weeks off. The four teachers (only the manager had a teachers education, noone knew Sami) had two classes each on an annual basis. I was given 7th and 2nd class. The children who lived so far away that they couldn't walk to school daily lived in the boarding school. They got all their meals there, slept in dormitories and did their homeworks in the classrooms in the afternoon. The boarding school housed about 25 children during the years I was there. The ones who lived on the other side of the river were transported by boat to the side of the boarding school for as long as the river wasn't frozen. Most of the boarding school children would go home in the weekends.

Compared to the time in Meskelv, being a teacher at a boarding school meant a completely different everyday life. We lived close to what was called a 24-hour society. A housekeeper with a staff of maids were in charge of cooking, cleaning and general order in the house, while the manager was in charge of the teaching and was the one us three novices could ask for help in problems regarding the teaching. The boarding school also had a caretaker.

In my role as a teacher from time to time I also had a task which of all possible words was called "inspection" – which most of the time entailed that I would help the boarding school children who needed it with their homeworks. But the different tasks in the daily running of the boarding school didn't stop the community of the boarding school from being a pleasant social fellowship where everyone participated –and there was a lot of jabbing and fun –and drinking of coffee – in the evenings, and especially on the weekends. I also found the woman who would later become my wife among these people. She didn't have any other background but the gymnasium either, and had a hard time, especially with the special education class.

The Polmak-children were not so "fluent in Norwegian" either, to use the euphemism of Aarseth. In fact the situation was that most of the children in the two lower classes and the special education class understood very little or almost nothing of what these emergency teachers from the south were saying. The actual ambience of the boarding school was also very foreign to the younger children: a big house in several floors, dormitories, long corridors, meals in a big dining hall, an unfamiliar rythm of day and partly unfamiliar food. Luckily the housekeeper spoke Sami, and Sami-speaking maids were also good at sorting things out if there were misunderstandings or a conflict arose, or if some of the youngest were longing home and started crying when they were going to bed at night. A lot of negative things have been written and said about the boarding schools. And it doesn't feel good to know – what we know now – that we were tools in a school system, boarding schools or not, which represented the gross encroachment of the state towards Sami language and culture. The boarding school system also bore the evidence that it wasn't capable of maintaining the emotional needs of the children in everyday life – and stimulate their growth into conscious Sami people. As a teacher I experienced not knowing Sami as a great frustration. This was also where I got my first knowledge of the truth I realized more of later, that it wasn't the pupils, but the Norwegian school system which has a language problem.

From time to time naturally it may happen things which especially put the daily running of a boarding school to a test. While I was there one day in the winter the cylinder head of the diesel engine which was running the light generator broke. We were left in pitch-darkness and had to get hold of Petromax lanterns and paraffin in great haste, and managed with that for a month while awaiting the new parts which were sent from Oslo – by railway, Hurtigruta, bus and horseride. – It was sadder when a mumps epidemic started in the boarding school in the autumn, and about 20 pupils had to stay in bed more or less at the same time with fever, freezing, aching and no apetite. It was a hectic periode for the staff before the epedemic stopped. But luckily there were no complications.

In Polmak school, as in other schools at the time, Sami pupils got all their teaching in Norwegian.
(Photo: Ivar Skotte)

When the life in the boarding school run its daily course I was naturally most occupied with the teaching. My pupils had to learn Norwegian, that was the primary goal of the teaching, and the parents also expected their children to learn Norwegian. But there were no restrictions in the boarding school not to use Sami in the breaks or at other times. In my 2nd class there was luckily a pupil who had Norwegian as her mother tongue, understood Sami and could translate when it was needed, and it regularly was. She was of great help. We wrote and read short sentences, played with numbers and maths, drew quite a lot, learned songs, the days of the week, the months of the year and the clock. It was not much of a pedagogic.

I felt quite helpless as a teacher in this 2nd class, but felt things went better in the 7th class, where everyone had reached an acceptable level of Norwegian and maths when the school year finished. Everyone passed the exam, and some did quite well. It was a small class, with only 7 pupils –they were interested in history and geography, and we developed a good "culture of conversation" within the class. I told them a little bit about the village I came from, and they told me and each other about their lives at home, about fishing for salmon, looking for cloudberries and they retold Sami legends they had heard from their grandparents and others. They taught me how to understand important social categories in the local culture, such as sápmelaš, dáža, rivgu and hearra – the latter translated to storing in local Norwegian (bigwig, VIP).They also taught me other words and expressions from the everyday life in Sami, and they had great fun when I made mistakes with the phonetics. They found it interesting to discuss hypothetical questions such as imagining the life as youths and adults, and discuss abstract words like fantasy and knowledge. Indirectly these conversations gave glimpses into the thoughts and feelings of these young people when it came to being a bearer of a Sami identity in a Norwegian-dominated world. – The revival of Sami culture – education based on Sami and Sami youth culture in the public space still hadn't started properly, and the civilizating Norwegianizing-ideology was still pretty dominant among the ones who identified themselves as Norwegians. Also many Sami parents found the introduction of Sami in the school a step backwards, and joik wasn't only regarded as improper, but like a real sin by many.

As a young teacher I naturally came in touch with both the parents and youth from the village, and participated in all sorts of things. People were hospitable, and I found it easy to get in touch with them. Coffee and food were put on the table, and it also happened that other kinds of drinks were offered. In my interaction with people it must have been noticed that I opposed to the Sami self-dispreciation that I experienced. My moral compass, constructed in a local society in Sunnmøre told me that they were about to destroy the Sami cultural heritage of their children with this attitude. It happened that I argued with people about these matters. Luckily it seemed people still had a certain respect for my arguments – because I was never – as far as I know – jeered for playing "storing". Besides I knew how to sharpen a scythe and use it to move the fields, and other peasant arts. – Those things also counted, although they called my language crow-language; "you have to talk to me in Norwegian, not crow-language".

I didn't pay enough attention in the beginning to realize that there were "responsible people" who were monitoring the conduct of life of the teachers. One of these persons told me one day that some of the young people who came from the south didn't realize that they had to be ideals. "As you can see, the population here is far behind when it comes to cultural development. Many people doesn't realize that we Norwegians have a great responsibility in this context, they go around in the village in the weekends and lead a life which not is that of an ideal". Well, I was surprised, but I didn't start any argument. This "fine" warning didn't stop me in following my own interests to get to know peoples way of living and their daily life.

The first years after the burning was difficult for many. It seemed like it was a general tendency that village people saw themselves as poor and Norwegians as rich and "storinga". But there was a difference in standard of living both when it came to lodging, food and clothing, and it couldn't be hidden that some families lived on the borderline of direct need. The parents were happy that the children could come to the boarding school where they at least had plenty of food on the table several times a day. In 1946-47 there were still some who lived in more provisorical lodgings. And since many had problems writing in Norwegian, it happened that I could help writing applications for the so-called fund for barrack clearance. Many young people who wanted to travel outside Polmak for work or education felt confined because they felt or had experienced that they couldn't feel comfortable or settle in outside Sápmi. I started to realize that the explanation of the social conditions here, the material as well as the mental part, had to be understood as an expression of the relation between the Sami minority and the main community. After I returned south and found relevant literature I understood more of what I had experienced, and this lead me into studies at the university and a profession as an academic and scientist. Despite all convictions of the opposite, which I had while being younger, teaching became both an interesting and rewarding part of my life.

17th of May was a important day for the school to demonstrate the Norwegian.
(Photo: Ivar Skotte)

These southerners which had different experiences of being emergency teachers in Finnmark in the years after second world war are now scattered to the winds. There were probably several who didn't get comfortable with the job, the climate and the social surroundings, while others didn't have great difficulties in this. As we know, many settled down, and even have children and grandchildren who identify themselves as Sami.

I have now given an outline of my story, the young man from Sunnmøre who started his career as an emergency teacher with a naive fascination of what he found exotic and exciting, and winded up as a scientist. – But it wasn't only the way of life and the social and ethnical circumstances which caught my interest. Also the nature, the rythm of the year in the nature, the river and the plain gave character to the living space I experienced as a romantic southerner, dáža and emergency teacher. – With horse and sleigh in the wintertime in the freezing cold and dusk with the flames of the northern light over the star–lit sky. The sound and the sight of the reindeer herd as a flowing river on their way to a new pasture. The trips with backpack, tent and fishing rod towards the western plain to Ciikojohka, Maskeluoppal, Uvjalatnja, Geassejohka, Áhkkajávri, – boiling coffee and grilling salmon on sticks over fire in the summer night with the midnight sun hanging low in the northern sky. The cloudberry marshes packed with berries. Memories for life.

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