Less equal: growing up sámi in Helsinki

Satakielikuukausi artikkelikuva

LESS EQUAL: GROWING UP SÁMI IN HELSINKIWhen I, a Finnish woman, became a mother to children from a cultural minority group, I was forced to come face-to-face with misconceptions of our well-meaning officials as well as structural racism of our society.

“It is against the constitution that your family should go out of their way to secure basic services. It is legislator’s intention that same services are equally available to all citizens regardless of ethnicity.“

-Legal advisor at The Parliamentary Ombudsman of Finland.

When our daughter reached her fifteenth month, she started part-time day-care in a small local public unit comprised of two loving teachers and up to twelve children. She was greeted every morning by a caring professional Sámi childminder in their mutual mother tongue, North Sámi. Day-care in her native language during those critical months of language development was essential in securing the healthy bilingual identity she holds today, as she is preparing for her new life as a pupil in the bilingual Sámi-Finnish class of a public primary school.

10 months prior, I first contacted our local chief of childcare to let her know, that my daughter would need day-care in her native language in the following year. The Sámi are entitled to day-care in their native language according to the Finnish legislation. The Helsinki childcare websites had informed me that indeed, public day-care in North Sámi is available in Helsinki. Little did I realize that I had started on a treacherous road to fight for the basic human rights of my children.

During the following six months I was repeatedly in touch with our local supervisor as well as the Helsinki regional supervisor, whose specialty is organizing services for minority groups. I was reduced to explaining and re-explaining why my children should be treated the same as other children in our region.

“No one is stopping you from being Sámi in the privacy of your own home. You and your husband may take a leave from your careers if you insist on bringing up children in the North Sámi language” they replied, when I suggested that we were not treated equally as is required by the Finnish constitution. I felt the wind being knocked out of my lungs.

I lectured to officials over and over again that my family was exactly the same as those of my friends with the exception that my children were fathered by an indigenous man, Finland’s non-Finnish tax payer. We, too, deserve the same career opportunities and public services according to the Finnish constitution. Furthermore, we were not to be equated with immigrant minorities, we were both born and raised as Finns by nationality, if not linguistically and ethnically.

“Do you suggest that my daughter is not qualified for the constitutional right to day-care in her native language which is spelled out in laws and recommendations alike?” I wondered.

“Absolutely your daughter does qualify for day-care” they replied. “No worries there, just not the extra bit.”

At the time, the city employed two native Sámi childminders in neighbouring units in the eastern suburbs. We were finally offered a place in one of these units with the subtle hint that this was a stretch and a special arrangement to be thankful for. This would have added at least two hours of commute to our daughter’s five-hour kindergarten day and would of course have required a part-time commitment from both or one of our employers, as our home and offices are in the western suburbs.

“Surely you would not complain about one-hour commute, you guys are Sámi and used to much longer distances than 15 kilometres” reasoned the regional chief. “I am not Sámi, my child is” I snapped. Thereafter I entered a ridiculous rant to justify, why 15 km in rural Lapland is not equivalent to 15 km across rush hour capital and how I do not understand why I have to explain elementary human rights to an official responsible for the execution of said rights with respect to underage citizens.

And that’s when I called the legal advisor at The Parliamentary Ombudsman of Finland.
“In the eyes of the legislator, your children are equal” she said.
“It is not just the law that binds the officials, it’s the intent of the legislation, which is unambiguously explained by our constitution.” she reassured.

I laughed and I cried. “I knew it!” I said. “My daughter is just as important as the next child.”

That autumn, my colleague got used to me taking a phone call in the corridor and returning to our office with tears still gleaming in my eyes. Securing Sámi day-care had become my personal odyssey by the outcome of which I measured the health of the surrounding society.

At the spring party at day-care, our now 20-month old daughter wearing her traditional solju brooch on her dress sat on cushions surrounded by her buddies. Her teacher beat the reindeer-skin drum and the group performed a yoik for us parents. Over coffee, the Finnish teachers and parents thanked the arrangement. Turned out that as our daughter was learning to speak Sámi, so were the other children at the day-care. They explained the particularities of Sámi culture and language at home to their parents, who embraced the cultural diversity without exception. We already knew then that trust between our family and the day-care officials of our hometown could not be repaired.

We wanted to upgrade to a day-care unit with linguistic isolation. Next autumn, the Máttabiegga language nest opened in Pasila. Our daughter was the first of 13 (to date) children to enroll.

Dr. Inkeri Lokki, PhD, is a Finnish mother of two Sámi children growing up in Helsinki. Her family has lived in Haaga, Helsinki since 2010 and she works as a researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her husband is a member of the Sámi parliament in Finland. Dr. Lokki embraces the Deatnu (Tana) Sámi culture of her husband and children. She considers being able to communicate to her Sámi family in their mother tongue, the North Sámi, one of her biggest accomplishments.


  • Portrait of Inkeri Lokki: Mikko Mäntyniemi
  • Featured image:  Inkeri Lokki with her daughter at Paistunturi wilderness in Midsummer 2013.  Photo: Elina Lemmetty
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