“This can’t be done” – five stories of breaking the saami ceiling




People who embark on advancing the position of Saami languages in our society often face a reaction along the lines of  ”what you propose is important, but it can’t be done”.

As a journalist, I hear this story often. A mother who spends countless hours to secure Saami-language pre-school and elementary education for her Saami kids in the capital city area is told that it is impossible to organise this due to the small number of Saami kids. A head of news is told that there are no fonts available for Saami languages and that online news cannot be produced in these languages. In a maternity clinic a mother is asked, worryingly, how the child will learn Finnish if the only language that he hears at home is Saami. An alcoholic recalls his days at the residential school where one could not speak the mother tongue, because speaking in Saami was prohibited due to the state’s policies towards its minorities.

We also know about the everyday feeling that it is not polite to speak Saami with a Saami-language acquaintance if there is even a single person around who does not know the language. The fallback to the dominant language in such situations often goes without any questioning. During the Multilingual Month and Satakieli theme month we explore, among else, the experience of operating between different languages. Many authors of Saami-themed texts highlight how an unusually big leap has been taken to improve the position of Saami languages. Sometimes this step is easy to take, at other times insurmountable.

Can one consider a language a mother tongue when one speaks it only with one’s heart?

There are many obstacles to the blossoming of Saami languages. The hardest obstacles are structural, some have historical roots and are often related to the attitudes of individuals.

When I was asked to curate the five Saami-themed essays for the Multilingual Month, I did not hesitate for a moment. So many Saami stories have been untold and I saw this as an excellent opportunity to draw attention to some of them.

My choice of topics has been guided by their topicality. What does ”the right to mother tongue” mean in practice? What is the responsibility of Saami-language media towards Saami languages? Can one consider a language a mother tongue when one does speak it only with one’s heart? In addition to these issues the essays discuss expressions of racism, a subject that is increasingly often raised in the Saami context.

Content of the blog series

On February 6, the Saami National Day, the first essay by Ánne Márjá Guttorm Graven will be published, discussing the relationship of the Saami language to the dominant language as well as practical instruments for strengthening the profile of Saami languages. She is a professional of the Northern Saami language. Guttorm Graven appreciates all the small advances that raise the status of Saami languages and wants to actively contribute to this process.

On February 26 we will publish the essay by Pirita Näkkäläjärvi about the significance of Saami-language online news and its impact on Saami vocabulary, structure and expressions – i.e., everything that keeps the language vibrant. As a former chief of Yle Sápmi, Näkkäläjärvi has personal experiences and a precise vision on this subject.

The text to be published on March 5 by Mari Korpimäki, who identifies herself as a Skolt Savonian, discusses the meaning of language for one’s identity in a situation where the language is not actively practiced. Despite this, the relationship to the language can be affectionate and close. Korpimäki is known for her insightful Saami campaigns, of which the most significant is the civic campaign “Send a postcard to Sevettijärvi” which has led to the 99930 Sevettijärvi website.

On March 12 we will publish the essay by Inkeri Lokki about the struggle to secure Saami-language pre-school education as well as schooling for her kids in the capital city area. Lokki describes the baffling moments when interacting with officials, while promoting the rights of Helsinki’s Saami to education in mother tongue. Lokki has been guided by a sense of justice to ensure that her Saami children would have the same right that she has been able to enjoy as a Finn – the right to study in one’s mother tongue.

On March 19, two days before the international day against racism, the last essay in this series will be published. In it, Petra Laiti talks about the relationship between multilingualism and racism – a topic about which she has many personal insights. The articulate Laiti who is also known as the Chair of the Finnish Saami Youth Organization, does not remain silent when facing discriminating situations towards the Saami.

The response ”This can’t be done” is familiar to all of these authors. They have not accepted this answer. Some of them have tested the nerves of officials and fellow citizens while advancing something that was supposed to be impossible. In the process, some of them have been asked to fall silent or have faced wishes that they would stop their pursuits. Often precisely such reactions reveal the necessity of their work.

These essays will be published in Northern Saami, Skolt Saami, Finnish or English. I hope that they will shed light on the multilingual reality that the Saami experience irrespectively of where they live.

I hope that the essays will reveal hidden attitudes and stories that prevent a full blossoming of Saami languages.


Helga West, originally from the Teno river valley of Utsjoki, is a freelance journalist. She lives with her family in Helsinki, in a daily quatrilingual environment. She is fascinated by language phenomena, stories of people and writing. She is a theologian by training. Her Northern Saami debut poetry book Gádden muohttaga vielgadin (“I Thought Snow Being White”) will be published in spring 2018.


Mikko Mäntyniemi has taken photos of West, Näkkäläjärvi, Korpimäki, Lokki and Laiti for this series.

Translation from Finnish to English: Oliver Loode

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