noun. \ ə-ˈrȯr-ə
1) emission of light from atoms excited by electrons;
2) the Roman goddess of dawn.
LIV INGER SOMBY.
“All my informants had difficulty speaking about assimilation.
The oldest, Ristenaš Risten, was born in 1895.”
A culture of silence among Sámi endures to this day. In conversation with Erica Dingman, Liv Inger Somby discusses the intense traumas of assimilation, violence and abuse suffered by elder Sámi women who live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
Erica Dingman: Sámi women have experienced tremendous hardship and trauma. What was the cause?
Liv Inger Somby: The Sámi people live in four different countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia so it’s not easy to answer. But during the interviews I conducted with elder Sámi women from 1994 to 1996 we spoke about their traumas, the difficult parts of being Sámi, being a woman, and about living in small communities.
According to Sámi psychologist, Anne Lene Turi Dimpas, there has been, and still is a culture of silence among Sámi. They don’t talk about individual, family or collective problems. Turi Dimpas speaks of the intense pain of assimilation, which restrains conversation about traumas and taboos. In the Sámi language, we say “jávohisvuohta” – being silenced. Turi Dimpas told me:
“Not talking is also a way to survive. Many people close their doors and do not invite relatives or neighbours for conversations. Their individual problems have to be solved alone. This is the collective sorrow that we deal with.”
Norwegiansation, the policy of assimilation, was in effect from approximately 1850 up to 1980, but I’m sure many Sámis would say that it continues to this day. Assimilation affected Sámi in all four countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
All my informants had difficulty speaking about assimilation. The oldest, Ristenaš Risten, was born in 1895. As a child, she went to a Norwegian School. On the first day, her teacher changed her Sámi name. She woke at 5 a.m. to do her homework and did not understand the language. When I interviewed her in 1995, she was almost 100-years-old. I spent days with her at the elder centre on the Norwegian side of Deatnu, challenging her to tell stories from childhood. I asked her to find pictures and memories that she had suppressed for many years.
Another woman, who attended a foreign boarding school, spoke of how she was bullied since age seven. When she was 16-years-old she decided to change her language, hid her Sámi identity and spoke only Norwegian. Many of my informants, both in Norway and Finland, talked about the traumas of WWII; men were called heroes, but women were disregarded although they had held their communities together. Many women said they never received help to sort through the pain, such as domestic violence.
ED: Twenty years have passed since you interviewed but did not publish the stories of Sámi women. Why did you keep these stories secret for so long?
LIS: There are few projects like this in Sápmi where sensitive, private and very personal stories are collected. It was a challenge to get women to talk about their experiences given the taboos related to private issues like violence or abuse. Ethically, it was important to decide whether or not to provide anonymity. It was a learning process for both myself and for the women I interviewed. To an extent they felt safe because I promised not to tell their stories before 2016. Others asked me not to publish their stories before their children had passed away, so family members would not suffer because of traumas suffered by their grandparents or great-grandparents. This anonymity is important, because we live in small societies where people can easily discover who has told their secrets.
The ethical challenge is how best to protect the women who have told their life stories while living in a society where trauma is not discussed. For example, one woman told of a newborn baby she rescued from under a stone; the baby had been left there to die. I promised that I will never publish the location and when it happened.
ED: What is one of the most compelling stories you’ve heard?
LIS: There is a dismal lack of research about violence. One elder, who I’ll call “Márge,” told me of how she has accepted that her husband was violent. Márge said, “I am an old woman now and all my children know how their father, my husband, had beaten me. We have never talked about it, not one word about how I have suffered.”
Now 87, it was the first time Márge was talking about this to a stranger—me. Only her sister and her children know, but they never tried to help. She also commented that some of her neighbours and close relatives may have known, but no one has ever asked. She never asked for a divorce but accepted the situation as was. Now she sits in her chair at the elder center, blinded by her abusive husband.
ED: You’ve called this cultural genocide. What are the long-lasting effects?
LIS: At the early stages, I could feel that some women would not talk but only comment, “eallin lea buorre,”—life is good, and they have lived life as expected. Or they would say, “Unnán muitalit”—not much to talk about. I knew there were stories to be told, so I used the process called “oadjudit,” that integrates our traditional knowledge as a way to build trust and understanding between people. I tried to represent their stories with respect and told them why their stories can help others. I argued that my daughters and all other young girls would like to read their life stories, those that are untold and unwritten.
Most of my informants went to boarding school and were away from their families for months. Those who attended school in their own community spoke warmly of daily life, what they did with their parents, and how they followed family traditions. The majority who were not at home lost their childhood. As one said, “mii leimmet oarbás ja mánnávuohta jávkkai,” which translates to, “I was left alone and can still feel how my childhood was stolen.”
ED: How did women survive during this time?
LIS: Many informants married close relatives or elderly widows. One said, “He was kind, he did not drink. It was the easiest solution because both families knew each other.” My informants explained their choices in various ways: the choice was an alliance to manage daily life; many women had no other choice but to marry an old man, widow or bachelor because people were poor; older men had the resources such as housing and animals. Others felt that love would grow over time, and if not they would manage. At the time, divorce was impossible as no one wanted to shame their family. Young women who married older men meant that she would likely be widowed at a young age. These women said that they had more freedom when they remarried.
ED: What are your plans for these stories told to you by Sámi women?
LIS: I would like to continue with this project, collecting life stories of elder Sámi women, but this time with women born between 1930 and 1950. With this information I can compare the traditional with the modern life in Sápmi. Most of the elders are no longer unilingual nor are they living in the mountains. Many of them are very well educated and have been working to improve our society. They play key roles at the municipal, county and national level, as well as leading institutions. It would be interesting to look at modern society, and to ask about gender roles. I’d also like to understand how the role of Sámi women has changed since the mid-nineties and the challenges that they face today. My main goal is to write a book about Sámi women or create a documentary about the silenced invisible Sámi elders.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Liv Inger Somby is an assistant professor and a Sámi speaking journalist who has covered Sámi, national and indigenous news and stories for the last 30 years. She has also worked as a journalist, editor and project manager in several countries, including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Much of her work centers on the role of gender in Sámi media, whose voices are heard or silenced, and who is speaking on behalf of the Sámi people.
Somby’s largest project are these individual interviews with Sami women for the purpose of gaining insight into their lives and the society they live in. These stories can be understood as subjective, biographical, cultural or as a collection of stories from a group of people. You can follow Liv on Twitter @LivIngerSomby.
To learn more about Sámi issues visit https://samas.no/en.
Aurora champions women and gender equality through a series of interviews inclusive of a wide range of voices. We recognize that freedom of expression is an important step towards equitable outcomes for women and by extension all of humanity.