Services in Sámi language help safeguard Sámi culture

13.6.2011 10.17
News item N5-57886

Numbering an estimated 75 000, the Sámi are Europe's only indigenous people. Some 9 000 Sámi live in Finland. The Sámi have had constitutional self-government within a homeland and language and cultural rights. But the preservation and promotion of Sámi culture remains a challenge. The Ministry of Education and Culture is currently preparing a programme to revitalize the Sámi language. The MSAH is also involved in this and in securing services in Sámi language.

Many Sámi have lost the ability to speak their original language, in part due to their location away from the Sámi homeland. Efforts are now underway to revitalize the three Sámi languages and Sámi culture both in the Sámi homeland and outside.

"About 70 percent of Sámi speaking children live outside the homeland, mainly in the Helsinki area, Rovaniemi and Oulu," says Ministerial Counsellor Viveca Arrhenius. "They need support in retaining their language, and this applies particularly to the area of early childhood education. Of course in the homeland there is a need for other Sámi language social and health services."

Critical funding for Sámi services

The Sámi Parliament has played a key role in ensuring that social and health services are provided in Sámi and that the services incorporate Sámi cultural and traditional values. In 2002 the Finnish Parliament decided that the state budget would contain a separate appropriation for delivering social and health services in Sámi language.

This appropriation is used for paying subsidies allocated through the Sámi Parliament to municipalities in the homeland for arranging services. Since 2004 the appropriation has been €600 000.  The use of subsidies is based on the contract procedure between the Sámi Parliament and the municipalities in the Sámi region.

The subsidies support the municipalities in the Sámi region for organizing different types of daycare in Sámi, social and family work, health counseling and services for older persons, including home help.  

"The appropriation has been a great help, even though it only concerns the homeland area," says Arrhenius. "Municipalities should, however, in addition allocate their own money for arranging Sámi language social and health services, because municipalities are responsible for all municipal inhabitants."

Municipalities are bound by legislation to arrange social and health services in line with the needs of the municipal population. But this does not stipulate the quality, content or method of organizing of services in any detail. The Sámi must be able to influence what sorts of social and health services they require in Sami language, the basis and values on which they are constructed and how they should be best organized.

The importance of having services in Sámi language is greatest for those groups who do not have sufficient command of Finnish. Services in Sámi are arranged particularly for children and older people. Arrhenius also mentions people with dementia and mental disabilities as the kinds of vulnerable groups that should be guaranteed Sámi language services.

With some services, though, the use of one's mother language is important due to the character of the service provided. "I'm personally surprised that mental health services have not been seen to be so important. In fact I would place them before other health services because it is not possible to overcome mental health problems other than with one's own mother tongue," says Arrhenius.

The use of Sámi language and incorporation of Sámi cultural perspectives in services is important for the efficacy of the services, but also for preserving Sámi language and culture on a broader level.

Risk of a decline in service quality

"In social and health care and in day care, in particular, the professional competence of the staff is crucial. If language skills are put before training, there's a risk that services offered in a minority language will be of inferior quality. The challenge is to ensure that there is a sufficient number of professionally qualified and bilingual staff in social and health care," says Arrhenius.

"Bilingualism develops when a child first of all learns his or her mother tongue and then later the dominant language. This is why it is important that also outside the homeland there would be the kinds of services or facilities in which different generations could work together in Sámi. A minority is also itself responsible for ensuring that children learn both languages and are educated," Arrhenius points out.

In terms of services, therefore, early childhood education in day care services occupies a special position in rooting Sámi language and culture early on in life. This applies both to the Sámi living in the homeland and to those living outside it - particularly so for the latter who are more prone to the loss of Sámi language skills.

The practice in day care is to put children with different language skills in one group. But as proponents of Sámi language and culture point out, if sufficient attention is not given to supporting language acquisition, the upshot may be that Sámi-speaking children will tend to switch to Finnish as the dominant language. This is one of the concerns of the programme being fleshed out by the Ministry of Education and Culture with the participation of the MSAH on revitalizing Sámi language.

A particular challenge is how early childhood education is able to respond to the linguistic and cultural needs of children in day care groups that are diverse and include children of varying levels of language proficiency. The Sámi Parliament has stressed the need to allocate additional resources to early childhood education on order to strengthen staff skills and support for children with different language skills. In practice the use of Sámi language services may be something of a challenge, due to the long distances many Sámi have to travel to reach services. In part this means that parents have to be more active to ensure that children get to day care centres, which may often be far from where they live.

Need for liaison between MSAH and Sámi Parliament

The MSAH intends to set an example by taking a Sámi perspective into account in the preparation of legislation. In practice this means consulting with the Sámi Parliament

"Though we do not have any permanent consultative structure in place, the ministry does have normal consultative contacts with the Sámi Parliament. The municipalities should also be involved with this. At the moment we have rather little information on the situation and problems of municipalities in the Sámi region," says Arrhenius.

The needs of minorities must also be kept in mind when it comes to apportioning funds for social and health development work. The National Development Programme for Social Welfare and Health provides funds for the River Tenojoki project. This includes a programme to ascertain the possibilities for inhabitants of Utsjoki municipality to access Sámi language social and health services across in nearby Norway. It remains to be seen whether the project will offer one solution to the effort to secure services in Sámi language.

Milla Meretniemi and Mark Waller

Related links

Sámi Parliament