- The Norwegianization of the Samis was religiously motivated

Norwegianization did not arise with the nation-state. It has a prior history: the missionary period. The Norwegianization of Samis was motivated by religious belief, says CULCOM scholar Bente Persen.

Bente Persen: In exposing myths, one can decolonize the past. Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

In her Master’s thesis, “At bringe dem fram til mands modenhet” En studie av fornorskningen av samene i Porsanger”, the cultural historian launched a new theory about Norway’s Norwegianization policy toward the Sami people. Persen was herself born and raised in Porsanger, which is the only official “tri-cultural” municipality in Norway (Norwegian, Kven, Sami).

Beginning at the end of the 19th century, the Norwegian government put a lot of energy into turning Samis into Norwegians – both linguistically and culturally. Researchers have explained the Norwegianization policy primarily as a result of increased nationalism during the period of nation-building. However, the cultural historian demonstrates in her thesis that Norwegianization also had a religious element.

According to Bente Persen’s analysis, a direct link runs from the missionary period in the 1700s, to school legislation after 1880, which prohibits instruction in Sami, to the Land Sales Act ("Jordsalgsloven") in 1902, which established that only Norwegian speakers have the right to purchase land in Finnmark, and the government’s patronizing attitudes toward the Samis.

The Church and the Sami mission viewed Sami’s as savages, as people who were “possessed by the devil”, who, with the help of the faith would be turned into “viable Norwegians”. This myth about the Sami community was itself the basis for the entire Norwegianization project. The myth provided Norwegianization with “meaning” and an explanation of why and how the Samis should be Norwegianized.

A historical project on salvation

- The Norwegianization process was a historical project of salvation. The Samis were to be converted into Norwegians. Yet, in this case, salvation would not happen in the next life, as was usually the case, but in this life, Persen explains.

The dissertation begins with a citation of Rector Andreas Gjølme in Sør-Varanger. In 1886, he wrote:

‘The Lapp people are childlike people in more than one respect. As people, they have the child’s impulsive, naïve, undeveloped point of view, and it is the goal of Norwegianization that they are brought to the maturity of man, if this is at all possible, This is an immense and lasting goal to work toward.”

Later in the thesis, we read about the bishop in Trondheim, Peter W. Bøckman. In order to fight against the “darkness and trouble of heathenism” Samis ought to be converted into “viable Norwegians”, he wrote in his annual report from Norway’s Church in 1914.

- We find a similar rhetoric in the Bible. The Apostle Paul exhorts the congregations in Corinth and Ephesus “not to be foolish like children” but “in the faith become the mature man”,” Bente Persen points out.

From “possessed by the devil” to “deviants”

“When we read in a county lexicon from Finnmark from 1952, that the Sea Samis are both ‘materially and spiritually lacking’, this is a direct continuation of the Church’s view of the Samis,” she says.

- Theological imperatives are converted into social imperatives. Samis go from being “possessed by the devil” to being “deviants” who should be disciplined. In the folk consensus from 1950, Samis were classified in the same category as the “mentally disabled” and “insane”.

- The Church, not the State, directed the Norwegianization process. We are talking about an alliance between the State and Church, between religion and nationalism. Norwegianization must be viewed with the growth of Grundtvigianism (a liberal, comparatively permissive movement) as a national-religious movement, asserts the cultural historian.

- With the growth of the nation-state, the church lost its power in many areas, but not in this area. Bøckman’s argumentation is testament to a type of nation-building where the church actually is in control.

- Norwegianization and Christianity are concepts within Grundtvigianism. Via Norwegianization, they were able to test out their model for building a nation based on Christian religion.

Thus, Norwegianization does not merely mean repression of Sami language, but also repression of Sami religion: In an analysis of folkloristic material from Porsanger, Bente Persen demonstrates that Sea Samis have passed on Norwegianization as religious repression.

Norwegianization also means supervision:

- The Church supervised the Samis. They controlled how often the Samis went to church, they counted the number of communicants and people who took communion. Even “the main solution to the Sami problem” has been building state boarding homes. Here, the state had control of Sami children, even in their free-time.

National piety is an undervalued field of study

In her dissertation, she cites church historian Dag Thorkildsen who believes that this national piety is an undervalued field of study in nationalism research. Bente Persen agrees.

- It was not my initial intention to study religion. It wasn’t before I began to uncover power structures in the source material that I discovered that the church had such a large role.

- Can your theory about the significance of religion in the Norwegianization process also be linked to the discourse on immigration?

- I see clear connections. For example, I immediately thought about the hijab debate when I found out that elderly Sami women deliberately covered their head with the red hat (ládju). It was a way of showing resistance. The missionaries had previously prohibited the female hats, because they believed the devil lived in Sami women’s horn hats

- Religious nationalism is advancing today. Does it have continuity with the new Christian Right? In his Master’s thesis, Pål Espen Kapelrud cites Torkel Brekke who characterizes the rhetoric of FrP (Norwegian right-wing party) as an expression for a type of ethno-religious nationalism?

- I would imagine so. My analysis confirms that conservative interpretations of the bible are often the most resistant in history. The Norwegianization of Samis can be interpreted as an example of the blending of religion, politics, and nationalism in recent Norwegian history.

- You write in the introduction that your theory is relevant to Sami identity today?

- I managed to expose the idea that Norwegianization was based on a myth. In exposing myths, a person can “decolonize” herself from the past and get rid of the shame and “guilt” of being Sami. I agree with the social anthropologist Britt Kramvig, who prefers the term “decolonization” to “revitalization” with regard to talking about Sami identity today.

Many findings in the Internet archives

- How do you find all of this out?

- Via archive studies. My sources all come from letters, official documents, church books, travel writings, memoirs, newspapers, statistics, magazines, and material about traditions. I have been at the National Archives, and the National Library, and read microfilm rolls. I have also been in Porsanger and visited the old county archives, and I have used the internet archives.

- Internet archives?

- Yes, the growth of internet-based archives is exciting. The National Library has focused on the northern areas and digitalized a number of archives that affect the population in the north. I have come across many exciting sources there.

- Are these internet archives open to everyone or do you have to apply for admission?

- The internet archives are accessible to everyone. I have only used open archives – and you have to have a look at them!

More research on Norwegianization

- Obligatory question: What is cultural complexity?

- From a cultural-historical standpoint, the concept raises questions about how different ideas, norms, and value-systems are expressed within a society. Then we usually speak of “different social presents” and different value systems that live within a group, a generation, a family, and even in one and the same individuals.

- Blank spots? Any topics that should be researched more thoroughly?

- It is possible to go further in studying Norwegianization policy in the archives from the school director in Finnmark. For example, very little systematic research has been performed on boarding school experiences, past and present. In Porsanger, Sea Sami school children were interned in their local environment in a radius from three to seventeen kilometers from their parents and childhood homes as late as 1973 – only six years prior to the Alta-case.

- Has there been a lot of research been performed on indigenous people and minorities in cultural history?

- Minorities in a broad sense, yes. In cultural history, we are especially focused on the history that is omitted in national history.

- Why are you so preoccupied with Norwegianization as a research topic?

- Because as a cultural historian, I want to problematize Norwegian national history. My analysis also generally poses questions about what kinds of values and community Norwegian identity is based on.

- Any last words?

- Many present-day multicultural and minority-based challenges are experiences that are relevant to the Sami past.


English translation by Amanda Dominguez. See original in Norwegian - Fornorskningen av samene var religiøst motivert

By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published May 25, 2011 1:34 PM - Last modified June 2, 2014 2:18 PM