The sign at Karasjok’s border is simple: the town’s name written in white lettering on a blue background, with a bold black “i” on the bottom indicating that an information centre lies ahead. But the town’s name is in two languages, Norwegian and Sami—it is called both Kárášjohka and Karasjok—and there is nothing simple about that.
Kárášjohka is the Sami capital of Norway, and the Sami Parliament building stands tall at one end of town. That building and all it represents drew me far north, above the Arctic Circle, and brought me to Kárášjohka to learn more about the Sami people and their recent revival into a vibrant and active contemporary culture.
The Sami are indigenous to this region, with their traditional homelands spreading from Norway across to Sweden and Finland, and into Russia. Sami predecessors migrated into these lands even as the Ice Age glaciers melted away. Their culture developed here; they are a people entwined with this landscape, and the words they use to refer to the land—their place names—hold weight and meaning.
Place-names are more than just labels, especially for a culture such as the Sami. They weave a people into the land by carrying forward past events, alluding to bygone stories, and holding myth, history and memory within the words used to refer to a region. These words are in a people’s own language, and represent an integral part of who they are. Language is the voice of a culture, with definitions and implications that may be characteristic of—or even unique to—how a people subsists and thinks, along with what they encounter in their daily life and throughout their spiritual explorations.
Sami place-names echo with meaning. For instance, there is Goddechohkka, which means Wild Reindeer Peak; Bassivuovdi, meaning The Holy Forest; and Rihtavárri, referring to Bear Trap Mountain. O.M. Hætta, a Sami and an academic, tells of these places in his book The Sami: An Arctic Indigenous People, writing of their significance. He then relates how such names were replaced with Norwegian words, as part of the assimilation of the Sami into Norwegian society.
As an English speaker, I do not have to face losing my language or being considered backward for speaking only my mother tongue. Every place-name within the landscape surrounding my home is English, draped over the Earth by a culture that has only known this place for two centuries. Living in an English-speaking country as an English speaker, I could’ve forever remained oblivious to the deep significance of language—but that was not so when I travelled to such a place as the Sami homeland, as I did in the fall of 2014.
On this journey, I made a point of visiting the Sami Parliament in Kárášjohka, which, although it can’t make laws, is the “voice of the people.” The Parliament’s mission is to ensure that Sami language and culture develop alongside and on par with Norwegian society. Our tour guide explained this as we stood in the high-ceilinged plenary room. He described how people today declare themselves as Sami by registering to vote in the Parliamentary elections, rather than hiding their heritage, as was common in the past. To declare themselves Sami, people must consider themselves to be Sami, and to use the Sami language as their home language, or as their parent’s, grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s language. Thus, language is integral to being Sami. The tour guide added that Kárášjohka is one of the few towns where people speak Sami in daily life.
None of this—spoken Sami, the Parliament itself—might exist except for the catalyzing event of a dam building, the Alta hydroelectric project proposed in the late 1970s. The proposed dam was to be built within the heart of Sami homeland; its construction would flood a Sami community and Sami reindeer pastures. However, the Sami people protested, and during that protest, they united as a culture and declared their indigenous rights. Even though the hydroelectric plant ended up being built in 1987, so was the foundation of a rejuvenated culture. The Sami Parliament was established that same year, officially signifying that “A movement was born”:
SHOW THAT YOU ARE SAMI! Our thoughts flew out of their closed cages. A movement was born: CSV. We wanted back our land, our language, our self-esteem, our culture, our property. We wanted back everything that had been taken from us throughout the centuries. Show you are Sami! – Synnøve Persen 1986, displayed in the Tromsø University Museum. (Note: “CSV” is based on the three most common letters in the Sami alphabet.)
Persen made this statement after a long period of assimilation policies following the Second World War that denied the Sami all that Persen calls to recover—their culture, their language and their land—which once was referred to by using Sami place-names.
Language used within a landscape makes it legible, with names and nomenclature applied to the hills, valleys, rivers and towns, providing familiarity and a means of communicating locations. When moving into a region or assimilating a region into a nation, a people or government will overlay the Earth with their own words, their own language. If these replace the place-names of an existing, indigenous people, this is essentially an act of colonization.
The Sami wanted their place-names back. This was part of the struggle. The same exhibit displaying Persen’s inspiring call to action also displays a vandalized bilingual Sami-Norwegian road sign, with the Sami words made illegible by a gunshot and paint. Removing a language and denying the indigenous name of a place like this is an attempt to erase a culture.
From Kárášjohka, I travelled northwest to the Norwegian coastal town of Alta, where some 45 km upstream stands the Alta Dam and the watery grave of Sami pastureland. Alta is renowned for its UNESCO World Heritage Rock Art, a vast display of prehistoric carvings lining the Alta Fjord. The people who carved the stone preceded the Sami culture, and here and in the larger surrounding area, that culture developed. The bay below the rock art panels is called Jiepmaluokta in the Sami language, which means Seal Bay. At one time, this bay’s waters may have been teeming with seals and other marine life, providing a rich source of sustenance for the ancient people—thus the name, handed down through generations. During the assimilation period, though, the bay was renamed with the most similar-sounding Norwegian phrase: Hjemmeluft, or Home Air, a label without connection to the land, the history, or the life of the bay itself.
I have two brochures from the Alta Museum, an excellent museum on the edge of the Alta Fjord that provides visitors with the opportunity to see the rock art. The first pamphlet is an older audio-guide, the second a 2014 interpretive guide. Both gave me an understanding of the complex meaning carved into the stone between 2,000 and 7,000 years ago. The older guide is titled The Unpainted Rock Art of Hjemmeluft. The newer guide, The Rock Carvings at Hjemmeluft/Jiepmaluokta, has a boldly-printed cover and explains the bilingual terms. The Sami appear to be making progress in recovering their language, as well as their place-names.
Looking out at the land surrounding my own home, I no longer take the place-names for granted. I know these English names well, and consider them familiar, beloved and meaningful because of my personal history embedded in this land. Yet, I often look across the front pasture to the river and mountains beyond, and wonder: What lies buried beneath the familiar words? What names did the mountains hold for the people here before us?