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From the Árran to the Internet: Sami Storytelling in Digital Environments

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 28, Number 1, March 2013
10.1353/ort.2013.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This essay investigates the use of storytelling in the process of cultural and linguistic revitalization through specific contemporary examples drawn from the Internet. By examining instances of adaptation of Sami tales and legends to digital environments, I discuss new premises and challenges for the emergence of such narratives. In particular, within a contemporary context characterized by an increasing variety of media and channels, as well as by an improvement in minority politics, it is important to examine how expressive culture and traditional modes of expression are transposed and negotiated. The rich Sami storytelling tradition is a central form of cultural expression. Its role in the articulation of norms, values, and discourses within the community has been emphasized in previous research (Balto 1997; Cocq 2008; Fjellström 1986); it is a means for learning and communicating valuable knowledge—a shared understanding. Legends and tales convey information, educate, socialize, and entertain. Their role within contemporary inreach and outreach initiatives is explored in this essay from the perspective of adaptation and revitalization. As I emphasize, the explicit goals in minority politics are factors that have an effect on the selection and adaptation of Sami expressive culture. From this perspective, the Internet is approached as a place of creation and negotiation for traditional storytelling through a case study that I hope will offer a relevant contribution to other indigenous communities. Additionally, this study illustrates how the potential of the Internet has to be nuanced and interpreted in relation to offline practices regarding such materials and traditions.

Stigmatized Cultures, Endangered Languages, and Revitalization

The Sami population lives in the Sápmi area that encompasses northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. According to the Swedish Sami parliament, the Sami population is about 80,000–95,000, but the lack of a census based on ethnicity makes this estimate imprecise. In the definition applied by the Sami parliaments, language and self-ascription are the criteria that characterize who is Sami. The prerequisites for the Sami minorities in the four countries have varied and affected different Sami groups to various extents, but policies of cultural assimilation were a common denominator until the Second World War (Elenius 2006:149–249; Lundmark 2008:141–84). As a result, the Sami identity and symbols associated with it were stigmatized, and the Sami languages are today endangered. Since the 1970s revitalization movements have taken place. A first wave characterized by a strong political awareness resulted in the establishment of Sami parliaments in Norway, Sweden, and Finland (Bjørklund 2000:20–48).

In the context of the early twenty-first century, many minorities and indigenous peoples benefit from a more favorable ideological and political climate. Injustices, infringements, and violations of rights—as well as loss of languages—are most often problems that governments are striving to solve—by giving minority groups an increased degree of participation in decision-making and representation, for instance. A positive change in attitudes has even been concretized at the international level by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and at the European level by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. At national levels, the recognition of official minority languages alongside additional language legislation has occurred in Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

As Scheller and Vinka (forthcoming) point out, “benevolent legislation is often a prerequisite [to language revitalization], but matters of implementation are as vital.” Further, revitalization requires changing community attitudes (Grenoble and Whaley 2006:13). It is in this context that Sami initiatives for the revitalization of language and culture take place and come to expression in many domains (Pietikäinen 2008; Scheller 2011). Revitalization is a “conscious effort … to construct a more satisfying culture” (Wallace 1956:265), “a group-level attempt to recapture an idealized past in order to reintegrate it with an uncertain future” (Balzer 1999:75).

Bearing in mind the close relationship between identity and language in Sami identity management (cf. Seurujärvi-Kari 2012), revitalization should be understood here as a process that includes both cultural and linguistic aspects. The requirement of a change in attitudes (cf. Grenoble and Whaley 2006), conscious efforts (cf. Wallace 1956), and future-oriented attempts (cf. Balzer 1999...


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