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Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective: Bridging traditions and challenges in an indigenous setting



The Sámi University College has from the beginning of its establishment in 1994 provided advanced post-graduate study for students in multicultural understanding. This article deals with our experiences in providing such education for some ten years. It is difficult for our students, and people in general, to change their normative views of other people. Students examine how such ties can result in either inclusive or exclusive interactions, and the article discusses how difficult it is to broaden one's views and reflect on one's own and other people's ties and attitudes critically. In teaching, we encourage our students to use their stories as a means of analysing their experiences. Storytelling is an important part of the Sámi heritage and other indigenous heritages. Therefore, it is a fascinating resource for learning. In this article, we examine how effective this tool is and how it enables learning by creating a Sámi learning environment, or searvelatnja 'a shared room'. We also look at how storytelling can contribute to self-esteem, analytical cultural understanding and reflective skills. We highlight the enhancement of cultural sensitivity and analytic thought as central elements in the continuation of building and upholding democratic societies.
Issues in Educational Research, 22(1), 2012. Special issue in intercultural and critical education 1
Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective: Bridging
traditions and challenges in an indigenous setting
Asta Mitkijá Balto and Liv Østmo
Sámi University College, Norway
The Sámi University College has from the beginning of its establishment in 1994
provided advanced post-graduate study for students in multicultural understanding.
This article deals with our experiences in providing such education for some ten
years. It is difficult for our students, and people in general, to change their normative
views of other people. Students examine how such ties can result in either inclusive or
exclusive interactions, and the article discusses how difficult it is to broaden one’s
views and reflect on one’s own and other people’s ties and attitudes critically.
In teaching, we encourage our students to use their stories as a means of analysing
their experiences. Storytelling is an important part of the Sámi heritage and other
indigenous heritages. Therefore, it is a fascinating resource for learning. In this
article, we examine how effective this tool is and how it enables learning by creating
a Sámi learning environment, or searvelatnja 'a shared room'. We also look at how
storytelling can contribute to self-esteem, analytical cultural understanding and
reflective skills. We highlight the enhancement of cultural sensitivity and analytic
thought as central elements in the continuation of building and upholding democratic
We often hear people arguing that we Sámi are already multicultural, that
multiculturalism is not an issue we think about, as multicultural encounters are part and
parcel of our everyday lives. To some extent, being part of the Sámi community
renders this true, as the cultural background enables one to manage in the environment
into which one has been born. However, Sámi society also needs to enhance its
capacity to examine and understand culture from a more reflective perspective in order
to note prejudices, stereotypes, variations, changes, similarities and differences. Sápmi
is a term for the area where Sámi people live and also signifies their imagined
community. Sámi are an indigenous people who reside within the present day borders
of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia. In Sápmi, in the broader sense, authorities
and people need to be enabled to treat people justly and impartially.
From an indigenous perspective we base our relations to the state in which we live, on
the principle that all the groups and nations that share a territory can, together and in
peace, socialise and create conditions for equal opportunities and respectful
communication. This principle is recognised by Norway as a part of this nation’s
democratic process and a way of relating to the Sámi people. While many countries in
the world have these values in common, we still find that conflict, racism,
discrimination and favouritism in the Nordic countries persist. Multicultural studies are
needed in order to create a better communication and understanding between peoples.
Towards this end, a postgraduate course entitled ‘Advanced Multicultural Studies’
2 Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective
(AMS) was launched by the Sámi University College in 1994 for teachers, journalists,
health personnel, police and other officials. In this article, we examine some
experiences from our AMS training, which ran from 1994 to 2002. AMS was arranged
as a part-time course over a year, divided into two parts, MCS 1 and MCS 2. When
carrying out the training, we noticed how our students struggled to free themselves
from judgmental attitudes. This normative way of thinking is common and is a result of
the fact that every human being is tied to their culture; therefore, each new group of
students had to learn to recognise how such ties can limit one’s perspective. During
this training we challenged them to act or at least to perceive situations more
impartially and with less bias. It is not easy to rid oneself of narrow outlooks and
become accustomed to examining our ties and biases more critically.
Finding the path
Our aim is to trace the path that we followed with our students, to look for some
aspects of the traditional Sámi ways of organising teaching and the understandings
brought forth of how we learn. Since this is within a frame of multicultural
understanding we also discuss the challenges of analytical thinking and cultural
First, however, we start by outlining the principles of the course and how these
principles were put into practice. We examine how the use of students’ experiences and
stories contributed to the learning process. As part of this reflection process, we look at
the teaching and learning methods that were applied and discuss their traditional basis
in Sámi culture.
Most of our attention here is taken up with our subsequent written reflections on the
course, thereby resembling a retrospective of comments. Within the framework of
pedagogy, this can be called as Laursen does – reflective didactic work. According to
him the position of didactics has changed; from giving most of the attention to the
planning phase of teaching to rather opening up more for the post-training assessment
process. An evaluation of the training contributes to continuously improving the
teaching (Laursen, 1997). That is also what we intend, that is, to improve the teaching
and develop new understandings of the didactics used in an indigenous context.
In principal AMS gave more space to students’ experiences and interests than is
common in theoretical studies. This also applied to stories as a working method.
Therefore, we examine whether these principles and the ways these were carried out
has influenced the pace of students’ understanding of self, analytical cultural
understanding and greater skills of reflection. As Sámi are an indigenous people in a
vulnerable situation whose culture is threatened, we analyse how this kind of training
can promote the empowerment of the Sámi and other indigenous peoples. We also look
at how enhanced theoretical knowledge promotes cultural sensitivity and how this
appears in the learning process. Our discussion is based on the students’ assignments,
stories and evaluations, in addition to our own notes.
Balto & Østmo 3
Some principles and working methods
The aim of AMS was emphasise the understanding of the concept 'culture' and to
enhance intercultural communication. Another goal was to introduce the tools of
cultural analysis and to become conscious of how identity and culture are
interconnected. According to the admission requirements the students needed
qualifications from an institution of higher education and at least two years of working
practise. The goal of this requirement was to make AMS professionally relevant as
without such experience, the method could not be used successfully. The course was
one of the few studies at the Sámi University College that was given in Norwegian so
as to attract not only those Sámi who has lost their language but also all students who
spoke Norwegian, whether Sámi or not. This created an intercultural setting in the
class-room. To strengthen the Sámi language on a high level, most of the Sámi
University College’s courses are offered in Sámi. The purpose of the assignments in
our course was to teach the reflective method, to become accustomed to discussing
context and to analyse how phenomena are connected or can be compared with each
other. Continual evaluations strengthened training in reflective thinking and the
students’ personal enhancement.
Experiences were given more space
It is interesting now after many years to reflect on how we gave the space for stories
and storytelling as part of our working method. The students were encouraged to
present their experiences through stories and their stories often served as a catalyst for
their comprehensive project work. At the time, we were not fully conscious of the
importance of the role of storytelling, but still we used it and found the method very
Our positive experiences of using this method for both students and instructors, led us
to look at story-telling in a wider indigenous context. Nergård highlights the
production of Sámi knowledge and in that respect he considers story-telling as the
fundament for the transfer of Sámi knowledge to new generations. They are an archive
for experiences and a source for understanding and perception. In this way, stories
reflect the Sámi way of thinking (Nergård, 2006, 78–79). According to Balto, story-
telling has a key role in the traditional ways of teaching and learning in Sámi societies
(1997, 58–59). Kuokkanen discusses the significance of story-telling and how this
transfer of knowledge represents a method for traditional teaching, which benefits from
the fact that knowledge is woven into the language, and expressed through the oral
tradition (Kuokkanen, 2000). Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) and Marie Battiste (2000)
add an additional dimension to narrations, suggesting that they are an important tool in
the decolonisation of indigenous peoples. Narration opens doors into the sharing,
reminiscing and interpreting of events that colonisation has forced on people and
The AMS approach
The enhancement of cultural sensitivity and analytical thinking played a central role in
AMS. Therefore, we will examine here these themes through some of the theories that
4 Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective
were applied throughout the course. We will draw attention to theories on cultural
sensitivity, the theories that our students had to be familiar with in their study.
Cultural knowledge and understanding
Kvernmo and Stordahl (1990) and Stordahl (1998) have developed a conceptual
framework for cultural understanding, their attempt to bring a Sámi perspective to the
field of multicultural studies.
Stordahl and Kvernmo discriminate between cultural background, cultural knowledge
and cultural understanding. Their aim is to raise awareness about the challenges we
(Sámi researchers) face when we are members and participants in our local
communities yet from a professional perspective need also to take the position of
observer. To change position from the participant’s view to that of observer is not easy
and requires specific study and training. In Sámi societies it is common to claim that
since we Sámi are born into a multicultural society, we already have special skills
enabling us to master the challenges this brings forth, therefore we are not in need of
any particular schooling toward that end. This is taken into consideration by the
authors as they discuss the fact that our cultural background does not automatically
provide us with cultural sensitivity towards others, be it a background in a multicultural
or a monocultural setting. Stordahl and Kvernmo question this assertion and call for
theoretical studies and training for building up cultural sensitivity among professionals.
According to them, we are all born into a cultural context. This contextual background
colours and affects us and gives a kind of cultural cover, or wrapping, which envelopes
us. However, most people are not aware of this and do not stop to consider how their
thinking is coloured and affected by their background. Furthermore, there are
differences between people when it comes to their overall awareness, - some are
trained to see how dependent we are on our own cultural backgrounds and others are
not. Individuals belonging to the majority are seldom aware of these issues and often
take their background as granted: their culture is that which is normal. So, according to
Stordahl and Kvernmo, cultural background “is the base for knowledge, action and
norms and values that a person acquires through growing up in a certain culture.
Primarily it only provides the person with the competence that makes them part of a
moral and cultural community” (1990: 5). As backgrounds vary so also does the base
for knowledge that is provided. Despite the advantages of the cultural background,
everyone has to continue to increase their knowledge and skills.
To make clear the difference between the knowledge you acquire by being born into a
society as your cultural background and the knowledge you acquire through studies,
Kvernmo and Stordahl add the concept of cultural knowledge and of cultural
According to them, cultural knowledge is the more encyclopaedic knowledge of
different fields of culture as history, living conditions, economy, upbringing, social
relationships, and relations between generations, gender roles, religion, politics and
minority policies. Cultural knowledge is in the means of knowledge relevant to
understanding the specific conditions of a particular society. The specific conditions
Balto & Østmo 5
for the Sámi are, as mentioned difficulties and contradictions that indigenous peoples
and minority nations or stigmatised groups face (Kvernmo and Stordahl 1990, p.8).
To be in a minority position often means that you are forced to see the world through
the eyes of the majority, to know their language and be familiar with their culture and
way of thinking. This way, the representatives of a minority learn to shift between
perspectives and acquaint themselves with the culture of the majority. When you
encounter a foreign culture or a culture you are not familiar with, you can through
various studies or research, acquire cultural knowledge. Additional dimensions of the
concept of culture are varieties and changes within a culture. A static understanding of
the concept leads to objectification or essentialising of culture (Kvernmo and Stordahl
1990, p.8).
In an indigenous context, there is a tension between being culturally authentic and
'pure' and being a member of a modern changing, diverse and contemporary world.
(Smith, 1999, p.72-73.) On the one hand indigenous people use the concept
strategically to highlight the particularities of their cultures and situations, in order to
assist their claims for specific rights and requirements. On the other hand, according to
Smith, the term 'authentic' is used by nation states as one of the criteria to determine
“who really is indigenous, who is worth saving, and who is still primitive, innocent and
free from western contaminations”. In doing so, they do not allow that indigenous
cultures can evolve, nor recreate themselves and still claim to be indigenous. It seems
that indigenous cultures cannot be complicated, internally diverse or contradictory.
(Smith, 1999, p.74) In this way, nation states attempt to maintain their position of
patronage with regards to indigenous peoples.
According to Stordahl and Kvernmo’s conceptual framework, the concept of cultural
understanding requires an analytical approach. It represents a tool to analyse the
variety in how people organise their social lives and how these varieties manifest
themselves. Here, we could also use the term to 'contextualise' which means locating
actions and events in situations, in human roles, into the times and places into which
they belong. Cultural understanding also entails grasping how we ourselves participate
in social systems and, thus, carry on the social conventions within which we grew up
and in which we live. Stordahl and Kvernmo summarise cultural understanding as
follows: “cultural understanding is theoretical insight which gives competence to work
analytically with interpersonal relations and problems both in multicultural and mono
cultural environments” (1990, p.5). To be conscious of your position as observer
means strengthening your cultural sensitivity and a part of this is to be reflective and
compare your own and other people’s cultural knowledge. In practical situation we are
all both participants and co-actors in actions and we need to take a meta position as
observers and reflect on our own as well as others cultural values and categories. When
reflecting, you mobilise all your competences; knowledge, values, judging, attitudes,
emotions, rationalities etc. An attitude of reflection can obviate stereotypes, prejudices
and discrimination. The acquired reflective competence should enable to avoid acting
on basis merely on preferences or on intuitive feelings. Kalleberg discusses research
ethics and in that respect he calls for humility to be a part of the scientific / ethics
discourse. This means recognising our own constraints of knowledge when it comes to
6 Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective
the plurality of the world and other people’s knowledge and insights (Kalleberg, 2002,
p.152). We are talking about being humble and respectful to others, to be able see our
own rationality and failures and realise that we are dependent on each other as
reflecting beings.
Cultural encounters and power
Cultural encounters are settings where people with different experiences and cultural
backgrounds come together. The concept of multiculturalism and multicultural
encounters often hide the possibly asymmetric relations between members of groups. It
is common to consider these encounters as being meetings of equals, and ignore the
power aspects that exist between people(s). The knowledge of how the power
influences relations when dealing with majority-minority relations and relations
between majority and indigenous peoples is important when fostering competence in
multicultural understanding.
Power appears on many levels and is manifested at the micro, medium and macro
levels of society. The micro level is represented by the meetings of individuals, the
medium level, the meetings of groups, and the macro level is concerned with the
relations between the state and peoples (Barth, 1994). The decisions, interests and
points of view of majority groups are taken as universal when dealing with others,
especially minorities. The 'rulers' decide what is considered to be normal and valid.
Despite this, and all evidence to the contrary, they do not consider themselves to be in
a position of power.
However, the position of indigenous and minority peoples’ in society can generally be
characterised by powerlessness. As a result they adapt their lives to be without power
and at the same time articulate the need for an equal relationship in order that the
minority group is empowered.
The manifestations of power do not need to be expressed explicitly, but takes subtle
forms, as also attested to by the AMS students. Their stories reveal experiences of
discrimination on a more personal level, in the forms of disdain and derision. Marianne
Gullestad uses the term 'hegemony' to label the power of the rulers in these encounters
and she exemplifies this in a Norwegian context. She states that for Norwegians, it is
difficult for them to grasp that they are in a hegemonic position and that this is an
institutionalised structure. (Gullestad, 2002, p.16).
The next section attempts to demonstrate by way of example how cultural knowledge,
understanding and background, as well as power relations, are concretised in the stories
and experiences of students. We also examine how student assignments enhanced
cultural sensitivity.
Small stories: A potential for growth
Analysing the stories
Students’ stories and experiences are used to examine issues relating to cultural
encounters. In their comprehensive project work, they chose certain issues or events to
Balto & Østmo 7
work with. When presenting a story, we usually mix descriptions of the occurrence
with our personal interpretations and opinions about the event in question. The first
step is to train oneself to be conscious about the normative ideas and attitudes that are
woven into the story. The aim is to discriminate between descriptive presentations of
situations and the personal interpretation of these. While working on this principle the
students discover the need for more nuanced knowledge and information to fully
understand the problem or the issue. The second step is to add comments, explanations
and questions to the description of the event.
In a way, the assignments took the form of ‘research training’, in which the students’
descriptions of various situations were not relying only on their thoughts and beliefs.
Students could check the validity of their descriptions. By interpreting the situation, by
analysing and reflecting on the event and by connecting the event with theories and
explanatory models, new ways of conceptualising the event can open up.
During their practice, students shifted between two positions: that of a participant and
that of a community observer. The observer’s position is like that of a researcher;
trying to stand outside or maintaining a distance. This was a position which students
found challenging, but at the same time entailed new insights. To reflect on the
position of the participant can also strengthen the variety of interpretations.
Student contexts
The AMS students represented a range of Sámi communities, from both Sámi and
Sámi-Norwegian environments in which the Sámi population was either in a majority
or a minority situation. Their backgrounds and personal experiences reflected present
day Sámi conditions and in which students introduced current knowledge about their
societies, much of which knowledge was the kind that is not written down. This
knowledge also served as part of the curriculum.
Our intention here is not to fully contextualise Sámi society, but more to give attention
to some characteristics of this society that we found relevant for the students
background and their stories. The stories reflected a variety of backgrounds, sources of
knowledge, the ethno-political situation and the ongoing negotiations about Sámi
The Sámi belong to a culture which has been relegated to the position of a minority and
been oppressed; an attempt has even been made to wipe out the whole culture,
according to Stordahl. The ethno history of the Sámi abounds in cases of personal
defeat. Stordahl also refers to negotiations on how to be a Sámi and at the same time be
a participant in a modern society. These discourses are apparent in everyday
discussions on small issues, such as clothing styles and modes of living as well as in
the discourses on the founding of Sámi representative bodies. Furthermore Stordahl
ties these negotiations to social structures, explaining how they contribute to the
promotion of Sámi ethno politics both nationally and internationally (Stordahl, 1996,
8 Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective
Cultural sensitivity is enhanced
Cultural encounters can be examined from several perspectives and, here, we focus on
two different ways of doing that: either by assessing the characteristics of a culture or
by discussing and analysing them. The students’ stories revealed what we already
know about cultural understanding in general, that it is strictly normative and tied to
our present knowledge, action and value system. This normative basis teaches us that
knowledge is not 'pure' knowledge: it is connected to rules that influence our deeds and
actions. It is expected that all Sámi, when wearing their gákti (traditional outfit) should
know the difference between what is a man’s and what is a woman’s woven ribbon for
their traditional shoes. If a woman wears a man’s ribbon she is socially sanctioned. In
the follow-up discussions, our purpose was to raise awareness of how we are part of a
moral and cultural community and thus judge actions from that point of view. From
another perspective, training to be observers, we were able to recognise this as a
normative phenomenon. When our students became aware of how the 'secret' rules of
knowledge could exclude people, they realised the importance of knowing the
meanings and the influence of words, theories and explanations.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with being normative. Students contribute to
the building of Sámi society and want to know and comprehend cultural values and
also assess their benefits to future generations (Halvorsen, 2004, p.20). However, in the
development of institutions and society, we need to recognise and take care of all
members of society, as every human being is of equal value. Together the students
dealt with their ties of belonging and range of backgrounds, and this enhanced their
skill in recognising both others’ and their own bias and impartiality. To use Kvernmo
and Stordahl’s words, the students learned to know the dark spots that prevent us from
seeing social differences and variations (1990, p.6).
The negotiations about how to be a 'real' Sámi: to speak the language, to wear the
gákti, to belong to a reindeer herding family, were often an issue in the students’
stories. But also the opposite position was discussed, that those Sámi who have lost the
language, or do not wear gákti feel that they are not accepted as 'real'. This discourse is
internal between Sámi groups and is one that often appears in the public realm. In a
study situation, this gives an excellent opportunity to develop our skills in analytical
approaches. Referring to Smith, this shows the tension between being culturally
authentic and 'pure' and being a member of a diverse and contemporary world. In
addition, there is a need for the knowledge about how this situation, loss of language,
gákti and culture occurred. To understand the discourse, the history of colonisation, has
to be addressed. According to Daes, we are here talking about colonialism, not in the
sense of occupying land, or military occupations, but colonialism in the sense of the
subjective, social, and spiritual levels of the mind (Daes 2000). For the Sámi in
Norway, their history is characterised by a process that has been referred to as
‘Norwegianisation’, which included ethnic discrimination and cultural destruction. By
reflecting on that, the students can compare their own experiences with others’ and
acknowledge a variety of experiences on the interpersonal level. Despite
Norwegianisation, there is also a history that speaks to the strength of Sámi culture,
which has ensured its survival. It is common to explain this success and failure as
Balto & Østmo 9
being the result of certain qualifications and moral qualities, as Wadel explains (Wadel
1990, p.43). Here in our context we note this same explanation, as regarding those
people who have succeeded or failed in upholding their cultural heritage. However, in
this study, we investigate the conditions for successes as well as for failures; in order
to, among other things, sort out the actors, forms of interaction, premises for
interaction, power and dependency relations, and time and space.
As already mentioned, cultural knowledge varies between the members in a society,
and this is also true for Sámi students. Their stories need to be nuanced and interpreted
with knowledge from different angles. Some students stressed the dilemmas of keeping
the traditions strictly, for instance in Sámi craft, duodji, versus the need for its renewal.
Discussing the gákti, they questioned to what extent it is possible to change the colours
and patterns and whether to mix women’s and men’s outfits or to mix outfits from
different areas. When students evaluated the use of the Sámi dress, they did much more
than just look at the designs, colours and histories connected with the traditional
clothing. The students recognised a contradiction: if the dress is maintained as being
‘unchangeable’, a consequence might be that the use of gákti will decrease and so also
will Sámi handicrafts and traditions. To accept changes, also means that we are obliged
to question how radical the change might be without losing the basis of its tradition.
Students also reflected on what we actually 'carry' when we wear a Sámi dress: Are we
showing our identity or are we just dressing up? The answers 'carry' the meanings, the
significances behind the actions and the cultural expressions. Dahl emphasises that
there are unspoken codes connected with symbols; he also states that one can notice
from the form of cultural expressions that they have an external form but also a
meaning which carries the form (2001, p.58–59). If symbols do not mean anything for
a person, like the symbol of gákti, if there are no feelings connected to them or if a
person is unable to interpret their meaning, they will be nothing more than external
The students’ stories showed that in order to perceive their dilemmas in a new
perspective, they had to add sufficient knowledge about Sámi craft, its history, its
preservation and renewal and the way it varies geographically. The meaning of
symbols is also important to discuss, in order to realise in this context that there are
differences within Sámi society. If the discussion is broadened to include the public
discourse on Sámi handicrafts, about the intellectual property rights and the
commercial exploitation among other things, it opens up for an optimal learning
Public debates reveal more than just facts about issues: they bring forth people’s
emotions, attitudes and values. Stories mediate morals and values as Nergård
underlines, though he also comments that stories can be told just for amusement.
According to him, stories first of all transfer traditions and connect these to the way of
life and insights. Furthermore, he highlights two important elements of storytelling. On
the one hand, they are predescriptive; this means that they contain ethical values as
advice on how to manage life. On the other hand, he says, they are reconstructive
which means that new stories spring forth from former ones. (Nergård, 2006, p.25-33).
The students’ stories also started as pre-descriptions and through the process of
10 Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective
discussions, analyses and the theoretical approaches, new stories are created. As stories
in general in indigenous communities, are part of a community’s collective memory,
the reconstructed stories will contribute to the renewal of the collective mind.
Consciousness raising
Smith (2003) asserts the use of the concepts colonisation and decolonisation as
focusing mainly on the coloniser. The historical oppression is a fact, but in order to
move forward, he introduces the term 'consciousness raising' to accentuate a more pro-
active approach to politics. Norwegianisation policies towards Sámi have for a long
time been a systematic part of the power and political structures of the state of Norway
as well as its official objectives. Exclusion, contempt and considering someone inferior
because of racial or ethnic reasons and discrimination in general are complex processes
and often interlaced with social structures and ways of thinking. Thinking in terms of
race has its origin in cultural hierarchies and has become intertwined with people’s
attitudes and has, as a result, mutated into what could be called ‘common sense’. For
generations, mainstream society has excluded Sámi and treated them with contempt
both as individuals and as a people. However, exclusive practices are not limited to the
majority minority relationship, but are found also among the Sámi and in Sámi
communities. Høgmo’s paper on 'the third alternative' discusses the situation faced by
those Sámi who have been the victims of the Norwegianisation process, such as loss of
language and identity. He introduces the concept of either being Sámi, non-Sámi or as
the third alternative - having no identity. He highlights the dilemmas some Sámi face
in managing their identity and the problems faced by those who do not want to reveal
their Sáminess. In the Norwegian context they have to hide their Sáminess and, in the
Sámi context, they are blamed if they deny their Sáminess. (Høgmo 1986.) The stories
opened up discussions on the differences of identity management in various situations
and experiences.
The students’ stories on exclusion and contempt dealt with both the Sámi as a group
and as individuals. In order to analyse social structures, the students needed to see the
stories in a wider context. One story dealt with a son discovering that his father, whom
he had never heard speaking Sámi, surprised him as speaker of the language. The
father had hidden his Sáminess so as to be accepted as an employee at a mining
company close to the border with the then Soviet Union. In the 1900s, the Norwegian
state considered Sámi and Finns to be a threat to the nation's security policy in areas
close to the border with the Soviet Union, due to the tense nature of international
relations during the Cold War. This shows how history brings new explanations and
insights into what has happened, and how it broadens views from the personal level to
the level of international power relations. In this case, to be culturally sensitive, means
understanding the conditions that this father was dependent on at that time.
Another story shows the crash between different lifestyles when a reindeer herding
mother is consulting with a public health nurse. The public health nurse asserts that
regular eating and sleeping routines must be set for the well-being of her baby. Such
expectations cannot be fulfilled in a reindeer herding family's way of life. Their lives
are dependent on cycles that do not run according to regular working hours, for
Balto & Østmo 11
example, they have to take into consideration seasonal cycles and live according to the
best conditions for the reindeer. As this nurse represented authority, the mother did not
argue her case as to what was best in her view for her baby, so she withdrew from an
area of potential conflict. When analysing this situation, the first reaction might be that
this is a kind of contempt from the authority’s side, but another possible way of seeing
it, is that the nurse did not intentionally treat the mother with disdain. From a
communicational point of view, the lack of knowledge between these two persons was
obvious. The nurse was not familiar with the way of life of reindeer herding families.
She was mainly accustomed to her official way of thinking and saw only her own view
of what health meant, while the mother did not articulate her family’s needs at all. The
communication collapsed. The nurse did not intentionally treat the mother with
contempt, but obviously cultural knowledge and cultural sensitivity would have given
her a better capacity to work professionally and provide equal service to the variety of
members of society.
To further strengthen the capacity for sensitivity, Høgmo states (1998), that it is
important to recognise when people are treated with disdain and considered as being
inferior. Such attitudes are communicated through small movements, looks, ways of
using the voice and the choice of words. It is common to deny disdain by blaming the
persons that have been held in contempt and say that they were the ones who
interpreted the situation incorrectly. Both the one who holds and the one who is held in
contempt must have the skill to read and interpret the various codes. What hurt our
students more than anything else was dealing with and looking at situations in which a
Sámi held another Sámi in contempt, for example, by doubting the person’s Sáminess
or on the contrary, calling him or her a ‘Super-Sámi’, a negative labelling for one who
has been in forefront of the Sámi movement.
There are numerous discussions and a variety of views and opinions on what it means
to be Sámi, what the content of Sáminess is. In her doctoral thesis, Stordahl discusses
the challenges of being a Sámi and at the same time being a member of a global
society. She focuses on the broad range of ongoing negotiations that this entails; from
the smallest details like what kind of outfit is acceptable or what kind of architecture
represents the Sámi living style the most, to what kind of political institutions are
appropriate for the Sámi. (Stordahl 1998, p.158.) This wide variety illustrates that there
is no single explanation for belonging. According to Gullestad, identity depends
always on negotiation. It is not set in stone, but is negotiated, argued about in social
interactions and accepted or eventually questioned (2002, p.245). The ongoing debates
in Sámi society about belonging or not belonging, about real Sáminess and to what
extent you can make your Sáminess evident, illustrate what Sámi consider important
when maintaining, developing and adapting Sámi society to modern times. Again we
have to refer to Smith 2003 to shift to from seeing ourselves as victims to a shift
towards a proactive mind and see ourselves as subjects.
The AMS program differed from other multicultural studies in Norway in that we
recognised, explored and analysed issues from Sámi, indigenous and minority
perspectives. This provided new approaches to multicultural discussions in general, by
also challenging members of the majority to analyse their positions and train their
12 Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective
sensitivity to Sámi practices and views. The voice of the Sámi, minority and
indigenous people is needed to reveal the hegemonic mentality of the majority in order
to challenge the basis of multicultural studies elsewhere in Norway.
The story of learning
One of the students asked pointedly, ‘Why didn’t I learn this earlier my life would
have been quite different’ indicating that the course on cultural understanding
benefited both Sámi society and her personally. To share stories and to exchange
experiences and lessons learned was according to many students, the most important
part of the course. Now, years afterwards, we reflect on which aspects of the course
made it succeed as they became significant for the students. Our approach is in line
with what Laursen states that new didactics focuses on the reflection that takes place
after the teaching is finished. Reflection raises critical questionings that provide new
understanding and can contribute to change and renew the organisation of education,
and this also applies to AMS (Laursen, 1997).
Searvelanjas: In the shared room
A key component of the AMS was the creation, together with our students of what we
called a shared room, in which students could relate in safety their personal thoughts
and therefore in their work and as human beings could develop professionally. The
students took a common path to the shared room by intentionally applying to the AMS
program, and they wanted to learn how to manage cultural meetings both in their
working and personal lives. Through such a motivation, they committed themselves to
contributing to the content of the shared room and making it into a fruitful and secure
Searvelatnja therefore allowed for discussions on sensitive issues, like descriptions of
how a lack of power often resulted in arguments, disagreements and even resignation.
The internal discriminatory habits among Sámi are painful experiences, because they
deal with our ability, or inability, to control our lives. Naturally, when training focuses
on such issues, teachers have to provide confident communication strategies. The
instructor has to take the lead by telling stories in order to show that the discussion of
painful experiences is permitted; and this makes it easier for students to continue. In
this way, the classroom becomes a learning arena in which the students feel confident
enough to participate. Mikkel Nils Sara calls such an arena of learning, searvelatnja,
'the shared room'. He explains that traditional Sámi shared learning takes place when
people across generations interact and while working together they share skills,
knowledge and values. Each participant in searvelatnja has his or her own task (Sara,
2003: 125).
Searvelatnja gives participants the opportunity to articulate their cultural backgrounds,
investigate their views in a safe setting and enables them to look at situations with new
eyes. According to Gullestad, such critical reflection requires a secure feeling about
one’s background; she also underlines that the internalisation of concepts and
categories can be used to predict the future and that gives one the feeling of control of
one’s life (2002: 66).
Balto & Østmo 13
Narrative and experiential learning
Stories chosen had to be connected with the students’ experiences and include a theme
that has relevance to the course. This kind of experiential learning gives the students
more space and attention. Direct experiences can also be used just for motivation, so
that students become interested in a subject. However, after the interest is aroused, the
teacher shifts into dealing with the ‘real’ subjects. Hoëm calls this way of using
experience solely to arouse interests ‘pseudo-recognition’. The teacher recognises an
experience as ‘bait’ for the real interests of the course of instruction (1978, p.48). In
AMS, experiences determined the themes that were dealt with, and the use of theories
and concepts shed new light on the events. Using students’ experiences in this way
may make knowledge more attractive and provide it with valuable content (Hoëm,
1978, p.67). A closer analysis of experiential learning makes visible its didactic
aspects: the fact that an experience has both a subjective and an objective function
(Illeris, 1981, p.113). Subjective in this context means that the students see the
experience as something that is relevant and of interest for them personally. In order to
take into account the objective level of an experience, it is necessary to raise this from
the personal level to a more social context and also to illuminate the social structures.
Through experiential learning, the students were trained to shift the view of their
experiences from a subjective to an objective perspective.
Tiller presents the process of experiential learning through a learning ladder, in which
he distinguishes between different levels of learning. He emphasises that when people
relate their experiences by sharing them with each other, but do not take the issue any
further, they are not actually learning they are only recounting. In order to complete
the learning, experiences need to be categorised and systematised. Categorisation
means that the students arrange the experiences according to their similarities,
becoming gradually aware of some main patterns and forms. The challenge is to tie the
categorised experiences together. To find clear categories means that it is easier to
view how the experiences are similar and how they differ from each other. The higher
we get on the learning ladder, the less bound the story is to a specific time and space.
The experience becomes abstracted and it is quite a challenge to reach a high level of
abstraction (Tiller, 1999, p.34). We noticed how the students struggled to enhance their
capacities on a higher level of their learning ladder. If the facilitation of the learning
process had solely let the stories be recounted, which is actually a good way of
sharing the learning would have been minimised. Among other things, we would not
have discerned phenomena that were connected with power relations, gender roles and
ethnic and social differences. AMS challenged students to pay particular attention to
such phenomena. Stories and experiences are, from the indigenous perspective, equal
to theories (Kuokkanen, 2000.) They can give us insight on how knowledge and
worldviews interrelate, and can open up new perspectives and raise consciousness.
Learning that stirs
In carrying out experiential learning, it is impossible to ignore the role of attitudes and
feelings and this was apparent during the activities in AMS. The course was based on
the unwritten idea that competence consists of knowledge, skills and know-how and
14 Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective
also emotions and attitudes. This means that emotions contribute to learning and have a
significant effort on the learning process. What is the rationality behind this
understanding of learning?
We quote Illeris who labels learning as something that includes emotional aspects as
'significant learning'. Such learning is a pervasive process that to some extent always
hurts and disturbs the balance of a person (1981, p.87–88). In significant learning,
stasis is broken and new knowledge may disturb one’s harmony. Hoëm explains that
when emotions are part of learning, education grows in value and provides
understanding that the students assume as part of themselves (Hoëm, 197 p.67).
It is important that students feel socially secure, but facing disturbing resistance is also
beneficial for their learning. Ziehe, also discusses the important role of contradictions
in learning. He stresses that it is important to prepare for unexpected situations, doubts,
uncertainty and contradictions, because they catalyse motivation (1978, p.94).
Traditionally among Sámi, solving unexpected problems and the strength to endure
pain are important capacities to learn. Balto highlights that, in order to become self-
reliant, you have to learn to solve challenges. It is also possible to train to endure pain.
The habit of letting small children handle knives at quite an early age is a well known
Sámi tradition. The idea behind this is that children should learn to master the use of
knife in a proper way on their own so that they will not hurt themselves or others. Balto
notes that survival knowledge involves more than just practical skills: it includes the
capacity to solve problems at a more abstract and cognitive level. Sámi prepare their
children to solve sudden challenges and a readiness for unexpected situations. The skill
to solve unforeseen challenges is one of the most valued skills we need to prepare
ourselves for survival. According to Balto, the significance of this skill is also evident
in Sámi heritage. This capacity gives a person mental readiness for survival as it
enables him/her for instant problem solving. In addition, self-reliance increases a
person’s self-confidence (Balto 2008, p.60). When the students expressed that they had
learned how to cope with cultural encounters, it might be that they did not find
solutions for all the challenges. However, we expect that they started to be mentally
better prepared to face them.
We realised how students’ enthusiasm and eagerness was challenged when they
themselves contributed something. Story telling as a new method to deal with cultural
encounters could not improve the daily lives of students, but the method could guide
their learning progress. The method requires that students engage themselves fully
their experiences, knowledge, intuition, emotions, discussions with others and
whatever resources they might have to enhance their understanding. Often, students
were worried because they might not find solutions or ‘right answers’ in books; or also
because the answer they arrived at was totally unexpected. The flexibility of such a
learning process coaxed and stimulated the students to stretch their learning capacity.
And the story grows
What seemed to be a small story about trivial issues transformed into a story of much
larger dimensions. This happens when students immersed themselves into the themes
Balto & Østmo 15
of the study, and their understanding developed into a meta-level that enabled them to
see individual events as part of a greater context. We can discern cultural and social
patterns, political processes and historical backgrounds in the students’ stories. When
students succeeded in seeing the connections between the categories mentioned, the
concepts and theoretical insights and their own personal interests and experiences, this
provided yet new meaning. One important achievement in the study of theories was
reached when the students realised how the term 'culture' could be used to either
exclude or include people. To learn to know one’s own and other people’s cultural
'wrappings' is to pay attention to their cultural sensitivity; to learn to be less normative
and more analytical. Often, students’ stories revealed discrimination, oppression and
contempt. The strategy is however, to shift the view from being victims of oppression
to becoming pro-active in our attitudes and actions.
By working in the searvelatnja in safe surroundings, students felt more secure in
analysing painful issues, conflicts and contradictions; and it also strengthened them so
that they were able to look for possible solutions to problems. Such a process healed
and empowered individual students, the group of students and, subsequently, their
working environments and society. By focusing on story-telling as a method, might be
one reason for the success of the study. The criteria for success here are both the good
results, but also the wellbeing of the students and staff. Story telling reflects the
traditional Sámi way of learning and we have faith that the sense of wellbeing derived
from storytelling is familiar to the students and us, the instructors. The story has also
grown in our respect we have realised that, by providing room for narration,
experiences, emotions and learning in the searvelatnja, our intuition has led us to the
traditional Sámi methods of learning. As mentioned earlier, a person needs to
withstand pain and to cope with unexpected situations and contradictions and these
were challenges implicit in the course. Such challenges may increase the students’
capacity to manage, solve and cope with problems. Transferring these problem solving
skills into new contexts, is a highly valuable level of learning.
While reflecting on the course, we realised that the indigenous perspective with its
focus on power, the effect of colonisation and consciousness raising was an ever more
prominent part of the growing story of the AMS training. In the period when these
courses were carried out, the concept of decolonisation was not commonly used;
however, we followed the principles of the decolonisation process. Today, the AMS
training could be renewed to include the process of decolonisation and consciousness
raising, for which Marie Battiste, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Graham Hingangarao
Smith paved the way. They highlight how indigenous peoples can reconceptualise the
effects of colonisation, to improve their situation and dignity and build up self-
determination in matters that concern them.
Our engagement in the development of Sámi society, both professionally and
politically has naturally affected our professional interests, approach and curiosity.
However, participation has also been an advantage in itself: through such engagement,
one learns to see confrontations between individuals and groups of people; one also
learns that such events arouse conflicts, pain and unpleasant feelings in people. We
consider that the enhancement of cultural sensitivity and understanding is a suitable
16 Multicultural studies from a Sámi perspective
instrument for creating better and healthier ways of social exchange and
communication. To improve Sámi and indigenous societies, we emphasise that instead
of victimising ourselves, we need to become proactive in the development of our
societies. Being active members of Sámi society, we have, in the context of research,
the obligation to be careful observers of our society, as Skjervheim reminds (1976).
Indeed, the shifting between these roles has allowed us, together with the students, to
increase our knowledge and enhance our understanding in the field. Regarding cultural
sensitivity, we have become more conscious of how our ties may blind us to those who
differ from us. Every now and then, we may also embrace our own kind too closely.
This is up to the reader to assess.
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Assistant Professor Asta Mitkijá Balto has been actively engaged in Sámi education
for decades, she has been the Director of the Sámi Education Council and also elected
Vice-Chancellor of Sámi University College. Her academic work is concentrated on
her research on the transmission of culture. The traditional child rearing in Sámi
families has been the main interest and her research findings have been recognized as
a source for the development of Sámi pedagogy and Sámi education. Recently, she
finished an action-research based project where Sámi primary/preschools in Sweden
implemented these theories for practical use in their schools. Her books are published
in Sámi and Norwegian and some articles are also available in English.
Assistant professor Liv Østmo is one of the founders of the Sámi University
College, where she also has been elected Dean. She has worked for years developing
and lecturing on the study of multicultural understanding at the Sámi University
College. Currently she is working on the project Árbediehtu, which develops methods
for documentation, protection, storage and further development of traditional
knowledge. These days she is finishing a method book for documentation of Sámi
traditional knowledge.
... It is possible to argue that Sámi people must make a shift from being victims to becoming self-reliant and proactive in attitudes and actions (see Smith, 2003;Balto & Østmo, 2012). To do so, they must solve challenges and be able to endure pain (Balto & Østmo, 2012). ...
... It is possible to argue that Sámi people must make a shift from being victims to becoming self-reliant and proactive in attitudes and actions (see Smith, 2003;Balto & Østmo, 2012). To do so, they must solve challenges and be able to endure pain (Balto & Østmo, 2012). While these strategies might be beneficial on an individual level, seen from a structural perspective, they move the responsibility for making space for identity processes from the system to the individual. ...
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This chapter explores the recruitment and turnover of a particular type of immigrant workers, namely, school teachers in Greenland. The central research question is: What are the motivational bases for recruitment and turnover of school teachers, comparing the West and East coast of Greenland? A wider discussion is whether particular motivational forms are worth fostering in the educational sector in Greenland, and if they may hold a potential for mitigating some of the recruitment problems the educational sector in Greenland is facing. The chapter focuses in particular on three motivational forms: Public Service Motivation, Sense of Community/Sense of Community Responsibility, and “excitement motivation”. By exploring their potential for mitigating turnover among school teachers in Western and Eastern Greenland, the chapter offers insights into how motivational forms interact and overlap. This insight may help practitioners actively mitigate turnover among school teachers and underlines the potential that lies in the intersection between public management and community psychology for both practitioners and researchers.
The American Indian Quarterly 29.1&2 (2005) 285-288 Linda Tuhiwai Smith's book, Decolonizing Methodologies, provides a convenient template for viewing the impact Western-minded research, historically, has had upon effecting voice and identity in Indigenous communities. Her treatment of how its methods, in a number of ways, have undermined the integrity of countless Indigenous communities, has provided her with insight about the kind of epistemological shift that will be necessary for researchers to provide meaning, balance, and sensitivity to voice within Indigenous communities. By reviewing the way research has been shaped and woven into the grand narrative of Imperialism and expressed in the language of Colonialism (e.g. Manifest Destiny), she is able to argue that this shift should resemble nothing less than a tour de force, where Western versions of history, writing, and theory must be carefully re-evaluated or deconstructed for lack of efficiency in giving justice to the Indigenous voice. The richness of this type of solid research should include the heterogeneity of voice, the kind the Maori people have traditionally called mana and rangatiratanga. It is a principle about living and being that has been known forever in New Zealand, where Indigenous people hold the sovereign right to voice, determine, participate, and shape their own destinies. The author is an associate professor of education at the University of Aukland, New Zealand. She is also director of the International Research Institute for Maori and Indigenous Education at Aukland, and is a committee member on a number of advisory boards. Finally, Smith has authored a number of scholarly articles related to commentary about Indigenous New Zealand issues. The first five chapters attempt to demonstrate how notions about research were developed and refined into a formidable Zeitgeist about the Other within the historical context of Imperialism. She begins to build her argument out of the debris that history, theory, and writing have left in the wake of establish-ing the Other as the primary caricature of Indigenous culture. Even though she has critically articulated the way that these methods are really guises for "a particular realization of the imperial imagination," (23) Smith remains insistent that this triad can be reasonably redeemed to overcome its own prejudices for better service in representing Indigenous communities. Writing, for instance, must become more than detailing the injustices of Imperialism, but should also be used as a means to begin rebuilding the integrity that has been ripped away from the body of countless Indigenous cultures. Further into the chapters, she continues to emphasis the difficulty of representation by describing how the notion of Other was coded into an archival system of irrelevant ideas, fragments, and images about human nature. The archive is especially difficult to overcome, because the manifestations of its representation (e.g. theories about human nature), stock and barrel, are taken for granted by those people who use them in research. In order to undermine the hegemony of this archive, opportunities must be granted to Indigenous people that allow them to speak directly about how these ideas and images make them feel as an Other. Where much of this archive began to be filled in with Greek philosophy during their city-state period, the quantity of its volume occurred during the Enlightment and Industrial Revolution. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European scholars like Hume, Bacon, Kant, Hegel, and Freud provided profound twists and turns that reinforced intellectual notions about the Other. Perhaps the most potent inflection about it during this period was the rationale that supported trade between Imperial powers and Indigenous peoples. It resulted in an ominous misappropriation of Indigenous knowledge, based more on the belief that knowledge is discovered rather than a living entity of Indigenous culture. Furthermore, this type of rationale had reduced Indigenous people and their knowledge into a commodity similar to other natural resources to be exploited and appropriated for profit. The remaining five chapters provide some thoughts about establishing the contour of alternative methods of research that would avoid the colonial-minded mistakes made by earlier generations of Western scholars. Probably...
Summary The background to this book is the efforts of advancing the educational system that took place in Swedish Sami area between the years 2005 and 2007. On their own initiative, the Sami schools in Johkamohkki/Jokkmokk and Jiellevárri/Gällivare contacted the researchers requesting them to colla¬bo¬rate and the current headmasters Gudrun Kuhmunen, Carina Sarri and Kerstin Pittsa Omma requested Gunilla Johansson at the University of Technology in Luleå and myself at the Sami University College in Kauto¬keino to coordinate a research project aimed at enhancing the Sami perspective within the work of the school. The ”participatory action research model” was the methodology chosen, presupposing that researchers and workers cooperate in reviewing and altering existing practices. Sámi teachers - transforming traditional culture to coming generations Decolonizing Action Research in Sapmi Even though Sami political intentions for almost a hundred years has aimed at enhancing the Sami foundation of the education system, success is still pending in this regard. And although Sami education plans and programs underlining the demand to promote the Sami perspective in schools have been approved both in the Swedish and Norwegian Sami area, this achievement has not ensured Sami schools for Sami children. These investigations show that one of the reasons could be that the culture of the dominant society is in a strong position and as such has a heavy influence on the Sami way of thinking and the mentality of Sami tutors. Through decolonisation it should be possible to rectify the influence caused by colonisation. This ought to be carried out by disclosing the results of colonisation, evaluating them with new eyes and encouraging colonized peoples to appreciate own backgrounds. The notion of decoloni¬sation is topical and often applied in indigenous research works and thus is of paramount interest in this type of action research - decolonising the methods of Sami schooling. My part in this research is to monitor the learning of teachers and the process of their promotional work and elucidate what happened and how it progressed. I further adduce reasons for what this kind of renewal of practice and decolonizing efforts demand in order to succeed. The research should also become an example in encouraging Sami politicians, school authorities, headmasters and teacher groups to initiate similar endeavours in Sami schools in their own area. My investigations brought to light the struggle facing teachers in finding a Sami working space; they need both learning, advice and additional time resources. However, with these terms it will be possible to promote Sami content and bring Sami teaching methods into the schools. A new aspect in this research is that we try to put into concrete terms what Sami cultural and traditional knowledge is, which traditional teaching methods exist and how one could incorporate these into the pedagogic practices of the school. In the book, based on tutor’s efforts, presentations and discussions, I give an account of how they manage to present new and renewing practices in school situations. The teachers table Sami traditions as pedagogics, systemise, analyse, revise and adapt them into a new framework. In this fashion we see how Sami teachers learn to transform their own culture into being an intrinsic part of the school. We have based our work on Balto’s theory addressed in her thesis ”Sami traditional upbringing” which will be put into practice. The practical benefit and the tenability of the theory will be visible in the renewing of practices. The entire research project shows that schools alone do not manage to accomplish this kind of progress and school authorities, being those who suggest terminology and frameworks ought to support these development efforts. Managerial documents, acts, plans and regulations for Sami schools must be controlled by the Sami themselves and the Sami parlia¬ment must hold the decision making authority. Insufficient knowledge and competence on legal aspects, conventions, declarations and systems that favour and affirm Sami rights, are considerable obstructions to progress. Sami school leaders and teachers are in need of learning about rights issues when they face tasks of defending and arguing in favour of the rights of Sami children and students. Authorities and politicians with decision making power, also, be it Sami or others, are in need of knowledge about their own formal obligations. They should further know what colonisation has inflicted on the Sami people and what challenges this fact brings forth. Results of this research certainly include theoretical investigations on Sami inherited habits and values with regard to knowledge and upbringing systems are attached and the invisible aspects herein as well. The challenge still remains to accomplish a Sami knowledge and value basis and to build up a Sami foundation for a Sami school system.
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