The Sami: a model in their ability to bridge modernity and a traditional lifestyle

Posted by Marie Roué on December 16, 2011

By Marie Roué, ethnologist, director of research at the CNRS / Museum of natural history, Paris. A specialist of Arctic peoples, she has been studying the Sami since 1969.

Marie Roué en costume sami traditionnel

The Sami live on a territory they call Sapmi (Lapland) that covers 4 different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Despite the borders and different legislations in each of these countries, the Sami have retained a strong sense of unity in respect to both language and culture.

The origins

The first traces of life that archeologists have found in the area are those of Sami ancestors – traces of a camp near the sea on the Norwegian island of Sørøya, dated between 11,000 and 8,000 B.C.

There’s also archeological proof that some groups of Sami hunters and fishermen ventured inland Swedish Lapland: wild reindeers and elks were already hunted. The climate was much warmer then than it is now, with milder winters, and wetter summers.

Colonization and Christianization began to spread in the 17th century: attempts in convincing the Sami to give up their traditional shamanist religion were conducted the hard way. Shamans were even burned along with their drums. Some of the ancestral beliefs are still alive today though, even if they’re difficult to spot, having blended in with other religions and cultures.

How many of them are there now?

The Sami population is difficult to estimate as criteria differ from one country to another. Anyone who declares themself Sami, speaks Sami, or has at least a father, mother, or grandparents who speak Sami – can be declared Sami.

Estimates, henceforth, account for approximately 70,000 Sami, 2,000 of whom live in Russia, 6,000 in Finland, 40,000 in Norway, and 20,000 in Sweden.

Reindeer farmers: a myth or reality?

Originally, the Sami were hunters-fishermen-gatherers. Farming only began in the 17th century, essentially because of the Scandinavian colonization, which made wild animal populations fall.

Nowadays reindeer farmers are a minority: in Sweden, for example, 2,000 of them make a living off farming, i.e. around 10% of the Sami. As for the others, many have moved south towards the larger cities to find more “standard” jobs, while others went back to traditional fishing despite fierce competition with the fishing industry.

Life is hard for the farmers. The exploitation of their country’s mining wealth and the spread of forest industries are a threat to lichen pastures, essential to reindeers nine months a year.


Political progress

The Sami have kept defending their political and territorial rights, which are being gradually recognized.

They have a parliament in Sweden and in Norway. In Sweden the parliament’s range of action was originally very narrow: it was limited to the domain of culture and could only get involved on economic issues. Reindeer farming was under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture, and hence, of the state of Sweden.

The role of the Sami parliament today is increasingly socio-economic, handling farming and government relations in critical periods that require help from the state.

Important issues such as that of prey animals also fall under its jurisdiction: wolves, eagles, lynx, wolverines, etc. are all protected species that happen to feed on reindeers. The question here is to define whether Sami land can or cannot serve as food-supply for all the wildlife Sweden and the rest of the world wishes to preserve, considering that would be at the expense of reindeer farmers.

The Sami people, very attached to their lifestyle and culture

The Sami show quite a remarkable attachment to their culture. They have this relation to the landscape, the country, the lifestyle they keep perpetuating despite material and economic hardship. They’re aware that if they give up, their line of descent will break off and their children or grandchildren will not be able to resume farming activities. So they keep going, for their own sake but also for the sake of transmission.

And their sense of humor remains untouched when it comes to comment the complexity of their situation. One of my friends from the Swedish highlands once told me with a chuckle: “Since there isn’t much to do this summer, I’m going on holiday to work as a road-mender in Norway because it makes more money than in Sweden, and with that money, I’ll be able to farm again when the season returns.”

They’re confident in their ability to adapt, even to climate change, but questions remain: “Our lifestyle has always been based on nomadism: when there are no resources left here, we move further. But when there’ll be an airport in one place, a city in another, and protected forests all around, where will we be going then?”

The Sami stand at the crossroads of major contemporary issues: how to remain traditional while becoming modern, how to remain oneself without folklorizing? They’re developing strategies to answer all these questions, and do appear as quite a model in the courage they show taking up all these challenges implied by modernity.

Read a description of Sami languages.

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Jadu Kolija, the core of Kokborok culture and language

Posted by Joseph Pulinthanath on December 7, 2011

By Salesian Father Joseph Pulinthanath, Director of the film Yarwng (Roots), made in Kokborok language, in the Indian state of Tripura.


Kokborok language, like its speakers, seems to be critically poised at some crossroads of history. Strewn about the length of breadth of this hallowed land of erstwhile kings and kingdoms are numerous signs of resurgence and decadence.

Caught in the middle, between two worlds – one dead, the other powerless to be born, is a tongue, crisis-ridden yet buoyant: Kokborok, the mother-tongue of the ‘borok’ people of Tripura in Northeast India.

Vicissitudes of history have relegated the language and its speakers to the fringes of society, although it is still used by over 800 000 speakers. Today’s efforts at rejuvenation of the tribe and its language are characterized by muddled policies and half-hearted attempts.

The revival of Kokborok

Recent efforts at revitalizing Kokborok have been phenomenal. In fact, the sheer pace with which Kokborok reinvented itself in the past 20 years is amazing.

There was a time not long ago, when Kokborok was spoken in hushed tones in Agartala. This was because enmeshed in socio-political factors Kokborok got absurdly equated with lack of education, status and breeding.

But that was all a long time ago! The scenario has substantially changed today. The sotto voce asides of yesteryears have now been replaced by confident assertions. Today one frequently gets to hear Kokborok in public places and occasions even in the towns of Tripura. The increased level of confidence and ease with one’s tongue is reflected in all public spheres of life. There are numerous Kokborok festivals, Kokborok songs, films, theatre, workshops, websites, seminars and Kokborok-related activities in the state. There is even a state-sponsored ‘Kokborok Day’ celebrated annually in the state. It is, of course, another matter that with Kokborok itself seldom featuring in it, the annual event is quickly beginning to feel like a memorial function ‘about’ Kokborok.

The decline of Jadu Kolija

These laudable efforts and their achievements should encourage and not prevent the community from seriously engaging Kokborok’s own timeless ‘art’ called Jadu Kolija. Jadu Kolija literally means ‘heart of the beloved’ or ‘from the heart for the beloved’. It embraces not only love songs but all traditional form of singing/chanting.

Today, Jadu Kolija is seldom heard and indulged in. It is a pity that native speakers have bypassed this fount of wealth in their pursuit of the new brave world. This is a submission that efforts at resurgence of Kokborok, which are anyway few and far between, must not shy away from seriously engaging the ‘vital founts’ of its culture like Jadu Kolija, if they are to impact the community in a lasting manner. Sidestepping these ‘founts’ will, in the course of time, render these already feeble attempts, altogether futile or merely cosmetic at best.

I have always felt that the extraordinary richness of Kokborok language is best found in this traditional art form of the tribal community. The profound meaning of its arresting lyrics and their haunting tunes continue to enchant even today. In a manner seldom understood by non-Kokborok speakers this enigmatic music tradition held absolute sway over the entire life-cycle of the person and the community. Jadu Kolija enveloped all significant moments and events of the life-cycle. It was theatre, music and morality all rolled into one.

Still, no progress without Jadu Kolija

The thought that ‘Kokborok’ language might be ‘endangered’ is a disquieting one for me. For the past 17 years my ears have fed on the enigmatic sounds of this language. With each passing year, my ears tell me that the best of Kokborok is yet to come.

Jadu Kolija is an irresistible mixture of the rational and the emotional – the head and the heart. The stunning imageries and resonant metaphors found in Jadu Kolija can uplift not only a language but a people. The lyrics of Jadu Kolija with their untranslatable meanings, moods and innuendo can continue to be the life-giving veins of the Kokborok culture. It has the ability to ensure that the Kokborok-speaking community stays rooted on the earth and yet has its eyes fixed on the stars. Effort to restore and revitalize Kokborok without according Jadu Kolija even scant attention has a ring of absurdity about it.

To ensure the future of kokborok culture and language, ways must be devised to restore Jadu Kolija to the community. A people that have for decades been deluded by unvoiced agendas of vested interest groups should easily realize the need there is for passion to replace intellectual gimmicks. Until Kokborok speakers are seized by a passion to return to the best fount of their language, Jadu Kolija, the famed resilience of the Kokborok tribe would continue to lack depth and character. In the resurgence of Jadu Kolija lies the secret to preservation of Kokborok.

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Enough with keeping the Maya locked in their pyramids!

Posted by Valentina Vapnarsky on November 30, 2011

By Valentina Vapnarsky, researcher in linguistic anthropology at the CNRS, and director of the LESC Education and Research Centre on Amerindian Ethnology (CNRS/university of Paris Ouest)

High Temple - Photo : Bernt Rostad (cc)

In times where Maya predictions on the end of the calendar cycle are being pointed up, where pre-Hispanic Maya gems are being admired in the largest international museums, it might be worth noting that the Maya are still very much alive, and live in an area reaching from their native lands to the North of the American continent.

A resilient people

The resilient and dynamic Maya people, in spite of five centuries of brutal colonization and oppression, in spite of the power and attractiveness of heedless modernity, have managed to recreate ever-new aspects of their own identity. Crisis that have run along centuries of Maya civilization are the witnesses of a deep form of resilience.

Very ancient and diverse languages

The Mayan languages, which are dated back to some 4,500 years, have diverged and evolved each in their own way along the centuries. There is no mutual understanding between most of them, although they do bear common lexical roots and phonological and grammatical features. Such linguistic diversity, adding to a large variety of dialects, is rarely observed on such a relatively limited area, concentrated over 340,000m2 of high and lowlands in the northern part of Central America.

The locations of Mayan groups in this area, however, have never been stable. The Maya have gone through significant migration movements, often due to dramatic events. The most recent followed the mass slaughters of Indian populations in Guatemala during the 1980s, the crushing repression of the Zapatista movement in 1994 in Mexico, the depletion of the lands and soils, and the violence of drug cartels.

Hundreds of thousands of Maya people bearing different origins (Mam, K’anjobal, Q’iche’, Tojolabal, Q’eqchi’, Popti, Kaqchikel…) have fled from Guatemala to Mexico; from Chiapas (Tseltal, Tzotzil, Chol…) to the Yucatan peninsula; from rural areas to the greater urban and tourist centers; from Cancún to the USA. Hence there are about 250,000 speakers of Mayan languages in USA at this point. And cities and villages where over half a dozen of these languages actually coexist.

Contrasted situations

Out of the thirty or so Mayan languages we know about at the time of the conquest, 29 are still spoken by a near total of 6 million speakers. But their vitalities seriously differ: Itza’ and Tz‘utujil are dying out with a handful of elderly speakers, while around 800,000 people speak Yucatec and over 400,000 Q’eqchior Mam – although these high figures may in fact be shadowing a clear decline.

Indeed, even languages showing an increasing number of speakers – due to demography – end up weakening. Actually, the proportion of Mayan language speakers, and more broadly indigenous language speakers, happens to be shrinking: their languages are ever less taught as mother tongues, and ever less spoken to the children.

Besides, the environments where these languages are the most vigorous are often torn between poor and isolated populations on one side, and the Maya intellectual elite on the other. The former experience Mayan monolingualism as a problem, a source of racial misconceptions, and a social anvil; the latter are growing, although having trouble offsetting the decline of their native languages despite the efforts, a decline growing sharper everyday as the young generations wanting out of poverty get snatched by the sparks of modernity.

Demande en mariage tektiteko - Photo : José Reynes

Promising yet troubled progress in Guatemala

Preserving and reinvigorate linguistic wealth implies actual recognition in the official, educational, cultural, political, and legal areas.

In Guatemala, where over half of the population bears Mayan origins, the creation of the Academia de Lenguas Mayas in the 1990s helped the Maya handle the languages themselves, and contributed to train linguists and cultural players known for the quality of their academic research and their involvement in programs of linguistic and cultural revaluation. Their endurance, however, is threatened by the profound unrest the country is currently going through.

An ambivalent situation in Mexico

A bill was approved in 2003 in Mexico implying the recognition and protection of the individual and collective linguistic rights of indigenous populations, as well as the promotion of these languages’ use and development. This framework led to different types of progress: the creation of a specific official Institute, language inventories and descriptions (led by Maya scholar F. BriceñoChel), the production of multimedia equipment for teaching and diffusion, pilot projects in training teachers and translators, etc.

The aim here is to respond to both huge and very practical needs both on the education and legal level: helping a Maya person avoid having their knowledge mistreated by formal education, gain literacy in their mother tongue, understand and be understood in justice so as to be able to guarantee their own defense.

Still, the road is long and official support much to fragmentary and ambivalent. In spite of the law, most administrations scorn and refuse to listen to whoever comes in speaking Tseltal, Tojolobal, or Chol; literally misunderstood Maya people suffer an unbalanced form of justice, and certain supposedly bilingual schools still have a sign at the entrance forbidding use of the mother tongue.

So enough with keeping the Maya locked in their pyramids. Let’s learn how to hear their voices in their own languages – living languages which, in their daily or ritual usage,convey and recreate timeless cultural traditions, sophisticated languages in which a poignant form of verbal and literary art is always renewing itself, rich and complex languages which, thanks to the involvement of their speakers, have contributed to the analysis of crucial phenomena in the understanding of linguistic processes and diversity.

See our videos in Kaqchikel and in Tektiteko

To learn Mayan languages:
INALCO (France) – Mayan languages and cultures degree

INALI: InstitutoNacional de LenguasIndígenas (Mexico)

Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala

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On the endangered Kanak languages

Posted by Fabrice Wacalie on November 19, 2011

Fabrice Wacalie, PhD in Oceanic linguistics, has been working on the preservation of Kanak languages of the New Caledonian far South since 2007.

New Caledonia

In Melanesia, traditionally, linguistic diversity is the rule, while monolingualism is the exception. New Caledonia is home to no less than twenty-eight Kanak languages, eleven dialects, and one Creole, adding up to a mere total of 75,411 speakers. Yet most of the Kanak languages are endangered nowadays.

Factors of the erosion

In the mid-19th century, during the last decade prior to colonization, the number of Kanak language speakers dropped – partly because of the tribal wars raging at the time, but also because of the epidemics that followed first encounters with the colonists.

Then significant population movements were generatedas the colonial administration established its capital in Nouméa, shattering traditional Kanak linguistic areas (except that of NââKwényï, which was relatively isolated). When the colonists settled in the city, the clans who lived there were despoiled of their land and pushed away. Some clans went south, others north. Thus the current languages originate in the blend of several others.

The spread of Christianity in the language of the colonists brought the abandonment process of Kanak languages even further. Missionaries banned their usage within the missions. Learners were punished if they spoke in Kanak language, to the extent that a certain number of”traumatized” grandparents still forbid themselves from speaking their own language today. This created a rupture in the dynamic of intergenerational transmission.

The case of Yaté, in the South.

“When the children hear me speak the language, they laugh and say: Wawa (grandma), your English is good!” reports mamieWaiju resignedly, who speaks NââNumèè and lives in the far South of New Caledonia.

And indeed children and youngsters no longer speak Kanak languages in this part of the country because their parents give priority to French. They consider French more important for succeeding in school. Actually, there are none but one Kanak language class in Yaté, plus a few other institutional and associative initiatives that involve Kanak languages in extra-curricular activities.

Seniors and some parents still speak these languages on a daily basis. In custom ceremonies, however, French is gradually taking over.

Players of preservation in the Drubea-Kapume area.

Mining operator “Vale Nouvelle-Calédonie”, a mining company that extracts nickel and cobalt, has granted significant financial resources to a Kanak language development program in southern New Caledonia (NââNumèè, NââDrubéa, and NââKwênyii, spoken on the Isle of Pines):

I work for this program, which consists in elaborating educational tools aiming to support the teaching of these languages in schools and homes.

Between 2008 and 2010 we carried out up to 300 interviews with over 100 resource-people including speakers, school teachers, researchers, illustrators, experts, etc. The data collected was used in crafting educational games to hand down to the children the language of their elders. Five posters themed around plants and animals were created in south Kanak language. Five memory games, five picture books, and a species game were also designed. These were handed out in schools and homes for free.

Partnerships with other cultural players have also been set in motion: the publication of a traditional tale in NââNumèè language, for instance, which is in project with the Kanak Culture Development Agency, should see the light in the fall of 2012.

The Kanak Language Academy (ALK) is also part of the process; they have been contributing to the codification and standardization of these languages since 2008. A close collaboration between the Vale program and the ALK helps us create educational tools that are consistent with the institution’s standards.

An agreement has also signed with Saint-Joseph de Vaojunior high in 2009 to support the teaching ofNââKwényï in this school located on the Isle of Pines. The funds invested were used to pay the two teachers who delivered courses in Kwényï language.

Finally, a series of lectures and discussions was organized in 2009 when Tokyo University-based Japanese linguist TadahikoShintani, the only expert onNââDrubéa, visited New Caledonia.

With that in mind, and beyond efforts by institutions or local players, the survival of these languages, a whole part of Human heritage, now depends on the speakers’ actual will to keep speaking them.

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Language and identity in Greenland

Posted by Lenore Grenoble on November 14, 2011

By Lenore Grenoble, Professor of Slavic Linguistics, University of Chicago.

Greenland - (cc) destination arctic circle

Greenland - (cc) destination arctic circle

A survey conducted in 2009 found that Greenlanders overwhelmingly find language to be a critical part of their identity.[1] By “language” here they almost certainly mean Greenlandic, or Kalaallisut as it is called by its speakers, the indigenous language of Greenland. Greenlandic is an Inuit language with three main dialects in Greenland: North (Inuktun or Avanersuarmiutut), East (Tunumiisut) and West (Kalaallisut). West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) forms the basis of the standard and official language. It is the language of the media (radio, newspapers, and television) and is used in the schools, government, and all official administration.

Language has been a focal point for issues of identity and self-autonomy in Greenland for many years. Although still officially part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland has been making steady progress in legislation to gain control of her own laws in all matters, including language. In 1979 Act 65 granted Greenland the status of Home Rule, which gave it greater independence and, among other things, made both Danish and Greenlandic the official languages of the country. Language shift was one of the driving motivations behind Greenland’s move to Home Rule; political leaders and activists noticed language shift to Danish already in the 1960s and fought to change the tide.

These efforts continue to this day. In 2008 a referendum gave more autonomy to Greenland, instituting a series of governmental changes and reforms to begin the subsequent year. When the Self Government assumed power on 21 June 2009, Premier Kuupik Kleist highlighted the importance of language in his inaugural speech:

Today is a very special and important day, because as of today, our language, Greenlandic, has become our official language. Language cannot be separated from identity, and this is why we must work hard to ensure the use of our language in everyday life.

One of the results is steady and sustained efforts to foster the use of Greenlandic in all domains, efforts fostered by Greenland’s Language Committee (Oqaasiliortut) instituted in 1979 as an official part of the Home Rule Government.

Greenlanders themselves are deeply committed to their language and are its strongest advocates. Greenlandic is the only indigenous language spoken in the Arctic for which the number of speakers is actually increasing. Children are raised speaking Greenlandic and it thrives across all generations and in all domains. (One partial exception is in higher education, where Danish continues to be used. Developing the necessary pedagogical materials and teacher training are important goals to offsetting this linguistic imbalance.)

It is hard to find a Greenlander today without strong awareness of language. One of the challenges facing the country and the Greenlandic language is their position in a global world. The answer I have heard most often is multilingualism, with the idea that Greenlanders need to know Kalaallisut to live in Greenland, Danish since they are part of the Kingdom of Denmark and, increasingly, English to be part of a global economic, political and intellectual world. In thinking about the future, Greenlanders strive to maintain an Inuit identity as citizens of a modern world. Language is a central component of that identity.

[1] Poppel, Birger. 2009. Levevilkår i Grønland (6) – Det grønlandske sprog – en status ved

Selvstyrets indførelse. Sermitsiaq 14 July 2009.

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