Women in Saami Society
The Saami are recognized as being an oppressed minority group, and much has been written, mostly by the Saami themselves, about their situation. However, the plight of Saami women is an important issue that has only recently started to gain a noticeable amount of coverage in Samiland. This began with the Saami feminist movement in the 1970s, which opened for discussion the issue of Saami women’s positions in a constantly changing society. Because of the changes the Saami have encountered as a result of modernization and their assimilation into Norwegian culture, Saami women have been forced to reevaluate and redefine their roles in modern society.
Saami women’s issues fall into certain categories that are of particular importance, and I have grouped them accordingly as: women’s roles in society; Christianity and modernization; internalized racism; Saami men’s views of women; men and women’s topics in writing; the Saami feminist movement, including current and future issues; women in reindeer husbandry; and marriage. Even though I tried to separate issues within this paper for the sake of clarity, they are overlapping and therefore several points are mentioned more than once.
Women’s roles in society
While it is clear that women are generally allowed a certain amount of prestige in a community by virtue of being the primary caretakers of children, Saami women are especially important because they are also responsible for passing on their unique indigenous culture to their children (Brenna, 8). The mother is also in charge of ensuring her family’s survival, and her responsibilities indicate that Saami culture contains a matriarchal element (Bosi, 79). Saami author Rauni Magga Lukkari thinks that Saami women brought up according to tradition have a lot of power. Lukkari says that women’s power is expressed through traditional Saami outlets, such as making clothes. The clothes that Saami women make are necessary for survival in the harsh winter climate, which, according to Lukkari, puts women in a position of power. She does say that this is not as true as it once was, when “sewing clothes took up the better part of women’s daily work” (Helander and Kailo, 108-109).
Though Lukkari argues that Saami women have power, this is not the consensus among other female Saamis interviewed in No Beginning, No End: The Sami Speak Up. Many believe that Saami women are oppressed because of Christian influence in Samiland. Kirsti Paltto says that Christianity has made women easy to subjugate because it teaches that women should be men’s servants (Helander and Kailo, 29). Her short story “Looking Back” is about a young Saami woman who is forced to marry the Christian man who raped her, bear his children and then remain as his obedient wife until he dies. While the story is an extreme example of the potential clash between Saami culture and Christianity, the main idea (fear of a life of servitude, brought about, in part, by Christianity) is clear. Along the same lines, Saami writer Kerttu Vuolab says that her father turned to Christianity and “became a macho man many many times over” (49). Lukkari thinks that while Saami women are held in low esteem because of Christianity, they are not as oppressed as women in the western world are. Her reasoning for this is that “The position of a woman has been so important in a society based on an extended family that several generations will pass before Saami women are in the same position as Western women here” (109).
Before Christianity was introduced into Saami society, the Saami shamanistic religion recognized a variety of gods. For women, the most important of these was Mattarahkko, the primeval mother. Her three daughters, Sarahkka, Uksahkka, and Juksahkka helped women through different stages in life, such as pregnancy and childbirth (Utsi, 18). The importance of women in the early Saami society is made clear through the presence of female deities. This also supports the idea that Saami society once tended to be matriarchal.
It is believed that the arrival of modernization in Sapmi brought with it a loss of power among women. Modernization in this case is a broad term that encompasses several different ideas: Norwegianization, Christian influences, and a loss of traditional Saami culture. Without both Norwegian and Christian influences and the Saamis’ eventual forced assimilation into a different way of living, their customs and ideas likely would not have changed as dramatically as they did. Women were affected as a result of the change from traditional to a more mainstream society. Though they are still important, women are no longer absolutely imperative to the survival of the family. Integration into contemporary society has absolved Saami women of the responsibilities they once had, such as the need to make clothing or prepare reindeer skins. Clothing can be bought, and most Saami were forced to quit their life of reindeer herding for economic, social, and environmental reasons.
Kirsti Paltto suggests that Saami women are at a disadvantage within their own society. She says that internalized racism exists among the Saami and Saami women suffer from an inferiority complex because they look Saami. This can cause problems when they try to operate within the dominant (i.e., non-Saami) society; they simply don’t have the tools to do so. The implications are that Saami women have some of the same issues as women in other cultures; this includes competitiveness, whether it be over looks or men, which in either case causes setbacks for the women involved.
Saami men’s views of women
Women interviewed in No Beginning, No End have some interesting recounts of how they, and others, have been treated by Saami men. Paltto says that she has been in situations where men won’t talk to her because she is married, and writer Inga Juuso says men have looked down upon her for being divorced, because divorce is only now becoming more common among the Saami (Helander and Kailo, 142).
Saami male authors can also provide insight into how women are viewed in society. While most Saami male authors choose to write about topics such as reindeer herding and maintaining the Saami cultural identity, Saami writer Eino Guttorm has taken a decidedly different path in his writings. He explores the male-female dynamic of relationships and writes openly about women in ways that other Saami authors have not. Guttorm commented on this difference between his and others’ works in No Beginning, No End. About Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa, who writes mainly about nature, Guttorm says that he is “oppressive. There is too much whining, sun, moon, squeaking, birds’ singing and sunshine…Like mother’s milk at it’s sweetest. It is good for sure. But it is not necessarily to everybody’s taste” (Helander and Kailo, 65).
In “The Bloodied Path,” Guttorm tells the story of a man who kills the mother of the woman he is living with, then lies and says the mother died a natural death. The women in his story are far from the motherly or caring type, and are instead portrayed as manipulative and brazen. Though his representation of women in his writings and in No Beginning, No End could be indicative of his feelings toward women, it is also possible that Guttorm’s brash commentary on women is nothing more his unique stylistic technique.
Guttorm says that he does not bash women, but he does classify them as either good or bad. He has been criticized for belittling women in his writings. He says
A woman is prone to saying what’s on her mind, a woman nags more easily. A non-stop nuisance, itching everywhere, whining, like a non-stop plague of mosquitoes…Texts by women are marshmallow sweet. They have too many adjectives, complaints, self-pitying, and wailing…Flirting with the readers, crawling in front of them. That doesn’t charm the readers. The style smacks of sweetness (66).
Men’s vs. women’s topics in writing
Furthermore, there are distinct differences in the topics that Saami men and women choose to write about. Men’s writings, for example, are often about reindeer, sexuality or society, and tend to be more obscene than women’s work. Women prefer to write about nature, people, continuity, life and hope. Men are more confident in their writings, while women are doubtful. Paltto thinks that men’s confidence is a direct result of Christianity, while women’s sense of doubt stems from the oppressive nature of the religion (38).
Saami feminist movement: 1970s to present
The feminist movement in Sapmi began in the 1970s when female reindeer herders wanted to have the same rights as their male counterparts. They argued that modernization, overprotective national policies and non-Saami legislation have caused oppression and led to a decline in equality between men and women.
Though feminism made their voices heard, it did not reach out to all Saami women. Because feminism tends to portray women as victims, many Saami women have trouble identifying with it. Kirsti Paltto says that the word ‘feminist’ is “perceived as a kind of ‘f’ word, ensuring that many closet feminists refuse to identify with feminism” (33). Also, because Saami feminist groups do not have any interaction with feminist groups in Finland, the potential bond that could exist between the two societies as a result of common feminist goals is lacking.
After the Nordic Council’s Women’s Conference in 1988, Saami women decided to band together and form their own women’s organization, Sarahkka. The organization takes its name from the mythical daughter of the ancient mother and father of the Saami. It concentrates on women’s issues, focusing on the fact that Saami women are a unique group of people because they are primarily responsible for child care and the passing on of culture, in addition to being an indigenous population and an ethnic minority.
The Saami women’s movement has examined gender equality and indigenous political issues, such as land and water rights for the Saami people. A topic that should be considered among Saami women in the future, according to Elina Helander, is whether or not a female value system should be incorporated into society. She says this might be necessary because power is based on value systems that are not gender-neutral, and having a female friendly value system could benefit women (184). Saami women would also like to see Saami women’s studies programs in Northern Scandinavia, because right now there is a definite lack in the curriculum regarding Saami women’s issues (37).
Though women’s studies programs are lacking in academic settings, Saami women are active in the media and political arenas. Kirsti Paltto, for instance, is a very well known Saami writer; she has written everything from poetry and novels to radio plays for children and adults (Gaski, 29). Saami women have created a forum for themselves in which their issues are being vocalized. They currently have their own magazine, Gaba, which publishes articles, interviews, short stories, poems and book reviews about Saami culture, ethnicity and indigenous issues as they relate to women. Women are also present in politics: 10 of the 39 members elected to the Saami Parliament in 1997 were women (Ministry of Children and Family Affairs).
Though information written about the subject would seem to suggest otherwise, reindeer breeding and domestication seems to be, or at least started out as a part of the Saami woman’s domain. It is suspected that Saami women began the domestication of reindeer (Eutopia Adventure), and in the same way that they sustain the Saami culture, they also work to keep the reindeer breeding tradition alive (Helander and Kailo, 183).
Lukkari suggests that the Saami woman’s position in reindeer herding has declined with the establishment of a monetary-based economy. It is possible that the Saamis were not on a level playing field, in economic terms, because it was a system they were not familiar with. Also, at one point the Saami were forced to pay taxes to Russia, Sweden-Finland, and Denmark-Norway at the same time. Taxes were paid in reindeerskin clothes, furs, meat and fish, which caused a considerable decline in the Saamis’ reindeer population and, consequently, in their financial welfare (Utsi, 21).
A case study on marriage between reindeer herding families was published by the Center for Arctic Cultural Research in “Readings in Saami History, Culture and Language III.” The study found that “equivalent status, economic advantage, labor convenience and consanguineal distance” were important considerations when reindeer herding Saami choose marriage partners (Marainen, 94). Furthermore, wealth (as determined by how many reindeer a family owned) was the most important factor in marriage decisions among Saamis from the eighteenth century until the mid-1900s.
In traditional Saami culture, young men interested in asking for the hand of a woman had to follow certain guidelines. The suitor would first go to the girl’s house with someone who would speak in his favor. Custom dictated that the man would ask to make coffee for the family; if the parents agreed and then drank his coffee, they liked him. Meanwhile, if the girl that he was interested in unharnessed his reindeer while he was attempting to impress her parents, it was an indication that she liked him as well (Utsi, 36). At the time of marriage the husband and wife were given several reindeer, either as presents or as part of the wife’s dowry. Although it is a dying industry, at one time the presence of reindeer in a family affected almost all aspects of Saami life, from subsistence and taxation to courting and marriage.
The Sami woman’s place in society and at home has changed greatly as a result of changes to the Saami culture. However, it is debatable whether or not Saami women have more or less power than they once did. While it is true that the Saamis’ oppression has caused a loss of power (such as in reindeer herding or in the home) it is also true that women are still the primary caretakers in Saami society and pass on cultural knowledge to their children. Saami women are involved in both politics and the media, which allows them the opportunity to influence legislation that pertains to the Saami and get their message out via the written word, radio and television. Consequently, women now have access to resources that were once out of their reach. With that comes the opportunity to yield more power and use it in ways beneficial to their society.
Bosi, Roberto. The Lapps. Frederick A. Praeger: New York, 1960.
Eutopia Adventure. “Sami Shamanism.” 2000
Gaski, Harald, Ed. In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun..Davvi Girji: Norway, 1997: 9-41.
Guttorm, Eino. “Everybody is Worth a Song.” No Beginning, No End: The Sami Speak
Up. Ed. Elina Helander and Kaarina Kailo, Circumpolar Research Series No. 5, 1998:
Guttorm, Eino. “On Bloodied Paths.” In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun. Harald Gaski,
Ed. Davvi Girji: Norway, 1997: 157-166.
Helander, E. and Kailo, K, Eds. “The Nomadic Circle of Life: A Conversation on the
Sami Knowledge System and Culture.” No Beginning, No End: The Sami Speak Up.
Circumpolar Research Series No. 5, 1998: 163-184.
Juuso, Inga. “Yoiking as Medicine for Me.” No Beginning, No End: The Sami Speak Up.
Ed. Elina Helander and Karrina Kailo. Circumpolar Research Series No. 5, 1998:
Lukkari, Rauni Magga. “Where did the Laughter Go?” No Beginning, No End: The Sami
Speak Up. Elina Ed. Helander and Karrina Kailo. Circumpolar Research Series No. 5,
Marainen, Johannes. “Social Stratification and Marriage Among the Saami in Talma and
Konkama, 1901-1923.” Readings in Saami History, Culture, and Language III No. 14
Ministry of Children and Family Affairs. “Women in Government and Publicly Elected
Bodies.” 1999. [http://odin.dep.no/bfd/engelsk/publ/rapporter/004041-990027/indexhov004-b-n-a.html].
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Sami of Norway.” Wenke Brenna. Dec. 1997.
Paltto, Kirsti. “Looking Back.” In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun. Ed. Harald Gaski.
Davvi Girji, Norway, 1997: 127-137.
Paltto, Kirsti. “One Cannot Leave One’s Soul by a Tree Trunk.” No Beginning, No End:
The Sami Speak Up. Ed. Elina Helander and Karrina Kailo. Circumpolar Research Series No. 5, 1998: 23-42.
Utsi, John E. “We Are Still Alive.” The Saami: People of the Sun and Wind. 1993: 3-59.
Vuolab, Kerttu. “All Situations were Occasions for Stories.” No Beginning, No End: The
Sami Speak Up. Ed.