A story about roots, nationality and the loss of cultural heritage.

Kven, Sami and Norwegian flags

For the longest time, I thought I was Norwegian. Norway is where I grew up, Norwegian is my mother toungue and my passport is Norwegian. There seems to be little room for doubt about my nationality. However, with age comes awareness, and the picture gets more nuanced: My mother spoke Sámi—an indigenous language—as a child and my father spoke Kven—an archaic dialect of Finnish. How can my heritage be Norwegian if neither of my parents have Norwegian as their mother tongue, and my Sámi background qualifies me for inclusion in the electoal roll for the Sámi Parliament?

My parents' generation didn't learn to speak Norwegian because their communities had wanted them to. Instead, it was the Norwegian government that enforced it through an assimilation policy. If you go back a few centures, Finnmark, the region I would later grow up in, didn't even belong to Norway. Sweden and Russia both had territorial claims to the area, and collected taxes there. The national borders as they exist today weren't drawn up until 1821.

Some families and communities resisted this assimilation policy and the public shaming that came with it, and taught their children Sámi or Kven. My parents weren't among them. I once asked them why, and they said that, since they had different mother tongues, using Norwegian as a lingua franca was necessary. It's also likely that they saw it as advantageous for their children to be fluent in Norwegian.

Sami school children being taught Norwegian

I don't think my parents have ever questioned these matters too deeply. Was Norwegian always the lingua franca in Finnmark? The fact that my father can speak some Sámi suggests otherwise. It's far more likely that the people living in this region were historically bilingual, and that Norwegian only became the lingua franca after assimilation had taken hold.

There is a contingent of people in Finnmark who hold stronger views on this assimilation policy and are very conscious of what they have been subjected to. My parents seem to view these people with a kind of disdain, and have little pride in their own heritage. What evades them is the fact that this essentially makes them living examples of the effectiveness of said policy. Your allegiance to a culture is a result of your upbringing, and your upbringing is strongly affected by the values and collective opinions of the society you're brought up in. In other words, they wouldn't have felt this way if they weren't themselves assimilated as children.

Why do I care? After all, I was born in Norway and raised as a Norwegian.

The problem is that this isn't quite true. I heard my parents speak Sámi and Kven with their relatives as I grew up, but I was excluded from this language community. However, when you're a child, you're far more interested in pop culture and toys than your heritage, so this didn't really bother me.

As I gained more life experience and travelled the country a bit, I began to notice something: Whenever I traveled out of Finnmark, I discovered a vibrant local folk culture, with traditions, crafts and folk costumes going back for centuries. These people had a strong sense of identity and belonging, and it was distinctly Norwegian, with a local flavour.

Bunad — the traditional folk costume of Norway

It struck me that my local community had nothing like it.

The only distinct culture that exists in my local community is the culture of the Sámi. Meanwhile, the Norwegian-speaking community has very little local flavour to speak of. For Christmas dinner, my family would have pork belly and lamb ribs. As I later learned, pork belly is from southeast Norway while lamb ribs are from southwest Norway. Belonging to neither tradition, my family would have both. Diplomatic but therefore also bland.

It's this blandness that sticks out like a sore thumb to me. Real cultures are opinionated and specific, not diplomatic or generic. I was raised as a Norwegian by ancestors who didn't quite understand what it meant to be Norwegian, almost like a child of immigrants. As I've later realised, some local cultural flavour did make it through, but none of it was Norwegian.

You may argue that Norwegian culture is any culture existing within the borders of Norway. I disagree with that, because cultures often cross borders. Norwegian culture is an offshoot of North Germanic, Old Norse or Scandinavian culture. Meanwhile, the Sámi and Kven cultures have entirely different origins.

I'm thus left with a feeling of having been robbed of a cultural heritage by the nation state I was born in. This feeling of betrayal and alienation only seems to intensify on Norwegian Constitution Day: On the 17th of May every year, Norway celebrates its independence, and the entire country launches into a frenzy of tradition and cheerful patriotism. All the traditional costumes, dances and foods are put on display. It's meant to be a joyous occasion, but my feelings about this day have become increasingly mixed.

Clippings of Sami people from Swedish book about racial biology

What, exactly, am I meant to celebrate? That the Norwegian people—as embodied by the prominently displayed Norwegian flag—repressed my ancestors? That I lack a cultural heritage that I can truly call my own? That Norwegian history books barely mention my ancestors?

There are educated and polticially conscious Sámi out there who have reached similar conclusions. According to my parents, these people are extremists, but I'm increasingly sympathetic to their viewpoints.