What are minorities? (And the story of two minorities in Norway)

When we decided that April should be minorities’ month, I was thrilled, cause then I could write about a minority of any kind. However, I have the last few weeks been thinking: how can I choose one minority in history and write about it? Or shall I look at a set of minorities? Or shall I write about why a minority became a minority? These thoughts have been bothering me for a while, because I wanted to get it all right. However, what does seem to stand clear in front of me is that no matter what I do, I will have to determine what a minority is, and why it is a minority. (As I will be referring to the Sami and the Kvens in this text, will I also be adding a brief account of their history at the end of this update, but if you find them interesting, then please go ahead and read more.) 

Based on common sense can minorities be seen as a group of people who are different from the majority population within its society, and at the same time must this minority to some extent recognize its own members as a part of this minority. So far, so good, but what kind of minorities are there out there? And who are they? Too many to count will be the easiest answer, but in general can minorities be divided in a set of groups; 1 ethnic minorities, 2 religious minorities, and 3 sexual minorities. The 3rd group will always be present in any kind of society, no matter how homogeneous the population is ethnically and culturally. So this blog post will focus on the two other types of minorities, and two very specific examples of them in Norwegian history, after all this is a history blog.

Traditionally have Norway only had a small number of national minorities, or so I was told while I was in school, these were the Sami, the Kvens, the Jews and the Gypsies. Of these 3 of them came into Norway, after the reformation, and the Jews did not gain access to the country until the second half of the nineteenth century, and that after a long public debate if they should be let in. But all of them have become minorities in Norway due to migration, and the search for a living and a better life.  Minorities become minorities due to migration in two ways: firstly by migrating into an area already populated by a different ethnic group, this applies to the Kvens, Jews and Gypsies. (Although, the Jews might also be seen as a religious minority as they are defined to some extent more by religion, than ethnicity.) Secondly, by being the original inhabitants in an area settled by groups that over time evolve into a majority and that bring the territory into a greater political unit. This is the story of the Sami, a group of indigenous peoples in Northern Scandinavia that over the last thousand years have gone from being a nomadic majority population in regions, to become a minority split between 4 states: Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

Due to the history of forced assimilation directed against the Sami and other minorities in Norway, have some of them received more attention than others. The idea in the years prior to the Second World War was that the Norwegian society should be Norwegian through and through, and that any minority languages and cultures should be rooted out and corrected so that these minorities could be integrated into the majority as full members of a Norwegian state. This assimilation process was supported by the idea of eugenics, and race studies, but in the beginning it started as a ‘crusade’ to convert the pagans living in the wilderness of the north. These processes destroyed the original Sami culture and its traditional religion. The policies of assimilation went so far, that for a period in the twentieth century were there children who were raised that was not taught the traditional Sami language, and the languages was dying. Furthermore did it develop a stigma of shame to be Sami, so many chose not to mention that they had Sami blood, for who wanted to be part of the ‘inferior’ people? All this changed after the Second World War, and during the 1970’s the Sami people started to wake up and claim respect and acceptance for who they are within the nation, and that they had been there longer than the state itself. Today the Sami have a separate parliament within the Norwegian state, and the languages that once was dying are now in active use. This is a total shift from what the life of this ethnic minority was like only 70 years ago.

The second type of minority I mentioned is one that for many nations and states might be the most problematic, the religious minority. Britain itself suppressed its religious minorities, and in so many states throughout the world have religious minorities been discriminated and prosecuted against. I can think of a few just on the top of my head: Huguenots in France, Catholics in England, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in Imperial Spain, among others. Religious divisions have in some conflicts given the rise to the same frictions as ethnic minorities within empires can create. The Kurds in Turkey or the Albanians within former Yugoslavia, are both ethnic groups that are/have been minorities within the states they once lived in. In Norwegian history was the Sami  the only religious minority for a long time, until during the course of the nineteenth century, first Catholics and then Jews were welcomed into the nation. Over the years have most Sami’s converted to Christianity, but the traditional religion is still practiced by some. But this have taken an ethnic minority into the religious majority, and equally have ethnic Norwegians converted to Catholicism or Islam, and through that are both a majority and a minority. It all depends on where you draw the lines within which we count the members.

Although minorities, and majorities have existed as long as written records, and even longer, I have a feeling that it is impossible to fully study a minority or majority in a given society, for there will always be members of each group that overlap with the other. In fact I’m personally both a part of minorities and a majority at the same time in my everyday life, it all depends on who I choose to be, and which identity I feel is most suitable at any given time. Although I’m white and European, this makes me in the Ethnic majority on campus at the University of Winchester, I am also male, which makes me a minority, furthermore am I gay, and foreign, both which are minorities both at the University and in the world in general. So depending on how we look at minorities, will determine who we are examining, and in some cases will our minorities and majorities be the same persons.

So as we have seen is a minority a group of people who are different from the majority of the population within a society, and often have these become so because of migration, and the longing for a better life.

A brief story about the Kvens and the Sami, a case study for minority assimilation.

Some of the first references to the ethnic diversity of Northern Scandinavia, and maybe also a good source for how the relationship between the ethnic groups were in those regions, can be found in the text known as Ohthere’s journey. A story added on to Alfred the Great’s translations of Orosius, that not only is about the journey of Ohthere, a Norseman who travels to Alfred’s court, but also about the society he lives in, and the lands he traveled through to get there.

                The text mentions several groups of people, but especially how the relationship is between the Norse settlers in Northern Norway and the Sami living inland from them. A relationship marked by taxation and domination by one group over the other. In addition to outline the trade and taxation practices of Northern Norway both in the early middle ages, but also trends that continued for many hundred years later, the text also mentions another ethnic group that together with the Sami have shaped Northern Norway since the seventeenth century, the Kvens. The Kvens, is an ethnic group originally from areas that today is part of Finland, but migrated to Norway in two waves. Firstly, during the seventeenth and eighteenth century to find more agricultural land, due to population growth in their homelands, secondly, during the nineteenth century when the population again was rising in, but this time it was combined with famine and failed harvests in the Torneo Valley on the border between Finland and Sweden. Both the first and the second wave of Kven migration to Northern Norway brought a new work force to the region, whereas the first migration settled and took up agriculture as a way of life, mixed with fishing and forestry, did the second settle in fishing villages or mining villages as they were both skilled and hard-working labourers. But why did this group that migrated from today’s Finland become so significant for the region? Well the answer is in the share numbers of the migration, it is estimated that at the beginning of the Twentieth century there were about 25% of the population of Finnmark that were of Kven origin. In some regions there was not only the dominant ethnic group, but also a significant minority to take account of.  If there is one-act in the history of Norway that can be seen as the formal starting point of the nationalization of the minorities, then it is the law of 1902 about purchasing land from the state. The law stated that only Norwegian speakers could purchase land from the state, this was to prevent foreign business interests to buy up Norwegian resources, and above all to make sure that the land would stay on Norwegian hands. This did not only prevent Kvens, who spoke a language related to Finnish, but also the Sami from buying land for agriculture or for other reasons. This law can stand as a monument for all the actions that followed which forcefully attempted to assimilate the Kven and Sami population into the majority population.

Some have suggested that these actions of Norwegianisation of the Kvens were an attempt to prevent a Finnish rebellion among the Kvens in support of Finland, the cultural mother-land of the Kvens. And there have, as far as I can tell, not been many large-scale rebellions against this Norwegianisation of the Kvens or the Sami, well maybe with one exception. What I have in mind is an episode known as the Kautokeino rebellion, a short episode were a small group of Sami led an attack on the local authorities and trade center. As far as I am aware, is this the only incident were violence was used by members of either ethnic group, in what some choose to see as an attempt to fight back against the settlements and oppression. However, there are more elements to this one case than just this one,  for those that have the possibility is the sources, which are published in a collected volume, available in Norwegian. And there is also made a film about this event, although it is not very accurate, it is a free interpretation of a series of events which till this day is not fully understood. For the theories range about everything from religious fanatics acting against the selling of alcohol, to a reaction against the exploitation of the  Sami among the local Norwegian population, or as desperate act in response to the loss of the grazing areas east of the Finno-Russian border, after it got closed in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, this is not the place or time to debate the origins for the rebellion, but what this rebellion suggest alongside its sources, is that the Sami population and their culture was changing as a result of the Nationalization of the nation.

As a part of the Norwegianization policies applied by the Norwegian government during the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, were the teaching of Sami and Kven/Finnish slowly abolished in schools. In some areas were these languages taught until 1936, this abolition was a part of the ideas of ‘one nation- one people- one language’ that formed the base note of the assimilation policies prior to the Second World War.

In the years after the Second World War, were these policies re-examined in relation to the Human Rights and Norway’s relationship with the UN. It lead to an re-establishment of teaching in Sami and Finnish in schools, and the establishment of a Sami Parliament to safeguard Sami interests in relation to their rights as an indigenous people. Whereas the Sami have gained recognition of their status as Indigenous people, and have a Parliament guiding the state on Sami related issues, the Kvens have been integrated into Norwegian society, although their cultural and linguistic heritage is now safeguarded from extinction due to the legal protection of these traditional elements in Kven culture.

In comparison to other minorities around the world, the story of the Sami and Kvens is not as gruesome as it perhaps could have been. Thanks to a strong political and cultural awareness among these groups they have survived and developed within the Norwegian state into what they are today. It is believed to live between 40-60 000 Sami and 15-25 000 Kvens in Norway, so these groups are not easily dismissed in the wider national context. Although minorities exist, and come into existence due to migration, and although it sometimes seems easier to assimilate minorities into one culture, where everyone speak the same and have the same culture, we as citizens of the World should remember that it is the diversity of these culture that makes life exciting to live. So please let us not go backwards and force minorities into the closed, where they will hide in shame and die, but let us celebrate them and accept them. For who knows, we might need their knowledge one day. So let’s have the Sami Parliament in Norway stand as a monument for the rights indigenous people have, and the respect minorities, both those forgotten and extinct, and those living today, deserve to have. After all, you who read should remember that you might also be a minority from time to time, depending on time and space.





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