In his recording studio where he works new sounds, the rapper Amoc delivers a flood of words that only a handful of people in the world can understand. The 35-year-old Finnish artist, hooded sweatshirt on his back and headphones on his ears, lets his talents flow in Inari Sami, a language from the far north of Finland spoken by some 300 people.
By the middle of the 20th century, the ten languages of the Sami people, an indigenous community present for three millennia in the Arctic regions of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia, had almost disappeared, swallowed up by decades of assimilation led by the national governments.
In music, on TV or in the cinema, a new generation of young speakers today wants to reclaim them. But this rehabilitation of almost forgotten languages has rekindled the painful memory of past injustices against the Sami (also called Samies and formerly “Lapps”). “The more we learn, explains the President of the Sami Parliament of Finland Tiina Sanila-Aikio, the more we realize that we may never be able to make it a mother tongue again “.
Rap, memory of a vanished culture
When Amoc, whose real name Mikkâl Morottaja, started rap almost 20 years ago, alone “Barely ten (young)” spoke his language. His favorite themes, “Hidden horror and violence” as he describes them, were not always welcomed by the Sami speakers of Inari. “The elderly did not realize that these were not flowers and nature”, he tells AFP. “I don’t think they really liked my music”.
For me, it was the same as in America: a minority that expresses itself (…) within a larger society.
Amoc often has to innovate to compose in a language centered on the description of indigenous traditions such as reindeer husbandry. The Inari Sames, for example, had no word to designate space until the end of the last century. But the artist was able to count on the wise advice of his father, Matti, president of the linguistic council for Inari Sami – a kind of French Academy.
His next project: a collaboration with rapper Ailu Valle, also Same. The two men do not speak the same language: that of Ailu Valle is spoken in the north of Norway and in Sweden. But their music has been exported far beyond their lands.
As a duo or solo, the artists have already performed in the United States, Canada and throughout Europe. Inspired by big names in rap and hip-hop like Eminem and Wu-Tang Clan, Ailu Valle first rapped in English and Finnish, eclipsing Sami. “I thought I needed a street vocabulary”, he recalls, installed in his traditional wooden house on the bank of the frozen waters of the Ivalo river.
But his move to university, where he studied Sami culture and history, was the trigger. “For me, it was the same as in America: a minority that expresses itself (…) within a larger society”. His first songs in Sami were inspired by local literature, in particular by the poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, whose epic of 1988 Beaivi ahcazan ((The sun, my father) is a journey through Sami history.
Putting Sami culture back at the heart of education
The Sami have long been regarded as second-class citizens in their own country, dispossessed of their cultural and linguistic heritage by the Nordic governments of the time. Until the 1960s, Sami children were prohibited from practicing their mother tongue at school.
A gradual change of mentality made it possible to take an important step in 1992, the year when Finland adopted a law on the Sami language granting the right to use it with the administration. Since then, the number of young speakers has increased thanks to schools and nurseries in Sami immersion, according to a policy modeled on the revival of the Maori language in New Zealand.
The rights to education and services in Sami only apply in the Sami region of Lapland.
Anne Kirste Aikio, Secretary to the Sami Parliament.
Today, a quarter of the country’s 10,000 Sami speak an indigenous language, according to the Sami Parliament in Finland. “The rights to education and services in Sami only apply in the Sami region of Lapland (…) even if more than half of them live in cities and elsewhere”, however, recalls Anne Kirste Aikio, secretary of the Sami Parliament in charge of language protection. The center-left Finnish government has nevertheless promised to develop online teaching of indigenous languages.
For now, the children’s program Unna Junna ((Little Junna, in French) remains an essential resource to perpetuate the language. Produced since 2007 by Finnish public television, it evokes in each episode aspects of Sami life, in the three indigenous languages of the country. Producer Heli Huovinen and her team sometimes ask young viewers and their parents what they would like to see. “They want more films about nature, animals, the elements and the traditional ways of life of the Sami”, she tells AFP, surprised by the responses. “We expected modern things like robots and electronic games”.
We need more textbooks, more media, more arts and other supports.
Heli Huovinen, producer.
Heli Huovinen, in her thirties, has been immersed in the Sami culture from a very young age but did not start learning the language until the age of 16. “It would have been so cool to have Sames children’s television programs, I could have learned there”, she regrets. The growing popularity of Sami has also highlighted a lack of resources and teachers. “We need more textbooks, more media, more arts and other supports”, pleads Ms. Huovinen.
Same liberated, delivered
A sign that traditional culture is more and more available in Sami, the film Frozen 2 became in december Jiknon 2, the first Disney dubbed into North Sami, the most widely spoken language among the Sami. Through the adventures of Queen Elsa and her sister, Princess Anna is largely inspired by the folklore and lifestyles of this region of Europe. As for the soundtrack, it stages the traditional Sami song, the “yoik”.
Disney producers have collaborated with community representatives to convey a true picture of their culture. The film was also praised by critics for presenting a traditional image, while rejecting stereotypes around the Sami community, often portrayed as a “Primitive”. “We have had so many bad examples of a diverted vision of our culture”, explains Tiina Sanila-Aikio. Although Ms. Sanila-Aikio speaks today of a “golden age” of the Sami languages, according to her, the scars of the past remain.
“Take back something that has been stolen”
In 2016, director Samie Amanda Kernell explored the fate of her community in a film, Sami Blood, who recalls the fight in the 1930s of a Sami teenager from Sweden faced with racism and discrimination against her people.
Many adults today do not speak any Sami language, but their reintroduction into the cultural landscape also means “Take back something that has been stolen”, sums up Tiina Sanila-Aikio. In a classroom at the Sami Educational Institute, where all the languages of the community are taught, Iiris Mäenpää moderates a discussion of Inari Sami students.
I realized that my grandfather was not angry at all the first time I spoke to him in Inari Sami.
Iiris Mäenpää, professor.
The language course that she coordinates at Inari is subsidized by the state and allows students to speak fluently after one year. Iiris herself took these lessons eight years ago. Aged 30 at the time, she said she felt like a “stranger” in her own culture. “I wanted to speak with my grandfather in his mother tongue”, remembers this thirty-something. The way he spoke in Finnish always made her seem furious, she recalls. In fact, “I realized that he was not at all angry the first time I spoke to him in Inari Sami”. “It changed my life”.