A couple of weeks ago I had my first haircut in the Sami language in my new hometown. I was excited and sure that it’s only possible in Kautokeino. The hairdresser, however, dampened my excitement, but only slightly, by telling me that there are Sami-speaking hairdressers also in the neighbouring towns of Karasjok and Alta. Maybe it is not as unique as I had thought but still I think it’s something worth recognizing in a world where the opportunities to speak indigenous languages are rapidly shrinking. It’s also worth recognizing because one quickly starts taking for granted the fact that nearly everyone in Kautokeino speaks Sami. I don’t need to practice my rusty Swedish/Norwegian because everywhere I go – post, bank, stores, town hall, health center (save the doctors who are from elsewhere) – I can operate in Sami. Even if you can get a haircut in Sami in a couple of other towns, there simply aren’t other towns in the world like this where Sami is so widely spoken.
It is also the operating language of my workplace, the Sami University College. Both teaching takes place in Sami and administration operates in Sami, and almost all employees speak it. (I did have my initial difficulties in January, upon my return to Sápmi, to start thinking and talking about academic stuff in Sami after so many years of English – and I have to admit there were moments when I felt that Sami doesn’t work for academics.)
Recently the Sami University College had a visit by the director and the chair of the board of NOKUT, the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education – a body that did an institution-wide evaluation of our college in May 07 (and put a lot of pressure on our already thinly stretched staff, consequences of which we still occasionally experience). This time the purpose of the visit was not to evaluate us further but to “dialogue” as they put it in the letter. A day prior to their visit, we had a prep meeting where we decided what we’d want to dialogue with them. One of the issues was a substantial bill that NOKUT had racked up for their lack of knowledge of the Sami language. The bill was related to translation costs of the Masters application in the Sami language that the SUC had sent in a while back, naturally in the Sami language. In order to evaluate it, NOKUT required the application to be translated into Norwegian. After some negotiations, NOKUT had agreed to pay the translation costs – as somebody reminded us at the prep meeting, it wasn’t us who needed the interpreter but them – but two years later, the bill was still pending.
Towards the end of the meeting with our guests, the pending translation costs were brought up. Our guests looked surprised and said that they didn’t know about it but promised to look into it asap. This led to an interesting discussion about the challenges of running an academic institution in an indigenous language where most of the documents are also written in Sami. The Sami University College is a Norwegian insitution of higher education funded by the Norwegian government (though the college serves the entire Sápmi, of which I served as an active reminder by speaking English at the meeting). This means that despite the college’s admirable goal of running the institution in the Sami language, the annual reports, applications and any other communication with the funders, NOKUT or other academic institutions must nevertheless occur in Norwegian. Translation is time consuming and expensive – and who pays the bill? Almost without exception, it is SUC. NOKUT agreed to cover the costs of the translation of the Masters application only after SUC made a case of it. It was also pointed out that no other Norwegian institutions of higher education have the same additional hurdles and extra costs annually.
As the leadership of the college made it clear to our guests, SUC is unique institution even in the Sami context in its conscious and continued efforts to operate in the Sami language (for example, if a potential new hire doesn’t speak Sami, she or he is required to learn it within a certain period of time). Interestingly, our guests had hard time getting it. They talked about bilingualism as a norm at other universities as well and gave the University of Oslo as an example: they also operate in two languages, Norwegian and increasingly English, especially when it comes to academic publications. Nobody pointed out that to compare Sami and English competence and requirement is plain ridiculous and a demonstration of great ignorance, but we did explain patiently our particular challenges that result in the fact that Sami is a small indigenous language continuously struggling for its existence (unlike English) and that there are always only so many Sami-speaking people who could be hired either as staff or faculty – not to mention that Kautokeino is a small town up in the mountains of Finnmark vidda and not every Sami-speaking academic or otherwise qualified person is willing or able to move here. And those who do, I think, deserve a recognition. We don’t have extensive university libraries or academic bookstores to keep us up-to-date and distract us from thinking about work 24/7. But I look forward to my next haircut in the Sami language – she did a great job.