Use of Internet Communication Among the Sami People

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The Saemieh, hereafter referred as to as Sami, are the indigenous population of the Scandinavian Peninsula in Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Although Samis are best known for their reindeer husbandry, a large number of Samis lived in a hunter-gather economy until the 16th century. The Samis are still considered one people even after the diversification of their languages and the development of subcultures before roads and telecommunications were developed. Although the first contact with the Europeans occurred in the middle ages, it was not until the last two centuries that these contacts have brought fast and radical changes to the Sami lifestyle.

Generally, the Samis have had a pragmatic view of new technology. For a lifetime, the telephone and national mail service have been available for most, and in the last decade, the fax has also become a common complement to these services. In the last few decades, new inventions such as the snowmobile, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and cellular phones have become commonly used tools among the reindeer herders. In some families, computers have also been used for bookkeeping purposes. The adoption of computer technology for other purposes therefore, was a natural progression and cultivated by the Sami. E-mail, websites, and listservs have already shown their usefulness in the Sami educational boards and organizations in Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

Sami Websites

Before 1996, there was not much of a Sami presence on the Internet. One website in Finland had a decent presentation-a single page on a server in Sweden and a few pages on university servers in Norway. During that year, however, the number of pages and websites multiplied. Because of the Internet information revolution, the number of Sami-related pages will only increase. A number of the sites were controlled by the Sami from the start, while a few others were developed by single non-native individuals and organizations. The most notable Sami website is from the Sami Parliament in Sweden who hired a web design company to create their website. While the result is graphically pleasing, it lacks, somewhat, in content.

In June 1996, the Sami native youth organizations created a website with daily updates of the 4th World Indigenous Youth Conference (WIYC). The experiment was a partial success because it attracted many visits, but it did not get many people to contact us about the conference or motivate people to get in touch with representatives of native youth -- the site's original purpose. The WIYC website was successful, however, in initiating Sami web pages of current events and issues. During the spring of 1997, two Sami publications created websites of their own, the journal Samefolket or `The Sami People,' and the North Sami Min Aigit, or `Our Time.' The Internet has also been used for political reasons within Sami communities. Prior to the second election of the Sami Parliament, several political parties advertised their platforms on websites.

Although Samis live in a comparatively rich part of the world, the use of the Internet is not universal in our communities today. In fact, the existing number of web pages are available for only a small number of Samis. Generally, administrators and Samis elected to positions within Sami organizations have utilized e-mail as a means for fast and convenient exchange of messages for a number of years. The general Sami population, however, does not have access to the technology needed to create websites and send e-mail.

The Swedish Sami Parliament is preparing to complement the Sami web pages with discussion areas. This system will begin to function and be tested in September 1997. These discussion areas consist of a question and answer format and will only be accessible for members of the Parliament and the administrators. In an area accessible to all Samis with Internet capabilities, information about the EU funds, Interreg and Mal 6, will be presented on the site. These funds were created for cultural and economic development in sparsely populated areas and the Sami will receive a portion for communication infrastructure, reindeer herding, the marketing of traditional crafts, and services like tourism. Taken together, it could be said that the Sami are beginning to put the Internet technology to use a few years later than the Western world as a whole.

While there are a number of Sami websites maintained and developed by the Sami ourselves, there is nothing preventing non-Samis from posting wrong information on the Internet. There are a number of examples, such as the University of Linköping's (Sweden) website about the Samis. This might be an honest attempt to describe the Sami situation, but there is a multitude of incorrect statements and on a few points, the description is basically wrong.

Their website states that "Sapmi is the name they use of themselves and their country. `Sapmi' is the North Sami word for the Sami nation and only used in that area. The South Sami refer to themselves as Saemieh and Saemien Eatneme for `Sami nation' and the other languages have their own as well." This text divides the Samis into forest, mountain, and sea Samis which certainly is not the real division lines among the Sami peoples.

Also, in describing the Sami pre-Christian religion, there are several incorrect statements, one being: "Not all beings in the spiritual world were benevolent; the most famous of the malicious gnomes known in all Sami cultures was stallu (taalo in Finnish)." Actually, the Staaloe was not a spirit, but a race of living humans most likely the Vikings. And statements like "the Sami had no priests but the head of the family was responsible for the contact with gods with a `magic drum'" are not correct; only the Sami shamans or noaidie used the drum.

Development of `Sami-net' in Sweden

Before the creation of the Sami Parliament, the Swedish government only gave those Samis involved in reindeer husbandry official status as `indigenous people' within Sweden. This policy stems from the racist views of `Lapps' from the turn of the century and has created internal conflicts within the Sami nation that continue today. This artificial division line imposed by the Swedish government has been successful in creating a division between those involved in reindeer husbandry and the rest of the Sami population. When the Sami Parliament in Sweden was created, they let all Sami, not just those involved in reindeer herding, vote on the organization's agenda. Political parties have emerged and even taken power within the Sami Parliament that represent Samis of `nonnative communities.'

With the development of Sami websites, education in Internet technology has been initiated in many locations in northern Sweden by the organization, SSR (National Organization of Swedish Samis), who represent the reindeer herders. All but a few of the participants in these courses are members of the native communities, or reindeer herders and their families. I asked SSR Chairman, Lars Anders Baer, why they have only let members of native communities participate in computer and Internet education.

"It isn't our organization who has decided on this since we were bound to use the funds set aside for compensating the Sami communities for damages caused by the construction of hydroelectric power plants. So it's only members of the reindeer herding communities who are entitled to use such funds by the rules of the government.

"The platform that has been chosen for the yet-to-be-created `Sami-net' communication system isn't an open system, however, but an proprietary software platform called `First Class.' A small number of individuals have criticized this solution on the grounds that it will exclude Samis that aren't members of the native communities form participating, as well as the fact that it won't enable the users to take part of the discussions and information that is available on the Internet.

"Yet the decision to use FirstClass as a software platform might have been influenced by another discussion...in Norway, where a number of individuals in influential positions have questioned the idea of using Internet at all. One of them is Nora Bransfjell, a teacher in the South Sami language at college level in middle Norway. Her argument is that the Sami culture has been able to survive by its reclusiveness and that the use of Internet will enable governments and other agencies to tap into Sami communications if the Internet is used. The argument would certainly be valid if the discussions would be held at the usual newsgroups and websites, but with the use of encryption technology [software used with e-mail programs to `encrypt' a message that is sent to a recipient who will have a key to read the message] such as PGP [Pretty Good Privacy] and password protected websites, a sufficiently good security could be maintained.

"Since the FirstClass software is a refined version of a BBS [bulletin board system] type of communication software, Sami-net will not be readily accessible. It is a disadvantage to the Sami nation as a whole because it, at first, might exclude the majority of Samis who are not members of the native communities. Yet there is a pretty good chance that this lopsided selection who are entitled to be educated and use the Sami-net will not develop into the worst extreme in the long run since members of the Sami societies now have to opportunity to participate in the computer education program as well."

The Internet and the Sami Languages

The Internet is and will be dominated by the English language. All but a few native peoples fight, not only for cultural survival, but also for the survival of their languages. The Samis are no exception. The Internet, in itself, might be an incentive to learn English, yet the language will certainly not be universally learned by many Samis. Therefore, the utilization of newsgroups and many other functions might not be used by the Samis because of the language barrier, even though they have access to the Internet. In fact, I except that most Sami Internet communication will be in the majority languages-Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish-for each country except for one, the North Sami's.

Apple Computer Co. developed a set of typefonts for North Sami in order to correctly view their language and alphabet on the computer and the Internet. These computers have become immensely popular in the northern area. It is also possible to use the North Sami typefonts on web pages, although it is necessary to download a small utility plus typefonts to display the text correctly. For the moment there is a number of solutions in the works, of which all are not compatible, but a standard computer font and Sami language for the Internet is being agreed upon and will be announced in October 1997.

Today, there is no support for the other Sami languages on any computer platform. This is not, however, any major obstacle for the South and Lule Sami languages because the only character that differs between their alphabet is an `ï,' similar to the umlaut. There exists a standard within html and most webreaders which support these characters. The Skolt and Kildin Sami languages uses cyrillic and a modified cyrillic (the Russian alphabet) that enables the development of web pages. The problem of using native Sami languages on the Internet remains, and because the Internet and computers are such useful tools for indigenous peoples, the Sami are working on a solution. The creation of typefonts to better represent the Skolt and Kildin languages on the Internet is in progress, but I expect that this development will take a long time.

While there are no major obstacles for using the Sami languages on the Internet, there are still a number of unsolved problems for the use of our languages in e-mail. In many cases it is possible to read a message that has been sent as an attachment, but this will not work if the recipient has a different operating system. Also, direct support in the operating system and software for the six other Sami languages are totally absent. The Internet will provide no help for the more endangered Sami languages such as Pite, Skolt, and Ter Sami because there are so few people who speak and write these languages, let alone develop fonts and websites for them. Furthermore, there are few Sami who speak and write these languages and happen to have an Internet connection. So at best, the Internet will not be a factor for those languages, at worst it might slightly quicken a process that started long before the advent of the Internet.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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