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Preserving Indigenous Languages
The Struggle of a Sámi Biology Teacher

Biology book in North Sámi
“Skuvlla biologiija“ series. While Anne Olli is happy that this biology book exists in North Sámi, it’s badly out of date. Slime moulds are not fungi, algae are not plants, archaea are missing… | © Anne Olli

Anne Olli is a biology teacher in Sápmi. Against all odds, she is trying to keep the indigenous language North Sámi alive. In a personal insight, she explains why.

By Anne Olli

Try to imagine this: you’re a 13-year-old Sámi youth living in Inari, located on the Finnish side of Sápmi, the home area of Sámi people. It’s your 3rd day in junior high school, and you’re excited about your first biology lesson. In the beginning of the lesson, you’re given Finnish biology books. You leaf through the book. Wrinkles appear on your forehead. What are all these weird species? And why is tourism the first thing that’s mentioned in book’s last chapter “Lapland is a harsh habitat”? You sigh deeply and raise your hand. “Yes?”, says the teacher. “Are there biology books in North Sámi?”. “Well, yes.”, says the teacher “But they’re from 1997. The Finnish national core curriculum for basic education has been updated twice after that, so unfortunately Sámi biology books are badly out of date. These old books don’t have much to provide about climate change, recycling, and many other important things. That’s why we have to use the Finnish books. But I’m trying to translate as much material to you as I can, and there’s also some material online.”
This is not fiction – this is my experience about the situation with Sámi biology teaching as a teacher.

I was born in 1993 in Ivalo, Finland. I have been privileged to grow up in a bilingual home. With my mother I’ve always spoken North Sámi, and with my father Finnish. I’ve also had the privilege to go to North Sámi daycare and after that, in primary school, to the Sámi speaking class. I had most of my lessons in Sámi, but there were some subjects when I had to join Finnish class. But when I went to junior high school, I only had my Sámi language lessons in Sámi. Everything else was in Finnish by non-Sámi teachers, learning materials made in Southern Finland by people with zero knowledge of us Sámi people.

I’ve always been interested in the nature around me, so it was clear for me in high school that I wanted to study biology at university. But back then I didn’t know that I’d ever become interested in teaching. But with time, I just found out that I’m pretty good at that, and realised that there’s an actual need for Sámi biology and geography teachers – as for almost any Sámi-speaking teachers.

Sápmi Is Often Forgotten or Exotified

According to the Finnish Basic Education Act 10§ “pupils living in the Sámi home area who are proficient in the Sámi language shall be primarily taught in Sámi”.

But because there’s a lack of Sámi-speaking teachers, many subjects are taught by Finnish teachers or by unqualified Sámi-speaking teachers. I’m finally graduating in 2022, and in my thesis, I’m going to study the Sámi youth’s experiences and opinions on biology teaching at school.

Now why is my thesis important? When we think about the subjects at school, biology plays a key role in describing the environment we live in. It should teach important knowledge and vocabulary about our surroundings. The environment in Sápmi is being threatened all the time: Mining, wind farms, forestry, climate change, just to name few of the threats. As biology offers important knowledge about nature, its relationships and phenomena, it also helps to understand why these things are such threats to and how we can protect our lands. However, Sápmi is often forgotten or highly exotified in the Finnish learning materials, which are intended not only for Finns but also for Sámi children and youth. I find it important to hear Sámi youth’s thoughts, because they’re the ones who are using the learning materials and probably have valuable opinions on how we could improve biology teaching in Sámi area.

According to the Finnish national core curriculum for basic education, the education of Sámi children should support their growth into their languages, culture, and community. But how can this goal ever be achieved if the learning materials don’t have anything or enough to offer about Sámi culture and Sápmi? It is really important for Sámi children to be able to “see themselves” in the learning materials, otherwise their identity and culture may be weakened.

Outdated Learning Materials Impede High Quality Teaching

Autumn 2021 has given me many new thoughts about teaching. Not only did I become a primary school teacher for first and second graders, but I also started teaching biology in North Sámi. In the beginning of the school year I went to collect the North Sámi biology books I needed, browsed through them and mostly wanted to cry. They were released between 1997 and 2000. So, the best option was to use the Finnish biology books and still try to teach as much in Sámi as possible. The Finnish books are mostly practical: they include many good exercises, language is easy to read, and what’s really important is that they’re up to date. In other words, they make teaching pretty easy – or so it is outside of Sámi area.  It’s been a huge learning process for myself as I’ve realised how poor my Sámi biology vocabulary is while I was adapting the learning materials a lot for our use. For example, I’m not demanding my students to learn fish species that don’t exist in Sápmi, while I’ve added arctic char into the list of species they need to learn. I’m trying my best in providing interesting and high-quality lessons, even though it’s time-consuming and exhausting in the current situation. I only know three or four qualified Sámi-speaking biology teachers and future teachers in Finland, which includes myself. According to Korpela’s report for the Finnish Ministry of Education from 2020 and Culture about the Sámi learning materials, many Sámi teachers have expressed their concern about the badly outdated Sámi biology materials. This makes both teaching and learning slow, because so many things must be checked on the internet.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of a biology learning book series from the Sámi point of view. I’m dreaming of learning materials, where science and Sámi traditional knowledge walk hand in hand. I’m dreaming of learning materials, where Sámi youth can see themselves and their surroundings. I’m dreaming of learning materials written in easy and understandable language. I’m dreaming of learning materials, which encourage all students to learn biology. So maybe someday, when a Sámi biology teacher goes to collect the books, the first feeling they feel isn’t despair.