Teaching children the language of the heart

‘One's first language is the "Language of the Heart"', smiles Anne Lill Sarabakken. The head teacher for the Guovssahas kindergarten is pleased that more Sámi children in Tromsø are now learning to express what is in their hearts.



The smell of bread dough and a camp fire greets us as we walk through the gate of the Sámi kindergarten “Guovssahas” one fine June day.

Following weeks of cold, grey weather in Tromsø, the sun is shining from a clear blue sky today, prompting staff to decide it would be a perfect day for the children to spend outdoors. They invited the parents to join them in the afternoon.

Now they are busy making preparations. Once the bread dough has risen, the children will make traditional Sámi bread over the camp fire in the lavvo.

A growing number of Sámi in the city

More and more Sámi are finding their identity in cities. The Sámi Parliament’s electoral roll indicates that the number of Sámi in Tromsø has doubled in 10 years. There are now more Sámi living in Tromsø than in the Sámi town of Karasjok.

As early as in 1983, the city’s Sámi Society recognized the need for a separate Sámi kindergarten, so they organised a private one. In 1988, Tromsø Municipality took over operation of the kindergarten, which offers 42 places for children from ages one to six.

The need for places in Sámi kindergartens has grown from year to year.

Yoiking a rabbit

Immediately after entering the gate to Guovssahas, we see that this kindergarten stands out in more ways than just linguistically.

At the gate, we are impressed by a beautiful work of metal art patterned after a filigree brooch made by the Sámi artist Ouiti Pieski. Among other things, the playground is equipped with a darfegoahti (a traditional turf hut) built on a framework of birch logs, a lavvo (a traditional Sámi tent) and a njalla (an elevated Sámi storehouse) on the premises. What is more, the children’s yoiks (traditional Sámi songs) can be heard far and wide.

The children are planning to perform a special yoik for a rabbit when their parents arrive in the afternoon.

Yoiks express feelings’, explains Anne Lill Sarabakken, head teacher at Guovssahas, which means ‘Northern Lights’.

‘Each animal has its own yoiks, meaning that it’s easy to tell whether a yoik is for a bear, a reindeer or a rabbit. When we yoik for a rabbit, you can hear the animal moving fast, then stopping before hopping off again’.

‘Urban Sámi’ in need of linguistic support

It can be challenging for ‘urban Sámi’ to maintain their language and culture in the city. Early childhood education and care institutions (ECECs) are crucial learning environments in this context. For that reason, a growing number of Sámi parents want their children to attend a Sámi kindergarten.

‘As a Sámi, moving to Tromsø means being surrounded by the Norwegian language. If your significant other doesn’t speak Sámi, it can be especially difficult to maintain the Sámi language in your family’, Sarabakken continues.

She is originally from Kautokeino, and she knows how hard it can be to maintain one’s Sámi language and culture.

‘Even though Sámi is my first language, I have forgotten many words because I mix Norwegian and Sámi. Working in a Sámi kindergarten means that I have to be more deliberate about using Sámi words, and that is a good thing’.

The walls of the different sections of the kindergarten are covered with small signs to remind staff of everyday words in Sámi. That makes it easier for them to remember that they should say vuoivvasmeasttu rather than liver pâté, for example. This enables them to revitalise their native language while teaching the children a language that is threatened by linguistic extinction.

Outdoors on the playground, there is no doubt that Sámi is the first choice. When we ask Milian, age six, about whether he likes to throw a lasso, he whispers a question to Sarabakken in Sámi: ‘What does “lasso” mean?’

Is there a Sámi educational theory?

Horrified, we notice a little boy climbing a ladder. He climbs up to the tiny Sámi storehouse, elevated on poles high above the playground. The adults are keeping an eye on the lad, but no one cautions him to be careful. He suddenly throws himself off the ladder. Sheer joy.

Whoa! He’s safe and sound.

We need not spend much time in the facility before noticing that a rather different kind of educational theory applies here.

Sarabakken, who used to work at a Norwegian kindergarten, makes it clear that the Sámi have developed their own educational theory.

She shows us to a little house equipped with a carpentry workbench. Here, the children learn to use knives, hammers, axes and saws from about the age of three. Handicrafts are an important part of Sámi culture.

‘We practice “learning by doing” to some extent, and we’re not afraid to let the children learn by trial and error. In the Sámi culture, we try to make children independent from an early age’, she tells us, assuring us that there is always adult supervision when children use these tools.

Not quite as driven by the clock

Routines and rules are characteristic of Norwegian kindergartens. Guovssahas also has regular routines for meals and naps, especially for the youngest children.

‘That being said, we are probably not as concerned about time here as they are in Norwegian kindergartens. If we’re hungry, we eat, and if we’re tired, we sleep. Living in the here and now is part of Sámi child-rearing practice’, clarifies the head teacher.

Watch out for the water spirit!

Guovssahas is located adjacent to beautiful Lake Prestvannet in central Tromsø. Surrounded by an abundance of bird and animal life, the kindergarten often makes use of the lake. However, the children are told that the water spirit lives in the lake, so they know they have to be careful.

‘Although we never use scare tactics on the children, legends and fairy tales are a very important part of Sámi culture. Accordingly, we try to emphasise the traditional stories of supernatural creatures that live in nature, like the water spirit, the monster that lives in the lakes’, Sarabakken recounts.

Dependent on elders who know the traditions

Childcare workers are also bearers of culture. Yet they have no ‘recipe’ for what constitutes Sámi culture. There are few written sources, since most traditional knowledge has been handed down orally.

Many of those who work in the Sámi kindergarten live in the city, far from the traditional Sámi way of life. They are therefore dependent on elders to help them pass on the culture.

Fortunately, there are many adults in the lives of Sámi children. A Sámi family consists of many more than just mother, father and siblings. Aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins are all considered immediate family. Godparents are also an important part of the family since they have promised to be part of their godchild’s life.

Preserving Sámi food traditions

Wonderful smells are emanating from the kitchen. The kindergarten’s oldest adult, Berit Margrete Eira, is rolling out gahkko bread. The children will soon be toasting this Sámi bread over the camp fire out in the lavvo. Born and raised in a family of reindeer herders, Eira is a treasure trove of knowledge about traditional cooking and how to make use of every part of a reindeer after the slaughter.

‘Many Sámi food traditions have been forgotten. I try to make as many of the traditional foods as possible, including a Sámi stew called bidos and blood sausages’, she says with a wise smile.

The children help out

The children take part in the everyday work in kindergarten, exactly as they would in a family. Among other things, they learn to harvest and gather food from nature’s eight seasons, in harmony with the Sámi calendar. For example, slaughter is an important part of day-to-day life in autumn.

An urban kindergarten setting does not offer many opportunities to learn traditional Sámi activities like fishing and reindeer husbandry. There are, however, ‘reindeer Sámi’ in Tromsø, and some of children have relatives in the reindeer husbandry business. This means the children can visit a herd of reindeer and help with tagging and slaughtering the animals.

‘The children don’t witness the slaughter per se, but they do get to watch the animal being carved up, and afterwards they help make food from the meat and the blood’, Sarabakken explains.

New Framework Plan includes the Sámi dimension

‘The new Framework Plan for Kindergartens has made it easier for the Sámi kindergarten to plan its kindergarten year’, comments Sarabakken.

‘Many elements from Sámi educational theory have now been incorporated as new chapters in the Framework Plan.

We are expected to promote the Sámi perspective, and to adapt to the Sámi seasons in an effort to teach the children about sustainability, food and health. The Plan also states that we are to help make the children feel at home in their first language, the language of their hearts. This has been reassuring and made us feel more comfortable with our educational theory’, she adds.

What does it mean to be an urban Sámi?

‘The children in Guovssahas kindergarten learn a great deal about traditional Sámi culture. It gives them a stronger sense of Sámi identity’, observes Sarabakken.

‘When they walk around the city wearing a luhkka (a hooded Sámi cape), we see that they are proud of their Sámi identity. However, we must not forget the value of being an urban Sámi. What does it mean for these children to grow up as a Sámi in Tromsø or other cities? That would be an exciting project to delve into’, concludes the head teacher.