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Worth a thousand words

Researcher's Sami family photos strike a chord with Education faculty

Teaching and Learning

By Marcia Porter

For Dr. Ketil Lenert Hansen, the hand-tinted photograph of a Sami family dressed in traditional furs and warm fabrics to protect against the Norwegian cold has more than historic value.

It’s his family photo, circa 1897.

“You can see my grandmother,” said Dr. Hansen, pointing to the youngest in the group, a fur-clad baby.

An associate professor of education at the Arctic University of Norway, Dr. Hansen dropped by Memorial’s Faculty of Education during a recent two-week visit to the province. He was here to present on the living conditions of the Sami, the only Indigenous Peoples of Northern Europe. The two universities have established growing exchanges and research partnerships.

Ketil's family2
Dr. Hansen’s grandmother as an infant is pictured second from the right.

Rich culture

Dr. Hansen’s family photo was taken only four kilometres from his hometown in the Scandinavian country, where the traditional Sami occupation of reindeer husbandry is still practised, and where his own son learned to wield a lasso as a young child.

Proud of his Aboriginal heritage, the professor says his academic background means he is well-positioned to investigate how the Indigenous group is fairing in modern Norway.

“Sami people experience 10 times more discrimination than other Norwegians.” — Dr. Ketil Lenert Hansen

During his presentation, Dr. Hansen showed his audience of faculty, staff and students a second family photo, taken just 35 years later, in 1932. The adults and children are dressed in typical Norwegian- and Western-style clothing: shirts, sweaters, suits.

“The years from 1850-1959 were a period of forced assimilation,” said Dr. Hansen. “There were many boarding schools for Sami children in Norway and many rules about how Sami children should be treated. They were not permitted to wear Sami clothes or speak the Sami language.”

In Norway the issue of Sami discrimination has come under harsh scrutiny over the past few years, as researchers like Dr. Hansen share findings about the state of Sami health and well-being.

A hidden story

“Sami people experience 10 times more discrimination than other Norwegians,” said Dr. Hansen, whose research has focused particularly on bullying, discrimination and health among the Sami population. “Yet, when I was teaching my students about boarding schools, they didn’t know anything about them. It was a hidden story.”

It is a sadly familiar story to Aboriginal Peoples in Canada who shared their own horrific experiences of abuse and neglect at residential schools to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Harsh reality

A pivotal moment for all Norwegians came four years ago, when a video of a young Sami girl being bullied went viral. The video caught school boys on camera trying to hurt the girl by setting her jacket on fire because she was speaking the Sami language.

“It was a big debate,” said Dr. Hansen. “No one in the country thought that we were being discriminated against and that we felt we were the lowest level of society. The prevalent feeling is that Norway is not a racist country.”

While Dr. Hansen says that Norwegian society has a long way to go in terms of addressing the historic discrimination of the Sami, many young Sami are taking steps to connect with their heritage: they’re attending schools where they can learn about their language and culture and are reaching out to other Indigenous cultures to discuss their shared experiences.

Norwegian partnership

Dr. Hansen’s visit to Memorial and the Faculty of Education, in particular, reflects a growing partnership with the Arctic University of Norway. In addition to the presentation, he and six education interns from the institution joined their Memorial counterparts for a two-week eco-pedagogy institute, where the emphasis was on experiential education in the community.


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