Fake names

4 February, 2019 – 10 February, 2019 all-day
Tromsø (Sami Week); Sápmi (Sámi National Day)
A road sign displays the Norwegian, Sámi and Kven names for one of Finnmark’s largest towns. (Statens Vegvesen / Ken Ingvar Friskilæ)

Critics of plans to put up Sámi road signs in Tromsø, Norway, accuse the city of trying to rewrite history

Attentive delegates to Arctic Frontiers, a big annual conference that took place in Tromsø, Norway, last month, will have noted that next year’s gathering will be held in early February. Changing the dates will allow it to overlap with Sami Week, a city-wide festival that itself coincides with Sámi National Day, held each year on Feb 6.

Arctic Frontiers is one of the region’s biggest events, and the organisation that stages the conference reckons it brings 3,000 people to the city. The shift, therefore, has the potential to bring with it a slew of additional exposure. Currently, Arctic Frontiers is held in the gap between two of the three big culture events organised in the city at this time of year; the Tromsø International Film Festival ends the weekend the conference begins, while Nordlysfestivalen, a music festival, begins when it ends. Timing it with Sámi Week may help put to rest past criticism of limited Sámi involvement in Arctic Frontiers.

What delegates unable to follow the local media during this year’s Arctic Frontiers likely missed was a sudden flaring up of a discussion about whether Tromsø is, in fact, a Sámi city, and thus whether municipal authorities should be required to foot the bill to put up signs identifying 19 places by both their Norwegian and Sámi names, including the city itself.

By law, Norwegian authorities are required to add Sámi (as well as Kven, another minority) names to signs, if they are determined to be traditional, or if groups from either minority have lived or worked in a specific area.

Opponents of the measure, led by Bodil Ridderseth Larsen, a member of the local council whose criticism breaks with her party’s support for the signs, say that, for the places in question, this is not, nor has it ever been, the case.

The validity of the claim is a matter for the academics sort out. While they are doing that, the city’s 1,500 or Sámi will go on calling it Romsa. Others note, that, even if she were right, Tromsø is the group’s second-largest population centre in Norway, behind Kautokeino, and that putting up signs falls under a requirement written into the Norwegian constitution that requires measures be taken to promote Sámi language, culture and society.

Other institutions in Tromsø already use Sámi on signage and in other communication, as do local and regional authorities elsewhere in Norwegian Sápmi. Bodø, for example, went through the same process of granting Sámi names official status in 2004. Instances of road signs being vandalised have been reported, but officials say this does not reflect the general attitude.

In a letter-to-the-editor published by Nordlyset, a local news outlet, on January 21 and since roundly criticised by her own party members, other local lawmakers and members of the Sámi community, Larsen argued against the additional names, in part, because Tromsø was calling itself ‘the Paris of the North’ before it was known as a Sámi city, and that this would make French names more appropriate.

These days, modern visitors are more likely to recognise the ‘Arctic capital’ nickname, by which the city markets itself abroad. When delegates arrive next year, it may be hard for them not to note that the city has yet another name it can go by.

Sami Week and Sámi National Day
When: Feb 4-10
Where: Tromsø  (Sami Week); Sápmi (Sámi National Day) 
WWW: Sami Week (official site)

Further reading

Reindeer racing in Tromsø during Sami Week


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