Umeå loses fight to use its Sami name on signs

The northern Swedish city of Umeå has been told it cannot use the Sami version of its name on maps and street signs.

Umeå loses fight to use its Sami name on signs
The northern Swedish city of Umeå. Photo: Jörgen Wiklund/

The decision comes after a years-long legal battle to have the Sami name for the city, Ubmeje – which means 'roaring river' – officially recognized.

“Of course I'm disappointed, but not surprised,” Michael Lindblad, the chairperson of Såhkie Umeå Sami Association told The Local. He described the decision as “lazy”  and said that authorities had based their decision on “old beliefs and old research”, rather than taking into account more recent findings related to Sami language and names.

“The history of the Sami people has not been fully recognized and researched, so the authorities argue that the name Ubmeje was used to refer to the area from a remote position, not by people who lived here. But the Sami way of life was nomadic, so this doesn't make sense,” said Lindblad.

Umeå municipality submitted the application to Lantmäteriet, the Swedish land registration authority, in 2012, asking for the Sami name Ubmeje to be included in the authority's geodata, meaning it would appear on maps and could be used on signage too.

Two years earlier, the Umeå municipality was included in the administrative area for the Sami people, meaning that Sami people in the area were entitled to use their native language in contact with local authorities, as well as to have preschool or elderly care offered in the Sami language. There are currently 19 such areas across Sweden.

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Another reason for the application was the fact that Umeå was named the European Capital of Culture for 2014, as well as the practical reason that the name Ubmeje is already used in the names of several organizations.

The Sami people are indigenous to Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia, where they have lived since the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago. In parts of Norway and Finland, Sami street signs already exist, but the idea is relatively new in Sweden. Public service broadcaster Sveriges Radio began programming in Sami languages in 1952 – 13 years after it launched programming in English and German.

However, Lantmäteriet took advice from the Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore, which recommended that the name Ubmeje not be used in signage. This was based on a 2009 study, which concluded that the city of Umeå was not part of the Ume Sami region.

The land registration authority followed their recommendation and denied the application, but in 2013 the municipality appealed. Now, the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation has rejected this appeal.

Peter Steggo, a minorities coordinator at the municipal council, told Sveriges Radio that he would investigate the possibility of appealing the decision again, but Lindblad said the Såhkie Association would continue to use the city's Sami name in any case.

“There will be a time when authorities will have to recognize [Sami names], but it takes time because not a lot of research of Sami history has been done in this area,” he said. “We will continue to use the name anyway, and will continue to talk to the municipality about it.”

Further north-west in Sweden, local politicians in the tiny town of Arjeplog (Árjepluovve in Sami) have been  campaigning for Sami street signs, and in November last year the municipal council (kommunfullmäktige) agreed.

That decision was dependent on the change being financed externally, and Swedish Liberal party member Lars-Nila Lasko, who campaigned for the change, told The Local at the time that he expected the project to take two to three years to come to fruition.

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Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.