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The Pioneers: Elsa Laula And Karin Stenberg, The First Sámi Woman Writers
Gerhard Munthe
Elsa Laula

The writing history of Sámi women is much shorter than men's: it was not until the beginning of 1900s that the first women writers appeared. The first writing women, Elsa Laula (1877-1931, later known as Elsa Laula Renberg) and Karin Stenberg (1884-1969), were both born at the end of the 19th century and came from the southern Sámi-speaking region of Sweden, into which the colony rapidly expanded. They saw in their own lives how the traditional Sámi society was beginning to break down. Their political writing was clearly connected with the ethnic movement of the Sámi and simultaneously with a new way of representing the Sámi.

Social action sprung up among the Sámi in the early 1900s. At that time national romantic ideas were sweeping through Scandinavia; these awakened Sámi self-esteem and the Sámi began to resist the attempts of the different states to assimilate them. Elsa Laula, the first Sámi woman writer we know, was one of those activists. Laula had attended secondary school in örebro and after that she went to be educated as a midwife in Stockholm. She wrote a pamphlet of 30 pages, Inför Lif eller Död? - Sanningsord i de Lappska Förhållanderna [Do we face life or death? Words of truth for the Lappish situation], in Swedish, in which she urged the Sámi to demand their rights to land and also discusses how her people could survive the Swedish cultural assimilation policy. She felt that an important task was to encourage Sámi women to organization work. She founded the first Sámi women's organization, "Brurskanke samiske kvindeforening" [Brurskanke Sámi Women's League] on December 5, 1910. Sámi woman over fifteen were permitted to join this organisation. According to the first paragraph the mission of the organisation was to establish a children's school in Nordland in Norway, and generally to give information to Sámi people. As an achievement of this organisation, the first all-Nordic Sámi conference was held in Trondheim, Norway in 1917. [1] In connection with the announcement of the meeting there was a special request for Sámi women to attend the meeting: "Not a single woman should be lacking at this meeting. We believe that when Sámi women join together a great aim in their eyes is to work for their people, and they soon find the way to influence people to attain this goal." Elsa Laula Renberg also wrote frequently to newspapers.

In her work Elsa Laula made use of both ethnicity and gender. She saw the situation of the Sámi people as a minority and she wanted to change the majority's policy to something more affirmative towards the Sámi people. Many of the matters she raised are still not completely settled. She considered women as a positive force when promoting matters. That is why she founded women's organisations and encouraged women to use their own power to remove social unfairness. Following in the tradition of Laula Renberg, a new Sámi women's organisation, Sáráhkká, was founded in 1989. [2] The purposes of the organisation are to promote equality, to reach social fairness, and above all, to bring into view women's culture and to achieve more respect for Sámi women. In addition, the organisation cooperates with regional as well as other indigenous women's organisations.

Gerhard Munthe
Karin Stenberg

Laula Renberg's college teacher Karin Stenberg also wrote a pamphlet called Dah läh mijen situd (This Is Our Will) with the members of the Arjeplog Sámi association and it was published in 1920. The aim of this book was to give more information about the Sámi people living in Sweden, at a time when social Darwinist ideas were also influencing Swedish society. These ideas were concretised as racist opinions towards Sámi people and traditional life conditions were threatened. Both Laula and Stenberg were working as social agents and they were criticising both in public and in their pamphlets the rights of the majority people to rule and subordinate the Sámi people. This kind of policy one can call with the concepts of Stuart Hall "the politics of representation." [3] According to Hall, it means that the relation of centre and margin is changed. There is need to represent marginalised people with a new status, which differs from that where the ruling discourse has placed its subjects. As we see, these women were struggling against the ruling discourse and wanted the Sámi people to represent themselves by the means of their own associations, and at the same time by writing political pamphlets which were aimed at the majority. From our point of view today we can call this postcolonial writing. Writers belonging to the following generations of grandmothers, mothers and daughters have continued the tradition started by Laula and Stenberg.


[1] The opening day of this conference, February 6th, was declared the Sámi "national" day at the 15th Sámi Conference held in Helsinki in 1992-Editor's note. See February 6th - The National Day of the Sámi: A symbol of cooperation and unity at

[2] See "10-year anniversary for Norgga Sáráhkká," Samefolket May 1999. Online at

[3] Stuart Hall (editor), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage in Association with the Open University, 1997).

About the Author

Vuokko Hirvonen is førsteamanuensis (associate professor) at the Samisk høgskole/Sámi Allaskuvla (Sámi Univesity College) in Kautokeino/Guovdageainnu in Norway.

© 2002 Vuokko Hirvonen, Ph,D.


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