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Feedback: Negative Sámi stereotype(s) in the Finnish course

Terve, kaikki!

First I'd like to say how lovely it is to finally have Finnish available on Duolingo. It surely helps more and more people to discover Finnish, which makes me genuinely happy.

However, there are couple issues. Many people have noticed some little bugs which are surely to be fixed soon, but personally I'd like to address an issue I have found bigger. While checking out the excercises, I faced a sentence which felt a rather negatively stereotypical: "Saamelainen shamaani asuu Norjassa – A Sámi shaman lives in Norway".

While it is great that the Sámi are mentioned in the excercises, the context of the sentence is problematic. When I read it, a picture from a tourism campaign hosted by the Finnish Sámi Council popped into my mind (link can be found in the end of this post). It's about marketing and misusing Sámi culture in tourism.

The Sámi Culture is often marketed by tourist companies in a way that harms the everyday life of Sámi people. By changing this sentence, Duolingo and this course could help to teach learners about Sámi culture in a more respectful way and help to prevent negative stereotypes. Better sentences could be, for example, "Saamelainen poronhoitaja asuu Norjassa – A Sámi reindeer herder lives in Norway" or "Saamelainen artesaani asuu Norjassa – A Sámi artisan lives in Norway".

The article mentioned earlier: https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic-special-reports/how-not-to-promote-arctic-tourism-why-finlands-indigenous-sami-say-marketing-their-region-needs-to-change/ It explains this problems better than I do, so I hope you read it.

The Finnish Sámi Council's guidelines to responsible Sámi tourism: https://www.samediggi.fi/ongoing-projects/culturally-responsible-sami-tourism/?lang=en


Veikka, a Finn and a Northern Sámi student

June 24, 2020




Better sentences could be, for example, "Saamelainen poronhoitaja asuu Norjassa – A Sámi reindeer herder lives in Norway"

It’s said that local Finnish authorities, desperate to show Roosevelt something exotic in a region that had been completely ravaged by war, got people to dress up as Sami, creating an image that the international community would forever have of the culture -- someone (usually a Finn - although the historical record is unclear if the people in the photos were actually ethnic Finnish reindeer herders, or non-reindeer herding Finns) dressed up as a Sami with a lavvu (traditional tent) and a reindeer nearby — a stereotype that endures to this day.

Many Sami consider this harmful as it negates the rich hunting, gathering and fishing components of their culture, and causes outsiders to question their “Sami-ness” if they don’t fit the stereotype. (In fact, the majority of Sami in Finland today do not own, or engage in reindeer herding.)

Source, your very own link: https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic-special-reports/how-not-to-promote-arctic-tourism-why-finlands-indigenous-sami-say-marketing-their-region-needs-to-change/


At least the sentence "Saamelainen shamaani asuu Norjassa – A Sámi shaman lives in Norway" is historically correct. Maybe they could just change the tense and/or add something to specify that it happened in the past. Or just remove "Sámi" from the sentence.


That sentence was suggested to me by a Sámi, and it is not as negatively stereotypical as shaman stuff. Reindeer herding is still a big part of Sámi culture while all this drum banging is a creation of tourism. I recommend to read about the case of original Sámi shaman drums and their destruction by the church. Real Sámi shamans have not existed in ages.

Some Sámis still like reindeer herding to be associated closely to their culture, others want to underline that a Sámi can work and live anywhere in a modern environment in this world nowadays. Hell, even my work place has Sámi IT-support. Some groups of Sámi have never herded reindeer, it is true.


Okay, so since some Sámi like to be associated with reindeer herding and ONE Sámi person suggested you that sentence, you think we should just ignore all those Sámi who clearly don't want to be stereotyped with it? lol, ok

all this drum banging is a creation of tourism.

I've yet to come across a Duolingo sentence that explains that shamanism is basically just "drum banging".

Real Sámi shamans have not existed in ages.

Which is why I think they should at least change the tense of the sentence. I don't think it's wrong of Duolingo to just mention shamanism but I agree they could try to not link it to modern day Sámi people.


I am familiar with Sámis and I know that talking about reindeer herding rather than shamanism is way better. Most Sámis still have atleast relatives who do reindeer herding. It's still a modern thing, it's not dying out.

And tell me honestly, what kind of image you get of a person/folk if you get told they're shaman(s)? Probably pretty similar what Google search gives you, when you google "Shaman".

Changing the tense and emphazising that it's a thing of history would be way better. But clearly the meaning of these practice sentences is to picture modern days. Like I said earlier in the commends, using word shaman is just okay, but the context is not ok, considering the current situation in Sámi community. I'd rather see the sentence changed completedly.


Most Sámis still have atleast relatives who do reindeer herding. It's still a modern thing, it's not dying out.

Doesn't matter, it's still stereotyping.

And tell me honestly, what kind of image you get of a person/folk if you get told they're shaman(s)?

How's whatever image I have about shamanism Duolingo's fault? I don't think it's wrong of them to just mention shamanism, as long as they're not stereotyping shamanism and/or Sámi people.

I'd rather see the sentence changed completedly.

I think they should really just remove "Sámi" from the sentence and then it would be okay.


Wiping the problem under the carpet isn't really a solution. Bringing out the Sámi and telling about them is a good thing, but strenghtening negative stereotype isn't the way to do that. After all, they just have to change a single word. There's a possibility of making a positive impact by just changing a one single thing, which matters a lot.

I have not at any point suggested that they should completely remove the word "Sámi" from the course's vocabulary. I've only suggested that they could remove the word from the sentences that are about shamanism.


How's whatever image I have about shamanism Duolingo's fault? I don't think it's wrong of them to just mention shamanism, as long as they're not stereotyping shamanism and/or Sámi people.

The image of shamanism isn't Duolingos fault but the way they connect it with the Sámi is.

I think they should really just remove "Sámi" from the sentence and then it would be okay.

Wiping the problem under the carpet isn't really a solution. Bringing out the Sámi and telling about them is a good thing, but strenghtening negative stereotype isn't the way to do that. After all, they just have to change a single word. There's a possibility of making a positive impact by just changing a one single thing, which matters a lot.

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I read the article on responsible tourism. It is based on misappropriation and misrepresentation of Sámi culture by ignorant non-Sámi people for the single reason to make a profit from tourists. The sentence “A Sámi shaman lives in Norway” does IMHO not fall into this category. This is a neutral statement that merely mentions a shaman.

Why should this be negative or a stereotype? I don’t know to what extent this is still true, but shamans were at least part of the Sámi tradition.

On the contrary. The mentioning of a Sámi shaman might instill curiosity about Sámi traditions and spiritual believes and lead to further engangement with the true Sámi culture. Which can’t be bad, can it?

But I am definitely glad you pointed out the problem with the exploitation of Sámi traditions for tourism. Such things are always important to know, since sadly this kind of thing happens with all cultures.

Many years ago, I was eating in a restaurant in the South West of the US. There was a performance by a native American singer, a dancer and a drummer, clearly arranged for the “benefit” of the tourists. I was wondering why native Americans would basically desecrate their tradtions meant for very specific occasions, when my ears pricked up. They didn’t sing a traditional song, but had appropriated a pop song into their (stereo-)typical style! I don’t think too many people would even have paid enough attention to notice. I had a good laugh, though.


Despite the negativeity and kinda backlash in the comments here, I do agree with you. The Sami deserve to choose how they wish to be represented by others and be respected. There is a very big difference in being a herder, which is still a modern occupation, to a shaman, which can conjure up this image of a mystical, ancient heathen.

What I think I would recommend is maybe just say "the Sami works in I.T." Sami do live outside of Lappland and like in the end, they are just people. Have somewhere else try to teach about Sami culture than a Finnish course maybe, where sami can talk about their own life.


Brendon, a Canadian dating a Karelian

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to a shaman, which can conjure up this image of a mystical, ancient heathen.

This is your association. To me, it suggests a rich tradition and history worth of being studied. Something that a sentence “A Sámi works in IT” would not accomplish.


You're not Sami and you felt...

Many foreigners probably also insult Helsingians by expecting to see a reindeer in Helsinki. But there aren't any. I'm pretty sure most Sami don't give a dime about the shaman sentence, unless they're jealous that one lives in Norway and not in Finland.


Hello! First of all, I would like to point out that the course provides a variety of sentences with the word Sámi in them, such as "The rock band is Sámi". Second, the word "shaman" is also used in many other geographical and cultural contexts, including places that are nowhere near northern Europe. Third, the sentence you are referring to appears in a skill with sentences like "The Finn is a wizard and the Norwegian is a Viking". The point of these sentences is the same as with "Sweden is in Scandinavia, but Finland is not", which appears later on. Finns and Sámi often get lumped in the same group with the Scandinavians and we are trying to show that it's not that simple.

I understand your concern though, so I think it's safer that I'll check. If you know of any organisation, either political or cultural, to whom I could pose more questions about this matter, I would be much obliged if you told me more about them. Does the Sámi council have some sort of person to contact about these things? Would they have time for someone who made a silly language course? I'll find out myself if you prefer it that way, but since you seem to know so much about this it would be great if you could help me. :)


Hi and thanks for the answer!

I totally understand that you can't be aware of every historical event and political issue while making such things as this language course.

The Sámi are often a hot topic in Nordic politics and discussion, and they very often face racism and aggressive attitudes and lack of understanding by the majority of the population (as can partly seen from this thread).

It'd take hundreds of pages to explain throughoughly why this spesific sentence caught my eye so badly, so I'll provide you with just a few quick things.

Here you can read quickly about the Sámi: https://www.samediggi.fi/sami-info/?lang=en It's a good start, though I don't suppose that you spend rest of the week studying Sámi politics and history (unless they truly interest you :D). The article I linked in my post is also a good t hing to read.

I would say that contacting Finnish Sámi Council to ask questions (and explaining the situation and asking why shaman stereotypes are bad, for example) would be a start. Educating people personally is not exactly their duty, but they can most likely point you to a person who can explain this. One could also contact Sámi activists in social media (Petra Laiti in Twitter for example), who probably will answer to polite question.

Thanks again for the answer, and have a good day! :)


UPDATE! I've sent the first messages. If I don't get answers by Monday, I'll send more messages to other people. :)


OK. Thanks for the help. I'll look into this early next week, since I'm a bit flooded now with the course release. And then I'll discuss it with the team. I'm not entirely sure if I can replace a sentence with another at this point, but if I get bad news I can always disable it. One way or the other, I'll let you know what happened. If you have not heard anything from me by the end of next week, make a comment about it on this thread. :)


Thank you for responding in such an immediate and open fashion. The point raised is important and probably should be addressed.


UPDATE 2! I have not received any answers to my messages, so I'll do a round 2. I'll look for other possible instances that may want to answer my questions and send them messages. I'll let you know how things went Monday next week. :)


Alright, thank you! Let's hope someone answers.


UPDATE 3! Sorry for the lengthy break since the last update. Life got in the way. I did not receive any answers to my second round of emails, so I assume people consider this a low priority matter, at least at the moment. So. Here's what I suggest. I'll make a more detailed plan on how to write sentences about the Sámi based on what I have learnt so far. I'll compare it to the sentences that appear in the tree at the moment (all sentences, not just the Sámi ones, although the latter will obviously get more attention from me) and if it turns out something obvious is missing, I'll add it to the live tree provided that the grammar we have introduced so far allows it. Also, I cannot add new words in the current course, just new sentences. Once the work on the next version begins, we'll still have to consider the grammatical implications of adding things and how early to add them. For instance, poronhoitaja would be unlikely to appear somewhere in the current course length anyway, since it is a compound word that uses the genitive. I do not want to scare anyone away with long difficult words. The current tree does not teach the word suomenruotsalainen for this very reason. Once we've introduced the genitive, things will be different. I'll make a comment here, if it turns out imperative to add a new sentence in the current tree. This will take quite some time because I'll have to find grammatical motives for those sentences.

Any larger changes I'll postpone until we'll start building the second version of the tree. When that happens, I'll contact people from various faculties at the University of Lapland to ask if they would be willing to help the team with the sentences. People are usually more interested in this type of thing when they get to play a more active part in the process. I'm not going to delete anything right now unless I get more feedback suggesting that that would be the best approach. This sounds very slow, I know, but I'm concerned that if I make hasty decisions, I'll end up making things worse rather than better. Tokenism is never, ever a good thing. It's counterproductive and good intentions should not be an excuse for intellectual laziness. So I'm going to keep finding new info and once the time comes I'll reach out to experts and make sure everything fits together nicely. This way the Sámi culture will continue be a natural part the course rather than something that was just glued on.


Hey! Thanks for your great answer and doing your best, I'm pleased to hear that you've after all taken this thing into notice. Pity, that you didn't get answers to your emails. :/

One little thing: I'm not entirely sure how much University of Lapland deals with Sámi-related things, but I know that Giellagas Institute in University of Oulu has the highest and main responsibility of teaching and researching Sámi languages and culture in Finland, so I guess it's the place to ask for consultation.

But: Thank you! For your patience, understanding and willingness to have a look on this matter. Good luck with the rest of the project!


For some reason, I was under the impression that UoL was the place to go to, so I'm glad you mentioned UoO. Thank you. :)


https://www.kotus.fi/kielitieto/kielet/saame Oulun yliopiston lisäksi Kotus = "Kotimaisten kielten tutkimuskeskus" on myös hyvä osoite. Mutta hieno, että vihdoin duolingolla on suomea. Seuraava kieli voisi olla pohjoissaamea :)


I guess I don't understand why "shaman" is even on the vocabulary list for a basic language course. Finns must have way more interesting water cooler conversations than the rest of us.


I think the word "shaman" is included in the course because it's one of the rare Finnish Š-words.


Yup. We wanted to get all the possible sounds introduced as soon as possible. And shakki ("chess"), sushi, or shampoo would have been difficult to include very early on (only sushi actually appears). The only Finnish sound that is not yet in the tree is the nasal version of m, which appears in mf and nf combinations. I now regret not including the word sinfonia, "symphony" in the course. :(


That is exactly what my first thought was, when I read this thread, that you might have used it because it simply rolls off the tongue in a fun way. People can be so unforgiving! Okay, I can relate to the fact that modern Sami do not want to be associated with Shamanism, after they were forced to convert to Lutheranism in the 18th century. The Russian and Eastern Orthodox church, as well as Roman Catholics, had already been sending missionaries to the area as early as the 13th century. At any rate, I found this thread through a reference in a SD and I am very grateful. I think anybody who is curious will be taken to research the topic more.


I can't wait to read more about animism. In his great book, "Cien Años de Soledad," Gabriel García Márquez gives us some humorous glimpses into phenomena that I have noticed in life... perhaps inanimate objects do not have much energy, but sometimes the universe can conjure up the energy to make them move or be moved on their own.


Thanks for the explanation, it helps to understand why you went out of your way to include such a little-used word.


Duolingo courses are well-known to include fun and playful items rather than the traditional focus that other courses offer. Here are just a few examples, if you want a course that's packed full of them, try Latin.




I like the word. Such a shame we did not include it in the Russian course.


And there I just thought it was a fun phrase with different pronunciations of "S".

If it was edited I think the Sami would need to be given a new occupation / characteristic that also started with S (or else the shaman would need a different nationality)!


Thank you so much for bringing this to our awareness! It sounds similar to problems many indigenous cultures face nowadays. I was thrilled to learn about the Sámi people, after looking up the term on Google, and I wondered how well Duo was doing them justice. It is wonderful that they are included here, but like with all minority cultures, it is important to be aware of perpetuating stereotypes.

I found it ~melko söpö~ that it talks a lot about wizards and how the "Finn is a wizard," throwing a little nod, perhaps, to the Kalevala. This is not harmful (I think?) to Finns because they are in control of the image people associate with them (a majority culture), whereas perhaps the Sámis have less control of how people see them (minority culture), so it is compassionate and respectful to be aware and careful of potentially harmful stereotypes.

I like the "artisan" suggestion, and I think it is a good replacement.

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