Cultures of Norway: The Kven people

Norway is a country with many cultures, from the Viking ancestry you likely think of to recent immigrant communities.

Norway is a country with many cultures, from the Viking ancestry you likely think of to recent immigrant communities. Despite international perception, Norway is actually a very diverse country, and one that in modern times embraces this fact. On your Norway cruise, you're likely to have the opportunity to see many different elements of Norwegian culture. If you find yourself at Tromsø, you'll almost certainly encounter parts of Kven culture - whether through dress, cultural activities or language. Here, we'll take a look at who the Kven of Norway are and what their history in the country has been like.

Who are the Kvens?

There is some confusion over who the term Kven applies to. The general consensus is that the Kvens are people descended from Finnish-speaking fishermen who came to Norway between the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th. There is significant overlap between Kven and Sami history, as there has been a lot of interaction and intermarriage between the two northern Norwegian groups. However, the Kven people have a separate ethnic and cultural identity from the Sami. Indeed, the Kven language is one of the legal minority languages of Norway. It has between 2,000 and 8,000 speakers in Norway today, and differs markedly from modern Finnish in many ways.

Norway has not always welcomed the Kvens, despite the current recognition of their language as official and of Kvens as part of the multicultural tapestry that is modern Norway. Early in the history of Kvens in Norway and through World War II, Kvens were expected to assimilate into broader Norwegian culture or face disapproval and ridicule from their fellow Norwegian citizens. This led to a decline in a specific Kven cultural identity, though it did survive - and continues to survive today.

Some people of Norwegian-Finnish ancestry prefer not to use the term Kven, as it was once considered derogatory, and will instead refer to themselves as people of Finnish ancestry, or as Norwegian Finns perhaps.

Where can you see Kven culture?

The Kvens live predominantly in northern Norway, which is where you will experience their culture if you seek it out. Tromsø in particular has a high Kven population, and Norway overall is home to between 10,000 and 15,000 Kvens. While you are in Tromsø, you may find an issue of the Ruijan Kaiku, a newspaper published in both Kven and Norwegian in the city. If you have a particular interest in Kven language and culture, you may wish to stop by the Kven Institute, or Kainun institutti in Borslev in the Porsangi municipality. You could also look into the Ruija Kven Museum in Vadsø.

If you choose to research Kven culture before your Norway cruise, be aware that the term was also used in medieval Norway for another cultural and ethnic group entirely - material you find relating to the more distant past that references Kvens is not about the modern cultural group.