Frisians and Their Allies

A couple of years ago I was sitting at a table with ‘ús mem’ (our mother), saying how bad I thought it was that Maoris, Aborigines, and Native Americans had been hunted from their land, causing the great wisdom in their cultures to be largely lost, and how something had to be done before these cultures disappeared completely. In the kitchen the water boiled, and my mother got up to go and make the tea. I had expected approval, but as she left the room her reaction was rather different: “Ja, dat is allegeare tige moai mar wat tochst fan ús, fan de Friezen, hwat is der fan oerbleaun?” (“Yes, that’s all very well, but how about us, the Frisians? What is left of us?”) After she came back in with the tea, we talked about other things. But every time I hear about a race or culture becoming extinct, I think: “en hoe sit it no mei ús?” (“and how about us?”).

When Beth Edmonds came to The Netherlands she said that it seemed to her that our people were more real. Diane Balser thought that the oppression of Frisians resembled the oppression of black USers by white. And Harvey Jackins, when in the Basque Country, said that the Frisians knew a similar kind of oppression to the Basques. I had always felt a strong bond with Gypsies, the Irish, Scots, Basques, and other indigenous races who refuse to give up their identities. That I dare to express my views outside the borders of Friesland is due to the thinking of those three people and to the support of Riet Schaper, Jan Venderbos, and Harvey Jackins.


I recently led a workshop for Frisians and their allies. The fear I felt around leading a workshop on this subject was enormous. It was just about the scariest thing I could have done for my personal liberation. But thanks to the support of several leaders, especially those in my own Area, the workshop turned into the best I had ever led. I had asked Frank van den Heuvel to be my ally and to lead the allies of Frisians.

To make the challenge all the bigger, I was obliged to lead the workshop lying down, since I was struggling with a hernia (a slipped disk). And just before we began, Frank sat on my glasses. One lens cracked, rendering them unwearable.

A strong feeling of early powerlessness came over me, and my greatest desire at that moment was to go home. After considerable discharge, however, I could decide to go ahead and lead in exactly the way I wanted to.

Later that evening I asked Frank to counsel me, because I had to discharge fear so as not to function on “automatic pilot.” He sat next to my bed in front of the class, and as I told how I wanted things to be done during the workshop, a trembling began to go from my hernia right along my sciatic leg. This trembling continued throughout the session, as I explained why I felt so tense leading the workshop. The healing process continued from there. In a three-way session later with Riet and Jan, Riet gave the hernia some loving attention. Some old and deep grief came out, which surely helped. After the workshop my astonished neuro-surgeon said that yes, very occasionally a hernia will spontaneously heal. (Some physiotherapists say that Friesland is the most lucrative place to practise because back complaints are so common here. I believe this has to do with the fact that we do not want to bow to anyone. I learned this about Frisians when I was quite young: “Leaver dea as slaaf en knibbelje dochst allinne foar de Here” [“Better be a corpse than a slave, and you kneel only before the Lord”]. The unyielding, unrestrained freedom in this really appealed to me as a child; it gave me an Ivanhoe or Robin Hood sort of feeling. But the other side of the coin is that Frisians keep going till they drop. If this turned out to be a contributing cause of back pain, I would not be astonished.)

About forty people came to the workshop, of which half were allies. At least twenty-five had had a working-class upbringing. Four of the five young people came from Friesland. I wanted to make it clear that Frisians are not better people. It’s just that they have some knowledge worth preserving, which it would be a huge tragedy to lose through further oppression.

Most of all I was afraid, because from several counselors I had already heard things that were exactly in line with the oppression, like:

“I am allowed to grumble about Frisians at the workshop, aren’t I?”

“Don’t you think there’s too much fuss made about Frisians?”

“But isn’t the oppression of Limburgers just the same?”

I was afraid that every ally would come down on me with loads of unthinking comments—comments connected with where their forebears at one time had given up.

On Saturday morning I led a class for the Frisians while the allies held support groups by Region. After a break I led a class for the allies while the Frisians held support groups. The allies’ class was special, not only because three people fell through the bed when someone just gave me a small hug, but because somebody was shelling peas that a child was putting in a saucepan, and there were others preparing vegetables (so the cooks would have lunch ready on time). All this created a solidarity I can often only experience amongst a group of Frisians. It made counseling seem a common practice.

When I did a demonstration with somebody from Groningen, she quite naturally spoke the language she grew up with. The Groningen dialect sounds wonderful, and it was important that she could speak it with pride. (Centuries ago, the Groningen people went to live between the German and the Dutch Frisians, who have never been grateful for it.) Working on being proud of who we are and where we come from contradicts everything we have learned in order to be able to survive in the present state of our society. I invited the allies to show everything, to be totally present, to accept themselves completely, and above all to have high expectations of each other.

During the workshop there were demonstrations using the commitment for Frisians and the one for Scots, adapted for Frisians. In other demonstrations people spoke about their backgrounds: a person from Zeeland and a Fleming brought up in Africa had remarkable information to share. Judgments dissolve and disappear only by talking to people—not by talking about people.

The above is an outline of what happened at the workshop. The rest of this article is what I talked about.


Frisians are not better people with fewer patterns. Sometimes it seems that people in oppressed groups have fewer patterns, but unfortunately this isn’t true. Rather, they often think they are worth less and behave accordingly. However, oppressed groups, in this case indigenous peoples, are less confused about what makes sense and what does not. The system always requires that everyone adapt and give up their own thinking, pride, and natural power. The system needs slaves, hangers-on, sycophants, and people who are scared—scared to be different, scared of not surviving, scared there won’t be enough. How come The Netherlands is one of the richest countries in the world? What is the deep-rooted fear behind it? The economy is now improving again throughout the country, except in Friesland where it is getting worse. Here there is the highest percentage of unemployed people, and social taxes are the highest. Here people are on average poorest.

Like the Irish, many Frisians have left their country to build an existence elsewhere. Frisians live all over the world (for example, around ten thousand people who call themselves Frisian live in Amsterdam). When a Frisian tells something about his or her language or country to, say, someone from Drente (a province in the east of The Netherlands), it almost always arouses feelings. Often better than coming straight out with it is to first ask what is special about Drente and its customs. This is a way to stave off competitiveness and prevent a sort of power struggle from occurring.

Frisians who still call themselves Frisians have never really resigned. They have never totally given up their language and (what is left of) their culture. They have kept what other Dutch people are often contemptuous of, which is pride, strength, and their own thinking. This is an important reason to be an ally of Frisians: so that you have to discharge about how your ancestors may not have stood fast but changed their tack according to whatever was asked of them, how they came to adapt themselves little by little and then taught their children that adapting was the best way to survive. This may mean that you were not allowed to be fiercely proud and that you’ve had to have ‘standard’ speech (Standard Dutch is called High Harlemerdams by Frisians) and switch off your own thinking.


I read once in a newspaper article that Frisians are the oldest race in Europe, which is also what the Basques claim. I looked in the library, but couldn’t settle the matter. There is a book in cuneiform script called the Oeralinda book which tells Friesland’s early history, though researchers are still trying to determine how reliable it is.

What is certain is that about eight hundred years ago, Frisian was spoken by the aristocracy of what are now the provinces of Zeeland and North and South Holland. The Dutch language was regarded as more important for trade, however, and Frisian slowly and surely declined. Today a Frisian worker is regarded as inferior to a Dutch worker. Therefore many parents in Friesland now choose to bring up their children as Dutch speakers so that they can start a little higher up on the ladder.


My generation’s language skills are very underdeveloped because for years almost no word of Frisian was spoken in the schools. When we were six years old and went to school for the first time, we suddenly had to be able to speak Dutch, even when we wanted to go to the toilet. We were strongly encouraged to ridicule each other’s ‘Frisianisms,’ so we learnt early that if we could not speak Dutch we had better keep our mouths shut. Many people my age can’t write in their mother tongue or even read it. This is a real pity, especially because the connotation and the emotional quality of the words are difficult to translate. People who translate into Dutch recognize this. Someone told me once that whenever you translate something you twist the truth somewhat, you always lie a little.

The melody of a Dutch sentence rises at the end. This was probably learned during the Spanish and French occupations of the Netherlands and has been retained ever since. Foreigners therefore think most sentences are questions. To say something in a questioning tone of voice weakens what you are saying. Frisians don’t do this, so their language sounds stronger and comes across better. Frisian is not, however, intrinsically stronger or more beautiful; every language in every culture has its own beauty, a beauty that can only diminish through misuse. Because of the way Frisians use their language, they are often thought of as stiff, surly, or blunt. They regard themselves as a direct people without pretense.

I lived for six years in Nijmegen. It took me a couple of years to get used to the customs there. The ‘Nijmegen quarter,’ for example, dictates that you always arrive around fifteen minutes later than you had agreed; Frisians keep their appointments and come on time. I learned that many things had to be interpreted differently, invitations for example. “You must drop by sometime,” actually means, “I think you’re quite a nice person—maybe we’ll run into each other again one day.” I felt like a farmer’s daughter out of the eighteenth century who knew nothing about etiquette, but in fact I had simply learned to call a spade a spade, without extra layers of meaning. In these six years I often had to listen to people tell me that I was a nice person after all, and that if all Frisians were like me, Frisians might be nice people.

Frisians are quite often blamed for taking arrogant pride in being Frisian instead of regarding themselves as principally Dutch. But imagine for a moment that The Netherlands (or the U.S.) was occupied by France (or Mexico), and that everybody was now to call themselves French (or Mexican). Classes in school would be taught exclusively in French (or Spanish). The beautiful Dutch (or U.S.) language and culture would be disappearing, weighing on the mind of every Dutch person (or USer). The Netherlanders (USers) would be indignant.

Frisians are often called bad-mannered and inhospitable because they do not immediately change to speaking Dutch whenever there is somebody present that doesn’t understand Frisian. It is important that each person understand what is being said. On the other hand, when I go to another country (especially if I go to live there), the first thing I do is to make as much of the language as possible my own. If I want to feel at home there, I have to respect their way of life and their customs; otherwise I will always remain an outsider.

I know some people who have lived in Friesland for ten years or even a whole lifetime who still don’t understand any Frisian. These are people who live and work here. They become emotional when they tell how difficult it is to live here, since so much Frisian is spoken in people’s homes and in informal moments at work. They seem to think that since every Frisian has learned Dutch in school, they should therefore speak it all the time.

Frisians are generally thought of as ‘strangers,’ as are many people from former Dutch colonies and other immigrants. The common attitude seems to be that these ‘strangers’ must assimilate. A more acceptable solution would include mutual respect and each side listening to the other.


People are enormously intelligent beings, constantly in development. It is very important that we become immersed in our national and our human history in order to learn how earlier events have shaped the world around us today and to learn how we can make things right, at places where our ancestors took a wrong turn.

Most Dutch people know very little about their country’s history. Recently some government ministers were questioned on it. Their performance was so abominably poor that it was on just about every television programme, and the general public got great hilarity out of it. Perhaps this will help us to realize that we need a greater awareness of our history.

In Roman times Friesland was The Netherlands, so Utrecht, for instance, is Frisian in origin. I saw a book once in the provincial library when I was a child in which an old map showed Friesland stretching from Denmark to the Belgian coast.

I remember the stories about the Voyages of Discovery, in which the principal roles were taken by Dutchmen. (Translator’s note: these stories celebrate the beginnings of The Netherlands as a ‘great nation.’) In Friesland, we were taught something of Frisian history at school, but those who lived outside of Friesland were taught very little. Who knows, for example, that there were Frisian kings? I found it interesting to discover that in Roman times the Frisians thought they would stand no chance in a war with the Romans, so they negotiated to avoid fighting and save their lives. Frisians, it seems, are still doing this: negotiating, and thereby giving the oppressor the idea that she/he holds the reins of power.

The Dutch are, as a rule, pleased with the Dutch role in history. This I think is because we don’t know much about our history, and what little we do know has been pretty romanticized. We Dutch are not better people than the Germans, French, Normans, Russians, English, or Spaniards. We Dutch have a comprehensive history of colonialization, and we were not particularly reticent in the slave trade.

In the First World War The Netherlands was officially neutral, but in fact we took up an attitude of passivity and let injustice run its course. I believe the cause of this is a deep-rooted fear of not surviving. The same could well be said of most Europeans. For example, during the war in former Yugoslavia, a sort of paralysis came about; many don’t understand why no one was capable of intervening, or why people didn’t get organized.


If workshops are held in The Netherlands on the theme of War and Peace, almost nobody turns up. The terror left over from both world wars is far from being discharged. Every kind of fear is denied and not talked about. We fool ourselves that we are seldom frightened and that oppression is not really an issue in our country.

As a child I was told there was nothing to be scared of, which taught me to deny fear, to act as though it didn’t exist. This is how I lived until I was twenty-five, when one day I shouted at my husband, Tsjibbe. This was a breakthrough, because from that moment on I stopped going along with the common view that fear should be denied. You cannot argue away a feeling, and a feeling always has its cause. From that moment on Tsjibbe was able to think with me and give me good support. It was very important for me to push through my fear in this way, instead of letting it control me.

Frisian Commitment: Deeply connected with everything I love and deeply satisfied with me and my life, I promise proudly, without fear, that from now on I will show myself and speak out—directly, with pride; trustworthy, upright, exuberant, and free. I belong everywhere.

Adaptation of the Scottish commitment: I promise always to remember that my ain beautiful Friesland was betrayed, colonized, and impoverished to the present day. Partly we endured to stay alive. Partly we were occupied and colonized. Partly we were scattered around the world in order not to die. Now, however, our freedom can be redeemed. With the support of the working classes of the neighbouring countries, Friesland will be free. I promise to think, plan, and work unceasingly to that end. From now on Friesland will have at least one voice: MINE.

Wytske Visser
Leeuwarden, Friesland
Translation from Dutch by Paul Shannon 

Last modified: 2015-02-04 01:22:36+00