Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter was behind the founding of several schools for Sami children during the 1800s.
Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter grew up in a nomadic reindeer-herding family. She was one of four girls. One of her sisters died at the age of eight. The family moved their reindeer between summer grazing land on Kittelfjäll, Fjällfjäll, and Gitsfjäll, and winter grazing land in Ångermanland forests and coastal areas. Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter attended Gafsele school from 1843–1844. This was one of the schools run by Svenska Missionssällskapet (the Swedish missionary society). During this period she, like other Sami children, was housed with local farmers. She learned to read and write during the two years of schooling she received. Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter had already become deeply religious as a young child and this influenced the rest of her life. When she actively engaged in fundraising for schools and homes for Sami children she was viewed as a role model due to her piety.
Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter had no brothers. She and her four sisters had to help with the reindeer herding. The sisters worked with Nils Stinnerbom, initially a catechist and then later a pastor, and Nils Nilsson, a farmer, to build a boarding school in Dalasjö. One of her sisters fell ill with tuberculosis and had Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter promise her, as she lay on her deathbed, to petition the king for assistance in funding schools for Sami children. Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter became famous during her own lifetime, both in Sweden and in several European countries, for latching on her skis and making her way to Stockholm in the winter of 1864. She obtained an audience with King Karl XV. Her request for funding was accepted and the so-called ‘Femöresföreningen’ (five öre society) was set up to finance an independent school in Vilhelmina congregation.
Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter met Henri Roehrich, pastor for the French reformed church in Sweden, when she was in Stockholm. He wrote a book entitled La Lapone et Maria Mathsdotter, which was translated into Swedish in 1866. With the pastor’s help she worked to establish schools and children’s homes in Västerbotten. Her second journey to Stockholm in 1866 was a similar success. Through pastor Roehrich she made contact with the Härnosand county governor who later visited Vilhelmina in order to get a picture of the conditions the Sami children were living in. When he later became a parliamentarian he contributed to the passing of a law in 1871 to settle the northern grain boundary.
Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter died on 15 March 1873. She was only 38 years old. She is buried at Nätra cemetery in Ångermanland. Her activism on behalf of schools and children’s homes was well-known during her lifetime. Her life story served as the theme of the 2012 documentary novel Maria Magdalena Mathsdotter: kungen, samekvinnan och den franske pastorn by Lilian O. Montmar.