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Elle Hansa (Keviselie): Mapping Sami Culture

By Meaghan Perry (Májja)

When Scandinavian missionaries first came to Samiland, the shamanistic and animistic belief systems of the Sami were challenged, and nearly wiped out. Sacred relics were destroyed; children were forbidden to speak Sami, “the devil’s tongue,” and a culture that was steeped in oral tradition was forced to forget their own history. The existence of the Sami questions the picture of the homogenous nation that many Scandinavians have created. Under the guise of Social Darwinism, the Sami have historically been viewed as “inferior” or “primitive” to the “civilized” Scandinavians, and forced to adopt more southern cultures and languages in exchange for rights in the Scandinavian societies. So much was destroyed: people were afraid to teach or learn the old ways because of the new religion, the closing of borders, and the “Norwegianization” policies. It is increasingly important now to examine the other forms of information and expression produced by the Sami, such as art, to learn how such a diverse group of people can still identify as one culture. During the many years of oppression, artists and storytellers provided some of the only information about the Sami culture. The Norwegian Sami artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen's – Sami name Elle Hansa and artist’s name Keviselie – maps are a beautiful and informative insight into the culture of the Sami. Mathisen’s use of artistic license in his unconventional topographic abstractions, in combination with traditional Sami symbols reference Sami history and literature, and create a visual interpretation of modern Sami culture. In short, Mathisen takes a commonplace object: the map, and creates a work of art representative of a culture.

Sapmi: Land without borders

I came from a multicultural community and I still live in three countries. We never paid attention to borders, and I never even knew that there were different countries until I went to school.

 – Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

            One of the most immediately striking and common features of all of Mathisen’s maps is that the countries are not delineated by regions of color, line, or grid: there are no borders. This conspicuous and deliberate absence reveals the importance of the concept of “nomad” to the Sami. Traditionally, the Sami are a nomadic people, who don’t believe in land ownership, and have no need for borders. Borders are a construct of people and cultures who believe that land can be divided and “owned.” The Sami believe that living with the land and from it, using it wisely and letting the earth cycle (one reason they are constantly moving reindeer is to prevent overgrazing, etc.) is the best use of land, not putting up fences and pretending that something wild and pre-existing can be owned.


Additionally, this feature politicizes the maps, calling the struggles of a nomadic people in a time of enforced borders to the forefront. According to Veli-Pekka Lehtola, senior research fellow at the University of Oulu, “in the 1800s Sapmi, the Sami homeland was split into four parts by the national borders … Reindeer nomads were prohibited from crossing the border; likewise residents on the Finnish side were denied the right to fish in the Varanger Fjord … The border closing caused upheaval for Sami culture” (Lehtola 36).  The reindeer herding Sami adhere to the idea that they carry their homes in their hearts, with their herds. They depend on a variety of geography to feed their herds, and the closing of the borders made it impossible for herding to continue as it had for generations before.

Unconventional Panorama, Orientation, and Perspective

71. The land
is different
when you have lived there   

seen the sun                
set rise
disappear return/

the land is different
when you know
here are roots

-The Sun, My Father, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

            Another noteworthy feature of many of Mathisen’s maps is the unusual orientation. There is already an abstraction afoot because of the aforementioned absence of borders, and because the maps are labeled in Sami, it is difficult to comprehend immediately what is “wrong” with them, but many of the maps are “upside down.” Unlike most maps made, Mathisen’s frequently show Scandinavia as the center, or even the great arctic north as the center of the world, instead of the equator. Often the sun radiates forth from the arctic, and it is as though the North is the great life giver. Some of the maps position the North Pole at the bottom of the map, with the sister islands of Scandinavia at the center. The sizes of landmasses are often skewed, with Samiland larger than the rest of Scandinavia, and the other continents shrinking in comparison to Europe. Several maps feature Samiland as a continent of its own, as if to illustrate that “the Sami are the only ethnic group in the European Union to be recognized as an aboriginal people. They are a minority living in four countries and have their own language and culture” and are separate from the rest of Scandinavia (Lehtola 9)

Each variation calls on the viewer to reconsider where the center of the world is. The earth is spherical, theoretically any point can be central, even a very cold, sparsely populated area. This concept reemphasizes the importance of the land to the Sami. This is their center, their livelihood. They depend on their land for existence, not America, not China, nor any globalized conglomerate; they depend on Samiland. The alterations of the traditional cardinal directions invite the viewer to think about the world from the Sami perspective. The map shows the world from a different center, a different point of view, and seems to beg the questions: “What if this was the center of the world?” and “Isn’t your homeland the center of your world?”

The Maps’ Natural Symbols

31. image
the symbols
of the images
the images of the image
world full of symbols

-The Sun, My Father, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

Upon first glance, one might notice the use of bright colored pencil marks, the handmade quality that pervades all of Sami handicraft, and the whimsical incorporation of animals and objects into the maps’ composition. The decorative outer borders are reproductions of Sami needlework patterns. The maps are decorated like so many Sami handicrafts, but these vivid colors and symbols are more than decoration. Sami artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, a poet, and no stranger to symbolism, believes that Sami imagery should be examined, and avows, “The ancient Sami imagery is a language of its own in which many meanings can be found. It may be followed as its own story. Revived once more as living life and living nature, the ancient symbols must be read in a new light as new artistic expression; they create a dual illumination that takes on a new meaning” (Lehtola 118).

Drawings of reindeer and birds, plants, fish are all coexisting, all parts of a beautiful vision of the natural world in the Sami context. The reindeer is sacred to the herder Sami: it is their livelihood. Reindeer are part of the reason that the Sami are a nomadic people. The reindeer horn is the hammer for the Shamanistic drum, the hilt for a knife, the meat is life-sustaining; the Sami follow the herd, care for the herd, and risk frostbite and wolf bite for the herd.  Additionally, birds seem to be a common link in many types of Sami art. There was a repeated seabird omen in the Sami film Pathfinder, and various avian imagery throughout Ailo Gaup’s The Night Between the Days: “He rode a magic bird. Every feather was a feather of knowledge. He examined two of the feathers of knowledge. It was two small feathers, but they had to be in order for the bird to be able to fly. He loved these two feathers and discovered that one was his father and the other his mother.”

The inclusions of natural symbols once more reference the connection of the Sami to the land, for “nature has provided the sources for both their material and spiritual culture” (Lehtola 88). The Samiland map is a straightforward and clear-cut representation of the physical land the Sami live on. There is something telling about “indigenous” art: the respect present for land and creature, the absolute reverence for the landscape, a type of understanding of the world not present in the works of “civilized” landscape artists, for these are works made by people with a deep connection and understanding of the land. Sami art incorporates and is inspired by nature, because the Sami live in union with the land. The traditional Sami belief is “that the Sun is the father of the Sámi people and that the Earth is the mother of Life. The natural environment is used as a parallel for human existence: animals or natural phenomena are allegories for features and events of human life. The Earth is their Mother, and the Sun, their Father” (Länsman). The sun is present on every map, whether radiating from the sea, from the North, or warming a scene of animals, and each map is a representation of the earth.

The Map as a Concrete Yoik

120. spring
a spirited yoik
makes my mind bloom

The Sun, My Father, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

Mathisen’s maps are dated from the 1970s, which makes them contemporaries of the Sami Movement, at which time, the Sami, under the leadership of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää “raised the yoik to be the central symbol of national spirit” and “The Sámi people began to expound their status as a living people in the world today.” (Lehtola 70, Länsman), The yoik is a truly Sami musical form that both symbolizes and is synonymous with its subject. According to yoik artist Ursula Länsman, “A yoik is not merely a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it's like a holographic, multi-dimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is that something. It does not begin and it does not end. A yoik does not need to have words – its narrative is in its power, it can tell a life story in song. The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures”(Länsman).


Valkeapää, champion of the yoik as a definitive element of Sami culture, and contemporary of Hans Ragnar Mathisen said, “When I paint, I hear it as music and words; when I make music, I see it as colors and words; when I write, music is in my head the whole time and I see colors. Different art forms are products of the same spirit, only carried out with different techniques. Crossing borders and forms has always seemed natural to me.” The yoik and map both contain information and memory, and these maps contain more than just topography. They have memory and tenderness and drawings and symbols that could only be made by someone who knows the land and the people there. To look at them is to awaken memory, just as yoiking can awaken a memory. The hand of the artist over the maps makes them a part of the land. They are tangible ideas created by a man who is physically tied to the land they represent. Thus they are joined to the land, synonymous and a representation, and a visual yoik of Samiland.

The Map and Shamanism

Artists have created their works in the cross currents of many kinds of influences. They have had to discover their relation to the age-old shamanistic traditions, often only seen and read about in books (Lehtola 96).

As mentioned previously, the Sami lost many of their traditions in the 1600s to the rise of Christianity. Early Christians condemning the Sami way of life as sacrilege destroyed so much culture, and one of the greatest casualties was the loss of the noaidi or shaman: “The image of noaidi-ism changed because of Christian belief. During the era of the witch hunts, the word noaidi took on a negative meaning. By the 1800s shamanism had been replaced by a network of healers and seers who were Christian … and the belief [that noaidi was synonymous with Devil worship] persisted even into the 1900s. ” (Lehtola 29).

Traditionally, the noaidi was thought of as a mediator between humans and gods, wise and clever, who could go on spiritual journeys and see visions: “The noaidi in a trance leaves the body and moves as a spirit or a breath of wind. They have the ability to change into a wild reindeer or hide under the reindeer’s neck or hoof; they can fly over the treetops or travel under the ground; they may even swim in the shape of a fish” (Lehtola 28). Many modern works of Sami fiction have centered around the idea of the noaidi, especially Ailo Gaup’s novels, In Search of the Drum, and The Night Between the Days, in which his protagonist, Jon, after having noaidi-like dreams of his own, goes on a physical and spiritual adventure to obtain a noaidi drum of his own, to learn how to heal souls. The noaidi drum was an important tool in the power of the noaidi, used in yoiking, and for sending noaidis into the spirit world (Gaup).

            In addition to the natural symbols on many of the maps, nearly every example boasts a noaidi drum. Most frequently, the compass rose is a drum similar to the one described in The Night Between the Days: “made in the old way with a full serving on the drum skin. In the middle of the skin stood the Sun sign with its rays out in all four celestial directions and with many other figures and signs spread out” (Gaup 48). The imagery on the maps gives the viewer a sense of being all seeing and all knowing: It can be interpreted as a noaidi journey; the different symbols and colors appear to represent a unique experience over the landscape. The maps have no borders, no obstructions from place to place, and a shaman theoretically has no obstructions. The very nature of a map is that the viewer can see everything at once: the whole world at your fingertips, which is akin to the power a shaman possesses. They can travel in any direction, “north, east, south, west, and then the fifth, which was inward into one’s self, into one’s own heart” (Gaup 100). Mathisen’s maps hold so much life in them; they contain symbols for a history without words, a history of expression, of magic.


The unconventional maps made by modern Sami artist, Hans Ragnar Mathisen, are more than mere directional tools; they are incendiary works of art that question customary thinking about land, about what a map is, how it should be used, and how it should be drawn; and which provide a unique insight into modern Sami culture. The maps glorify the sacred aspects of the Sami culture: the nomadic way of life, the land, the sun, animals, and noaidi. It is very important to look at the art of a culture where there is little other historical information, because it will contain important symbols, history, and concepts of that culture. The art of Mathisen is especially important because of his format. He takes a commonplace object: the map, and creates a new context for it. Now it is no longer a mere navigational tool, but a work of art. The familiarity of the map in combination with his unconventional treatments make the viewer question the purpose of the map, and think about the culture it comes from. The maps provide a visual treatise on Sami culture. They can be examined as tools of navigation as they are inherently informative, but they contain layers of meaning deeper than mere geography. There is a feeling of reverence present in these maps which illustrates they are more than topography; they are rife with images of the people who reside in the places depicted, and symbols of their beliefs and lifestyle. The maps are inextricably tied to the struggles of the people, to the Sami rights movement, and have been designed as a beautiful and stirring expression of the culture and the identity of the people, which is so joined to the earth, their mother.

Works Cited
Länsman, Ursula. "Sami Culture and the Yoik". FolkWorld No. 9. May 1999. October
2008. <>

Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. The Sami People: Traditions in Transition. Aanaar-Inari:
Kustannus-Puntsi. 2002.

Gaup, Ailo. In Search of the Drum. Tr. Bente Kjos Sjordal.

Gaup, Ailo. The Night Between the Days. Tr. John Weinstock.

Valkeapää, Nils-Aslak. The Sun, My Father. Tr. Ralph Salisbury, Lars Nordström,Harald Gaski. Vaasa, Finland: University of Washington Press. 1997.