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Johan Turi (1854-1936)

By Harald Gaski

Tr. John Weinstock

In Johan Turi’s book Muitalus sámiid birra (A Story About the Sámi) the last chapter is called “Story about Samiland’s strange animals” (Turi 1910: 235-37). This is an obvious parable about the Sámi’s situation as Johan Turi understood it at the time he wrote the book – the Sámi were regarded as a problem one didn’t really know how to handle. Like the strange animals whose land was taken so that it became more difficult for them to manage, in the same way the new immigrants knew they were taking the land from those who had used it since time immemorial, but because these animals (read: the Sámi) were so shy and easy to frighten, colonization didn’t really represent a moral problem for the intruders: “and these animals are easy to frighten, they are very shy: nor is it terrible if they aren’t able to manage so well, they don’t need to breed, and it isn’t dangerous if they do poorly and are tormented, they are used to this life,” Johan Turi has the new immigrant’s voice say. This little story is full of Sámi irony, understatement, the roguish Sámi mode of expression that conceals so much, and says so much to those who already know, but at the same time lets those who know little dimly perceive that there is a lot more behind what is said than is expressed in the lines. It is the voice of the oppressed that makes a silent revolt in its powerlessness in the face of superior force. And for the one who wants to listen the text contains precisely the main element in all of Turi’s plan for the book, namely, to instruct the readers about the Sámi mentality and way of living.

Johan Turi’s book is the beginning of something new in Sámi literary history, but also a continuation of the storytelling tradition, thereby bringing out more aspects of Sámi life than just the story as story. One could say that Turi’s book is stories about history, at the same time as it both openly and between the lines comments on the Sámi’s situation almost a hundred years ago. The book was published in a bilingual edition in Sámi and Danish, translated to Danish by the artist and folklore researcher Emilie Demant (later Demant-Hatt). So she too gets a large part of the credit for Turi’s having written the book at all. During her research sojourn in Northern Sweden in 1907-08 Demant got to know Turi, and eventually convinced him to believe in the idea that it is important for the Sámi people that one of their own tell about his life in a book that could reach out both as documentation and as narrative.

And he did that ­– as probably one of the most cited Sámi publications of all whether literature or social science. For what Turi does is to write reality at the same time as he writes fiction, his book is literature and social science and essay at the same time – he is holistic and moving, his book is ethnography and anthropology, history and folklore, his book is in short “A story about the Sámi.”