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Ailo Gaup's Adaptation of Sámi Spirituality in In Search of the Drum and The Night Between the Days

Birtá (Jennifer Lawrence)

The most constant aspect of Sámi culture over time has been its ability to adapt to changing environments. Due to that ability, a distinct Sámi culture thrives in Scandinavia today even after majority populations have attempted to assimilate the Sámi. Art has emerged as one of the most influential tools that modern Sámi use to adapt to their ever changing social environments as well as maintain their community. By integrating traditional Sámi style with contemporary manners of expressing oneself, artists continually make the Sámi way of life relevant to younger generations and Sámi who have grown up without a sense of Sámi tradition.

One artist, Ailo Gaup, has used novels as a medium to reawaken interest in the long hidden but continually living Sámi spirituality. Though adaptation has always been an integral part to Sámi survival, some critics of Gaup perceive the reinventions of the Sámi pre-Christian world view in a contemporary context as destructive to Sámi culture rather than helpful attempts at adaptation. Critics claim that Gaup is therefore both a deserter and a profiteer of the Sámi culture. In truth, Gaup has a clear understanding of the Sámi belief in a pervasive, invisible realm and the importance of the noaide as the connection to that realm. Gaup uses that knowledge to reinterpret the ancient traditions into a lively contemporary belief system. He continues the Sámi tradition of adaptation by illustrating a present day spiritual journey of a fictional noaide in training in his novel In Search of the Drum and its sequel The Night Between the Days.

One critic of Gaup’s two novels attacks their reinterpretation of Sámi tradition for a contemporary audience as disturbers rather than upholders of Sámi culture. In his dissertation, Troy A. Storfjell criticizes the novels’ inaccurate depiction of Sámi spirituality and culture. Gaup’s incorporation of his readings of that tradition into a New Age packaging that brings with it the weight of two millennia of objectifying colonial discourse must certainly be a private distortion (Storfjell 428). Throughout his argument, Storfjell claims that Gaup has profited from his flawed understanding of the Sámi. He asserts that Gaup sets out to position the Sámi and Western traditions against each other, but instead muddles the two by combining Sámi spiritual journeys with outsider teachings from such sources as “Odin, Buddha, Greek myth and Jungian archetypes” (Storfjell 426). Gaup does incorporate symbols from traditions foreign to the Sámi, but rather than confusing the traditions, Gaup shows the common elements of the various traditions in order to bring to light the unique and valuable lessons derived from the traditional Sámi worldview. The comparison serves as an important step toward bringing traditional and non-traditional Sámi closer in understanding.

According to the Sámi pre-Christian worldview, an extrasensory realm exists that plays a part in the everyday lives of those living in the material world. Traditional Sámi spirituality may be defined as any action or belief that results from the acknowledgment of that immaterial realm. Sámi spirituality recognizes that there are reflections of the spiritual realm in material objects such as bears, bull reindeer, special rock formations known as sieidi, shamans known as noaide, and the noaide drums among other things found in nature (Holmberg 293). For Sámi that no longer live close to nature, the importance of these symbols requires explanations never before needed by the Sámi living nomadic or pastoral lifestyles (Jernsletten 98). Without the experiential knowledge they would have gained from a more traditional lifestyle, Sámi living a more modern life must find ways to relate to these ancient beliefs if they are to become reacquainted with the spiritual aspect of their culture. Gaup’s novels suggest one way in which this reawakening might occur. A new type of noaide must enter to heal the cultural wounds inflicted by the colonial invasion of the majority societies.

In the traditional worldview, the noaide, the shaman of the Sámi, was their spiritual pathfinder and could travel between the material and spiritual realms (Holmberg 294). According to the Sámi pre-Christian worldview, everything in the material world has a soul that links it to the extrasensory realm, and through his soul journeys, the noaide was able to gain help and advice from spirit helpers he encountered in the spiritual realm (Holmberg 295). The noaide was not just any Sámi. Rather he, or at times she, was a healer of both physical and spiritual pain of his people. In order to obtain this power, the noaide first had to heal himself from an ailment that had plagued him for most of his life. Often the noaide had once been an epileptic or stricken with some other debilitating disease before his transformation to spiritual guide (Harkrader).

Though they may have reached their purpose as noaides through different means, they shared a common background in that they were always outsiders among their own people. The noaide’s frequent contact with the spiritual world, his revered role as spiritual guide, and his understanding of the workings behind the physical world kept him at a distance from other Sámi who lived entirely in the visible world with only second hand knowledge of the realm beyond (Harkrader). In this sense the noaide was both Sámi and not Sámi, for though he lived among the Sámi, he could not live as they did, not seeing the world as they saw it. Gaup draws heavily on this important aspect of the noaide to emphasize the connection with the traditional noaide and his protagonist.

In Gaup’s novels, the main character Jon is a colonial hybrid and shares many characteristics of a noaide, but rather than recreate the accepted understanding of the noaide, Gaup uses the historical context of Jon’s life to reinvent the noaide from a seeming relic of the past to a living and relevant aspect of the present. Colonial hybrids are the children of traditional Sámi parents who were forcibly taken to live with foster families. The governments of the various Scandinavian countries placed these children with families that conformed to the values and norms of the majority society. The proposed outcome of this plan was that the children would become assimilated into the majority cultures, and that in turn would hasten the destruction of the Sámi culture as no one would remember how to carry on the traditions (Lehtola 44, 45). The forced assimilation of Sámi children, governmental pressure to abandon traditional livelihoods such as nomadic reindeer herding, and the shame associated with alcoholism lead many Sámi away from traditional ways of life but left them far from being in their new lives (Lehtola 42).

Neither part of the traditional Sámi culture nor completely assimilated into the majority society, Jon, as a colonial hybrid, is the ultimate outsider, a perfect contemporary reincarnation of the traditional idea of a man living between worlds. Storfjell fails to appreciate this subtle connection that links Jon to the traditional noaide. He mistakenly believes that Gaup attempted to make Jon “more Sámi than the Sámi” who live in the village in The Night between the Days (Storfjell 425). If Gaup were to do so, he would fail to demonstrate that Jon was an outsider, one of the essential aspects of being a noaide, but as Storfjell points out, Jon suffers from “problematic cultural and linguistic alienation” (Storfjell 425). Storfjell views this as Gaup’s failure to understand the Sámi as evinced in his character Jon’s failure to relate to the other Sámi. In fact Gaup deftly draws a parallel between the alienation that is common to Sámi colonial hybrids and the alienation that is common to the noaide.

In many respects, Jon lives the life increasingly common to many Sámi. For various reasons, some Sámi have moved, been forced to move from their homes, or in other ways have become members of the majority society. In the process, they have become estranged from their traditional culture. In the context of the traditional Sámi world view, life in the majority culture compares to the life in the material world. Similar to the noaide that lives in the material world, Jon, in The Night Between the Days, must travel from his normal home to the place where he maintains a spiritual connection, the home that he was deprived of in the far north. This is one of Gaup’s subtle indications that Jon is a reflection of the traditional noaide without being a fixed duplicate of the traditional idea.

The traditional noaide must travel away from the Sámi to seek spiritual connection, while Jon must travel to the Sámi for spiritual connection. Jon’s travels and his search for spiritual guidance from people in the north and the connection of nature that cannot be found in the urban environment of the south bring him closer to becoming a healer of the larger cultures to which he belongs. Though the Sámi living more customary lives share a heritage with Jon, their culture is not the only to which he belongs. As a hybrid living daily in the majority culture while feeling a spiritual connection to the Sámi culture, Jon also belongs to the growing third culture, a contemporary culture that precariously rests between attachment to the past and awareness that time will erase the traditions of a people that are not able or willing to adapt.

Gaup draws another parallel in that of Jon as a self-healer. Like other noaides, Jon’s alienation stems from his inability to fit in with those he would heal, but rather than living with a physical ailment, Jon suffers from a spiritual void. Both novels can be seen as Jon’s initiation as a new type of noaide. In order to become one, Jon must demonstrate his ability to heal others by first healing himself. Though Jon did not have a physical ailment before becoming a modern day noaide, he did have to heal the spiritual pain of growing up separated from his home, people, and culture. The dream of the flaming drum at the beginning of In Search of the Drum is a manifestation of Jon’s need to seek spiritual guidance from his ancestral beliefs to which his foster family denied him access as a child. The initiation is complete in the second novel when Jon makes his own drum, symbolically reclaiming the heritage that was taken from him, but Gaup uses the symbolic nature of drum-making not only to show Jon’s personal transformation as he reconnects to his ancestral spirituality. The making of the drum also symbolizes how a contemporary noaide may heal the cultural and spiritual wound that developed from centuries of exploitation, repression, and forced assimilation. The new generation of noaide, having traveled to a historical realm and the homeland of their ancestors to seek spiritual guidance, may repair the rift with the traditions of the past through art.

Storfjell interprets Jon’s spiritual awakening and quest as a form of egocentrism and further condemns Gaup for using that awakening to fabricate a “Sámi essence” that Jon can understand but that “most Sámi are not good enough to grasp” (Storfjell 425). Neither Gaup nor Jon claim to take on the task of developing an ethnographic portrayal of a “Sámi essence.” Instead, Gaup aims to show the Sámi that they have the power to take control of a new kind of spirituality when the Sámi choose to use those traditions so that they continually nurture the ever shifting Sámi way of life.

Jon does not search for an unreachable “Platonic ideal” of what it means for the Sámi to be Sámi. Jon’s soul journey is a personal one to discover what it means for him to be Sámi and how that affects his understanding of his own spiritual relationship with the world at large. Gaup reinforces the idea that each Sámi must individually discover how best to relate to the past and spiritual connection to the world in the subplot of Lajla and her relationship with her father in the first novel as well as the secrecy of Anders and his relationship to the drum in the second. This theme of self discovery is central to all Sámi in Gaup’s stories, but Gaup does not delve as deeply into others’ stories as he does with Jon’s. To do so would change the straightforward, experiential narrative into a complex, pseudo-scientific, ethnographic description. By focusing on Jon’s confusion as an individual living between worlds, Gaup avoids relying on the “objectifying colonial discourse” which Storfjell claims to detect (Storfjell 428).

As a work of fiction, the two novels do not pretend objectivity. In fact they rely solely on the subjective experience of Jon who obviously has little knowledge of the actual day-to-day experience of the Sámi living together as in the village in the second novel. His surprise at the use of a modern telephone to conduct healings is evidence of Jon’s lack of knowledge. Of course, Jon may claim to know much about the traditional Sámi culture, but Gaup assures the reader that Jon has much more to discover than just a renewal of the bookish learning he brings with him to the north. Jon constantly fumbles in need of guidance, but though the character does not always recognize his own faults, Gaup makes them obvious to the reader. One example of this occurs when Jon fails to wait for Lajla to put the deerskin on the drum. As a consequence the leather splits without the advice Lajla could have provided. Upon looking at Jon’s faults, it becomes obvious that Storfjell's main criticism of the novels on the point of a failed objective, ethnographic portrayal results from his lack of acknowledgement of a separation between author and protagonist.

In his dissertation, Storfjell all but states that the novels are in fact Gaup’s autobiography rather than fiction based in a realistic setting. In this way, Storfjell lumps his criticism of Gaup’s life with his criticism of Gaup’s novels:

Like the protagonist of his novels, Gaup eventually moved back to Oslo’s Finnmark’s vidde. Having gained the spiritual insight of the exotic margins, Jon also returns to the center to continue his spiritual adventures (340, 341). Gaup, in a similar move now runs a shamanistic practice in the capital city… [and] thus participates in the commodification of … traditional Sámi spirituality (Storfjell 425, 426).

By failing to recognize the distinction between Gaup and his main character, Storfjell weakens his credibility of making a coherent literary critique. When he claims that the “novels invoke the traditions of the Noble Savage,” it is unclear whether he believes the author, the omniscient narrator, or the protagonist is invoking that sentiment (Storfjell 425). Without discovering the origin of these stereotypes, Storfjell cannot explore the possibility that the author created these misconceptions in Jon to highlight the character’s lack of accurate knowledge about the people of his heritage. Jon did not even know that his mother was still living. The emphasis on Jon’s narrow understanding of Sámi life as well as his own life empowers the reader with a greater desire for Jon’s, and perhaps the reader’s own need for the experiential learning that Jon goes through in the novels.

Though Gaup does not aim to reveal the “Sámi essence,” he does offer a suggestion of the role the Sámi can play in the world at large. In both novels, Gaup promotes a Sámi spirituality that begins with the Sámi’s ancestral traditions but lives on as a more world inclusive belief system. At the end of In Search of the Drum, Jon poses an idea to his spiritual mentor Abraha that the knowledge he has passed on to Jon should be shared with those outside the Sámi spiritual tradition. Though this idea does not appeal to Abraha, he leaves the decision up to Jon, saying that while he is that past, Jon is the future (Gaup a, 237). Indeed bi-cultural Sámi are the future, for they have been the activists that have reawakened pride in the Sámi of their past and sparked hope for the continuance of the Sámi culture.

Despite critical misinterpretations of Gaup’s novels, the message of Gaup’s In Search of the Drum and the The Night Between the Days is clear. Gaup merely reminds the reader that the Sámi must do what they have done for centuries to survive their changing environments, they must adapt their ways. Gaup’s novels provide options on how that might take place in the new situation of dispersal that many Sámi find themselves. As others have suggested, Gaup sees art as an important means of maintaining communication about and among the Sámi. Gaup’s second novel The Night Between the Days focuses on drum-making as a symbol for this type of communication. The drum also serves as a symbolic representation of what art may be used to communicate, a new Sámi spirituality.

The novels bring Sámi spirituality, one of the most harshly opposed aspects of the Sámi way of life, to the forefront of Sámi culture. Rather than use spirituality as a means to further separate the Sámi as a minority, Gaup shows the Sámi people as a leader in the endeavor to unite humankind. Gaup uses the aspects of the noaide to reveal how the Sámi have the strength to adapt to living between worlds and have the power to rise above and heal the pain associated with a person’s estrangement from his material and spiritual culture.


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