Skip to Main Content
HOME : Diehtu : Giella : Poetry : Poetry


Jovnnas (Vance Kotrla)

What to do about all the indigenous people?

One thing that has been on my mind all semester is simply the question of what to do about the indigenous peoples of the world,both from a historical perspective and in the present day. The Scandinavian countries took a significantly different approach than the one used in the Americas,and neither has made their respective indigenous groups happy. Rightly so,since they have each failed their natives in many ways. I have to wonder about what could have been done or what can now be done to try to remedy – or at least mitigate – the situations of ‘Indians,’ white or not.

I can wonder all I want,though, and I ’m still doing nothing more that spitting into the wind. A similar example is this:I think guns and bombs are quite possibly the worst things that human beings have ever created. I believe that they ought not have ever been invented,but they were.The question now is “what do we do about them?” and the truth is, there may be nothing we can do to fix the problem we ’ve created. The same thing applies to American Indians and the Sami and Australian Aborigines, et al. We’ve screwed up, and there might not be anything we can do to fix it.

My thoughts all stem from this single principle: Whenever a group of people goes somewhere, there is always someone who was there first. The newcomers bring their culture and way of life, and in most cases, these are not compatible with those of the native people of the area. The problem is fundamental and – in my estimation – irresolvable. It ’s like the conflict in the Middle East. There are two groups of people who want the same patch of ground for the same reason:it is important to their respective religions. The conflict cannot be resolved until both sides agree to compromise, but no compromise is possible because a compromise means being less than faithful to God,no matter what side you’re on. This conflict dates back thousands of years, and – provided that there are thousands of years left for us – it will continue for thousands more.

In a perverted way, it can be argued that – no matter how many or what varieties of atrocities are committed – no one is wrong in a colonization situation. The Indians or the Sami simply wished to maintain their way of life and continue to live by their rules and on their terms. The colonizers felt the same way, but their way of life valued acquiring huge masses of land. So to condemn the actions of American settlers and the American military in the 18th and 19th century is to condemn their way of life and their fundamental beliefs of how human beings should live. That’s a hard thing for me to do – completely condemn the society that produced me – so I ’ll just say that the Americans and the Norwegians handled themselves badly. I ’ll discuss the colonization/Manifest Destiny situation from that perspective.

First, I ’ll take a look at what the Americans did to usurp the Americas and the American West from the Indians. Back in the 15th,16th, and 17th centuries, Spanish, Portuguese, and French explorers turned the missionaries loose on the indigenous peoples in North and South America in an attempt to socialize their culture out of them. This, too, is a difficult subject for me since I am a Christian. Because of that,I believe that honest attempts to make the story of Jesus known are good endeavors. I do not, however, believe in forcing, coercing, or mandating conversions. On the whole, the evidence that I have seen clearly indicates that the motives behind proselytizing in the New World were monetary, not spiritual. This I obviously cannot condone. It was a dirty trick designed to get gold from the New World.

After de-socialization didn’t get the results desired, European colonists and later the United States government used military force against the Indians. As discussed in Black Elk Speaks, they used their superior military technology to forcibly take land from the natives. Certainly, the fact that many American Indian nations were already warlike people contributed to the adoption of this approach. It was like fighting fire with fire. Black Elk mentions a time when he and a friend found two Crow spies making ready to attack the Lakota tribe. These conflicts between different Indian nations served to weaken the military resistance against the Americans. I think that if there had been a different, non-violent type of resistance, things would have happened much differently. The traditional Indian ways of life would still have been destroyed, but the body count would have been lower. After reading Black Elk’s account of the events he witnessed and the ideas he had, it seems to me that many Indians would have rather died than watch their culture slowly picked apart, anyway.

The curious thing in the American situation is that the United States Army subjugated the Indian nations, but then no attempt was made to bring them into the U.S. populace. The whole situation is very strange to me. I guess the U.S. government thought that they were being just by giving Indians land to live on as they chose and setting them up as somewhat separate nations. Of course they flatly ignored or breeched the contracts they signed with the Indians, so that would seem to invalidate that theory. It wasn’t until the 1870s that Indians were recognized as U.S. citizens. Because of that, no effort was ever made to take responsibility for their well-being. I’m sure there were political considerations such as certain groups not wanting Indians in the voting booths and things along those lines, too.

Now what? Now Indians living on reservations are U.S. citizens, but they’re dying of it. Their cultures have been reduced to tourist attractions and they live in poverty. I’m oversimplifying and overstating to make a point. They retained their culture in some very limited sense, but it has cost them dearly, and it ’s a watered-down version of their culture, anyway. So what should the U.S. do? Pour money into the reservations? Make financial reparations? Issue an apology? Take action on things like the abandoned Congressional review of Wounded Knee? Attempt to integrate Indians into mainstream U.S. society? It ’s a huge question, and one that I’m certainly not fit to answer, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about.

The Sami situation is much different, however. The missionary thing was the same, but the murder thing was different. It was mentioned in class that Norwegian officials felt pressured into acting on behalf of the Sami in order to be consistent with their image – that they were and are a country concerned with the welfare of all its citizens and dedicated to human rights. Comparatively, though, I think that what they were already doing was much more humane than the activities of other countries that were dealing with or had dealt with indigenous people groups.

Not that Norway was to be commended for things like Norwegianization, but it was certainly a more humane way of dealing with a group of people than what the Americans tried. An attempt to bring the Sami into Norwegian society by taking them from their homes and sticking them in Norwegian schools and teaching them the Norwegian language is a more humane way of dealing with them than acting like they’re not human beings. It’s terrible, but it is more humane than turning someone loose in the desert. Again, not that it’s good, but it seems like they felt they were actually doing the right thing for the Sami.

By now, institutional Norwegianization has long since ended and the Sami have made great strides toward recognition and something like independence. They have their own parliament and their own media outlets and things like that, even though they don’t have their own land.

Richard Farson wrote a book called Management of the Absurd about the best way to think about situations and crises that arise in the workplace and find their way onto managers’ desks. In that book, he talks about the level of complaints you find around the office. He says if an office is run poorly and the people are miserable there, the most common complaints will be things like wanting better coffee and more comfortable chairs. Paradoxically, in offices run exceedingly well, the complaints will have to do with personal and professional fulfillment. His point was that things like personal fulfillment would never occur to someone who is abjectly miserable in their job, so they have to complain about basic, tangible, fundamental needs like back support and sufficient libation. It’s essentially a business-oriented way of looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

This can be applied to a discussion of Sami and Native American lifestyles today. The Sami are pushing for more representation in government and better educational standards and things like that. The Native Americans are fighting for decent – only decent – health care and ways to combat an alcoholism death rate some 400% higher than the national average. By applying Farson’s rationale, Norway has done a considerably better job of caring for the Sami, especially in recent years, than the U.S. has done for Native Americans. But this then raises another interesting point: has Norway simply found a less abrasive way of socializing the Sami?

From my way of thinking, the Sami way of life is in as much danger now as it ever was. Now the Sami run the risk of integrating themselves completely into Norwegian society. They’ll still have their language and a few of them may practice the old religion, but participation in Norwegian government, working in the business community, and producing content for media outlets ostensibly has nothing to do with traditional Sami ways of living. It all depends on how they choose to define their culture. It’s a tricky situation in that they want the benefits of the big society game, and in order to get those benefits, you have to know how to play that game. Where does one draw the line between simply using the mechanism and becoming part of the machine? Again, this is a question I’m not fit to answer, but it’s what I ’ve been thinking about in class.

Perhaps a larger question that everyone must answer – not just the Sami and other indigenous groups – is whether or not it is possible to hold onto a traditional culture in today’s increasingly technologically deterministic world. I’m sure that when snowmobiles were introduced to reindeer herders, many were reticent to embrace the vehicles since they represented a departure from traditional herding techniques. Today, that problem is more pressing than ever, and it pervades all sectors of society. Even in more mainstream societies, traditional values and ways of life are crumbling before technological changes. One example is the concept of working. Historically, working in America has meant getting in your car and driving to work for eight hours or so, and then coming home. In the last few years, with the rise of new telecommunications technologies, it has become more common for people to work from home, although still taking part in the traditional single-employer framework. But now,advanced broadband technologies and the growing popularity of small companies or individuals bidding online for short-term contracts threatens the way that organizations are organized. This global adjustment will also have an impact on the Sami,although it’s impossible to say what that effect will be.Again,it all depends on how the Sami community defines “being Sami.” Maybe things like reindeer herding and yoiking don’t make a Sami – maybe it ’s simply embracing a common history and a way of looking at the world that depends on peaceful interaction with people who don’t understand where you’ve been. In that case, a technological society can’t touch the Sami.


I love the fact that the Sami used yoik as a weapon against outsiders without the outsiders knowing it. Artistically, I believe in subversion. I think it’s one of the most effective ways to get things done in a system you don’t want to endorse or play along with. The fact that the Sami used their traditional music toward that end makes me smile. I also believe that language is possibly the most powerful tool we’ve got, and that’s part of the reason why I’m a communications major. By embracing the complexity of their native tongue and giving words rich double-meanings, the Sami were able to undermine government and other officials in their hearing. I think that’s fantastic.

I believe that this was a great way to hold onto their culture in the face of outside encroachment. They were able to portray themselves as submissive and harmless people to those outsiders who had acquired a rudimentary understanding of the Sami language,and yet open new channels of communication with each other by essentially creating a code that could only be deciphered by native speakers.In this way, they breathed new life into Paulus Utsi’s ideas of “ensnaring the language ” and “ensnaring with language.”

There are a few other examples that I am familiar with of similar tactics that people around the world have used. For example, I heard a long time ago that the Jamaican accent and dialect of English was a reaction against white colonists and officials. By distorting their language in a way that whites couldn’t decipher, the native people were able to give themselves some breathing room. They were able to effectively communicate without fear of reprisal because no non-natives could understand what it was they were saying,even thought hey spoke the language fluently. Reggae took this idea one step farther, since quite a bit of real reggae music advocates violent and hateful messages while hiding behind a musical veneer of tranquility and laid-back tempos. My favorite example of this is the old reggae song “Kill All the White People (Then We ’ll be Free).”

Another example comes from Britain. I have no idea what this was in response to, but the British have developed an entire vocabulary of “rhyming slang.” In this slang, words or proper names are substituted for words that they rhyme with. In some cases,the connection is a few generation back, so the original word is indicated by something that rhymes with something that rhymes with the original. It’s impossible to decipher without the aid of someone from England who’s fluent in Cockney slang. The network of rhymes is intricate and dense enough to confound people who have been speaking English their whole lives,but in other parts of the world.

I saw a list of words and their rhyming slang equivalents once, but unfortunately, I don’t remember much of it. I do remember that it’s possible to remember that you’re late for a Buster Keaton when you spy your dickery. “Buster Keaton” means “meeting,” and “dickery” means clock, as derived from “Hickory-dickery-dock, the mouse went up the clock.” The sheer volume of slang terms is staggering. Some other examples include “bottle of glue” (2), “bed and breakfast ” (26), “Nena” (99 – from the song “99 Luftballons”), “iron tank ” (bank), “Adam and Eve” (believe), “Dick van Dyke ” ((bike), “pineapple ” (chapel), and “Vincent” (ice – as in Vincent Price). I don’t know who comes up with these things, but it’s a living language, constantly in flux. Relatively new personalities such as Tony Blair and Britney Spears have a place in the slang now (for “hair ” and “beers,” respectively). When I first saw a list of English translations for Cockney slang words, I was astounded at the complexity of the double-meanings, and when I heard that the Sami altered their language to the same ends, I was immediately reminded of this slang.


When I first read Trekways of the Wind, I thought immediately of e.e.cummings.1 While I have no way of knowing how much cummings Nils-Aslak Valkeapää has read, he and the late painter/poet from Cambridge certainly have a lot in common artistically. For example,neither limited themselves to verse alone, but delved into other forms of artistic expression.cummings was a celebrated painter and illustrator, and Valkeapää makes both music and sketches integral parts of his poems. Similar thematic threads also run through the two men’s work. It was incredible to me that these two writers – so far removed from each other in time, space, and experience – should have so much in common.

In Harald Gaski’s introduction to Trekways of the Wind, he mentions the fact that when Valkeapää was born in 1943, there was really no such thing as a Sami artist. Traditional Sami artwork was functional in that it consisted primarily of decorations on knives and tools, and the idea of “art for art’s sake” was slow to emerge, not gaining momentum until the middle of the 20th century. Through his innovative use and integration of the printed word, drawings, and different types of music, Valkeapää became one of the pioneers of the Sami artists’ movement.

e.e.cummings, on the other hand, grew up in a family where his father taught him woodwork and his mother encouraged him at an early age to become a poet. He grew up in Massachusetts with summers in New Hampshire – far from the frozen tundra of Sapmi – and developed several styles of drawing, painting, and writing because of his constant contact with classical and modern artwork. And yet, despite these vast differences, the two men both employ poetic styles with several shared characteristics. Possibly more interesting, however, is the fact that the three subjects each man spends the most time with throughout their work that I’ve read are these: nature, societal shortcomings, and sex.

Stylistically, cummings and Valkeapää both experimented with punctuation rules and type orientation on the page. cummings developed such a striking visual style with his poetry that much of it is more suitable for framing than for reading. Cubist painters influenced cummings a great deal, and his resulting poetry is often a complex interweaving of phrases and ideas. For example, this poem is from 1958 intertwines the word “loneliness” with the phrase “a leaf falls”:






Valkeapää’s poem in which he arranges all the Sami words for “reindeer” in the shape of a herd that stretches across several pages reflects the same kind of typographic experimentation that cummings utilized.

While these stylistic similarities are interesting, this type of poetry has been widely used since cummings pioneered it. The fact that Valkeapää uses free verse and creative capitalization isn’t surprising, since much of the poetry of the late 20th century does, too. What I find more interesting is the fact that the two writers deal with such similar topics and deal with them in such similar ways. cummings wrote a great deal about the beauty that he saw in nature and he associated it mostly with his childhood. cummings’ nature poems embrace simplicity and reflect an author who stands in awe of nature. This appreciation for nature can be seen in the lines:who are you, little i/(five or six years old)/peering from some high/window; at the gold/of November sunset/(and feeling:that if day/has to become night/this is a beautiful way).

Nature also occupies a prominent place in Valkeapää’s work, as well it should. The Sami have always lived hand-in-hand with nature, and Valkeapää’s poetry reflects that traditional peaceful coexistence. His poetry shares cummings’ simplicity at times (I surely know/that one ought to speak/ seriously/Wisely/But who would then see/the wonder in the small flowers), but his work also reflects in all seriousness the complex relationship between the Sami people and the land (The sun appears later and later/the birds start leaving, disappear/In the darkness I feel/lonely/conceal a tear/So I won’t have to notice it).

Both men also extensively use their poetry to point out the folly, arrogance, and brutality of mankind. Valkeapää’s culture has suffered for hundreds of years at the hands of outsiders who have slowly stripped away Sami rights and broken promises made to the Sami. Valkeapää deals with this fact extensively in his poetry, and many poems in Trekways of the Wind attack the government for what they’ve done to his people. cummings was not the victim of systematic de-culturalization; he simply looked around and didn’t like what he saw.

In Trekways of the Wind, Valkeapää writes:

Then came unknown people, alien blood.
Wanted to possess and coveted the lands which we were part of.
Wanted to possess and coveted, even though they had lands themselves.
They wanted to take our place,its plants and everything good
that we had grown up with. The plants, the animals, all of us.
And everything they wanted according to their will. The water and its power the iron and other deposits, the trees, the fishes.
Everything. Ourselves also.

Later he writes:

And when you came, great white master
you knew
took our grazing lands
dirtied and emptied the rivers
with ugly machines cut deep wounds
in our ancestors’ flesh become earth

The vitriol in these lines is palpable, much like in cummings’ poem “pity this busy monster, manunkind,” which ends like this:

A world of made
is not a world of born—pity poor flesh
and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical
ultraomnipotence. We doctors know
a hopeless case if—listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door: let ’s go

Both men lament the destruction of nature in no uncertain terms and they pull no punches in condemning the ways of thinking responsible for such destruction.

Another topic that both men deal with extensively is sex. They both write of the topic in such a way that it always surprises me when I come across it. A blatant sexual comment comes unexpectedly, thrown in among strong metaphors that usually disguise their referent. The ways in which these authors bring forth a powerful sexual image from left field is quite shocking, and I sometimes find myself reading the passages again to make sure I really read what I thought I read. For example,Valkeapää writes this in Trekways:

in the heart’s rain
in the eye’s fog
in the winter’s smoky snow
in whirling snow
in storms
wind which wants to tear my coat off
legends stories
the blood red dawn of the mind
the warm spring between your thighs
the only haven

Both writers seem to reject many of the social hang-ups surrounding sex and try to frame it in a way that focuses on the connection between two people or on the feelings of closeness and comfort brought about through sex. On many of these occasions, they waste no time getting right down to the matter at hand, as evidenced in cummings’ poem “i like my body when it is with your,” which continues like this:

body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows.

I’ve loved cummings’ work for a long time, and I’m glad that I got to read Valkeapää. The fact that much of his work does resemble cummings’ allowed me to connect with it immediately, which I think was very helpful since I was exposed to him at the beginning of the course. I think that this connection allowed me to find some common ground with the subject matter right off the bat. I was a little intimidated at the beginning of the course since I didn’t know anything about the Sami, but the bridge created by this cummings/Valkeapää association helped me a great deal. As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, I don’t know how intentional these similarities were on Valkeapää’s part, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he co-opted either cummings’ style or some pieces thereof in order to create the kinds of associations I just mentioned. This seems to be an effective tactic of Valkeapää’s that he has employed elsewhere,most notably in his fusion of yoik and jazz music.


This probably sounds overly pessimistic, but I really don’t think that the Sami can teach the rest of the world anything about peaceful coexistence, sensible use of the environment, or having a meaningful rapport with the spiritual world. That’s not saying that the Sami don’t manifest these things, but rather it’s suggesting that we wouldn’t listen. I think that everyone knows that peace and spirituality and a non-destructive relationship with our planet are good, desirable things, but very few people do anything to achieve these ends. The Sami developed them centuries ago, and for one reason or another, they were able to hang on to them even up to the present day. Maybe it’s because they live in the tundra and very few people wanted to bother with them because of the forbidding environment that they call home. Nevertheless, I think the Sami showed that it was once possible to live in peace with the planet and with the people around us. I have my reservations about whether or not it’s possible anymore. My earlier entry in which I expressed my concerns that the Sami way of life is slowly melting away dealt with that.

It’s wonderful, really, that a whole society so fully embraces ideals for which many people all the world over have fought for so long. When I think of the Sami now – and I barely knew that they existed at the beginning of the semester – two things that come to mind immediately are the way they handled the Alta situation and their traditional hospitality toward their visitors. When I look at the Civil Rights movement in this country, I’m saddened by the fact that it turned violent in the late 1960s. That didn’t happen in the struggle for Sami rights. Instead, they protested peacefully when the Norwegian government threatened the Alta River,and in the aftermath of that event, they worked tirelessly within an alien system to gain a voice in their national government.

I’ve always felt that nonviolent resistance was the best kind, and the Sami have always resisted peacefully, no matter what was forced upon them or taken from them. I don’t know if it works, though, which goes back to my idea that maybe we won’t learn anything from them. Governments have always been reluctant to change anything in the face of protesters because protesters are easily brushed aside. My point is this: the world might not learn anything from the Sami because it doesn’t have to. The Sami don ’t have the power to force people to listen. But they’re working on that, though, through the development of things like Sami media outlets and the Sami parliament. So there’s something that the Sami have showed the world: it is possible for a traditionally oppressed minority group to rise to some prominence in government if they are persistent (and if the government is somewhat cooperative).

On a smaller, more individual level, the Sami provide a great example of how I think people should treat each other. In Trekways of the Wind,Valkeapää writes about the invasion of colonists and missionaries, and (although I don’t have the exact quote) he says something to the effect of “we gave them our best, as was our custom for visitors.” In our readings this semester, we have seen that for the most part, the Sami society is one in which people treat others well; they extend gracious welcomes to visitors and their communities are tight-knit groups that work together in many ways. Antiphony provides another example of this. A Norwegian reporter/sociologist comes to Sapmi to get a picture of Sami life, and she is warmly welcomed into a large extended family and allowed to see the inner-workings of the group, even when some of those inner-workings are painful. I’m further impressed by the fact that although the Sami culture is essentially a patriarchal one, women have always been viewed as equals, or nearly equals. The fact that there were male as well as female noaides illustrates that idea. Women could be the spiritual leaders of a siida, and that indicates that they were not relegated to the status of second- class citizens. Again, though, as great as I think this is, I really don’t think that much of the outside world will really pay attention to the example the Sami have set. Most people accept the ideas that people should treat each other well,refrain from violence, and treat women as equals, but rarely are these things put into practice.

Where the environment is concerned, the Sami have always lived hand-in-hand with it and shown the land they live on a great deal of respect. Again,they have provided an example that it is possible and beneficial to carry on a symbiotic relationship with the earth. The Sami provide a particularly striking example of living off the land, since for much of the year Sapmi is shrouded in darkness and the ground is frozen and blanketed in snow. The fishermen and reindeer herders make their livings from the land to this day, and the Sami as a people have been living off of the land since they found their way to it. If the rest of the world took after the Sami, many problems with our environment today could be resolved or could have been averted to begin with. I think it would be fantastic if the global society paid attention to what the Sami have to teach us, but I believe that everyone has already heard these lessons, they’re just not interested in subscribing to them.

Traditional Sami culture also places a great deal of value on having a strong spiritual life, which I believe is terribly important. Whether dealing with the traditional shamanistic religion or in different manifestations of Christianity, the Sami have always been a very spiritual people. In In Search of the Drum ,the importance of the old religion is made manifest, but those who don’t adhere to the old ways reject it because of a strong belief in Christianity. In short, the Sami are a very spiritual people, and I think that they present to an increasingly faithless world a good picture of the importance of spirituality.

Finally, Sami culture shows up in many ways in the present day,often as a mix of traditional and modern global elements. One of my favorite examples is the yoik as performed by Marie Boine, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, and Wimme.These artists have blended the age-old Sami singing style with elements of world music, jazz, electronic, and pop music, and in so doing, they have kept alive and popularized an element of Sami culture that could have easily died out under the weight of Norwegianization and modernization. Another way in which present-day Sami have embraced trappings of mainstream culture is by taking to the airwaves. There are now Sami radio and television stations that broadcast in the Sami language,and these outlets have kept the Sami language alive and active. It’s possible that the language could have disappeared some time in the near future if it hadn’t come into wide use on broadcast channels. Sami culture also makes its presence known through the prominent position the Sami have achieved in state and global politics. They have formed the Sami parliament in Norway and played a pivotal role in forming a worldwide association of indigenous people groups.

The Sami have accomplished a great deal in recent years. They have moved from subjugation to worldwide recognition and they have managed to hold onto much of their traditional culture all the while. That’s encouraging, and it shows that it’s possible for ethnic groups to hold on to those things that define them even in the midst of the homogenization of global culture. Maybe one thing that the world will listen to, hopefully, is the message the Sami have sent regarding the defense of culture. To date, the Sami have shown over and over again that culture is important, it is valuable, and it need not be cast aside in order to exist in today’s world. If the countries of the world won’t embrace peace, if they won’t embrace spirituality, if they won’t embrace nature, maybe they will at least take this cue from the Sami and hold onto their individual cultures.

Foot Note

1 Biographical information on e.e.cummings and most textual examples of his work come from: Kennedy, Richard S., ed. e.e.cummings: Selected Poems. New York: Liveright,1994.