Skip to Main Content
HOME : Diehtu : Siida : Reindeer : Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää           

Harald Gaski's Foreword

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää was born into a reindeer herding family, but early on realized that his future didn’t lie there. In brief, because he was unable to take a life. A reindeer herding Sámi who can’t manage to slaughter any of his animals doesn’t exactly have the best point of departure for success in the livelihood; instead Nils-Aslak chose to get an education. At that time someone who lived in the north had to travel far from home for every kind of education; as far as Nils-Aslak was concerned it meant teachers’ college in Kemijärvi. He chose teachers’ college not because he ever intended to become a teacher, but because it was an education that gave him schooling in a number of areas he was interested in, among others literature and music. Several of his literary predecessors among Finnish Sámi had done the same thing before him. The Sámi poet, novelist and legend chronicler Pedar Jalvi went all the way from the Tana valley to Jyväskylä in Southern Finland, while Nils-Aslak chose a school somewhat closer to his own area.

Nils-Aslak was born in 1943. The family lived for a while in Ádjagorsa, a couple hours’ walk from a place called Beattet on the road between Karesuando and Kilpisjärvi. Later they moved to Beattet, and Nils-Aslak took over the house after his parents decided to settle down in Skibotn in Nord Troms. His mother belonged to a family that had its summer pasture on Uløya in Troms, while his father was a reindeer-herding Sámi from the Karesuando area. Nils-Aslak began to represent his people early; already as a six-year-old he was picked to be in a group of Sámi that traveled to Helsinki to greet the president. On later occasions too he was chosen for representation tasks, and gradually through his art became almost an ambassador for the Sámi.

The special thing about Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s art is its totality in all the different modes of expression he chose to use. A poem can be read in isolation, but it is best understood when it is read as a continuity, both with regard to the other poems, but perhaps just as important with regard to a yoik on the same theme or an image that accompanies the poem in the form of a photograph, a pencil drawing or a painting. It is in the totality of his expression that you understand Nils-Aslak best, but you can just as well enjoy the works of art individually and get a complete experience just from that. His art was intended to be open and inclusive, in the same way that he himself was open to impressions and impulses from the outside, that he allowed himself to be inspired by and used in his work. It is enough to read the introductory poems in the book that this selection is taken from, viz. Trekways of the Wind, where he begins by greeting the reader with Hello, my friend! That immediately gives a feeling of being wished welcome and of being taken seriously for what you are, and gives the reader the desire to become acquainted with him who is greeting you so accommodatingly. At the same time the pencil drawings that accompany the text give a feeling of wandering in an expansive landscape (at any rate in the Sámi original version Ruoktu váimmus, in the Norwegian version the pages are printed too black) where you finally meet a person who greets you hello.

In the same way as the different modes of expression go together and form a unity, so too was often the birth process for Nils-Aslak’s art. Occasionally it was difficult to be able to say for certain which came first: whether a yoik was inspired by a poem he wrote or whether the idea for a picture was born from the music in the words or the song of the birds that he loved. Nils-Aslak Valkeapää did not write about nature, he wrote nature – someone who lives so close to nature as he did the greatest part of his life has no need to describe, he mediates directly. Therefore his poetry too has a certain directness about itself; it speaks directly to the senses, and therefore expresses a genuine situation that contains so much more than just the sum of the words in a poem.

Trekways of the Wind consists of three parts, three books that were published as separate poetry collections earlier and that he chose to publish as one book with entirely new illustrations. The three earlier publications did not by a long shot get the same attention when they came out that Ruoktu váimmus received. At that time the Sámi writers’ union, along with the Faroese and Greenlandic writers’ unions, were allowed to nominate books for the Nordic Council’s literature prize. Ruoktu váimmus was proposed as the Sámi candidate for the prize, and the book was actually considered to be one of the favorites, but did not get it. Not until 1991 did Nils-Aslak receive the Nordic Council’s literature prize for Beaivi,Áhčážan, The Son, My Father. Nevertheless the nomination of Trekways of the Wind for the prestigious prize, and being stamped as a favorite, helped increase interest in Sámi literature in the Nordic countries – an interest that was only reinforced after Nils-Aslak finally got the prize. He was always a good representative for Sámi culture through his way of creating art that separated itself, thrust itself forward and stood for something new in the Nordic landscape, in the same way as he earlier had contributed to creating interest in Sámi yoik by renewing the presentation of it, for one thing, through the use of instruments and by combining it with both jazz and even classical music. He gradually developed a new form of yoik too, that has features in common with classical compositions, among other things in the music for the lyrical picture work Beaivi,Áhčážan. Nils-Aslak used a little rhetoric to say that yoik is the Sámi’s classical music, so why not let the European and Sámi music traditions meet?

The decade from the middle of the 1980s up to the traffic accident in 1996 that nearly took Nils-Aslak’s life was a very hectic period for this multiartist. Not only did he receive literary acknowledgements for his work; his pioneering music also received international recognition, for one thing the so-called bird symphony, Goase Dušše,was awarded the Prix Italia in 1993. It is actually a symphony consisting for the most part of sounds of nature, like bird song, water that gurgles, the whisper of the wind, put together in such a manner that the listener is left with an impression that nature sings, or yoiks, as Nils-Aslak probably would have said. His pictorial art too received a lot of attention at that time; he was festival artist at Festspillene for North Norway in 1991, and later some of the same paintings traveled around the world at exhibitions, even as far as Japan and China. For that matter Japan was a place Nils-Aslak liked very much – and the Japanese had a great appreciation of his art. It was also from a poetry festival in Japan that he was on his way home when he died during a stay in Helsinki in November of 2001.

Nils-Aslak took his mission as contemporary muse seriously, and helped bring forth new yoikers and poets through practical guidance, through publications and by inviting young practitioners along on some of his many trips. He also performed his multiart on the stage by holding yoik poetry concerts where he read his own poems in the original Sámi, someone else presented them in English and a third person yoiked. This concept could also be extended to include instruments, and he would even paint a picture during the concert. He did that at the international exhibitions arranged in some former Olympic cities ahead of the Olympic Games in Lillehammer. And many will surely remember his powerful yoik in the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in Lillehammer in 1994. Likewise it is Nils-Aslak’s yoik that set the tone in the opening scene of Nils Gaup’s feature film Ofelaš (Pathfinder) from 1987.

Nils-Aslak’s last book happened to be Eanni, Eannážan, The Earth, My Mother. It was launched at a concert on Good Friday evening during the Easter festival in Kautokeino in 2001. Nils-Aslak gave the concert as a thanks for life, for he had survived the traffic accident and could continue with his work, but it was just as important for him to hold the concert to show the gratitude he felt to the Sámi people because that year he could celebrate his fortieth anniversary as servant for the Sámi as he put it. His role as ambassador was not something he had given himself, not was he given it by any institution, but it followed naturally the dignity with which he represented Sámi culture wherever he traveled.

In The Earth, My Mother we get to know better how absorbed Nils-Aslak was with the importance of traditions for an indigenous people. The book is meant to open up to a wider perspective on the place and importance of indigenous peoples in the world, and as such is both an extension and continuation of the prize-winning book The Sun, My Father. The Sámi stood at the center of The Sun, My Father, while in The Earth, My Mother the first person narrator goes on a visit to other indigenous peoples in the jungle and desert. The entire time it is nevertheless clear that the I person is a guest; he does not pretend that he can be one of them, but he registers similarities in values and manner of living. In Trekways of the Wind too the first person narrator was on a visit to his kindred in Greenland and on the American prairie, so in many ways it is the completion of the journey he began that we are presented with in The Earth, My Mother. And thematically there are several similarities between Ruoktu váimmus and Eanni, Eannážan, not least in the criticism of civilization – it is man himself in all his self-righteous grandeur that is the greatest threat to all life on earth. The first person poet stands shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed, and remembers in ironic expressions how the erudite and genteel people in their time used to look down on the northern indigenous people; yet they weren’t able to manage without help precisely from those they called too primitive.

The selection of poems in this booklet is entirely from Trekways of the Wind, and we are happy to be able to reproduce the poems in the same way they are in the book, i.e. the illustrations are included, and the reader thereby gets a broader impression of how poem and illustration relate to each other than the case would be if just the poetry were reproduced by itself. The sequence that begins with the poem “My home is in my heart” covers 24 pages in all, including several pages with only illustrations, and forms a unity that in an outstanding way shows how indigenous people the world over have tried to argue for their own rights to land, water and spiritual values, but have not been understood because the encroaching colonists did not care about other ways of living than their own, and were not willing to listen to another type of reason than what they themselves represent. The lack of a mutual frame of reference and the ability for communication between indigenous people’s representatives and the colonizing settlers in the end makes the indigenous person silent: “I say nothing / [- -] Just show them the mountain plateaus.”

The poem has clear parallels to the well known speech that Chief Seattle is supposed to have held in December of 1854 during negotiations about an agreement between the local Indian tribes in the Washington territory in the current northwest corner of the USA and the newly named governor and chief negotiator Isaac I. Stevens who represented the settlers in the area and the American president. Seattle’s speech was held in his own Indian language, Lushootseed, and one of those present, Dr. Henry Smith, took detailed notes according to the sources, so we have a certain foundation to relate to when we evaluate the well known Indian chief’s rhetorical question to the governor’s wish to buy Indian land: “How can you sell or buy the air? If we do not own its freshness and the glimmer in the water, how then can the White man buy it from us?” Afterwards the speech was rewritten several times, and is best known today from a TV film on ecology from the beginning of the 1970s. This is a strongly edited version of the original speech, but that is another story. What is essential here are the similarities to Nils-Aslak’s poem on the same theme – namely, the loss of the right to manage ones own land, ones history and identity.

In the speech Seattle explains to the white governor how the land is one with the Indians, how their kinship and belonging is tied to the land, and that therefore they cannot give it away. The parallels are many to Nils-Aslak’s poem, and both represent indigenous literature on a high rhetorical level when it is about trying to get the colonists to understand that they must think differently about the land they want to buy and subjugate. Nils-Aslak’s poem also has a Sámi parallel in an old yoik that most probably was performed as an antiphony between a Noaidi, a shaman, and Suola, a thief, where the point is that the thief has looted mastery over the waters, the flowers and fields for himself, but the shaman has not yet given up faith in the power of words, so he challenges his listeners to fight against the settlers’ dominance – a parallel to modern indigenous rhetoric in the cultural political arena.

The remaining poems stand well on their own, and give us important learning about our place on earth, and about the necessity of being able to listen to learn:

Can you hear the sounds of life

In the roaring of the creek

In the blowing of the wind

That is all I want to say

That is all

Nils-Aslak died in his sleep at his Japanese friend and travel companion’s place in Helsinki on November 26, 2001, on the way home from Japan of all things. He had stopped in Helsinki to gather material for a planned essay book, and on the phone he recounted with joy his trip to Japan and how much he now was looking forward to coming home to his dear Lásságámmi – his new home in Skibotn, built on a sloping rock right by the sea (hence the name Lásságámmi, that can be translated “the sloping rock hut”). I think I was the last person he talked to in that he called from his friend’s house and concluded the conversation by saying that he was going to take a nap while the sauna was heating up. From that sleep he never awakened.