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Questioning Ethnocritical Emphasis

By Paul Brinkley

Although ethnicity remains potentially one of the most interesting aspects of modern literature around the world and opens many new possibilities for examining great texts on a comparative basis, it is hardly an exaggeration to state that it may also bring out the worst in readers of literature. - Sollors in Krupat, 246

My interest in the criticism of what might be called ethnic writing stemmed from a sense of fear, generated from my initial experiences in this Sámi culture class. The literature read in this class was my first exposure to truly non-Western writing, and as such required an acquaintance with the history, mythology, and worldview of this indigenous people. We were encouraged to read with this background knowledge in mind, and the resulting interpretations of Sámi texts could be called, tentatively, ethnocriticism. These interpretations, are also what engendered my fear, or perhaps more aptly, my sense of being taken aback. I was concerned first with the classification of what I was reading as ethnic writing. Such categorization breeds an attitude towards the writing in which one wonders about the merit of the literature. Is this literature because it is good? Or has it garnered attention simply because it is writing from a minority people? These questions are increasingly relevant in a time of politically correct rhetoric and self conscious multiculturalism. Also, if the writing truly were great literature, would it be so irrevocably placed in the category of indigenous writing as to preclude lasting, global, literary recognition? Secondly, I was concerned with our culture conscious reading, wondering if our enthusiasm to place the literature in its cultural and historical environment neglected what the text was actually trying to convey. Ethnocriticism, or at least the kind of ethnocriticism we were attempting, seemed to breed cases of misreading, or more mildly, cases of misplaced emphasis. Writing, either Western or otherwise, surely has a universal sense, in as much as the creativity and processes invested in the production of such. Arnold Krupat, author of Ethnocriticism recognizes this, calling it “esthetic universalism” and identifying it as an impediment to ethnocriticism. Karl Kroeber embodies this argument, stating that indigenous writings can “appeal to enough common features in human nature to allow us at least entrance to their pleasures” (Kroeber in Krupat, 180). Extensive background knowledge of the culture is not necessary then because it is art, and art is universal. Krupat counters that without comprehensive information of the culture, its artistic nature cannot overcome simple misinterpretation. In ignoring cultural details, one can misconstrue them, “taking them in ways that would be quite appropriate to Western literary art but which are not at all appropriate to Native American literary art” (Krupat, 182). Kroeber’s view then is rendered as naïve, but to abandon completely the idea for a sense of universalism is also a mistake. It is my view that Krupat is fundamentally right – that ethnographic understanding is essential to literary reading – but that this does not exclude universality. It is in this vein that I will discuss Sámi literature, particularly the poetry of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, and offer my own interpretation of certain texts.

Valkeapää is of course a native Sámi, who writes in the Sámi language out of a distinctly Sámi background. He was born into a reindeer herding family, and grew up in the traditional culture, amongst reindeer and yoik. His home is the tundra and mountains of northern Scandinavia, where there are northern lights and dark winters. He writes for the Sámi people; his words are their words and, when his award winning book of poetry, The Sun, My Father was translated, it was released without the intimate portraits of Sámi, and he ordered two of the poems to not be translated, to be left forever only for his people. The poetry contains elements of the Sámi pre-Christian worldview; shamanic visions and magic drums play crucial roles, especially in The Sun, My Father, and, as Valkeapää is also an accomplished yoiker, the form, function, and overall presence of the yoik is obvious, both as inspiration and subject. For Valkeapää, his culture is inextricable from his work as it infuses the subject matter and comprises the environment of his art. Therefore, as Krupat noted, understanding of this culture is vital to understanding his writing.

Take for instance the following poem of Valkeapää’s, the last in White Spring Nights, the first book of Trekways of the Wind:

Vuoi how happy I am

spring in my heart and sunshine

Easter is close

And I have a new, white reindeer fur coat


Vuoi how happy I am

I get to come to you!

If this were read by one uneducated in Sámi culture and tradition, it would not be much more than a nice short lyric poem about spring. Perhaps Kroeber would argue that it is still capable of being enjoyed by an ill informed audience, and while he may be correct, to leave this poem there would be a mistake. While it is true that this poem is ostensibly about spring, it neglects Sámi cultural aspects that reveal what underlies the narrator’s excitement about the spring. Starting simply, the coming of spring in itself holds a great deal more weight in a culture that is submerged in darkness for the entire winter. Spring brings light and warmth back to Sámiland. Furthermore, the different seasons in general play a great role in the lives of the people; the Sámi live very closely with nature, and the changing of the seasons is tied to and indicative of reindeer migration patterns to and from winter and summer feeding grounds and the like. Spring marks a return from winter feeding grounds, which translates into a return to loved ones as well. Easter is a very important holiday for Sámi people, even more important than Christmas, mostly because of the Laestadian focus on the suffering of Christ as an example for the Sámi. Despite this somewhat morose pretense, Easter is a time of celebration for Sámi, and in this vein it is also the time for Sámi weddings. This is especially important in this poem, as the narrator has “a new, white reindeer fur coat,” which is often the garb of a man who is going on a courting visit. In fact, the illustration on the page following this poem is of a man driving a reindeer sleigh, seemingly at great speed, evidenced by the man’s flying hair and the reindeer’s strained expression, and because Sámi traditionally drive reindeer sleighs on courting visits, this sketch obviously references the preceding poem, further strengthening this interpretation. Thus, with this information, the poem takes a deeper meaning, a meaning that would have been left latent if not for knowledge of the Sámi culture.

Therefore I have proved Krupat’s point. Cultural knowledge is imperative in understanding ethnic writing. The question is then of the primacy of ethnocriticism; what should be the distribution of the emphasis placed on ethnocritical readings as opposed to any other critical readings? Is ethnocriticism enough? Ethnocritical reading helps place ethnic works in a context in which they can be understood, but this should not eclipse other information which may contribute to this understanding. For instance, in the poem discussed above, the cultural information provided on the Sámi works to explain the poem, but it works primarily because of the extent to which Valkeapää is immersed in this culture, both as a person and as a writer. However it neglects to realize that though a person can be representative of a culture, a culture cannot necessarily entirely represent a person. In Ethnocriticism, Krupat argues against the traditional Western understanding of self in literature, as this self is not necessarily understood in the same way amongst indigenous peoples. This, however, is counterproductive; this sort of ethnocriticism looks for ethnic meaning where there is none. It is more meaningful to understand an artist in more than just an ethnocritical sense; other dimensions must also be considered. For instance, it is relevant to view someone like Valkeapää through the body of his work, and to take the first person singular as consistently as the writer provides it. You cannot ignore the role of a certain poem in a body of work, and it is worthwhile to consider the poem as a part of a whole, especially for Nils-Aslak Valkeapää.

The Sun, My Father has a definitive arc to its whole. There is definite parallelism to the first and last poems, and the transition from a whole magic drum to a broken one has often been explored elsewhere, and elsewhere it shall stay, for here it would only be digression. That this work functions together not as simply a collection of poems, but as a whole, with a definite arc and definite cohesion is deliberate, and is a consistent characteristic of Valkeapää, and it is holds true of the three books comprising Trekways of the Wind as well. Let us take this into account then, with the poem discussed above.

Just as the seasons hold great importance for the Sámi, they play too a significant role in White Spring Nights. The book is characterized by the cycles of the seasons, and though punctuated by other lyrics, which are often times Valkeapää’s poetic musings on cultural issues, the seasonal changes make up the backbone of the book; the poetry is aligned to coincide with the natural rhythm of the seasons. What then, if anything does this reveal about the above poem? In the book, the summers are lazy and nice, the falls come too quickly with the narrator nostalgic about the summer, and the winters are long, cold, and lonely. But the spring poetry describes the season as a time of awakening, of the beginnings of light, and most importantly the beginning of life, the fertility both in nature and in the sexual activity of the narrator. “After the winter you open yourself to me/and lift your leaves” (Valkeapää). This is metaphor is recurrent, and it adds a sexual implication to the poem in discussion, completing the analysis of the poem and perhaps offering a suggestion as to why he writes “Vuoi how happy I am.” The book both begins and ends in spring, completing the arc of the work in a way characteristic of Valkeapää. Thus the work as a whole lends meaning to the poem in particular, and in the same way the poem contributes to the meaning of the whole book.

There are more forces than just ethnicity at work in the writings of marginalized groups; it is dangerous to give ethnocriticism preeminence, just as it is dangerous to ignore the cultural components of a work. Trying to elicit elements of a group’s culture or history as an answer to the literature encourages misreading. When presenting my oral report on Trekways of the Wind, I admit that I did somewhat of an experiment when we read the introductory poem (“Hello again dear friend”) and I asked for interpretation from the class as far as what the actual meaning was for this poem. I wanted to know what the first reaction would be, what people would first think that the poem was about, betting that it would be an interpretation that tried to place emphasis on any cultural aspect of the poem. I was right. Yes there are references to the culture of Valkeapää in the poem, but that is only because that is the environment from which he came. It is background to the intent of the poetry. In this sense it is no different than Western poetry in that it comes from a certain setting, but this setting tends to stand out in ethnic writings because it is not the setting from which we come. In fact the writing of indigenous peoples is much like that of Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or even more recent texts such as Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice; extensive background knowledge is needed to understand the body of the text, as some of the customs, or words could be obsolete or unknown to modern readers. This is the view Harald Gaski takes in an essay in Sámi Culture in a New Era where he writes that

The literature in the regions naturally is not at all marginal for the inhabitants of the de-central areas… Regional literature is the voice of the margin, and probably because of its topical orientations it is categorized as belonging to one area, dealing with more or less predictable subjects; in other words it is committed to its region (its “o-region,” meaning; origin). As far as this characterization is connected with the thematic content of regional literature, the definition may be correct, but in this sense urban literature is also regional, because it as well is thematically limited to its own geographical setting and topics, being the non­­-rural life of people. Evidently nowadays city life is relevant for more people than stories connected with fisheries and reindeer herding; but still, literature is not just about the exterior, not just the plot, so a book about for instance the hardships of surviving as an anti-hero in Sámiland may interest a reader just as much as a story about an urban cowboy. (Gaski in Gaski, 204).

The culture infused in Valkeapää's poetry then should be treated as background knowledge, not as the focus of the poetry. Before continuing, let me pause to provide the body of the introductory poem of Trekways of the Wind .

Hello my dear friend


Hello again dear sister

hello dear brother

Once again I get to rest in your thoughts

warm myself by the coals of your feelings


Bures bures dear brother

how do you do dear sister

How nice to meet you again

see you

Your eyes shining


Wishing you peace


Awhile, I take refuge with you

open briefly my heart

crawl into your thoughts’ warm embrace

for a short while

give me security

Spread your wings

The first (and only) reading I elicited from the class, had something to do, vaguely, with a Sámi myth that stated the wind was a sister of the Sámi. This would be perfectly plausible, if it were actually supported by the poetry. The sister figure in the poem does not embody the wind; the sister here is a counterpart to a brother figure, who is not represented in the myth referenced, and though the wind can be and is personified in a sister, it is doubtful that is happening here, where the brother and the sister have “thoughts” and “feelings” and “eyes shining.” No, this poem does not reference the myth mentioned before. Instead, considering the placement of the poem before even the title page, it is better to read this poem as an introduction to the author’s work, and as such, a reference to the act writing itself.

The voice of the poem, in this case, is the voice of the author, and the opening “hello” is the greeting between writer and reader. The first acknowledgement, that of the “dear friend” is universal and nonexclusive, situated alone on the first page. From there Valkeapää moves on to the “dear sister” and the “dear brother” which can be read as a special greeting to those of his own people, especially since in the third stanza the Sámi greeting is not translated. He seems to be aware of the unique opportunity he has as a writer to get inside of people; “once again I get to rest in your thoughts/warm myself by the coals of your feelings.” Yet the writer/reader relationship leaves him vulnerable as well as he “take[s] refuge” and “open[s] briefly [his] heart,” asking for “security.” Valkeapää ends by asking the reader to be open minded to his writing in the final line, “spread your wings.”

This is a relevant reading of the poem, conscious of both the cultural background and the intent of the poem, and further, proves that Valkeapää, no matter how Sámi he is, is still a writer, and is aware of this, perhaps particularly because he is a member of a marginalized ethnic group. Arnold Krupat acknowledges this: “For those persons who formerly never could expect to occupy such positions, the possibility the modern world opens is to perform in neither a tragic nor a comic plot, but, regardless of the form their story takes, simply to be visible and to be heard” (Krupat, 125). Valkeapää knows that his writing will be read, and feels the pressure of being a Sámi and therefore being a voice of the Sámi.

In Ethnocriticism, Krupat cites as a basic problem the fact that ethnic literature has traditionally been oral because indigenous cultures often have no written language. This is true of the Sámi as well. What he takes as an obstacle however, I take as an opportunity for unification and broader understanding. If written literature is a phenomenon existing outside of indigenous peoples, then the ethnic participation in the act writing can provide an entry point for those outside the community. This perhaps is the universality that Kroeber was looking for. Writing is a singular experience, and a singularity shared amongst people is a unifying event. In the second book of Trekways of the Wind, called Bluethroat, Twitter, Sing, Valkeapää’s self conscious stance as a writer is highlighted.

The idea running beneath the expanse of Bluethroat, Twitter, Sing is that of a contrast. The poetry is understated; the theme of Sámi life vs. Western civilization is continued from White Spring Nights, but it takes the form of the contrast between the horrors of seemingly great Western thought and the peaceful simplicity of the portrayal of Sámi life. Nature plays an everlasting role, eclipsing the wisdom of the narrator and outsiders alike. Old Sámi ways are described in terms of nature, and as such are then preferable. The author’s desire to express all this is seen in the first poem of the book.

Can you hear the sound of life

in the roaring of the creek

in the blowing of the wind


That is all I want to say

that is all

Valkeapää is burdened with what he understands as the simplicity of life that is obvious in the Sámi environment where the “sound of life” is “in the roaring of the creek” and “the blowing of the wind.” This poem, as the introduction to Bluethroat, Twitter, Sing expresses the intent of the book, simply that “life” can be heard in the various aspects of nature if one can listen as he does. This is what he is trying to convey through his writing, as he states in the “all I want to say.” The repetition of the “that is all” underscores the understatement in this poem, that three lines is all he is trying to “say,” and yet he spends the whole book trying to say it. In typical Valkeapää fashion, the last poem of his book references the first.

The redness of evening

Birch tops sway against the sky

The reflection of light in the river


Everything remains unsaid


The form is parallel to the opening poem. The first stanza of each is nature imagery, the second stanza deals with the writing itself. The concluding poem then can be seen as the author’s commentary on his own work; the introductory poem states what he wants to say, the final poem states that “everything remains unsaid,” even though the reader is finishing book throughout which the author was apparently attempting to elucidate three lines of poetry. Valkeapää then seems to judge himself as failing to communicate what he wanted even “still” at the end of the book. His subject matter seems both too simple and too vast for the poetry, and though he views it as achingly apparent to himself, it is as if he is overwhelmed by that which makes up life in Sámiland, from “the roaring of the creek” to the “birch tops sway[ing] against the sky.” Here the ethnicity of the literature is relevant in the sense that this poetry is set in an environment particular to the Sámi people, one which lends meaning to life that may not be evident to outsiders. As Harald Gaski writes in an introduction to Trekways of the Wind, “Valkeapää is a hunting Sámi shaman in our modern media age, and he demonstrates the importance of belonging to location, environment and people” (Gaski, in Valkeapää).

Gaski here is hinting at a larger consideration. In asserting the “importance of belonging to location, environment and people” he is touching on a general concern of modern literature; what role can place play in a “modern media age” where communication is global and borders permeable. Gaski hints that the larger sphere of Western literature ought to learn from Valkeapää in this respect, who himself writes in Trekways of the Wind, “How I respect/the life of the ancient Sámi/and how meaningless/for decades for centuries/to have learned the national days of other nations.” Globalization, though it offers the opportunity of recognition outside that of the particular group, can also corrupt the sense of place that adds worth to literature in general, especially if globalization is coupled with Westernization as is, sadly, so often the case. Writing comes from a certain place, just as any writer comes from a certain place, and perhaps the role of literature to come will be to create, or at least preserve a sense of place to which we can belong or identify with. This is not to say that literature ought to be exclusive, but unique rather, as the voice and details are infused with a certain environment. Cloaked within this environment though, are truths, archetypes and commonalities – such as the act of writing, as discussed with Valkeapää – which perhaps are what led Kroeber to emphasize these common traits and overlook the importance of the ethnic details of the literature. Instead, this helps promote the need for ethnocriticism because of the necessity of uncloaking the core of the writing. The idea, then, is to achieve a familiarity with situations and environments to which the reader may not be previously accustomed. This problem of familiarity is more tangible when dealing with writings of non-Western cultures, and as such engenders the most obvious misreading.

The role of ethnography in criticism then should be the identification of this place from which the writer writes, and what cultural details this place entails. Ethnocriticism though, should not be sought as its own end, and as a means, should not be employed alone. Ethnicity is part of an overarching environment, an environment that consists of the concerns of any critical mode applicable for a certain writer. Ethnic details should be taken along with biographical and historical information to form a body of concerns through which we can view the actual writing. This lens, so to speak, should act to bring into focus the intent of the author, not to color the writing in a different fashion. In other words, ethnocriticism should inform, not influence the reader. And in this sense, the intent of ethnocriticism ought to be revamped and recognized as something that might be called environmental criticism, in which the entire environment from which the literature has emerged is considered. This sort of all inclusive environmental consideration could then be applied not only to the marginalized groups producing literature, but to any literature, regardless of its origin.

This approach has its advantages. Environmental criticism submits all writing to similar standards; in every case the circumstances from which the particular work of literature has originated would be considered, softening the delineation of marginalized and mainstream literature in a way that ethnocriticism does not. Ethnic, biographical, historical, and other readings will be applied as needed. The idea is all encompassing and the intent would be to equip the reader with information necessary to correctly read the work. Krupat in fact hits on this idea, only not as broadly, when he writes that readers “will need the expertise of ethnographers… as providers of data for the understanding of other worlds” (Krupat, 80). The key is in the “provid[ing] of data,” not in pre-interpreting the texts. This mode is flexible, conforming to the demands of the text on a case by case basis instead of shaping the text to fit the desired criticism. The result is a more accurate reading capable of accommodating a broader spectrum of literature.


Gaski, Harald . "Voice in the Margin." Sami Culture in a New Era. Karasjok: Davvi Girji OS, 1997. 204.

Krupat, Arnold. Ethnocriticism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Valkeapää, Nils-Aslak. The Sun, My Father. Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1997.

Valkeapää , Nils-Aslak. Trekways of the Wind. Tuscon: The University of Ariszona Press, 1994.