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Sámi Literature

Kathleen Osgood Dana
Center for Northern Studies, Wolcott, Vermont

This article first appeared in World Literature Today, Winter 1997.

Since the early 1970s, when the Sámi banded together to protest the damming of the Alta River in Norway, there has been a flowering of Sámi political and creative energy. Sámi literature is no longer just the juoiggus – songs and muitalandáidu – tales archived by Western ethnologists and anthropologists, but a thriving, exciting, contemporary literature of its own.

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää's work has had a significant impact in revitalizing the Sámi language and identity movement of the 1970s. Kirsti Paltto, another Sámi, was to write a similar tract, Saamelaiset (The Sámi) in 1973, reinforcing the Sámi wish to have their own history, language,  culture, livelihoods, way of life,  identity, and worldviews.

In distinct contrast to literature written in “large” languages which have large readerships, minority languages such as Sámi or Finnish, with their limited audiences, are much more sensitive to cultural distortion, especially in translation and criticism. Veli-Pekka Lehtola writes:

The language of millions is not like a single language; it is like a school of herring all swimming in the same direction. The language of a small people is like a small fox, unprotected by a pack. It has to look out for itself and hear danger in order to avoid it, it looks about and sees the others. Majority peoples, who are losing their grip on how to stay alive, have much to learn from a small fox. (“Saamelainen kirjallisuus,” 49)

In their declarations in the early 1970s, Valkeapää and Paltto had chosen to write their stories in Finnish not only to express their views to a larger audience, but also to communicate with their fellow Sámi. Unlike now, with partial protection by Sámi language laws in Scandinavia authorizing Sámi as a language of instruction and governance,  very few Sámi were literate in their mother tongue. Living a largely nomadic life until World War II, most Sámi had been educated at boarding schools, being forcibly acculturated into the dominant culture of the political nation where they happened to live.

Such grim experiences are typical of postwar acculturation policies around the entire circumpolar North and among Native peoples everywhere in the twentieth century. Drastic changes in livelihood and social structure after the war caused deep rifts in Sámi life, precipitating both social crisis and cultural renaissance, themes highly visible in Sámi writing and art.

This last half-century has seen wrenching conflicts between traditional and modern culture for the Sámi. On the other hand, nearly a third of the 900-odd titles extant in Sámi have been published in just the last quarter century,  reclaiming language and identity and bridging not only the gap between Western and natural worldviews, but also the gap between a tribal,  preliterate tradition and a global,  post literate tradition ( Davvi Girjii  the official Sámi publishing house in Kárášjohka,  Norway, describes the resulting publishing dilemma:

The market for Sámi books is a relatively small one. The market for Sámi literature is also limited, since the total number of Sámi is not very large. A further limitation is imposed by the fact that many Sámi have lost their mother tongue, while others are illiterate in their mother tongue. This reduces the number of potential buyers and readers so much that no publishing house today can count on covering the production costs of publishing Sámi-language books through sales. Sámi book production is therefore dependent on subsidies.

Other problems of the Sámi as a small, indigenous people have been apparent throughout history on the Fenno-Scandian peninsula, as most Sámi were forced ever farther north, adapting adroitly to Arctic life. Other Sámi migrated southward or westward, blending in with the dominant populations. So, the Sámi people may number as many as 100,000 or as few as 35,000, depending on how they are counted. If language is the criterion, the Sámi population will be quite small, as Sámi is spoken primarily among the northernmost populations.

Other problems of the Sámi as a small, indigenous people have been apparent throughout history on the Fenno-Scandian peninsula, as most Sámi were forced ever farther north, adapting adroitly to Arctic life. Other Sámi migrated southward or westward, blending in with the dominant populations. So, the Sámi people may number as many as 100,000 or as few as 35,000, depending on how they are counted. If language is the criterion, the Sámi population will be quite small, as Sámi is spoken primarily among the northernmost populations.

The Yoik and Story Traditions

On the other hand, the oral tradition among the Sámi has been and continues to be a rich and creative one, in practice and in literature. ( The yoik is the distinctive Sámi musical and poetic tradition. Originally the mystical domain of noaidi – shamans, yoiks were expressly forbidden by a Danish king on pain of death. Like American blues, the yoik went underground, becoming an individual, Aesopian, improvisational expression of self and nature – to sing a mood, to keep wolves from the herd, to lull a baby to sleep.  Forbidden both by law and by society, yoiking became a very subtle act of self- identification and rebellion.

The yoik has become a part of World music, with a number of Sámi performers,  such as The Girls of Angeli, Wimme ( , and Mari Boine bringing both traditional and original yoiks to Western audiences. No matter how provocative or contemporary the yoiks become with synthesizers and ambient rhythms, the fundamental features of the yoik tradition, such as repetition and improvisation, continue:

[R]epetitions are not to be confused with a refrain, but represent an accentuation of a specific passage or (musical) statement. In many ways they are parallel to the way a yoik circles around the fundamental melodic element. This could be that which primarily describes the object or its essence … [The “new yoik ”] is a modern parallel to the continuation of the mythological story which tells how the Sámi can find comfort and courage in the living and beating heart of a two-year-old reindeer cow that the Great Creator placed at the middle of the earth at the time when he created the ancestors of the Sámi. Ever since, whenever the Sámi people are in trouble, they can put an ear to the ground and listen for the heartbeats from below. If the heart is still beating, there is still a future for the Sámi people, and whatever problems they have can be solved one way or another.  From the beating of the female reindeer heart deep in the earth there is a connection to the beating of the Sámi drum and to the ancient times when the songs of the people were developed and performed – the songs that tell the story and continue to renew the Sámi people’s belief in the future. (From the liner notes by Harald Gaski to Mari Boine’s CD, Radiant Warmth.)

Sámi tales, like yoiks, also function on several levels, explaining mysterious phenomena through staalu – giants or gufihtar – trolls, but also embodying elements of the pre-Christian past.

Such subtleties of traditional expression are quite accessible in the more sensory media, such as Sámi children’s literature, theater, and film;in contemporary literature the yoik-muitalandándu tradition is still visible but much less accessible to a Western reader.  A fine introduction to Sámi culture and literature might be Ofelaš (1987; Eng.  Pathfinder), a film directed by the Sámi Nils Gaup. The film vividly retells a traditional story of a Sámi who negotiates the boundaries between the known and the unknown in his adventures, pitted against avaricious Chud invaders.

Early Sámi Literature

Until this century, Sámi literature has been largely incidental rather than intentional. In the seventeenth century Olaus Sirma, a Sámi sent to study for the ministry in Uppsala, Sweden collected yoiks, two of which were translated into Latin (Schefferus’s Lapponia, 1673) for an appreciative European audience. Later, Anders Fjellner (1795-1876) collected more Sámi folk poetry, intending to create an epic like the Kalevala, which had helped to spark the Finnish nationalist movement. Although Fjellner never finished the work,  Sámi still think of themselves as “the sons of the sun,” as they are described in the epic ’s creation cycle. Áilu takes this original myth and builds his whole mythic cycle in Beaivi, Áhčážan around the sun as the father, although the actual incidents of marriage to the upper world do not occur. For Áilu, love is an earthly pleasure.

Drawing on this same folk heritage, Isak Saba (1872-192 wrote the Sámi anthem “The Song of the Sámi People,” which ends with a powerful cry for language, land, and identity: “Oh, tough kin of the sun’s sons, /Never shall you be subdued /If you heed your golden Sámi tongue, / Remember the ancestors’ word. /Sámiland for Sámi!” (translated from the Sámi by Ragnar Müller-Wille with Rauna Kuokkanen).

However, Johan Turi (1854-1936) is really the pioneer of modern Sámi literature. His book Muittalus samiid birra: En bog om lappernes live af den svenske Lap (literally A Tale of Sámi Life: A Book of Lapp Life by a Swedish Lapp,1910) was written as a corrective for Swedish bureaucrats who were apt to cultivate false impressions in their ignorance about Sámi life. The original Sámi text flows in long, Joycean sentences,  unencumbered by much punctuation, but subsequent translations such as that by E. Gee Nash in 1966 (Turi’s Book of Lappland) were edited for Western readers as an anthropological text. Vuokko Hirvonen, a Sámi scholar at Sámi Instituhtta, considers Turi’s work to be a narrative, a necessary transitional genre which bridges the distance between the Sámi oral tradition and contemporary Sámi literature. Arguably a work of creative literature, Muittalus samiid birra with its lively stories and detailed drawings has helped many people understand Sámi life, despite the distortions of the Western editions.

Invigorated by the nationalist spirit at the teachers’ college in Jyväskylä, Finland,  Pedar Jalvi (1888-1916) looked homeward to collect Sámi stories and poems (Sabmelaččai maidnasak ja muihtalusak, 1966). Jalvi was among the first to use Sámi as a literary language, publishing at his own expense Muohtačalmmit (The Snowflakes, 1910). This uneven collection of a few poems and stories nevertheless shows great literary potential, snuffed out by Jalvi’s early death from tuberculosis. In the title poem,  single fragile snowflakes melt in the spring to become a river, thus gaining in strength. In “I Run in the Mountains,” the impressionist quality of a yoik is apparent in the few lines evoking the poet’s loss of his childhood: “I run in the mountains, wander on the bare ridges, /I climb the high mountain peaks, /I stroll in the forest looking at the rocks, /I sit there pondering things, and remember /my wonderful childhood days” ((MSP).

Paulus Utsi (1918-75) also has a distinctively quiet voice. His first book of poetry, playfully entitled Giela giela (Snaring the Language, 1974), starts with “The Word,” a poem about the intimate connection between nature and experience: “Whisper into the rock /someone is listening in a hidden place /receives the word /carries it forward /and makes it come true ” (MSP). Utsi’s second, posthumous book of poetry, Giela gielain (Snaring with Language, 1980), emphasizes his support of the emerging Sámi nation and its landscape, protesting more loudly the intrusion of modern technology in nature, and in “The New Mountain Waters.”

Human hands dam up the waters –
the water rises, pushes the Saami out,
reindeer food washed by the water,
cloudberry moors, haying meadows.
The fish has lost its path.

The lake was forced by human hands,
rises under weight and pressure.
Promontories, beaches become islets.
The water washes rock and strand,
the waves wash birch and bushes. (MSP) 

Hans-Aslak Guttorm (1907-92 – http://www.rovaniemi. fi/taide/kirjasto/kirjail/guttorm.htm) also deliberately tried to develop Sámi as a valid literary language and Sámi experience as a valid cultural experience, as in this poem from 1934:

Samekiella, kooekiella,
manne oakak slundadak?
Ale jaskod eadnikiella,
tastgo vieris kielak, mielak tudnje
juo havddi koivvokik,
vaihkke ik leak vela liddom,
eaige urbbik rahpasam. 

Saami speech, golden speech –
Saami speech, golden speech –
Die not, mother tongue of ours,
e’en if foreign words and foreign will
dug their grave for you
ere you ever came to bloom,
ere your bud had opened wide. (MSP)

His first work, Čierru jietna meahcis (A Voice Crying in the Wilderness), written in 1932-33, is an epic poem about searching for a mother tongue;but this work was published only in 1983, near the end of his life. In the collection Koccam spalli (Aroused Like the Wind, 1940), Guttorm praised the Sámi language as a new creative tool, honing his ability with everyday realism to paint powerful, if fleeting visual images.

Contemporary Sámi Literature

The work of early Sámi writers validated Sámi as an effective literary language and expanded the Sámi literary genres to include lyric poetry, short stories, novels, and vigorous new forms like photo essays or music/poetry collages. When asked what particular contribution the Sámi have made to world literature, Sámi poet Kerttu Vuolab is very clear about the importance of the ecology of the Sámi landscape:

It is this world of ours that we live in. Our nature where we live and the knowledge that is thousands of years old that exists in our language. It is definitely an important heritage in the world, a deep wisdom that cannot be allowed to die. (Helander, No Beginning, 53-4)

Sámi literature is flourishing, as in the poetry of Inger-Mari Aikio (1961-), a new strong-voiced Sámi poet. Rauna Kuokkanen, a young Sámi scholar, says that Aikio’s poetry blurs the lines between humankind and nature (personal communication, spring 1996): “She does not have to step into nature from the outside; she is already there.  Closeness to nature and Sáminess intertwine;nature is the everyday life she lives.” This connection is visible in the following lyric from Gollebiekkat almmi dieva (Skyful of Golden Clouds, 1989), where a human deliberately violates nature. The pain caused by this act is like a red wave, like blood from a wound. This visceral pain of nature is something we can ignore, although we cannot help but sense it.

juddasmeahttun giehta
gaikkoda soahkelastta.
rukses barrun.
oasazat gahccet eatnamii
isket najmmat goiki suonaide
beaivvasa dalkkodan suolnni

thoughtless hand
rips off a birch leaf.
like a red wave.
little shreds fall to the earth
trying to such into their drying veins
nature ’s healing dew
(translated by Rauna Kuokkanen with K. O. Dana)

Only nature can cure – or try to cure – nature. Aikio’s nature imagery and her subdued lyric voice can be traced to the yoik tradition.

Olavi Paltto, a journalist in the Finnish and Sámi press, in his first book of short stories, Juohkásan várri (Divided Fells, 1995), focuses on issues of immigration,  rootlessness, and recovering identities that are central to contemporary Sámi experience.  Päivi Alanen, in her review of 2 June 1995 for the northern Finland newspaper Lapin kansa (The People of Lapland), admires Paltto’s ability to examine conflicts between old and new with cynical exactitude and psychological precision, often through human interaction with nature – another theme prevalent in Sámi literature.

Kirsti Paltto (1947-) is a prolific writer with a remarkable range of genres, her production extending from stories to political tracts to radio dramas to poetry to children’s stories. Perhaps her most important work is what may be the Sámi epic novel,  including Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot (Let Our Reindeer Graze Free, 1987) and its sequel Guržo luottat [difficult to translate exactly, in Finnish Juokse nyt, naailin poika (Run Now, Son of Njalla); in German Zeichen der Zerstörung (Tracks of Destruction), 1991), an intended trilogy describing Sámi life in Finnish Lapland from before World War II. The books follow siida (village) life, focusing mostly on the family of Johanas, who is eight and has to go off to school when the story starts and is fourteen when the war ends and Lapland is being evacuated. These are old-fashioned novels, not of the individual but of a Sámi community in particular, and even the Sámi nation. Paltto’s novels have been compared, with cause, to Väinö Linna’s epic trilogy about Finland ’s emergence as a nation, Täällä pohjantähden alla (Here Under the North Star, 1959-62) .

Paltto is very skilled at detailed descriptions of domestic and social life and of reindeer herding, and she provides a convincing portrait of the period when Sámi culture underwent its most significant changes. The conversational tone of the book and the excellent dialogue between the various characters enlarge on the Turi narrative tradition.

Áilu, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, is the undisputed master of many crafts – yoiks and jazz, poetry and photography, book design and cultural organization – with a master storyteller’s fine sense of audience, able to embrace his own people while simultaneously universalizing the expression of the experience.

Sámi literature deserves our ongoing attention as Sámi authors claim their culture and construct Sápmi, their homeland without borders. We can learn a great deal from this small fox, which knows how to embody nature, incorporate traditional knowledge, and span genres and eras. Perhaps the most difficult problem in contemporary Sámi literature is the absence of native critical organs and theories. In at least three instances, where Sámi scholars have attempted critical analyses of Sámi literature, they have had to do incredible amounts of translation, editing, and publishing simply to creative the critical mass of materials needed for comparison and analysis. Through sheer descriptive powers,  Hirvonen, Lehtola, and Gaski have formulated important bodies of materials, which form fundamental bases for further analysis. In a personal communication, Harald Gaski from the University of Tromsø laments the problems he is facing in providing a Sámi interpretation of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s Beaivi, Áhčážan: “[I ]n my analysis I’m trying to take the Sámi rhetoric about our own understanding seriously, thus relying on a so-called Sámi reading of Áilu …" (Gaski, e-mail, 15 Oct 1999.


Kuokkanen, who has studied culture in Canada with feminists and postmodernists, says that now Sámi literature needs its own critical constructs.  Stimulating and illuminating as modern critical theories are for minority literatures, she is nevertheless reminded of an asphalt jungle. In her mind, Sámi literature needs its own criticism as well as its own literature, one that is reminiscent of the winds on the high fells, organic and unstructured, a literature recognizing the might of nature and human connectedness to nature. Like Johan Turi, we may need to go high up in the fells to truly appreciate the beauty of the Sámi language and its literature.