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Sami Journal

The Sami world-view

By Mávnos (Joey Mellott)

From the first day of class, viewing the film Pathfinder, certain particularities of the Sami view of life came to the forefront. The Sami are an indigenous culture situated in Northern Scandinavia, mostly in Norway, with a particular way of life unlike the Europeans around them, much closer in comparison with certain Native American tribes. To partially understand the clash between Western/European settlers and the Sami and enlighten discussion of this unique people, a close examination of the distinctive perspective the Sami hold is necessary, as in several key conceptual areas the Sami lie in direct contradiction with Western thought.

            The most obvious difference stems from religious beliefs. The Sami originally practiced a shamanistic religion, wherein every animal had a spirit and the Sami shaman, the noiadi, conversed with these spirits and used their help to travel in the spirit world. An intimate connection between all things in life was stressed. Rather than a dualistic heaven/hell dichotomy, the Sami believed that life continued after death as it had in life, with reindeer hunting, gathering, and other daily activities remaining the primary focus of activity. Certain sacred places were said to be the homes of these Sami after death. Also, the Sami followed a polytheistic belief system, worshiping many gods and goddesses whose provincial realms corresponded remarkably with what was relevant to maintain existence: ground, sky, hearth, childbirth, hunt, individual animal species, et al.

            This spiritual perspective led to a disparity in the Sami and Western view of nature. Unlike most Europeans, who saw the natural world as something to be conquered by the progress of man’s technological superiority, the Sami thought of themselves as a part of nature, not so different from the birds of the sky and the reindeer and wolves of the earth. The ramifications of this view entail that nature is to be treated with respect and reverence: all parts of a hunted animal are used, killing an animal must always be followed by some sort of sacrifice to please the animal’s spirit, and indiscriminate exploitation of animals for profit is discouraged. These views make sense in part because the Sami do not have a tradition akin to the Western philosophical tradition of Plato and Descartes, which separates the mind from the body, and in essence separates culture from nature.

             This cohesion felt between all living things in the Sami mythos had other interesting effects. Land was “owned” by all who used it collectively. This applied to animals as well as Sami; certain lands were recognized as reindeer grazing or spawning grounds and were reserved by all for that purpose. Also, the Sami noiadis believed certain animal spirits acted as their guides in journeys through the different worlds: birds were their guides in the spirit world, fish or snakes went into the underworld for them, and reindeer helped them in spiritual battles. As living beings endowed with spirits, animals were not seen as mere creatures existing solely to be exploited by man, a view the Judeo-Christian world-view promotes, especially in the second story of Creation as told in Genesis.

            The Sami also had a different model of knowledge than the West, based closely again on the principles of utility and relevance, as applied to their lives and religious beliefs. The Sami language, as Nils Jernsletten points out, is structured heavily around aspects of the environment (snow, landscapes, reindeer, seals) that were most relevant to day-to-day survival. With various special suffixes, words with the same root could have drastically different meanings or have subtleties indistinguishable to outsiders. Other phenomenon, such as the gods and goddesses, spirits and social units, had words devoted to them as well, but certain other things, such as songbirds, were not even in the vocabulary. This seems to mean that language served a primarily utilitarian function. Granted, all languages in some way seem to serve a secondary purpose in the preservation of a unique and localized cultural perspective. The yoik captures this cultural perseverance aspect of the language, and will be covered in a separate section (see below). Knowledge and language were not something gleaned from hours of tedious class work and study; they were learned through use. An older Sami would apprentice a younger one and the elder would teach the younger words and skills that were intimately linked together. In this exchange, knowledge, experience based knowledge, would be passed on. The Western model puts theory, not empirical observation, as the object of language. On this the Sami differ noticeably with Westerners.

            Finally, the Sami have an alternate model of time to the West. The European view is that time progresses in a manner directly measurable and linear. In other words, time progresses infinitely from some indefinite point A to another indefinite point B. Units of time are finite sections of this line. The Sami see time as a never-ending continuum of cycles. The year, with its various seasonal changes, was the basis of their time system, but rather than a quantitative measure of days, weeks, months, et al, the Sami calendar was based on natural changes, like the reindeer’s migration patterns and weather. Thus the Sami did not understand the rigidity of Western time, where everything must have a beginning and an end.

The yoik

            The yoik is the Sami’s main poetic and musical form. Many of the perceived “qualities” of poetry in the Western tradition do not apply to the yoik, nor do the conventions of song. The missionaries who went to Sapmi to convert the Sami grossly misunderstood the yoik as a tool to call on Satan’s powers, and this led to its eventual prohibition under European rule. The Sami’s persistence in using the yoik led to an eventual renaissance and reemergence of the art in the late 20th century.

            The yoik held a complex place in traditional Sami culture. Yoiks were usually created on the spot and started abruptly. This leads Ánde Somby, a researcher at the University of Tromsø, to believe that the yoik was a considerable offense to European ears, in that it both lacked the “beginning, middle, end” structure they were used to, but also any sort of “Euclidean symmetry” that a circular model might suggest. Yet some yoiks were given to others, such as sons or daughters, as part of their acceptance in the siida, and landscapes and animals were similarly “given” yoiks. The noiadi also used yoik in order to reach the trance-states necessary for their travels into the spiritual worlds. These noiadis also used yoiks to perform certain feats such as healing and prophecy. This influenced, in part, the missionary reaction to the yoik.

            When the European missionaries encountered the Sami and their yoik music, they reacted in a manner consistent with past behavior, rejecting it as evil, along with the noiadi. Christianity, with its all-encompassing meta-narrative and strict social-normative sanctions, assaulted the religious traditions of the Sami. The colonizers tried to replace the yoik with hymns, but stubborn Sami kept this custom from dying out. The yoik transformed. The Sami, realizing that the Europeans were slowly learning their language and trying to trap them with it, intertwined double-meanings into their yoiks. They became an underhanded way to resist their colonizers. The Sami had never endorsed violence as a means of achieving political goals, and their use of the yoik to secretly voice their political dissent seems a unique and creative use of the limited resources at their disposal.

            In the later 20th century, the yoik underwent another transformation. As the Sami began to gain credence as a political force and an indigenous culture, the yoik became again a part of personal identity. Yoiking became an important skill to furthering the Sami cause. Yoik transformed into the basis for all Sami poetry, much as Sami duodji influenced the development of Sami daidda. Nils Aslak Valkeapää’s Trekways of the Wind and much of the poetry found in the compilation In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun seems to follow the yoik tradition, or is at least influenced by this cultural heritage. Mari Boine and Wimme Saari both exhibit the different and various directions that yoik influence has brought into the world music scene. From the variety of the yoiks presented in this class, the form seems destined to lead to new artistic experiments both within and outside of Sapmi.


            Laila Stien’s Antiphony seems to be the best literary work we covered that best conveys the complexity of the modern Sami situation. “Antiphony” in itself is a metaphor for communication, being the responses sung by the chorus before and after a character’s song. These antiphonies seem to affect the tone of the song they precede and follow in unique ways. Similarly, the nameless narrator’s story is affected by her communications with the three main Sami characters in the story.

            The first part of the novel, “The Blue Room” focuses on the Norwegian narrators interactions with an old Sami whose husband has already died. The deep-seated influence of Christianity in modern Sami life can be felt through many of this old woman’s statements; the variety of Biblical quotations and invocations to God make her faith seem solidly based. But through the narrative the reader discovers the story of her lost daughter and her husband’s reaction, seemingly sacrificing the reindeer at a siedi, which brings instability to this simplistic picture. Certain aspects of the old Sami religious ways had survived the process of Norwegianization. The woman’s reminders to the narrator that she had trouble speaking in a “foreign language” remind the reader constantly that Norwegian is not her native tongue, Sami is. Even though this woman seems to have been successfully assimilated, clues to her cultural heritage constantly pop up for the reader to encounter.

            The woman’s niece in “The Yellow One” brings new problems into the narrator’s treatment of the Sami. She toils in a position that, because reindeer herding had become a profession, was looked down on as women’s work. In this way, the narrator and the reader come to a weak understanding that the European colonization brought a new imbalance between men and woman that had not existed before the switch from hunter/gather economy to a herd/agricultural economy. Along with Christianity’s views on women (often derogatory), this new inequality between the sexes further distanced the Sami from their traditional culture, in which both could be siida elders or noiadi. The niece seems somewhat in line with the cultural renaissance of the Sami after World War II, as she is constantly sewing traditional Sami costumes and duodji for others (including others of her family) to use. Her husband’s alcoholism brings to light another of the effects of colonization, exposure to alcohol nothing like the Sami were used to, and its contribution to the decline of the Sami way of life. The narrator seems to have trouble facing some of these harsh realities.

            The niece’s daughter, the focus of “And the Red One”, introduces a couple of new elements into the equation. Like the old woman in the first part, the daughter seems mostly assimilated into Norwegian society in her manner of dress and occupation (she is a student in Oslo). However, certain information complicates such a simplistic picture of her. First of all, she intends to study Norwegian culture for her graduate work, illustrating the strategy of “bi-cultural competence” that Harald Gaski thinks is vitally important for the Sami to survive in modern culture. Moreover, her reluctance to discuss her culture to the Norwegian narrator indicates a degree of distrust of outsiders, and of some knowledge not meant to be passed on to outsiders. This seems to indicate a separate Sami culture still exists outside of the Norwegian mindset.

            Pervading the whole narrative is the narrator’s sense of exploring something inexplicable. She feels constantly like an outsider, and in some ways is guilty for the situation of the Sami, being a direct beneficiary of the Norwegian colonization of Scandinavia. She thinks that she is following the footsteps of countless others, exploiting the Sami’s misery for her own personal gain. This makes her, in an unconscious way, almost more of a problem for the Sami than even the Norwegian government and it’s stalling on the Sami’s demands. The Sami seem ashamed to talk in a totally open manner to her, as if they hold some secrets they feel are better left untold to other Scandinavians. In this complex swirl of exploitation and repression, a more troubling picture of the current Sami situation arises that brought me, as a reader, to a new awareness of the myriad of difficulties the Sami seem to face culturally and psychically.

Sami Education Today

            Education is a major concern of current Sami activists. The Norwegianization of the Sami in Norwegian language-only boarding schools created a major rift between the Sami traditions and language children would learn at home and the Western knowledge and ideas they would learn at school. This rift would eventually lead to many Sami falling away from their parents’ cultural heritage and completely assimilate. Sami activists believe that this is a major step backwards in the fight for indigenous rights.

            The stakes for Sami education are bluntly illustrated in Ellen Marie Vars “Boarding School.” The protagonist is abused continuously by both the Norwegian children and other Samis, the latter because her family did not own reindeer. Even the teachers and other adults in the situation did not help Kátjá, although they clearly were aware that she was being hit and kicked by other children. The tear from traditional life not only isolates Kátjá, but along with the constant violence she becomes hardened and violent herself. One can see that this type of evasive, Norwegian-only schooling had debilitating effects not only on the individual psyches of the students but also on the morale of the Sami as a whole.

The first-generation Sami advocates propositioned bi-cultural competence as a way of making the Sami case for more, well, Sami language education. Bi-cultural competence required one to master the languages and cultures of not only the Sami but also the surrounding Norwegian culture. By doing this, one could better make arguments on behalf of the Sami as a unique indigenous culture, different in many ways from Norwegians and worthy of consideration. Through bi-cultural competence, it was argued, the Sami could turn the Norwegian’s language against them. This seems like a good strategy considering the limited financial resources of the movement and their limited popular support at the time.

            Language seems especially important to Sami education because, as Paulus Utsi and other Sami artists seem to understand, a vital part of the Sami identity stems from their language. Not only because Sami seems to be both a difficult and rich language, especially in describing nature and environmental states, but also because the language was, in a sense, something that the Norwegian colonizers could not take from them. As Paulus Utsi’s title Ensnare the Language suggests, Sami culture is aware that their language was turned into a liability when Europeans took over Scandinavia. Now they saw an opportunity to use this very “handicap” as a cultural banner and a political weapon. Thus teaching those Sami who have lost their “native” language is an important step to viable Sami independence.

Through the 1970’s and especially after the Alta affair, more and more primary and secondary schools where Sami was the main language spoken appeared. These state-funded schools gave the Sami an opportunity to learn in their own language (as well as learn Norwegian). Unlike the boarding schools, students were not punished for speaking in Sami or being Sami. These schools gave the Sami better access to the financial and educational opportunities that the Norwegian culture and government could provide them. More Sami began to enter higher education. Jan Keskitalo points out some of the problems these swelling numbers of Sami university students created. If the Sami were to have their own colleges, should these be instruments to further the creation of a unique separate Sami culture and knowledge base? The answer seems to be yes.

            The Sami, as an indigenous people, have special needs that the current higher education system in Norway cannot fully address. Part of the problem stems from the limited interest in offering only the humanities as a subject to pursue for those interested in the Sami. With their alternative ways of learning and definitions of knowledge, resource management and ecology seem even more relevant as specialized sectors in higher education of interest to the Sami. As more specialized “vocational” training becomes available to the Sami in their native lands, the more education can become an effective tool to maintain not only their unique knowledge of nature but also their language and culture.

Final Entry

            The Sami are of small numbers, usually estimated as 50,000 or so, but their culture and heritage has much to tell the world at large. Their story can teach the West about tolerance of others, especially those whose world-views contradict or oppose the standard model of the West, the marriage of Christianity with science and capitalism.

            The Sami never went to war against their colonial oppressors. Yet in the years since WWII they have carved for themselves a cultural space in which they can thrive. The reasons for this success are many. The Sami never expressed intolerance of others based on their religion or ideology; they simply understood others as different from them and let them do whatever they felt as right. This seems incredibly long-sighted, a precursor to multi-cultural tolerance, an “I’m okay, you’re okay” view of the world that seems non-judgmental and yet perceives every culture as unique and worthy of existence. The Christian and Norwegian trespassers (let’s face it, the Sami were in the region first) did not extend this courtesy to the Sami, and the long-term effects this has had on the Sami’s place as a culture will probably never be completely understood. The Sami now demand what they see as theirs: a space of their own, both physical and psychical. As an American, I see this approach as instructive in the United States’ treatment of Native American peoples; they should have all the rights of other Americans and yet be given certain considerations to foster and maintain their unique heritage. The Sami never ask the Norwegians to leave, but to understand.

            Unlike ranchers and factory farmers, the Sami have an intimate connection to the land and animals around them. Such a relationship creates a very different view of the environment than the traditional “tame the wild beast” perspective that Western culture has indoctrinated for millennia. The Sami never seek to conquer nature, but rather to co-exist with it and use it in a way beneficial to both man and nature. Reindeer herders keep in mind the natural cycle of reindeer migration and allow their animals to continue this. Factory farmers treat the animals in them as mere products to use and consume at whim, considerations for the animals are non-existent. The difference in these two perspectives is balance. The Sami seem to share a stronger connection with nature than the West. This connection allows from them to think of animals, whether in their herds or wild, as brothers in a sense, and as deserving respect. Rivers are alive, not mere tools to be dammed for hydroelectric power. With the sprawl of modern cities and rampant over-population, America would do well to heed the Sami’s ideas. Imbalance will only lead to misery and death for both man and animal in the end.

            Modern writers often talk of the alienation rampant in the Western world. Man is no longer connected with something outside of himself. Cold, calculating science and faceless capitalism are the contemporary ruling regimes. The Sami show an alternate path. All things are linked together in a sacred web, and disturbance of one member of the web disrupts the whole. This perspective could re-light the spiritual values of the West. Unlike Christianity, where staid, ritual worship of a distant god is encouraged, along with adherence to many not spiritual but ancient cultural sanctions, the Sami see life as a continuum. Would poverty and disease be looked upon with the same disdain if those suffering were viewed as brothers and sisters, part of the same network as us and worthy of attention? I think not. Would profit at all costs be the order of the day if the value of human suffering entered the equation? Again, I doubt it. In some ways, Sami spirituality and the values connected with it would call into question modernity itself. The colonization and forced Christianizing of the Sami certainly seem evidence of this point.

            Yet Sami culture lives. Major musicians use the yoik as a musical form in new and exciting ways. At the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, the Sami showed the world they survived, as well as the validity of their art, theater and culture. The University of Tromsø, as well as other major Norwegian universities, has a department of Sami language and literature. The Sami have their own mass media, consisting of newspapers, magazines, publishing firms, radio stations and TV stations and programs. Sami writers are translated not only into Norwegian and Swedish but English, and the Sami serve a prominent role in the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. Sami children are now taught in Sami rather than Norwegian. The Sami will not die and have a right to survive, to their language and perspective. From their story, we can learn and alter the course of ours.