Sámi literature

Sámi literature is both new and old at the same time. 2019 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the first book in Sámi, which was published in Piteå, in Sweden. It was an alphabet book in a mixture of Pite Sámi and Ume Sámi, two of the lesser-used Sámi languages, of which there are ten in total. Northern Sámi has the largest number of speakers, and approximately three quarters of Sámi literary publications are in that language.

Sámi literature is national, Nordic, and international in its nature, since the borders between Norway, Sweden, and Finland are no major obstacles to cross-border Sámi co-operation. As a result, it is not uncommon for Sámi publishing houses based in Norway to publish books written by Sámi in other countries. In fact, until Russia cut down on the opportunities for collaboration between Russia and other states, a number of children’s books written by Russian Sámi authors were also published in Norway. Since the Sámi are an indigenous people, there is also a natural global interest in their literature as part of the world’s indigenous literatures, which underlines the importance of translating Sámi literature into a variety of world languages. At present there are relatively few translations of Sámi literature, and only a couple of anthologies. By the time of the Frankfurter Buchmesse in 2019, new anthologies of Sámi prose and poetry will be available in both English and German.

Nils-Aslak Valkepää, Photo: Seppo Paakkunainen
Johan Turi

The three most important books by Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943–2001), winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize for 1991, can be found in English translation: Trekways of the Wind, followed by The Sun, My Father, and The Earth, My Mother. Of these, Trekways has also been published in French, while German translations have been prepared of both Trekways and The Sun, but have not yet been published. The first book written by a Sámi author, Johan Turi’s Muitalus sámiid birra (1910), has recently been translated and published in English under the title An Account of the Sámi (2011). Both Valkeapää and Turi were interested in Sámi traditions, and they used Sámi forms of expression in new and innovative ways: Valkeapää did this with poetry inspired by joik (the traditional music of the Sámi, a vocal genre), modernism, and indigenous aesthetics, while Turi wrote folkloristic essays at the boundaries between oral storytelling and literary presentation.

Máret Ánne Sara, Photo: Matti Aikio

Beyond these texts, very little Sámi literature has been translated to other languages, which makes it more difficult to reach out to the world, compared to the success that Sámi music and art have both experienced in recent decades. Máret Ánne Sara (1983–) is one of the new multimedia voices from Sápmi (the region inhabited by the Sámi). Her debut book, the young-adult novel Ilmmiid gaskkas (2013) (In Between Worlds, 2014), was nominated for the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize in 2014. This book is the first of a planned trilogy in which Sámi reindeer herding and traditional Sámi views come into conflict with the wider society’s growing need for land, including traditional pastures, for various kinds of development. Máret Ánne Sara is also an established visual artist and has been represented at several international exhibitions, including at documenta 14, with her sculpture Pile o’ Sápmi.

Another Sámi trilogy worth mentioning – albeit one that has not yet been translated in its entirety to any other language – is Jovnna-Ánde Vest’s Árbbolaccat (1996–2005) (The Heirs). It portrays the arrival of a new era in a small Sámi settlement by the Tana River, in northern Finland, from the aftermath of the Second World War to the 1970s. The reality depicted is local, but the themes of the books are global, not least those dealing with changes in conversational forms and social interaction. Vest’s use of dialogue to convey his message is masterful. Kirsti Paltto (1947–) has also written a trilogy of novels, the first of which was nominated for the Finlandia Prize in 1986. That book, Guhtoset dearvan min bohccot (Let Our Reindeer Graze Free), is another depiction of the beginning of a new era in Sápmi and has been translated into German as Mögen meine Rentiere gesund werden. Paltto’s literary output is the most rounded of any Sámi writer, and most Sámi authors write across several genres.

Synnøve Persen, Photo: Susanne Hætta

Among the most prolific Sámi lyric poets are Rauni Magga Lukkari (1943–), Synnøve Persen (1950–), Rose-Marie Huuva (1943–), Inger-Mari Aikio (1961–), Niillas Holmberg (1990–), and Sigbjørn Skåden (1976–). Skåden has also written a novel in Norwegian, Våke over dem som sover (2014) (Watch Over Those Who Sleep), which deals with power and injustice on many levels, from historic times to the present. Niillas Holmberg’s collection of poems The Way Back (2016) is inspired by his studies at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, in northern India. In this collection, he explores the connection between the Buddhist faith and traditional ideas of the Sámi.

Mari Boine, Photo: Gregor Hohenberg

Musicians such as Mari Boine (1956–), Niko Valkeapää (1968–), and Sofia Jannok (1982–) have used Sámi poetry in their musical production. Sámi hip-hop, rap, and slam poetry performed by artists such as Áilu Valle (1985–) and Amoc (Mikkâl Antti Morottaja, 1984–), Timimie Märak (1991–), and Ánná Káisá Partapuoli (1995–) represent new opportunities for Sámi poetry to reach out to new users. These new forms of expression are entirely in keeping with the Sámi traditions of joik and storytelling, both of which have always depended on listeners, so these are natural steps in the development of Sámi literature today and into the future.

Text about Sámi literature by Harald Gaski, translated by Guy Puzey.

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