Sámi Literature - An Indigenous Voice in a Modern-day World

Written by Harald Gaski

While other nations talk about how readers seek out books, it is often the case in Sámi contexts that the book seeks out the reader. The main challenge for Sámi literature has long been how to develop an oral culture so that it values written products.

Ceavccageađgi (Northern Sami) or Transteinen (Norwegian) in Mortensnes in Finnmark. Photo: Sametinget

The Sámi definition of literature

Sámi has a broader definition of literature than, for example, Norwegian or English. The North Sámi term for literature is girjjálašvuohta, which comes from girji; i.e. something that has a pattern or something that is written (like a letter or a book). This gives far greater scope for an inclusive definition of what Sámi literature can encompass and include, and hence it is quite natural for both joiks (a vocal genre used for a lot of musical expressions in Sámi) and stories to be included as examples of Sámi literature. Perhaps the time has come to break down some of the boundaries of genres and the limitations these impose on Sámi literature. One may use Sámi designations as a basis for definitions rather than attempt to force Sámi forms of representation into rigid literary concepts, which often have their origin in completely different cultural conditions than those from which the Sámi concepts are derived. This is in keeping with the latest tendencies in the research and education of indigenous peoples, as the indigenous peoples’ own understanding is currently undergoing a change from the colonial perception, when everything was measured against the yardstick of the majority society and the perspective of western culture.

Sámi literature holds a special position internationally, compared with the situation of other indigenous peoples. Most of the literature produced and published in the indigenous peoples’ own language is found in Sápmi (the region inhabited by the Sámi people) – and Greenland. This is, of course, due to relatively good national support systems, and to a conscious investment in language policy by the Sámi cultural institutions themselves, as well as by the Norwegian and Danish authorities. In other countries, it is the market that rules, which, consequently, means that practically the only opportunity of publicising the texts of indigenous peoples is by writing and publishing them in the majority language. In New Zealand, where the Maoris make up almost 15% of the country’s total population, some literature is published in Maori, but it is primarily children’s literature, in addition to publications of traditional stories. In other countries, publications by indigenous peoples tend to be supported chiefly by various charitable foundations and research projects. In most cases, this relates to folkloric materials.

The revitalisation of Sámi cultural activity from the 1970s onwards

The revitalisation of Sámi literature in the 1970s was influenced by the international trend from the end of the 1960s, when oppressed groups of peoples arose with renewed dignity and demanded rights on an equal footing with the majority population. Indigenous peoples everywhere made their voices heard as they attained power and self-awareness. In Sápmi, the battle for the Alta-Kautokeino waterway in Norway around 1980 and the resistance to hydroelectricity constructions in northern Sweden and Finland in the decades prior to this had a strong mobilising effect on both art and politics. Several Sámi artists emerged with a clear ethnic, cultural and political message. This mobilisation also led to the gradual establishment of Sámi cultural and educational institutions, and to popularly elected bodies in all three Nordic countries.

We are currently experiencing a new wave of socially-engaged art and artists. This has happened in parallel with far greater focus being placed internationally on decolonisation and emphasis on the intrinsic value of the cultures of indigenous peoples. In recent years we have experienced an engagement that has once again brought Sámi art, film, theatre and music to the forefront as a unifying factor in the fight for greater self-determination. What had long been a search for roots has developed into an accentuation of the common message of indigenous peoples that the wisdom and traditions of these cultures should be heeded in order to save humanity. Western culture is built on the mantra that nature must be conquered, and in the attempt to exploit all resources, the indigenous peoples got in the way of development and were defined as a part of what had to be suppressed. It is against this development that artists are raising their voices - and being joined by larger and larger parts of the population.

The new issues that Sámi culture brought to the public 20 to 30 years ago have in many ways continued on a purely artistic level. Sámi music is perhaps the most important example of international success, not just as the art of indigenous peoples, but also as an accepted part of world music. Sámi film has experienced a very exciting development in recent years, with international viewings and prizes, and Sámi theatre productions have toured nationally as well as internationally. Sámi art is represented both at home and abroad, more recently with very positive recognition during Documenta 14 in Athens and also Kassel in 2017. In many respects literature has had a more difficult starting point than other forms of art. Before it can reach out into the world, it has to be translated, and there are currently few translators and even fewer support systems for translation from Sámi languages into Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or other languages.

The key position of language

Language is important as our most vital means of communication. It tells others a lot about who we are and how we want to be understood, it goes a long way in defining our identity, but it also represents a tremendous reservoir of knowledge, values and world views. As far as the Sámi languages are concerned, there is often little interest in their means of expression, idioms and forms of communication, and more in grammar, syntax, orthography and language technology. Traditional Sámi expressions are being replaced by loaned phrases. This is also a part of the process of Norwegianization, while, on the other hand, it reflects the general development of how language changes along with culture. Among the Sámi, language has acquired an increasingly important symbolic value as an expression of Sámi identity. This is partly because the Sámi do not have as many other traditions and ceremonies as other indigenous peoples, and hence the joik and language are what have helped to bind us together. They are also the media we have presented to the outside world as our most important cultural values. This accounts to some extent for the language’s key position among the Sámi - something which is also reflected in the Sámi Parliaments’ efforts to preserve and develop all of the Sámi languages in the Nordic region. Literature and teaching aids have played a key role in these efforts over recent decades.

The support systems of the Sámi Parliaments for the promotion of literature in a broad definition of the concept have mostly worked according to their objective: to contribute to an increased publication level of Sámi literature in the Sámi languages. The Sámi Parliament of Norway has had more resources at its disposal than the Sámi Parliaments of Sweden and Finland. The motivation behind this cultural and political gamble has not only been to preserve the language, but also to give all authors from different geographical areas and different age groups the opportunity to get their works published. If the support has not always been based exclusively on qualitative assessments, it has nevertheless helped to maintain a rather impressive frequency of publication of original Sámi-language texts in North, Lule and South Sámi.

Quatercentenary year 2019

2019 marks the 400-year anniversary for book publications in Sámi. The first two books in Sámi, an ABC book and a book of Masses, were published in 1619. Both were printed in Sweden and written in a mixture of Pite Sámi and South Sámi. In 2019 Norway is the Guest of Honour Country at the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the largest book fairs in the world, which should provide opportunities to create awareness of Sámi literature.

Very little of Sámi literature has so far been translated into other languages. Translations and presentations of Sámi literature are key to making the literature more familiar to foreign readers. This also goes for translations into Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish, but for the international market, it is a matter of reaching out even further. There is a great need for translations of Sámi classics and contemporary prose and lyrical works in Sámi, as well as non-fiction. As far as the classics are concerned, they deserve to be published both in their original form and as edited editions, where the texts are presented in a cultural context and completed with the necessary information for the modern reader, to make the experience of the books even richer - and to link the past with the present and future.

In this regard, it is with great pleasure that we can announce that two separate volumes of Sami literature will be launched in connection with the Frankfurt Book Fair this year: one anthology in Sámi original and German translation on classic and contemporary Sami poetry, titled From Joik to Rap, and another anthology in English of Sami prose and poetry, titled Myths, Tales, and Poetry from Four Centuries of Sami Literature.

Harald Gaski is Professor in Sámi Culture and Literature at UiT The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø.

Sámi literatureSami