What Goes Around Comes Around:
Sámi Time and Indigeneity
As Europe’s only indigenous people the Sámi have an unusual history that differs markedly from those of other aboriginal societies. The Sámi are the most studied indigenous people on Earth. They did not write about themselves, for theirs was mainly an oral culture until the early twentieth century. Fortunately, these exotic people fascinated Europeans. Tacitus, a Roman historian, described the Fenni – as he called them – in his Germania at the end of the first century C.E.: “Yet they think it happier so than to groan over field labour, be cumbered with building houses (1970:213).” They are often mentioned in Viking age literature. The Icelandic legal codex Grágás “wild goose,” an oral document until the twelfth century, speaks about the settlement of disputes. The party who breaks an agreement “shall be an outcast … as ever … Christians come to church, heathens hallow temples, … sun shines, snow drifts, Lapp skis …” in other words, forever [Lapp was an old ethnonym for the Sámi] (Kristjánsson 1988:119). Swedish Archbishop Olaus Magnus traveled throughout Scandinavia and his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus “History of the Northern People” published in 1555 has a number of chapters on the Sámi (then called Lapps) including illustrations. Lapponia “The History of Lapland” from 1673 is the finest early work on the Sámi, in part because Sámi informants were used. It was written by Johannes Schefferus, a professor at the University of Uppsala, at the behest of Swedish officials to dispel rumors that the Swedish armies were employing Sámi sorcerers to gain victory in the European wars of the 17th century.
Yet despite this long history of contact, the Sámi preserve an indigenous identity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Sámi relationship to time. Sámi time today is much closer to typical Western linear time than to the cyclical time found among many Native American groups such as the Hopi. How did the Sámi concept of time develop, and why is it so different from that of other aboriginal cultures? To answer these questions I will touch on the history of thought about time; examine how cyclical time functioned in ancient societies; see how linear (Western) time evolved; look at the development of Sámi time from the prehistoric period to the present, utilizing archaeological, genetic and linguistic data; discuss traces of cyclical time in contemporary Sámi culture; and, finally, present some thoughts about indigenousness.
Thinking about time
In 397 C.E. St. Augustine wrote these oft-quoted lines: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know (397:Book XI, Chapter 14).” Ethnologists, philosophers, psychologists, scientists and others have offered central models. To mention just a few of the enigmas: 1) Is phase-time (past, present and future) or succession-time (earlier, later) primary. Eva Brann summarizes these models respectively as “the triptych” (a triple-paneled picture with a small Now at the center) and “the passing point” (a point on a line moving inexorably forward) (1999:161). 2) How are time, memory and perception related to each other? How do we recall material from the past, material with a specific link to the past (your wedding on a rainy day some years ago) vs. material acquired in the past but no longer having a relationship to a past time (words learned long ago)? 3 How can something change yet stay the same? (Lestienne 1990:x-xiii) A living or inanimate object, in a way, preserves its identity over time, thus bringing into play the contradictory notions of permanence and change. 4) Is time unidirectional? Can time’s arrow be reversed? Quantum mechanics thinks so (Coveny 1990:23).
First of all, we need to understand that time (temporality) is a construct of the human consciousness or soul. There is no time to be observed in the external world, in nature. External time is, in fact, usually noted as motion. Internal time, though, requires that we perceive an external physical and social world, and our only real contact with that world is the present moment – the Now and Here, the “window onto the real world” (Brann 1999:203) or the “moment of fully activated existence, the intersection of consciousness and world” (Brann 1999:175). The past is the realm of memory and the future the realm of anticipation, with the future being the least “real” of the phases. Perception is a process that takes place over a series of Now moments, or as Donald Ferrari puts it, “past phases that have left the present moment but remain actual as part of a currently unfolding process” (2001:169).
Time is not only seen as phases, it is also understood as duration or span of time. Most of the units of time are durational (year, month, week, day, etc.). Brann, for whom phase-time is primary, writes: “Thus duration, temporal distance, stretch-time, falls out from beat- or pulse- or succession-time” (1999:209). And it is this beat-time that brings us to the idea of cyclical time. Let me now summarize some of the most important issues in time consciousness.
1. Cyclical time
A number of theories have been put forward to explain the origin of cyclical time. Internal time-telling may have as its source awareness of a beat or rhythm, especially when nothing is happening, for example, the beating of the heart or other body processes (Brann 1999:206). The three most important external cycles observed in nature by ancient peoples may also play roles: the circadian, derived from the 24-hour succession of day and night; the circ-annual, reflecting the yearly movement of the sun from north to south and back; and the circa-lunar. Edward T. Hall writes: “in the beginning there was time and all time was periodic and rhythmic. As life evolved, the external cycles became internalized and took on lives of their own” (Hall 1983:17).
According to Mircea Eliade early societies were reassured by such repetitive experiences, “cosmico-mythological lunar conceptions” (1971:89). The past was kept alive; creation was a quantity that had to be renewed. In this sense, then, our ancestors did not distinguish between past and present. Our ancestors experienced cyclical birth, death and rebirth by perceiving it all around them in nature.
This cyclical conception of life can be seen today among certain indigenous groups such as Native Americans. Writing about Plains Indian philosophy Leroy Little Bear says: “The idea of all things being in constant motion or flux leads to a holistic and cyclical view of the world. It results in a concept of time that is dynamic but without motion. Time is part of the constant flux, but goes nowhere. Time just is” (2000:78). The conceptual space is mirrored elsewhere in the culture (e.g. Hopi). There is no preoccupation with defining what time is; Native American languages generally do not have a word for time. In consequence, aboriginal languages are usually verb-rich and process-oriented. They tend to describe what is happening rather than end objects. For example, pueblo dances do not begin at an appointed time but only when things are ready. The Navajo were diligent workers but had no interest in “future” rewards because the future was not real for them (Hall 1983:28).
2. Units of time
For our purposes we will look at just three time units: the month, the year (with its seasons), both of which are natural, and the week, which may have a sacral origin. All are implicated with pictures of calendars, and other social markers.
A. The month. The most visible unit of time keeping is the month. the sun was visible as a round object the entire year, reaching its northernmost point at the summer solstice and southernmost point at the winter solstice. The moon, on the other hand, waxes throughout the month from a thin crescent of a new moon to a full moon half way through the month and then wanes to a thin crescent again before disappearing entirely for a couple days. Humans observed the phases of the moon and probably began counting days from the new moon until the moon was no longer visible (Aveni 1989:107). Aids to telling and recording time on this plane come from as early as the Upper Paleolithic. Lunar calendars consisting of notches on bones were discovered in the Dordogne Valley of southwestern France that are more than 20,000 years old. Such calendars may have helped early hunter-gatherers to know when there would be enough light for nighttime activities (Aveni 1989:66-72).
Anthony F. Aveni demonstrates that the Maya of Central America were obsessed with time and created a calendar by 200 B.C.E. that even today is more accurate than our Western Gregorian calendar from 1582. The basic unit of time for the Maya was kin “day, sun, time” (1989:193). Here, practically convergent ideologies were at play. The polytheistic Maya notational system used parts of the body to count the days (ten fingers and ten toes). Each day (and each number) revealed a Maya god. Their 260-day calendar or “sacred day count” was called tzolkin and was made up of 13 times 20. Thirteen was the number of layers in the heaven of Maya cosmology, each assigned to a ruling power and this was an old cycle (Aveni 1989:193). The number 260 is roughly equal to the human gestation period as well as the basic agricultural cycle. Aveni, looking for the origin of this unique time system, writes: “If human gestation and counting on the fingers and toes were the motives behind the earliest and most fundamental Maya time units, then theirs is truly a quintessentially human-oriented timepiece, as opposed to our annual cycle” (1989:201).
Very different ideologies of months can emerge. In the Old World the lunar cycle can be seen in the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days from around 700 B.C.E. (written down in the fifth century B.C.E.). Hesiod’s poem is, in effect, a farmer’s almanac for northern Greece with information on what is going on in each of the twelve months, such as when to plant, when to harvest, star clusters, flora and fauna, the seasons and much more (Aveni 1989:41-51). Yet Hesiod’s Greece was still very much a cyclical world and calendar with respect to time.
In all such month-calendars, the challenge is to create a calendar that fit both the sun and moon cycles. The solar cycle or tropical year does not contain an integral number of days (365.2564) nor does the lunar cycle or synodic month, which averages 29.5306 days. Hence any one-year calendar of months and days is doomed to failure unless you periodically add or subtract some (intercalary) days. There were calendars with 11, 12 and 13 months per year. As we shall see it is possible that an early Sámi calendar had more than 12 months.
The Romans solved this problem in a form very like the calendar we use at present. The Roman calendar was written down around 300 B.C.E. but dates from Hesiod’s time or earlier. There are traces of the old lunar names for the months such as harvest moon and hunter’s moon. One of the early Roman calendars had an 8-day week (ending with market day) and 120 days to the year with the four months March, April, May and June named after deities. Later six months were added, July through December (called 5th through 10th). July was eventually renamed for Julius Caesar and August for Caesar Augustus; the other four months kept their meanings of 7th through 10th respectively. This resulted in a 300-day year, which was repeatedly corrected until our present Gregorian calendar emerged.
B. The year and the alternation of the seasons. If months tie to nature, then years almost immediately tie into a group’s orientation and identity politics. As we shall see, Sámi used cyclical time, but mostly in a year environment. Yet famous discussions like Georges Dumézil’s well-known tripartite structure for Indo-European society (priests, warriors, food producers) did not include a discussion of their concepts of space and time (Lyle 1990:6). For example, how do you reconcile Dumézil’s three social functions with the spatial orientation by four (north, east, south, west or left, right, front, back) and the temporal division of the year into four seasons that these societies use to organize their senses of self? To fill this lacuna, Emily Lyle associates the three Dumézilian functions (three sons) with the three seasons, priests with spring, warriors with summer and food producers with winter (1990:4,86). Then she combines the three into a four-part whole, with their mother, an overarching woman, representing an intercalary period (seen in many ancient calendars) as well as the entire year. This intercalary period in the winter is equated with Eliade’s period of eternal return when the old again is regenerated.
This kind of model engages prominently in Sámi culture. In the circumpolar area (where the Sámi live) the contrast between lighter and darker parts of the year was much more significant than further south, and hence the year of seasons becomes more important than months. Depending on how far north you were you could have up to eight weeks in the winter with no sun and eight weeks in the summer when the sun was always visible. Many early hunter-gatherers divided the year into two seasons: spring-summer (hunting season beginning when the bear [predator] comes out of hibernation) and autumn-winter (breeding or rutting season for the elk or deer [prey]) (Konakov 1996:136-137). Today, the Komi, who live close to the Sámi of Russia, and many other Siberian peoples have this binary division of the seasons. This calendar code is transferred into cultural models based on the myth of the cosmic bear liberating the sun by stealing the elk. When the progenitors of the Sámi – who were great hunters and who invented skis – died they were elevated to the sky and make up the constellation of Orion’s Belt. The binary division of the seasons is also found in Viking Iceland with two misseri “season(s)” (summer and winter).
C. The week. Below these larger patterns, social patterns emerge as particularly significant in established units of social organization shorter than the seasons or months. After early societies began to measure lunar cycles smaller divisions of time may have developed to deal with alternating between work and rest. There is evidence of weeks ranging in duration from three to twenty days, probably for astronomical, sacred or biorhythmic reasons.
Astronomical divisions were often tied to origin myths. Before the invention of the telescope seven planets were visible to the naked eye: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. The Babylonians were the first to order them by how quickly they moved across the sky (Zerubavel 1985:12). Clearly our names for the weekdays come from this list, though the English names Tuesday through Friday are named after Norse gods.
Alternately, the Babylonians or Assyrians also had seven-day intervals stemming from their conception of the universe – a sacred reason, rather than a natural one. Eviatar Zerubavel argues that these were not weeks because the intervals were still tied to the lunar cycle (1985:9). Aveni suggests a seven-day biorhythm as a third alternate possible source of the week, but such rhythms though they exist are not nearly as important as the biorhythms mentioned earlier plus the waking/sleeping cycle (1989:100-101).
The week became particularly implicated in Western thought. The Jews probably borrowed this seven-day interval during their Exile. The Hebrew word shavu’a “week” and shabbath “Sabbath” were synonyms in ancient times. As Zerubavel shows, shavu’a is etymologically related to the word for sheva “seven” and shabbath is related to the verb sh-b-th “to cease labor” (1985:6-7). Early Christians were Jewish, but when the religions went their separate ways the Catholic Church got rid of the Sabbath and thereby the reason for the seven-day week; nevertheless, the Church kept that week. Not until the late 4th century C.E., by which time the Catholic Church had gained control of the Roman Empire, did Theodosius replace the Roman eight-day week with the seven-day week in the calendar. Astrological designations for the days of the week had begun to replace the Jewish names in the 3rd century C.E.
D. Linear time
Western cultural time has largely become clock time, tied to various time-keeping devices – wall clocks, digital watches, computers connected to the Internet, atomic clocks, and hence they are all linear with an inherent, relentless momentum. And what we have done is “surrender to the tyranny of chronos, or clock time” (Eberle 2003:24). The Athens of Plato had cyclical time: the circle and the cycle, the perfect forms of space and time, reigned (Lestienne 1990:6). It was Aristotle, though, who took the first step to free time from the cycle. He saw motion and time as related but distinct. They were both continuous and successive. “[T]ime … repeats itself at each instant as it flows. … [T]ime is a number of motion with respect to the prior [before] and the posterior [after]” (Lestienne 1990:6-7). So, time was the number to which motion was related; in other words time could be measured. Aristotle’s great leap “broke apart the inexorable cycles and allowed escape from the curse of the Eternal Return” (Lestienne 1990:7). Christianity supplied the final nail in the coffin of cyclical time in the West in that it mandated linear time: “[The] Crucifixion was … a unique event in time not subject to repetition, and so … time must be linear and not cyclic” (Whitrow 1972:14).
One consequence of this was that time was now seen as an outside force to help organize human lives, and it had profound consequences in (re)training minds and worldviews. In the West, in no small part because of this development, we train the mind by focusing on the left hemisphere of the brain (words, numbers) and thereby enhance the logical, linear functions of the mind. More importantly for the present topic, the West began to posit a greater distance between nature and humans. On the contrary, indigenous peoples saw things differently: “The holistic view of life means for the Sami that nature, humankind and life itself are not seen as mutually exclusive phenomena; the natural, cultural, social and linguistic environment are joined to a unity which must also be understood from an overall, not a fragmented, viewpoint.”
Let us now turn to the Sámi and their representations and understandings of time.
Sámi time today: cultural representations.
When Europeans or Americans hear mention of the Sámi – formerly known as Lapps or Laplanders, they more than likely imagine quaint nomads migrating with their reindeer herds or yoikers performing their exotic songs. Traditionally, therefore, these were a people on cyclic time, to which both reindeer herding and yoiking have significant connections.
Sámi cultural production supports this image. For example, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943-2001), Sámi poet and artist, won the Nordic Council Literary Prize in 1991 for his book The Sun, My Father (1997). One of the poems in the book is the following:
566. and time does not exist, no end, none
and time is, eternal, always, is
is born, dies
days, years are rounded
the river of life
into deep pools
the trek in the heart
In this paean to a bygone era we can glimpse cyclical time as well as nature as it is in Sámiland. “The poem graphically recalls a flight of migrating birds, guiding the reader from the beginning without beginning to the end without end” (Dana 156).
But the image needs to be nuanced. Consider another poem from that book:
I can see
a new morning
day and night
that’s how I grow out of this earth
to the earth
and those like me
Here we can see a different idea, the inexorability of time’s arrow, time moving on.
In a third representation of time, another poet, Inger-Mari Aikio (born 1961), penned the following (Gaski 1996:274):
the young birch doesn’t ask the time
it has a sea of time.
the tree asks the time
when its sap will lose its sweet taste
the dead pine doesn’t ask for the time
it has a sea of time
This poem confronts what I will now discussing here: the competition between two cultures and two worldviews. It is a metaphor for the Sámi and the resilience of their culture in the face of ruthless and relentless pressure to abandon their traditional worldview and to assimilate to the majority cultures where they live. In this poem, the birch tree faces adverse weather conditions, often exposed to fierce winds on the tundra, and is emblematic of the Sámi’s refusal to cave in to such pressures.
On another level, the poem is very much about linear time. We can glimpse what Hall calls “[T]he American-European love affair with various kinds of timekeeping devices” (Hall 1983:119). There is a disconnect between our biological rhythms and the watch on the wrist or the clock on the wall. Time drags when we have nothing to do and flies when we are having a good “time.” Time seems unending when you are young but at sixty the years seem to move rapidly (Hall 1983:29-30). The more you have invested in the past the swifter time will pass. Valkeapää admits to functioning on linear time (Helander 1998:94):
I myself have become used to working by the second. I have got used to making agreements to meet by specific times and I expect that things will happen according to the agreements that have been made. I am very particular about agreements being followed. The issue is more a matter of what is important to whom and what the consequences are. The right time for the Sami has more to do with the number of years, where the sun is, where the animals are, when the insects come and so on.
This is the acknowledgement that this particular cultural understanding is under pressure from a dominant culture. To be Sámi is not just being human.
Sámi time terminology opens up a window into the dimensions of this problem. There are ten Sámi languages of which several are on the brink of extinction. Since a majority of the current 30,000-40,000 Sámi speakers speak North Sámi, all of the following examples will be in that language. The Sámi word áigi “time” goes back to Proto-Finno-Saamic (FS), the reconstructed common ancestor of Sámi and Finnish, from ca. 2,000 B.C.E. Thus despite their anthropological association with cyclical time, the forebears of the Sámi had a word for time, whereas many of the Native American languages did not. The word beaivi “day” was also the word for “sun” and was shared with the Samoyed languages. It is a very old word going back to Proto-Uralic of about 4,500 B.C.E. spoken in an area between northeastern Central Europe and the Ural mountains. Finnish, the language most closely related to Sámi, has the cognate päivä, but it means “day” and not “sun.” The word idja “night” is from Proto-Finno-Ugric (PFU) from around 4,000 B.C.E. These “indigenous peoples” calculate time on multiple, nuanced scales.
Here, the history of Europe’s indigenous peoples contests some assumptions commonly at use in analyzing pre-modern indigenous peoples. Linguistic evidence belies scholars’ tendencies to assume separateness. Several of the key words for time units ultimately come from Indo-European (IE). Earliest is jahki “year” borrowed from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) before 4,000 B.C.E. Mánnu “moon, month,” vahkku “week” and bodda “moment” were all borrowed from Proto-Scandinavian around 500 C.E. Diibmu “hour” is a more recent loan from Scandinavian. Words having to do with duration and succession-time include astat “to have time” that may have been borrowed from IE before 3,500 B.C.E., bistit “to go on, to last,” ovdal “before,” árabut “earlier,” maŋŋái “after” and maŋŋá “later,” the latter five from Finno-Ugric (FU). The words ikte “yesterday,” odne “today” and ihttáš “tomorrow” are all from FU.
Seasons: The Sámi words for the seasons are dálvi “winter,” giđđa “spring,” geassi “summer” and čakča “fall.” Dálvi and čakča go back to Proto-Finno-Ugric spoken around 4,000 B.C.E. Giđđa can be reconstructed for Proto-Saami after 1,500 B.C.E. Geassi, though, was borrowed from Indo-European before 3,000 B.C.E. Perhaps the Sámi, living above the Arctic Circle before global warming, never experienced anything resembling the summers further south. The dark time of the year is sevdnjes áigi “dark time” (also skábma) and the light period is čuvges áigi “light time”; both sevdnjes and čuvges are from Proto-Saami. Čuvges áigi lasts from February to October, showing how important light was to these people living so far to the north. Several other time words are guhká “a long time,” hávvi “time, occasion” and dilli “occasion, time,” the latter two borrowed from Proto-Germanic around the beginning of our era.
The time units are, however, very common among these words. Among the 845 most common words in North Sámi are a few of the numbers, and they were used, among other things, to count time. They are okta “one,” guokte “two,” golbma “three,” njeallje “four,” vihtta “five,” guhtta “six,” gávcci “eight,” logi “ten” and čuođi “one hundred.” Most of these are of FU origin; however, it should be pointed out that gávcci is made up of a form of the number two plus an IE suffix. Logi may stem from the Sámi word lohkat “to read, count” which in turn may derive from IE (cf. Eng. legible). The Sámi time nomenclature looked at so far betrays a regular pattern of contact with speakers of the Indo-European languages at various stages.
The nuances of each category warrant separate treatment.
A. Sámi months: The month names are compounds with the second element being mánnu “month, moon.” They are: ođđajagemánnu “new year month or January,” guovvamánnu “February (uncertain etymology),” njukčamánnu “swan month or March,” cuoŋománnu “crusty snow month or April,” gáranasmánnu “raven month or April,” miessemánnu “reindeer calf month or May,” geassemánnu “summer month or June,” suoidnemánnu “hay/grass month (from Finnish heinäkuu ‘July’ in turn from heinät ‘hay’) or July,” borgemánnu “shedding month or August (when the reindeer shed their coats),” šnjilžamánnu “reindeer month (of a reindeer with quite short hair, just after changing its coat) or August,” geassaborgemánnu “reindeer month (reindeer with a uniformly thick coat most of September and early October when the hay is being cut),” čakčamánnu “autumn month or September,” raga(t/d)mánnu “rutting month or October,” golggotmánnu “post-rut month (period when the male reindeer is exhausted after the rut) or November,” ritnemánnu “frost month (time when there is heavy frost on the trees and fields) or November,” skábmamánnu “dark period around the winter solstice from late November to early January or November” and juovlamánnu “Yule month or December.”
Two things are to be noted. First, there are seventeen names for months. This could be due to dialect differences in the Sámi area, or possibly because at some time in the past there may have been an additional month in the year. Second, the month names have a close connection to nature and, in particular, to reindeer herding and, further back, to hunting wild reindeer. As we shall see later on, the reindeer-herding cycle is one of the vestiges of cyclical time in Sámi culture.
B. Weekdays: Turning to the weekdays, Sámi shows an equal descent that argues for continuity rather than isolation: sotnabeaivi “Sunday (sotna from Scandinavian *sunnu(n) “sun” + beaivi “day/sun”),” bassi “holy day (also used for Sunday),” mánnodat “Monday (mánno “moon” + dat “day (from Scand. dag “day”),” vuossárga “Monday (from vuoss “first” + árga “working day”),” maŋŋebárga “Tuesday (from maŋŋeb “second” + árga “working day”),” disdat “Tuesday (from Tyr “Norse god of war and justice” + dat “day”),” gaskavahkku “Wednesday (from gaskkas “in the middle” + vahkku “week”),” duorastat “Thursday (from Thor “Norse god of thunder” + dat “day”),” bearjadat “Friday (bearja possibly related to beargalat “devil” + dat “day”; bearjadat also used as a mild expletive) and lávvordat “Saturday (?lávvor possibly from Scand. laur “laurel” + dat “day”).
The weekday names, evidently, have been significantly influenced by the Scandinavian/Germanic names. In the sense we’ve been using here, the week is not a natural time division and no doubt was adopted by the Sámi from their neighbors sometime after the 4th century C.E. They are evidence of an adaptation of an indigenous lifestyle to long-term cultural contacts.
C. Week names: Here, cultural contact becomes more evident. Most of the Sámi names for individual weeks stem from the Christian era in the far north launched in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with the building of churches along the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Bothnia and culminating after the Reformation with the brutal conversion of the Sámi during the 17th and 18th centuries. These words are no longer in common parlance. The week names connected to the Church are bárdebeivahkku “St. Bartholomew’s week (also bárdebeaivi “St. Bartholomew’s day [Aug. 24th]; usually so hot that the reindeer stampede),” Birgitvahkku “St. Birgitta’s week,” ruƒki “period when the leaves turn colors before they fall (the week after St. Birgitta’s week [around Oct. 7th]),” biidnovahkku “the quiet week, the week when Jesus died (from biidnu “suffering”),” Gilde-Márjjávahkku “radiant Mary week (also Márjjábeaivi “Annunciation (Mar. 25th; when the grass begins to turn yellow – from gildit “to shine, take on a vivid color),” Máttusmesvakkhu “St. Matthew’s Day-week (also Máttusbeaivi [Sept. 21st]) when the wild reindeer bulls begin to run and seek females,” Mihkalmesvahkku “St. Michael’s week (around Sept. 29th),” hállemesvakkhu “All Saints Week (possibly from hálli “advocate of Christ”; also hállemasbeaivi “All Saints Day” Nov. 1st)” and Simmunvahkku “St. Simeon’s week at end of October (the time when the reindeer are exhausted from the rut).”
A few of the other week names are: (h)obmel “a week at the end of Aug. or the beginning of Sept., when the grass loses its freshness),” nammavahkku “name week (also nammabeaivi “name day),” oarri “squirrel week,” vahkkolahkki “half week (from vahkku “week” + lahkki “half”); also vahkkoloahppa “weekend (from loahppa “end”),” dalvevahkku “winter week,” varitvahkku ”two-year-old reindeer week (when the male reindeer begins rubbing antlers)” and miccamar “St. John’s (from Norw. midtsommer “mid-summer” near the summer solstice.)” As can be seen from the week and day names, in spite of the Christian influence the terms often had a dual meaning related to the natural cycle.
Taken together, what does this linguistic evidence suggest about the indigenous mind frame? The poems above seem to be closer to a “minor” literature in the Deleuzian sense (1986:16-27). Strictly speaking, a minor literature does not come from a minor language, but it is what a minority constructs as an independent identity within a major language and/or cultural sphere. Extending this concept, the Sámi languages are minority languages in Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia. In a sense, Sámi “is a deterritorialized language, appropriate for strange and minor uses” as Deleuze puts it (1986:17). But in Deleuze’s sense, this Sámi literature is also a minor literature. A minor literature, for example, tends to be political, and Sámi literature is often about the oppression suffered at the hands of the majority populations where they live. Additionally, everything in a minor literature takes on a collective value. “[W]hat each author says individually already constitutes a common action” and literature takes on “the role and function of collective, and even revolutionary, enunciation (Deleuze 1986:17).” Sámi literature is clearly not a fossil; it betrays a vital culture among neighboring cultures and within their cultural spheres. Valkeapää was well aware that his poetry was modern poetry and that he was creating it. They negotiate their identities as part of Scandinavia, not outside of it.
Sámi time earlier: an assessment of indigenousness
In addition to the linguistic evidence supporting long-term interrelations between Sámi and non-Sámi, there is archaeological and genetic evidence that might buttress the picture of cultural contact shown in its time consequences painted so far.
But first, it is critical to define what the term Sámi means, in light of the analyses I offer here. In fact, Sámi ethnicity can be defined as a form of cultural identity created and maintained through contact with other groups rather than as a group isolated unto itself. This differs from the earlier view that large unsettled areas in Fennoscandia isolated the Sámi from other groups for many centuries. In other words, people, race and ethnicity are not equivalent terms with ethnic differences “written” in the human body (Hansen 2004:42).
According to this view of cultural identity, a distinct Sámi ethnicity did not emerge until about 2,000 years ago. If we go back further, to be sure, we must speak of Sámi ancestors or forebears and take on something closer to a traditional tribal identity. The import of this view of Sámi ethnicity will become clear when we look at recent genetic studies on the origin of the Sámi and closely related Finns. One thing apparent from the Sámi time terminology we have just viewed, however, is that Sámi forebears were in periodic contact with Indo-European peoples at least as far back as the PIE era ca. 4,000 B.C.E. and probably earlier. During many millennia of contact the Sámi or, moving further back, their ancestors borrowed numerous words about time from IE languages such as month, week, day of week, hour, etc. In borrowing the words the Sámi were also borrowing time concepts – this indigenous culture has not been isolated.
Archaeological evidence too attests to widespread contact between Sámi forebears and “outsiders.” Lars Ivar Hansen and Bjørnar Olsen demonstrate that during the last two millennia before 0 C.E. (early metal age) hunting groups in the north of Scandinavia to an increasing degree came in contact with products and traders from distant societies to the east and south (2004:52). A boundary began to take shape with those living along the Norwegian and Bothnian coasts (Germanic people) increasingly oriented toward southern Scandinavia and those living in inner and northeastern portions of Scandinavia (hunter-gathers, including Sámi ancestors) strengthening their ties to Central and Eastern Russian metal-producing, agricultural groups (Hansen 2004:53-55). The main commodities proto-Sámi could offer were furs and other hunting products in exchange for metal, bronze and, eventually, iron goods.
Around 2,000 B.C.E. asbestos pottery came into use among hunting groups in Scandinavia. By 1,000 B.C.E. a differentiation in pottery types can be observed with the so-called Kjelmøy pottery found among hunting groups to the north and east. In the centuries after 0 C.E. the situation for the northern hunting groups changed radically with reduced or broken contact with the Russian groups. The Kjelmøy pottery is found up to 300 C.E.; however, the more recent finds are mostly at sacrificial sites whereas earlier finds were at dwelling places (Hansen & Olsen 2004:57). During the last four or five centuries before the beginning of our era agriculture became more important in the north of Scandinavia and by the migration period (200-600 C.E.) the agricultural economy was increasingly dominated by local chieftains and petty kings as can be seen in traces of long houses, grave mounds, weapons, tools and jewelry. Consolidation of the chieftaincies was dependent on alliances with surrounding groups and access to status items that could legitimate the chieftains’ power. The Sámi had such things as walrus tusks, fine furs and hunting falcons the chieftains greatly prized. Scholars once thought that the chieftains exploited the Sámi more than they cooperated with them, but recently a more nuanced view has been put forth. The relationship between Sámi groups and the Scandinavian Iron Age societies was more symbiotic and characterized by more cooperation than previously thought (Hansen & Olsen 2004:64). After the collapse of trade to central and eastern Russia in the centuries around 0 C.E. there may have been a lack of metal products (knives, arrow tips, etc.) available to the Sámi (Hansen & Olsen 2004:73). At this time some Sámi began to focus more on coastal hunting of whales and seals. Evidence for this is a series of flagstone pits for the production of train oil, which the Sámi were able to trade with Germanic agricultural groups in the north for items they needed.
With regard to the genetic evidence there are some problems that complicate the picture of a culture in isolation or in contact with outside views. How and when did the Finno-Ugrians populate Fennoscandia after the retreat of the Würm III glaciation? Milton Nuñez posits two nearly isolated regions in western and eastern Europe during the height of the Ice Age (2002:162). As the glacier began to melt a group of Late Paleolithic reindeer hunters from the western region crossed the dry North Sea, followed the ice-free coast and exploited marine resources, reaching northern Norway by ca. 9,000 B.C.E. This could be the archaeological Komsa culture of northwestern Norway. A group of hunters from the eastern region reached southern Finland by 8,000 B.C.E. where they utilized forest and fresh water resources. According to Nuñez these latter immigrants were ancestors of the Finns and Sámi. There are no archaeological indications of migrations that might support a language change (2002:168). Then around 3,200 to 2,500 B.C.E. a small group of farmers came to Finland from Estonia, but since their agricultural economy was unsuitable for the Finnish environment, they were linguistically assimilated by the indigenous Uralic-speaking people (the Proto-Sámi) already living in Finland (Sajantila 1995). Niskanen objects to Sajantila’s theory arguing that it would be unlikely for an Indo-European-speaking group of people with a more complex social organization to be assimilated by a group with a simpler social organization (2002:147). He suggests that the Battle-Axe immigrants to Finland spoke a Proto-Baltic-Finnish language rather than an Indo-European dialect. How are the Sámi and Finns related then? That is, how valid is it to think of them as ‘tribes’ rather than as ‘cultures.’ Genetically they are both of European stock; yet the Sámi are very distinct from the Finns, suggesting that their forebears must have lived in isolation for some time (perhaps the Komsa culture mentioned above).
Part of the identity is indeed genetic. Recent genetic work would seem to support Nuñez’ model. Achilli et al. discovered that the Sámi and the Berbers of North Africa share a maternal lineage, which they explain as a southwestern European expansion of hunter-gatherers into northern Europe (2005:883,885). Ikegaya et al. found that 40% of the Sámi carry mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from haplogroup V with the Iberian Peninsula as the likely original homeland (2005:190). They also agree that the Sámi and the Finns are mainly of European origin, but that on the basis of mtDNA only the Sámi have been influenced by the founder effect (bottleneck) (2005:191). Looking at Y-chromosomal polymorphisms they infer that the Sámi and Finns were formed by multiple founding groups, but, in this case, it was the Finns alone who were influenced by the founder effect or bottleneck phenomenon. Tambets et al. find that the origin of the “Sámi motif,” U5b1b, is western European as is the Y-chromosomal variety in the Sámi (2004:661). This suggests to them that the large genetic separation of the Sámi from other Europeans is best explained by assuming that the Sámi are descendants of a narrow, distinctive subset of Europeans.” Kittles et al. interpret the Y chromosome data to mean that two separate founder populations contributed to the Finnish gene pool (Kittles 1998:1171). Raitio et al. look at single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) on the Y chromosome and study the structure of two major SNP haplotypes in the Finns and the Sámi. They find that the SNP haplotypes show regional differences within the Finns and the Sámi, supporting the hypothesis of two separate settlement waves to Finland (Raitio 2001:471).
Yet this genetic map does not help support a natural indigenousness. Hansen and Olsen point out a number of reasons to be skeptical about the broad conclusions drawn about the origin and spread of peoples and languages on the basis of data gathered from people now alive (2004:43-44). There have often been contradictory results from interpreting the genetic evidence. Sims-Williams cautions against “using linguistic and archaeological data as surrogates for ethnic data” (1998:17). He and Nuñez suggest that the picture will remain fuzzy until ancient bones undergo DNA analysis. What is clear for our purposes is that there is ample linguistic and archaeological evidence and some corroborating genetic evidence for regular, periodic contact between proto-Sámi and Sámi and IE trading partners to the east and south. To assume, therefore, a uniform “indigenous” identity on the basis of the worldview, or that this culture’s indigenousness is based on separation, is thus overblown. The Indo-European borrowings themselves can complicate this evidence.
Indo-European loanwords in Sámi: a second example of indigenous cultures in contact.
We have already seen the many time words the Sámi languages acquired at various stages. Let us now change our optic to the borrowings, not to the pieces of the single culture in isolation, to reassess the Sámi’s position within Scandinavia. The scope of IE influence on Sámi was extensive both in quantity and over time. If we look at the old indigenous vocabulary of some 700 items Sámi shares about 100 stems with Samoyed going back to Proto-Uralic (spoken around 4,500 B.C.E. in an area stretching from northeastern Central Europe in the southwest to the Ural mountains in the east) including 7-9 from PIE or IE such as suotna “sinew” and namma “name.” 17-18 words were borrowed from PIE or IE into Proto-Finno-Ugric (western branch of Proto-Uralic spoken about 4,000 B.C.E. in northeastern Central Europe west of the Ural mountains) including oarbbis “orphan” and juhkat “to drink.” Among the 9 IE words that entered Proto-Finno-Permic (spoken around 3,500 B.C.E. from west of the Urals to north central Europe) are gieddi “field, clearing” and galmmas “cold”; they have their source in Germanic and Lithuanian respectively. Proto-Finno-Volgaic (western branch of Proto-Finno-Permic spoken about 3,000 B.C.E.) has 18-19 words from IE among which are geardi “time (occasion),” fanas “boat” and máksit “to pay.” About 63 IE words were borrowed into Proto-Finno-Saamic (spoken ca. 2,000 B.C.E. around the northern and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea in the west to the White Sea and Lake Ladoga in the east), including ca. 23 from Germanic such as guos’si “guest,” borjjas “sail,” raksa “diaper” and bargat “to work (cf. Eng. work). Sammallahti writes that in addition to the old indigenous vocabulary there are more than 550 words that have no etymology plus another ca. 100 words from Scandinavian or Germanic. This latter group includes áiru “oar,” gussa “cow” and mánná “child.” He notes that there are several thousand more or less recent Scandinavian loanwords as well.
It is possible to map these contacts more precisely. Sammallahti breaks down the IE loanwords into Finno-Ugric by source. From PIE there are over 50 including guovssu “daybreak,” oažži “meat” and njađđit“to tack on.” From (early) Proto-Aryan there are 6 including vuodja “butter.” From Old Indo-Aryan and Proto-Iranian there are 17 including oaidnit “to see” and oarji “west.”
From Proto-Balto-Slavic and Proto-Slavic there are 5 including muohttit “snow.” Borrowing a word for snow might seem odd in that the Sámi have more than 300 words for various types of snow according to the Sámi Johan Rassa (Ryd 2001:313-321). From Proto-Baltic there are about 40 words including arvi “rain” and possibly sápmi/sámi, what the Sámi call themselves (autonym); this term is probably related to Finnish hämäläiset, an old designation for the Finns, and to Baltic zeme “land” as in the Russian place name Novaya Zemlya. There are about 30 words from Proto-Germanic including áššu “embers” and gáma “shoe.” About 21 words were borrowed from Germanic including luoikat “to borrow” and bassi “sacred.” Several hundred words were borrowed from Proto-Scandinavian including biergu “meat” and nuorti “east.” About 45 IE words entered the Saami languages through the intermediary Proto-Finnic such as árgi “timid” and gázzi “companions.” Finally 8 Russian words were borrowed into the Eastern Sámi languages including barta “cottage” and dárru “Norwegian.”
What is obvious from the linguistic and archaeological evidence so far presented is that the Sámi and their forebears have been trading with Indo-Europeans over many millennia, and that influences differ somewhat in each direction. Even though much of the influence came long before the evolution of linear time in the West, the path was prepared for the Sámi to accept linear time gradually and without a hitch. After all, if they wished to profit from trading with their neighbors and acquire the material items they needed it behooved them at least to become conversant in the habits of their neighbors. Let us now project this linguistic influence backward onto the major developments of the past millennium: expansion and assimilation by the nation-states where the Sámi lived and attempts to convert them to Christianity, with state and church expanding together. To do so opens out the dimensions of cultural contact and challenges more precisely.
The Sámi were, as noted, on the map of Europe early on. Else Mundal discusses the ample evidence in Old Norse written sources and vocabulary about the Sámi (Old Icelandic finnar) during the Viking Age (Pentikainen 1996:97-116). A common motif is finnfer›: Norwegians or Icelanders going north to Finnmark (during the Viking Age “Finnmôrk” was a larger area than it is today) to collect taxes on behalf of the Norwegian king or to trade with nomadic Sámi. Sámi magic skill is emphasized in many texts; the chieftains of Northern Norway who fought against Christianity used Sámi magic skill. Norwegian laws forbade Christians from having contact with finnar. This would suggest that there was frequent contact between Sámi and Norwegians. The Norse had a positive attitude toward the Sámi worldview/religion even during Christian times, due no doubt to its similarity with Norse pagan religion. The attitude toward Sámi changed with the Christianization of the Norse nations (Norway in 1,000 C.E.; Sweden in the eleventh century, though the pagan religion survived there well into the twelfth). And, of course, tax evasion becomes depicted as otherness, magic.
Even with what seems to be a monolithic “Christianity,” there are differences in cultural content. The first efforts to convert the Sámi to Christianity began with the building of monasteries and fortresses at Tromsø in the middle of the 13th century and at Vardø in 1307 followed by additional churches along the Finnmark coast over the next few centuries. The Russians established orthodox monasteries and economic institutions along the Kola Peninsula and White Sea coasts beginning in the 11th century. For a long time the Sámi were able to absorb elements of Christianity into their polytheistic worldview without much trouble, but that was not acceptable over the long term to a monotheistic religion such as Christianity, once it became centralized in more modern European patterns. Serious efforts at conversion, though, did not come until after the Reformation when Lutheran missionaries moved inland to live closer to the Sámi. Missionary activity intensified after King Karl IX of Sweden began organizing it (Lehtola 2004:30). Elements of the Protestant Reformation spread as well, going hand in hand with colonialism and with royal colonization decrees, called placards, issued in 1673 and 1695. Religious missions aimed to convert the people to Christianity, but they often simultaneously encouraged settlement by outsiders. Then around 1700, conversion efforts turned brutal. Sámi magic drums were confiscated and burned; yoik was banned and some noaidis (shamans) were put to death. By the 19th century most Sámi had abandoned their old religion, and presumably lost a source of reference to a “purer” mindset.
Social pressure exacerbated this tendency of mainstream Europe to designate the Sámi as “other,” stressing the indigenous mindset rather than consider them a European people. In consequence, attitudes toward Sámi traditional rights began to change, especially after 1850 when assimilation policies were introduced (Niemi 1997:70). In Norway this took the form of Norwegianization, which aimed to assure that those living in Finnmark would be loyal to Norway in case of any threat from Russia. Sámi children were forced into boarding schools where Norwegian was the sole language of instruction. Only persons with a Norwegian name could own land, hence most Sámi in Norway have two names now. Even worse policies were instituted in Sweden at roughly the same time. The Swedes defined Sámi exclusively as reindeer herders. This meant that the many Sámi who were farmers, ordinary laborers, and fishermen were officially not Sámi. This plus many other decrees were intended to deprive the Sámi of their language and culture by forcing them into a more stereotypical position as tribal, rather than acknowledging their position as a minority European culture in Deleuze’s sense. Such policies lasted until after World War II.
Let us now turn back to our analysis of Sámi time, and put it in the context of a longer-term evolution of purported Sámi indigenousness, in a group that today still seems indigenous.
Vestiges of traditional cyclical time in Sámi culture
No matter the popular stereotypes, for all practical purposes the Sámi today are on linear time. Most have wristwatches, clocks on their walls and clocks in their cars. Many are employed in the labor force with weekday jobs in schools, shops, trades, restaurants and so on. Busses, trains and planes usually run on schedule, even in Sámiland. That does not mean, however, that cyclical time does not remain part of the Sámi mental landscape. Here are four important examples of the survival of cyclical time, four dimensions of what might probably still be considered “indigenous” thought.
A. Verbal structure: describing motion
Though Sámi borrowed many words from Indo-European over the centuries, the language structure, especially the morphology, was much more resistant to change, with a stratum more resistant to assimilation. As Little Bear mentioned above, aboriginal languages tend to be verb-rich and process-oriented. That is certainly the case with the Sámi language. Nouns do outnumber verbs in North Sámi by 55% to 25.5% (Sammallahti 1998:107); however, it is what can be done with the latter that becomes interesting. New verbs can be created from verb and noun stems by adding productive infixes and suffixes.
Sámi literary scholar Harald Gaski gives the following example: njuikut means “to jump,” njuiket “to jump only one time,” nuikkodit “to jump continuously,” njuikestit “to take a small jump only once,” njukkodallat “to take several small jumps over an extended time,” njuikulit “to make a few quick jumps” or “to jump away,” njuikkodastit “to make small jumps for a very short time” and njuikehit “to cause to jump” but also “to copulate” (1997:14). Eight verbs from one verbal stem and the list could easily be extended. Klaus Peter Nickel, in his book on North Sámi grammar, lists eleven ways of deriving new verbs from other verbs (1994:221). Here follow one example of each:
Passive: ráŋggáštuvvot“to be punished” from ráŋggástit “to punish.”
Causative: goaru-h-it “to make sew” from goarrut “to sew.”
Reflexive: basa-d-it “to wash oneself” from bassat “to wash.”
Reciprocal: dovdda-d-it “to know each other” from dovdat “to know.”
Momentary: čolga-d-it “to spit once” from čolgat “to spit.”
Subitive: borra-l-it “to eat quickly” from borrat “to eat.”
Frequentative: láhp-ad-it “to lose (many objects)” from láhppit “to lose.”
Continuative: čuččo-d-it “to be standing” from čuožžut “to stand.”
Diminutive: atte-st-it “to give a little” from addit “to give.”
Conative: bokt-al-it “to try to wake” from boktit “to wake.”
Inchoative: lohka-goahtit “to begin to read” from lohkat “to read.”
More than one infix/suffix can be combined to create new verbs:
Causative-Frequentative: heivehaddat “to adapt several times” from heivehit “to adapt” in turn from heivet “to be suitable.”
Diminutive-Continuative: attašit “to give away gradually” from addit “to give.”
Diminutive-Subitive: attestastit “to give a little bit hurriedly” from attestit “to give a little bit” in turn from addit “to give.”
Diminutive-Frequentative: attaƒit “to give little by little, to distribute” from addit “to give.”
Momentary-Subitive: gallmmihit “to feel cold suddenly” from galbmit “to ice up.”
For verbs derived from nominative forms Sammallahti has eleven types (1998:92-93):
Causative: nama-h-it “to name” from namma “name.”
Translative: borrá-n-it “to become better” from buorre “good.”
Factitive: buoridit “to heal, to make better” from buorre “good.”
Essive: bodnj-á-t “to be twisted” from botnji “twist.”
Instructive: suidnet “to put shoe-hay in a Sámi shoe” from suoidni “hay.”
Essential: isida-stit “to act as a host or a master” from isit “host, master.”
Instrumentative: niibbá-st-it “to use a knife” from niibi “knife.”
Apparitive: vielggihit “to appear (of a white thing)” from vielgat “white.”
Privative: dihkket “to cleanse from lice” from dihkki “lice.”
Captative: murjet “to pick berries” from muorji “berry.”
Sensive: fasttá-š-it “to consider ugly” from fasti “ugly.”
What cultural values does this represent? An anecdote may suffice.
On his 1883 trip over the Greenland ice the Swedish explorer Nordenskiöld took along two Sámi, Pavva Lásse Tuorda and Anders Rassa, to prevent the expedition from getting lost on the vast Greenland ice sheets. When the weather worsened and it became apparent they were not going to make it across Greenland, he told the two Sámi to ski as far as they could so that they could return to the group within four days. They were back in 57 hours, having covered 460 km over nothing but ice. The Sámi were legendary for being able to find their way over difficult terrain. They could do this because their language, including the verbal structure just surveyed, allowed them to describe topographical features so precisely that other Sámi could find, say, a lost reindeer or go to a place solely on the basis of an oral description.
B. Storytelling: digressions
One additional example points to an important part of indigenousness as a cultural operator rather than as a genetic factor. Sámi culture was mainly an oral culture until the early 20th century; there were no books to read other than in the majority languages that many Sámi were forced to learn in boarding schools. The Sámi traditionally learned by observing, by doing and by listening to elders. Storytelling thus became a key aspect of this experiential learning system, and very particular forms of storytelling tend to be favored within the group. Children sat around the fire and listened to grandparents or other relatives tell stories with lessons about surviving in the wilderness that was their home. As Gaski puts it: “the Sami way of telling a story is to tell a lot of stories simultaneously – one digression leading into another one into another one and so on. But you can rest assured that a Sami story always returns to its original point” (1997:199). In other words, the narrator completes the circle or cycle, marking it as ‘closed’ by a return, not by episodes or other structural markers. He adds that he cannot promise anything about how long it will take to finish the story because the Sámi conception of time is not so linear as the seconds, minutes and hours in the West. The description is thus done when it is adequately done.
An example of the logic of this kind of thick description storytelling persists in modern Sámi literature. In the short story “The Cloudberry Trip” Sámi writer Jovnna-Ánde Vest (born 1948) describes a father who is not at all agreeable at home taking his children on an excursion to pick cloudberries (Gaski 1996:167-178). The father is not so interested in amassing a large quantity of berries or on sustenance for survival; more important to him is going to out-of-the-way places and what his children will experience on the outing. He teaches them which side of the salmon to roast first so that it won’t slide off the sticks and how to get dwarf birch to burn. He is a very good storyteller who describes ordinary people’s experiences in an absorbing manner. Over the following days he tells his children a seemingly unending story about a man on skis chasing a wolverine. He interrupts the story often so that his children must plead with him to finish it. He finally concludes the story with a surprise ending that does please them and presumably teaches them a valuable lesson. The rhetorical organization here is optimal to guarantee memorability and interest. This story also illustrates in practice the cyclical idea of no beginning, no end that will be essential for the yoik. It highlights the maintenance of other information logics, interpersonal and immediate rather than abstract.
C. Reindeer herding: the cycle
If time is about seasons, then the question of the relation of indigenous lifestyle and thought highlights an additional set of assumptions commonly made about indigenousness. Reindeer hunting and nomadic reindeer herding have been a key aspect of Sámi culture and identity for thousands of years, and today reindeer herding remains a bastion of cyclical time. As it was a millennium ago, the most important cycle is the annual migration (hunting and then herding) and that can be seen in the names of months listed above: seven of them can be directly linked to herding such as cuo√ománnu “crusty snow month or April.” Herders were very attentive to snow conditions in that during the colder part of the year the reindeer had to dig down through the snow to reach the lichen they ate. If the snow was crusty for a long time it could mean starvation for the herd. Others were linked to nature, the significant phenomena the herders encountered throughout the year such as skábmamánnu “dark period.” Herders had to protect the reindeer from predators without the benefit of sunlight for weeks at a time, and, prior to recent decades, without technological aids such as the snowmobile. Another is njukčamánnu “swan month or March,” a telltale sign that spring was approaching.
Typically, reindeer are in the habit of migrating seasonally. They are on the move at all times, spending the late spring and summer on the arctic tundra or coast and moving inland to the boreal forests of the taiga for the winter. The reasons for the migration include: 1) The constant search for food; 2) The forest providing better shelter during the bitter winters; 3) Calving on the tundra rather than on the still deep snows of the taiga; 4) The reindeer plagued by insects during the summer, which are fewer on the tundra.
Herders had to be intimately familiar with the reindeer’s lifestyle and habits, caring for them more intensively during certain periods of the annual cycle. Pregnant females return to the same calving grounds year after year, usually near the tree line. Remarkably, the large majority of calves are born within a very brief period of time, beginning in mid-May. During calving does and especially newborn calves were vulnerable. During colder months reindeer could have problems reaching the lichen beneath the snow cover if it was crusty. Herders had to determine the time for the herd to migrate fall and spring. The migrations did not begin on a particular date but when conditions were optimal.
Reindeer herding is unfortunately under a substantial threat today; the problems are failure of the herders to gain permanent rights to the pastures their herds have traditionally used and overgrazing, both related. The majority governments while stressing the importance of preserving Sámi rights have continued to encourage development (settlement, logging, mining, etc.) in traditional grazing areas. One result is that fewer Sámi are involved in herding today than in the past. Especially hard pressed are the Sámi herders in Sweden who have lost a series of lawsuits to Swedish farmers who claim that reindeer are grazing on and damaging their private lands during the winter. In an open letter to the Stockholm daily newspaper Dagens nyheter, five professors wrote that if nothing is done Sámi culture could be wiped out within a generation (2005:6).
In order for the Sámi to preserve a semblance of an indigenous identity cyclic time reinforcement would seem to be essential. Reindeer herding maintains a connection to cyclic time; however, its continued existence is threatened in some areas and elsewhere herding has turned into stock farming or ranching with the concomitant fading of the tradition. The extinction of herding would in turn be an irreparable loss for Sámi culture and language. The time tested herding skills would become a memory and the extensive herding vocabulary would live on mainly in book form.
D. Yoik: no beginning, no end
Another symbolic expression of time exists in today’s Sámi culture. Yoik is the native Sámi form of musical expression, though in terms of its survival in the face of relentless pressure from missionaries and nation states it is much more than that.
A yoik is a way of remembering people, animals and nature. When a Sámi yoiks s/he is evoking the image of someone or something and the yoik embodies that someone or something. It is more than just a song, even though melody and rhythm are the essential features. People yoik when they are together with friends or when they are alone; in the latter case, when they yoik others they are no longer alone. It is similar to carrying a picture of a loved one in your wallet or purse (Kjellström:19). During the pre-Christian era the Sámi noaidi (shaman) used yoik along with the magic drum to fall into a trance so that his soul could travel to the upper and lower worlds to solve problems or predict the future. Upon waking he would report the results of his trip to his siida by yoiking.
Yoiking was used to calm reindeer and keep predators away, but, most importantly, it helped affirm an individual’s identity within the extended family. Each member of the siida would receive a yoik when s/he began to play a role in the local community and that yoik would follow the person through life and beyond. According to the old Sámi worldview as long as a person was remembered s/he was still alive. The members of the siida shared common cultural experiences, so that a detailed description of a person or object being yoiked was not necessary. This in turn made it difficult for anyone from outside the immediate circle to understand the yoik, and during the period of religious persecution and assimilation, this served to keep outsiders from learning too much.
One such outsider was the Italian writer Giuseppi Acerbi who could not fathom what he was hearing in the late 18th century. In 1798 he wrote:
I attempted several times, both by the power of money and of brandy, to make the pastoral Laplander utter his notes, that I might form to myself, if possible, some idea of their music: but the utmost I could accomplish was to extort from them some hideous cries, during the continuance of which I was sometimes obliged to stop my ears with my fingers.
This structured community utterance clearly had few correlates in English.
The yoik had no beginning, no end. Nils-Aslak Valkeapää said: “the yoik lasts as long as you want and its original magic stems precisely from its continuity. It is like a ring that circles in the air and its structure can be compared with water moving in harmony with the landscape or the wind that touches the ground on the mountain plateau” (Kjellström 1988:11). Sámi scholar Elina Helander asked him: “Does your artistic work have a beginning?” (1998:87). He replied: “No, it doesn’t. I have been doing all this kind of work for as long as I can remember. And the opposite also could be said: I remember doing this work before I can remember doing anything else. I have no beginning, no end, and there also is no beginning, no end in the work I do. Book after book and work after work, the same work goes on and changes all the time.” Here we can see what Little Bear called constant motion within a present that is different but somehow the same. This experiential way of viewing the world is very different from the Western way of stressing the linearity of time. The yoiker could continue his yoik until he decided to stop or his breath ran out.
Western musical tradition, on the other hand, is very linear. There is a penchant for a particular kind of ending. You start at point A and conclude at point B. As Bryan Magee puts it (2000:206):
[M]usic proceeds by creating certain wants which it then spins out before satisfying. Even the most simple melody, considered as a succession of single notes, makes us want it to close eventually on the tonic, no matter how widely it may range before it does so, and it provokes in us a baffled dissatisfaction if it ends on any note other than that; indeed, the melody has to end not only on that one note but on a strong beat in the rhythm at the same time. If it fails to do both these things together we usually feel outright rejection.
Such Western style music did not work for Sámi artist Per Hætta (d. 1967) when he was on the tundra:
For centuries my people have lived in close contact with nature, and that has made an impression on me that I neither can nor wish to erase. The tones have been grasped from the womb of the Finnmark plateau. How many times have I tried to sing a “civilized song” when I was sitting in a reindeer sleigh driving over the tundra, but how miserable and inane it seemed; it was as if it didn’t suit the surroundings. It belonged to an unfamiliar world. – Had I taken a yoik melody instead, well then I wouldn’t have just been waking myself up, but somehow it seemed that every stunted bush, every little rolling hill in the terrain, everything in nature would wake up and want to yoik along. The reindeer would prick its ears and raise its head; it seemed to pick up the pace. The tapping of its hoofs kept the beat. At every pause in the yoiking it was as if nature shouted: “juoigga, juoigga – that is our song, yoik as much as your lungs can take, and we will yoik along.
This was the traditional type of yoik, age-old and deeply personal in its relationship to those in one’s intimate circle. But contemporary yoik today has become quite different and has begun to lose its tie to cyclical time.
Until 1968 yoik was generally not performed in public due to the stigma it had acquired during the period of religious persecution and it was on the verge of dying out completely. Valkeapää, who came from a reindeer herding family, felt that yoik “deserved to be revitalized and to rid itself of the guilt and shame cloaking its performance for over a century” (Valkeapää, in a 1994 interview with Jones-Bamman 2001:195). So in 1968 he recorded himself yoiking and combined it with an instrumental arrangement (acoustic guitar and string bass). He also included sounds from reindeer herding such as barking dogs and reindeer bells. This record was a huge success (probably because of the impending world music boom); many Sámi bought it even though they had no means of listening to it. More importantly, this one recording followed by several others made possible a veritable yoik renaissance with many Sámi making and selling their recordings. Today yoik is flourishing on the folk and world music stage. Some of the best yoikers have made CDs that, in addition to combining yoik with many different instruments and in just about every pop style, may have an unaccompanied yoik or two, a nod to the traditional yoik. Nevertheless, in spite of its success yoik has gradually moved away from the cyclical idea of no beginning, no end.
As we have seen the Sámi conception of time is somewhere between cyclic and linear, closer to the latter. The Sámi, arguably the best-studied indigenous people on the globe, were never an isolated tribe in the middle of the rainforest; they were in contact with “outsiders” much earlier than most other aboriginal groups. The many centuries of trading and intermarriage with their neighbors prepared the way for the Sámi to adopt and integrate ideas and concepts into their language and culture including the linear time championed by the Christian Church. Valkeapää said: “I believe that if a culture is to live, then it must change constantly, bring with it new material and customs and utilize them in a manner suitable for everyday use” (Helander 1998:89). This same attitude must have been part of the Sámi mindset thousands of years ago. Native American contact with Europeans, however, began relatively recently with Columbus’ voyages to the New World. This leads us to reflect on what “indigenous” means. For many, the term indigenous is synonymous with “primitive.” The problem would seem to be that indigeneity is too rigid a category and should include a scale on which the Sámi would be at the “less indigenous” end.
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The Sámi number between 60,000 and 80,000 and live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and northwest Russia.Sámi is also spelled Sami and Saami.
Phase-time is also called tensed or dynamic time and succession-time is called tenseless or static time. In the static conception of the world an object changes if it has different properties at different times whereas in a dynamic conception of the world an object changes if there is change over time (Tooley 1997:375).
Or as Rémy Lestienne puts it: “only the species having their internal clocks more or less synchronized with astronomical rhythms have survived and have been selected over the course of evolution” (1990:156).
Burial customs have been suggested as a possible origin of the cyclical conception of life. Neanderthals may have buried their dead and Homo sapiens practiced ritual burial as far back as 35,000 B.C.E. G. J. Whitrow writes: “usually the body was buried in a crouched posture, which may have been inspired by the idea that the dead were being placed in the womb of Mother Earth for future rebirth” (1972:10).
One thing that impeded any movement away from cyclical time was the paradox of coexistent time and eternity. The former involved change as Plato’s student Aristotle showed while the latter was “an ever-changeless now to which all times were equally present” (Eberle 2003:52).
I speak of the forebears of the Sámi in that most scholars today, following the lead of Fredrik Barth (1969), agree that a distinct Sámi culture did not evolve until the beginning or our era. See Hansen (2004).
Or even earlier, 6,700 B.C.E., depending on which theory you accept. Proponents of the Kurgan hypothesis (Marija Gimbutas et al.) argue for the more recent period while those supporting the Anatolian theory favor the earlier period (Colin Renfrew, Russell Gray, et al.).
Sammallahti (1998) reconstructs goes back to Proto-Uralic (4,500 B.C.E.) and moves forward through the successive reconstructed daughter languages: Proto-Finno-Ugric (4,000 B.C.E.), Proto-Finno-Permic (3,500 B.C.E.), Proto-Finno-Volgaic (3,000 B.C.E.), Proto-Finno-Saamic (2,000 B.C.E.)