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The Struggle to Preserve Indigenous Identity as Related to the Sami, or Fishing

Sofiá (M .Sophia Vassilakidis)

Modernization is an interesting double-edged sword for those who promote it on one hand technocratism, linked with capitalism and the ethos of western values – rational, hierarchical, materialistic, expansionistic – is a socio--economic juggernaut that many accuse of oppressing minority groups and destroying or engulfing indigenous cultures whose non-materialistic and non-imperialistic value systems and customs are overwhelmed by seekers of raw resources and the seduction of consumerism and ‘MTV culture. ’ Yet at the same time, as more and more people are brought into contact by technology and corporate expansions, more and more unique and diverse cultural view points are ‘revealed ’, both to the dominant/majority/westerners and to other marginalized groups. Increasing contact with others enhances awareness of what is singular and unique about the self, and identity becomes a fundamental issue, for in order to maintain a culture ’s core values and traditions people must be able to define them, and in order to retransmit them to future generations they must be able to practice customs and communicate on their own terms (Eidheim). This is the situation of the ancient people indigenous to Northern Scandinavia, the Sami. The history of their contact with the west/Europeans is typical of indigenous-western confrontation worldwide. Lands taken under legal and bureaucratic codes never explained or agreed to, customs restricted by conflicting and proselytizing moral codes and institutions, self-expression curbed by forced assimilationist “Norwegianization ” practices, Sami culture was nearly lost. A people whose social arrangements, dwelling patterns, religion, and language were intimately tied to the Sapmi region and to self-sustaining reindeer herding and hunting-gathering livelihoods (Jernsletten, Kalstad), contemporary Sami are faced with delineating “Saminess ” in such a way that the Sami ‘spirit ’ can continue without freezing the living Sami themselves into some static and insular “primitive people” (Swedish Institute). The most visible (or vocal) site of identity discourse – to Western society if not the Sami themselves – is in the writings of Sami artists and intellectuals (Gaski, Kuokkanen). While much of the Sami prose and poetry is eloquent without further explanation, it is necessary and appropriate to contextualize Sami writing and art within historical forms of Sami communication (Kuokkaken).

Part I: Theories on Cultural Identity and Other Slippery Fish

Historical forms of communication entail firstly the Sami language itself – one that is wealthy in terms related to reindeer herding, natural &geographical attributes, kinship relationships, and that is highly ‘verbal ’ or action oriented (Gaski, 14). In his article Aspects of Managing Renewable Resources in Sami Areas in Norway, Johan Klemet Hætta Kalstad posits," Knowledge can be considered technology used to resolve problems and make decisions. ” Knowledge is therefore a thing of value (to the reindeer herder, fisherman, person engaged in a livelihood), and values are encapsulated by the language (Kalstad, 116). Related to this, Nils Jernsletten writes in “Sami Traditional Terminology ” that traditional knowledge is closely tied to people ’s personal experiences, is expressed in precise language, “ professional expressions. ” The link between experiential knowledge and the language that embodies it becomes even more evident when terms are lost or made archaic as (traditional Sami) activities linked to such terms alter or vanish; Jernsletten points to the loss of reindeer and seal terminology as an example, since fewer Sami engage in reindeer herding and those that do increasingly utilize modern technological methods. Since this mechanization allows/necessitates that children (and mothers) do not travel with the herding cycle, both the familial siida unit and the nomadic lifestyle also are disappearing, and words addressing kinship relations and geographical features may also be at risk.

The intense link between the Sami language and the everyday or empirical and pragmatic ideas leads to the fact that the traditional/historical Sami worldview (that is, the approach to the world and the way the world and it phenomenon are in turn understood) is very different from that of the West. Whereas even Norwegian schools offering instruction in Sami are pedagogically based on theory, the understanding and insight of traditional Sami knowledge is empirical and linked to experience (Jernsletten, 99). Dependent upon environment, weather, and one another, the Sami identity is not individual-centered (Kuokkanen, 57), but rather locates the individual as a portion of an interconnected whole, a view in which every action has a repercussion, a ripple. While certain religious and aesthetic practices – the returning of the bear bones to place of origin, the use of noaide shamanism to search for answers in times of crisis and disease – have been effectively wiped out, the historical organization of territory utilized by various siida s at various times (Ájtte, 13) and the common use (but not ownership) of land in herding, gathering, and fishing still strongly attest to a holistic world view (Kalstad, 116). According to Gaski:

Theoretical approaches are at least always dependent on an abstract language, and if it is true that the linguistic explanation of the things we see is quite different between two separate cultures, then consequently this fact must have an influence on the theories we choose and the methods we create to view and interpret our surrounding.

In effect, form follows function in language as well as architecture, affecting not only what ideas are concretized in vocabulary, but also the methods of communicating with that vocabulary. If a culture ’s literary conventions are reflective of its core values and worldview, the nomad-informed ideals of impermanence and a pragmatist/ functionalist aesthetics are one reason why Sami forms of communication were and remained oral until only about a century ago (Kuokkanen). From the Sami cultural perspective, oral storytelling is literature – Rauna Kuokkanen says of storytelling “Stories are not only words written on paper, but are a whole performance with interaction, communication, the learning process and finally the entire cultural context.”

If storytelling is prose, theorizing is carried out in anecdotal dialogue, and the yoik correlates to a form of poetry at once both deeply personal and yet expressible to a larger community. Performance enables additional layers upon layers of meaning to be coded into the words, but to decode all the layers requires understanding various connotations of language, connotations again embedded in the culture (Gaski, 210-211). As a result, there is an even more refined process of identification/labeling: those who do not know the language are revealed apart from those who do, and those who know the words are further separated into categories of those who know (understand) the culture and those who are only able to speak. Hence, the yoik became a powerful Sami instrument of protest during (Norwegian/Swedish) colonization.

In this case, the language itself becomes a political symbol at both a textual level and at a performed (spoken/taught) level. Symbols, however, are not the ‘real thing, ’ and the retention of symbols does not insure that one understands or retains a sense of the original concepts represented. Referencing Eidheim ’s concept of idioms – symbols and categories full of ethnic import – Vigdis Stordahl discusses how those in the Sami rights movements of the 1970s fought for (and gained) much through a process of recodification of Sami cultural idioms, so that cultural aspects once denigrated – yoiking, dress, and the language are examples – were re--contextualized into signs of pride. Such a conscious and complete reformulation of social identity challenges notions of “Samihood ” held by the external world and within the internal Sami community itself.

This raises several problematic issues. First, if symbol-structures deemed as fundamentals of the spirit or identity (of the Sami/a people) by one generation can be so quickly rejected by the next as hyperbole or antiquated, how ‘true ’ – how inherited rather than theorized or constructed – can the symbols and the elements they are based upon be?? Next, the symbols and rhetoric of the Sami ‘renaissance ’ were premised upon rebellion against the dominant western culture, and therefore much of recent Sami identity is related to the status of being a minority, marginalized, the ‘other. ’ Furthermore, such rhetorical strategies, being directed primarily at the dominant society, are tailored to reach the majority mindset, and indeed, the very politics of human/minority rights versus majority rule is adopted from western legal thought. Those in the Sami nationalist movement are the most educated in western thought and media (Stordahl, 149), a primary example of Paulus Utsi ’s theory of “bi-cultural ” competence. If the Sami are ‘fluent ’ in the West ’s literal and ideological language – a language and worldview that is “monotheistic ” insofar as scientific rationalism, categorical hierarchy, and adherence to (legalistic) principle reject mysticisms and holistic notions – can they still really or naturally understand Sami values? Addressing the necessary evil of communicating to the majority on its own terms, Gaski cautions, “ when we have learned the language of power, we may begin to forget the thought patterns that form the foundation of our own language. Then our “differentness ” can develop into a purely rhetorical veneer … without a cultural base.”

Fears of such an internal and intrinsic loss of actual rather than symbolic Sami identity is somewhat allayed when examining contemporary Sami art in all its forms. True to a holistic, ather than individualistic and specialized mode of behavior, many Sami-artists work ‘pan-art ’, engaging in writing, yoiking, visual art, performance, and so on – “art cannot be distinguished from everyday life and …cannot be differentiated into boxes ” (Kuokkanen, 56). Though the writings, drawings, and music of many new artists cannot be fit with the oldest Sami conception of art – duodje, functional handicraft – such texts are functional as expressions of identity and affirmations of unity in a ‘pure ’ subjective voice rather than calculated/objective-political voice. (This is not to say that art isn’t often calculated; but it sells itself on attributes of personal/intimate/subjective whereas politics even in the most kiss-the-baby phase is public and therefore more suspect). The remainder of this paper will analyze specific Sami prose and poetry texts for thematic issues of identity and knowledge, and examines how the formal elements of these texts references the traditional Sami ‘literary ’ modes of yoik and storytelling to further inform the meaning of the texts themselves.

II. Poems and Stories in Concrete, or Caught Fish

While it would be false and stereotypical to claim that all Sami prose reflects the roundabout, digressive nature (Gaski, 199) of past Sami storytelling, many recent Sami writers do attempt to permanently preserve the essence of their traditional storytelling conventions in their prose. “The Day is Dawning ” by Anders Larsen is one of the clearest examples of the Sami use of storytelling to theorize, speculate, and instruct. Structurally, it presents a cyclical and event marked conception of time, rather than a more typically western measured and linear conception. Opening with “It was a beautiful fall evening ” and an account of the hero Eira ’s physical composure, the story progresses (digresses) to a proportionately lengthy description of the glorious state of the environment. All the elements of nature create beauty through their unity and relationship – snow and vegetation pattern, mountains and valleys between pattern the sky, the lake reflects both the movement of reindeer and the serenity of everything else. The passage is not merely a bit of poetical romanticist mood-setting for Larsen/the narrator goes on to say that the evening and the very location is imbued with Eira ’s childhood memories, memories of interacting with nature and family in innocence as well as memories of frustrating, forced readings of the Bible in Norwegian. This narrative relationship between place and Eira highlights and personalizes the deep link between territory – physical and as psychological association (Gaski, 199) – and a people whose lifestyle was subsistence based rather than agro-economically exploitative. Eira remembers feelings of helplessness and incapability in not being able to speak his ‘own ’ language, and tells of his attempts to learn Sami and to write it, as well as his desire for there to be a schools for Sami in their mother tongue. He falls asleep in his contemplation, and the story again digresses into a dream of his beloved. After waking, Eira ponders the dream and in another instance of going roundabout the subject, we are told, “gradually he has forgotten the name Lovgaard. He only thinks of him as the Norwegian rival who once came in his way. ” His anger towards the Norwegians for their (collective) sins against the Sami grows. Eira ’s cuckolding then becomes an allusion to past theft of Sami land and customs through Norwegian/Swedish legal subterfuge. As he sits there, Eira determines to promote the cause of Sami language and custom, and this internal event marks the end of the passage.

The next passage begins in the same pattern as the first:“It was a nice summer evening in early July, ” followed by Eira ’s physical movements. The parallel start of ‘part 2 ’ gives the story a cyclical rhythm, and puts precedence on the qualities of the moment rather than a hard date. Now, Eira is preparing to give a speech and tell his fellow Sami to be proud and keep their ways alive. As he paces, waiting to speak, the story digresses again to a memory of interaction with a Sami-ferryman, another mini-parable this time concerned with the benefits of admitting to Saminess and the resulting fellow-feelings. Eira gives his speech and it is well received:“When the Sami returned to their homes, it was as if their eyes had been opened. ” This positive reception, together with Eira ’s tenacity in learning Sami and his desire to teach Sami ways to the children indicates that the tale is ultimately prescriptive, a politically charged message to other Sami that resonates because it relates to common personal experiences and not to abstract rhetoric on rights to ‘property ’ and ‘indigenous self-determination. ”

Less didactic but even more representative of the use of storytelling as instruction and theory, and the digressive, sub-story within story structural convention is Joavnna- Ánde Vest ’s “The Cloudberry Trip. ” Told in first person (and therefore having a clear “voice, ” a further link to oral tradition) “The Cloudberry Trip ” is firstly a character sketch of the narrator ’s father, whose idiosyncrasies include an affinity for the outdoors strong enough to make him grumpy when at home; a sense of independence to the point where he hunts cloudberries in the worst locations just to be apart from the crowd; and a stubborn, or tenacious, streak strong enough to persevere until he finds cloudberries in the hardest to get to and loneliest marsh islets. The main plot details a particular summer ’s cloudberry trip, which the author prefaces with a flashback to the previous summer ’s attempts at rafting down the river in an aluminum boat, a method that was difficult and not to be repeated in the ‘present ’ summer.. At the end of the first day of hunting they sit for supper in a lengthy paragraph that lists all the “little tricks that are indispensable in the wilderness ” that the father teaches the children in the course of fixing the meal. He continues teaching the children – how to boil coffee in the middle of the swamp, how to make birch bark burn, the cries of cranes and swans – for the duration of the trip, which lasts a week though specific days are not given with the recounting of many events. Though they do not find many cloudberries, “as a learning experience, our trip was more than successful. ”

The narrator says that one of the main things learned on such trips was the father ’s character and storytelling ability. “He told about ordinary people ’s little experiences but he described them so vividly that a person became completely absorbed. ” One such story is told during an unspecified cloudberry trip, and the narrator remembers that the father kept stopping and starting the tale so that the children had to exercise patience and perseverance in hearing the outcome. The father’s tale concerned a man who happened upon a wolverine and pursued it doggedly, as stubborn in the chase as the beast in its escape. After nearly two days of pursuit, the wolverine mistakenly heads into the open, but is attacked by an eagle, and the man winds up catching both, “great luck” for one so determined. The last and final portion of the text is another of the father’s tales extolling tenacity, his own fortuitous discovery at the end of a previous summer ’s otherwise disappointing trip of an islet covered in cloudberries.

Though the father never finds such a windfall again, the subsequent trips are more lastingly beneficial for his children. The text ’s multi-digression of different tales of willpower and survival reinforce such concepts and demonstrate the applicability of such virtues along the spectrum of human experiences, from the most unique – an encounter with a wolverine and then eagle – to the most mundane, the picking of berries and rafting of boats. As the trip itself is an experiential method of learning living skills for the children, the stories are pedagogical theories of how ‘technical ’ knowledge must also have values and awareness behind it for the user to succeed. The interaction between the father-storyteller and his children-listeners, albeit a teasing one, also facilitates the children’s focus and determination on hearing the end. This ‘active ’ listening parallels the theory in the stories, and in this sense storytelling is itself ‘hands-on’ as well as theoretical in how it ingrains knowledge. Once again, by locating the majority of “The Cloudberry Trip” in a personal account, the ideas within are easily applicable to the general reader’s life.

The relation of yoik to poetry is perhaps even closer than between oral storytelling and the written stories analyzed above. The lyrics in yoik singing are highly individual and personal, yet yoik is also a form of person to person and person to community address. Johan Turi writes that yoik is a way to remember other people (as well as animals and nature) as one receives one ’s own yoik (more than a calling card, a symbol of self). Yoiking may also be a spontaneous outpouring of feeling at a particular point, a way of keeping reindeer in line during herding, a way for a shaman to reach ecstasy. The freeform structure of yoiking – no specific rhythm or rhyme is mandated – allows for flexible and creative use of double meaning in words and in the arrangement of words. The poems of Paulus Utsi, for example, are largely allegories and make heavy use of simile, metaphor, or unstated but understood analogy to natural elements – “In the clouds the wind runs amuck/thinking it can extinguish/the tiny fragile light/but it keeps flickering/giving the Sami/belief in the future and strength. ” Utsi formulated and promoted the concept of “bi-cultural competence, ” and his poetry beautifully balances Sami pride and aesthetic understanding in its words and free rhythms with a defense against, or rejection of, ‘western ’ poetics and reasoning.. Whereas western thought finds proof and justification for what is definable in a logical and abstract sense (Gaski, 202), Utsi says “the yoik is a sanctuary for our thoughts/therefore it has/few spoken words. ” For those outside Sami culture this explains the worth of the yoik for the Sami, and also points out the limits of esteemed rationalistic and abstract definitions and thought:the westerner or ‘outsider ’ can only read the yoik, and reading, being the parsing of words, gives an incomplete and therefore less correct understanding.

Nils Aslak Valkeapää also refers to this in his “Circle of Life, ” though for him the inability to be completely understood by the dominant society is as frustrating as it is a point of cultural-lingual pride and distinction: “you know it brother/you understand it sister/but what do I say to strangers/who spread out everywhere/how shall I answer their questions/that come from a different world. ” Modes of thinking are so deeply ingrained that people of different cultures may still miscomprehend even when actual experience should counsel otherwise: “They come to me/and show books/…/this is the law and it applies to you too/See here/But I do not see brother/…/I cannot/…/I only show them the tundra. ” The Sami experiences and interactions with the land around them become a home that is in the heart, a permanent identity that suffers and diminishes when the land suffers and diminishes.

There is, in effect, a paradox embedded in learning and understanding of identity. On one hand, as some Sami storytelling exemplifies, understanding and ways of dealing with the world can be embedded in language and in the way the language is used. Yet a ‘worldview mother tongue ” in all its connotations and through experience seems exclusive and total, whereas learning a new language does not push out knowledge of a previous tongue. If this is so, Utsi ’s “bi-cultural competence ” is indeed a pragmatic approach for those who want full understanding. However, though all culture is mutable and fluid, the ‘core ’ of Sami culture is rooted in the tangible and permanent, the relationship to the land. If the soul of the Sami is hard to express in words, it is in turn hard to express in symbols, and symbols may become empty. If that is so, does written Sami prose and poetry meant to mimic and permanently capture the essence of storytelling and yoik truly capture it, or is the proverbial spirit of the law adverse to the letter? Newer generations of Sami are being raised in western as well as traditional modes of thought, but what if the “monotheistic ” scientific and concretely lingual western modes of perception do preclude or deny space in one ’s mind for the Sami viewpoint? If Sami understanding of self is sometimes beyond words, how to reference if Sami thought is still Sami? While such questions are quite circular and likely without a ‘true ’ answer by any standards, there are clues in reality where theory runs itself off into space. The Sami culture was based on the need to survive against a difficult nature, and modern Sami struggle to survive in the face of a difficult multi-cultural, global world; the traditional Sami worldview saw webs and interrelations, and contemporary Sami fight for justice for all indigenous people and for maintenance of the environment. To ask whether Sami can ‘know’ if they are ‘truly’ Sami is to question ‘truth’, ‘identity’, ‘knowledge’ at an abstract, categorically defined, and objective, western level. If the fisherman says he caught a pike this big the “healthy skepticism ” of one who has only read about fishing is resentment at the exposure of practical naiveté. If Sami still feel Sami based on their experience, be it lingually (conscious) or ineffably (sub-conscious), is that not true knowledge within their own mode? As Inga-Maria Mulk states in the Swedish Museum forward, “We are still alive. ”


Eidheim, Harald. “Ethno-political Development among the Sami after World War II: The Invention of Selfhood” in Gaski, Sami Culture in a New Era, Davvi Girji OS,1997.

Gaski, Harald. “Introduction” & “ Voice in the Margin: A Suitable Place for a Minority Literature” in Gaski, Sami Culture in a New Era, Davvi Girji OS,1997.

Jernsletten, Nils.“Sami Traditional Terminology: Professional Terms Concerning Salmon, Reindeer, and Snow” in Gaski, Sami Culture in a New Era, Davvi Girji OS, 1997.

Kalstad, Johan Klemet Haetta. “Aspects of Managing Renewable Resources in Sami Areas in Norway ” in Gaski, Sami Culture in a New Era ,Davvi Girji OS, 1997.

Kuokkanen, Rauna.From the Jungle Back to the Duottar.?

Larsen, Anders.“The Day is Dawning ” in Gaski, In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun, Davvi Girji OS, 1997.

Mulk, Inga-Maria.“Forward ” in The Sami: People of the Sun and Wind, Ájtte: Swedish Mountain and Saami Museum, Jokkmokk, June 1993.