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Nonfiction

Sharing Stories: A Brief Introduction to Sámi Literary History

Mathilde Magga discusses the many languages, nationalities, and genres that make up the Sámi literary tradition.
Two log cabins, one with a grass roof, in a field next to the water
I, Argus fin, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past several weeks, Words Without Borders has presented work by Sámi writers. Although all the authors identify as Sámi, only one, Risten Sokki, actually writes in a Sámi language. (Poet Rönn-Lisa Zakrisson writes in Swedish because she argues that it is the rest of Sweden, not the Sámi people, who need to hear more about colonialism in the north.) While the majority of writing about the Sámi experience is in Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish, literature in Sámi does exist.         

Discussing any aspect of Sámi history, culture, or language can be a complicated task. The Sámi people are spread across multiple countries—Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia—and there are nine surviving Sámi languages, which are part of the Finno-Ugric language family. It is difficult to explicitly state how many Sámi there are for a number of reasons. First, there is no official registry. One can register to vote in the Sámi Parliament, but not all Sámi choose to do so. In addition, years of colonialism and assimilation—involving different tactics by the aforementioned governments to oppress the Sámi (for example, forced enrollment of children in boarding schools where Sámi languages were forbidden)—led to many Sámi not only choosing to stop speaking their heritage language, but also to stop identifying as Sámi altogether. Many Sámi have therefore not grown up with the language or culture and are thus unsure whether to identify themselves as such. Naturally, this has led to the tragic reality of our languages: they are disappearing. It is hard to put a number on Sámi speakers, but there are believed to be between 20,000 and 30,000 worldwide. Northern Sámi is the biggest language group by far, with around 20,000 speakers, followed by Lule Sámi, with approximately 1,000. Kildin Sámi only has about 700 speakers and Southern Sámi even fewer. Some Sámi languages—such as Ume and Pite—only have a few speakers left.

Like many other Indigenous peoples, the Sámi exist across both borders and languages. This affects our history and culture, but also our day-to-day lives. For example, I grew up in Norway speaking Northern Sámi, meaning I can communicate with a Sámi person in Finland who speaks Northern Sámi. When I speak to my Sámi stepfather, on the other hand, I have to switch to Norwegian because he speaks Southern Sámi. While Northern Sámi and Southern Sámi do have many similarities, a Sámi from one language group would typically not be able to have a conversation with someone who speaks a language from a neighboring area. Either way, we are still part of the same culture, the same people. At times, these differences can create difficulties when it comes to tackling issues in our community, but it also means that we are a diverse people who are good at adapting to the circumstances around us.

These complexities are crucial when discussing Sámi literature. Because of the multitude of languages, most Sámi aren’t able to read all the Sámi literature being produced. In addition, the fact that Sámi live in different nations has a significant impact on literary production. Funding sources vary by country, and some might argue Sámi literature has gotten the furthest in Norway, where there is some institutional backing. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Finland, offer little to no financial support, leading to very little Sámi literature being published there. Considering how few Sámi people can read and write in their own language, any book published in a Sámi language would naturally have a small number of readers. This is especially the case when it comes to the Sámi languages with few speakers left, which means that writers depend on public funding. There are approximately 150 people writing literature in the various Sámi languages, but none of them earn enough to make a living from their writing alone. Still, by continuing to write and publish despite the many obstacles, Sámi authors are making it possible for new generations to grow up reading in their own language. They also make a powerful statement about how important language and literature are to our culture.

Sámi scholar Harald Gaski defines the Sámi term for literature, “girjjálašvuohta,” by looking at the Sámi word “girji”—which best translates to “book” in English—as “something that has a pattern or something that is written.” He continues that such a definition is more “inclusive  . . . of what Sámi literature can encompass and include, and hence it is quite natural for both joiks (chanted tales) and stories to be included as examples of Sámi literature.” A narrow definition of literature as confined to prose or poetry would overlook essential aspects of Sámi culture and history that we include in our understanding.

In 1910, Johan Turi became the first Sámi writer to publish a book in Sámi. His work, Muitalus sámiid birra (An Account of the Sámi), was published in Northern Sámi and Danish. Over the next sixty years, Sámi authors published approximately twenty books, ten of which were published between 1910 and 1915. As storytelling is such an essential part of Sámi culture, there is no doubt that stories and other forms of literature were being written and shared in these years, but in the publishing world, Sámi literature was close to nonexistent. Despite this, authors such as Johan Turi, Anders Larsen, Pedar Jalvi, Anta Pirak, and Hans Aslak Guttorm did write during this time, and many of them are seen as pioneers of our literature.

The Sámi literary landscape started shifting in the 1970s, when Indigenous peoples and other minorities worldwide started a global political movement to demand their rights—a movement the Sámi also participated in. The force of a global movement and the sense that things were starting to shift for Indigenous peoples likely inspired more Sámi to write. It may have also helped stress the importance of our language and sharing our stories and experiences, both among ourselves and with others. During these years, the Sámi literary world also evolved through the introduction of Sámi writing seminars, associations, and publishing houses, among other measures to further Sámi literature. The emergence of Sámi critics, too, helped support and push the writers themselves. The attention to Sámi literature was increasing, even if publishing the work itself was still challenging.

Another issue addressed in the 70s concerned the written Sámi language. Before this, Sámi in Norway and Sweden had adopted a different orthography than the Sámi in Finland. That meant that even if Northern Sámi people from Norway and Finland could understand each other when speaking, they could not read each other’s writing. This made it even harder for Sámi to access literature from and about themselves. It was not until 1979 that the countries agreed upon a standard orthography, and this, as well as the growing engagement around literature, was crucial for the revitalization and perpetuation of our language and literature. During this period, several new and influential authors emerged, including Synnøve Persen, Rauni Magga Lukkari, Kirsti Paltto, and Nils-Aslak Valkeapää.

Certain themes are constant throughout Sámi literature. For example, many Sámi works incorporate traditional stories that usually teach us something about how to behave in the world. These stories teach us to respect all living things, be they animals, beings from the underworld, or even the northern lights. This type of storytelling is a powerful tool in raising our children, but also in teaching others who are not familiar with our culture about what we value. In addition, it has been necessary to tell the world about the basics of our culture, such as in Turi’s Muitalus sámiid birra, where he explains hunting, reindeer herding, and other traditions. Nature has arguably been the most common theme in Sámi literature, as our traditions and values all stem from our relationship with the land. These themes can still be seen today, but the new generation of authors—Sigbjørn Skåden, Niilas Holmberg, Máret Ánne Sara, and Rawdna Carita Eira, to name a few—are also starting new conversations. More recently, Sámi authors have been opening up about issues within our communities that have been difficult to speak about—and therefore also write about—such as violence and abuse. We are also seeing newer realities reflected in Sámi literature, such as what it means to grow up as a Sámi person in today’s digitized world. This allows newer generations both to read about traditional ways and see themselves reflected on the page.

Literature can be seen as one of the main ways of keeping our traditions and languages alive, and as an expression of our identity. As Gaski states, “the Sámi do not have as many other traditions and ceremonies as other Indigenous peoples, and hence the joik and language are what have helped to bind us together, and they are also the media we have presented to the outside world as our most important cultural values.” Literature is one of our building blocks, and we are lucky to have publications in our language, since many other Indigenous peoples around the world do not. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go. Writing a book takes a lot of commitment and talent, and as mentioned above, it is far from economically profitable to publish in Sámi. In other words, the incentive to write in Sámi is lacking. Therefore, Sámi youth in particular need more resources to learn to write in their own language. We also need more financial support so that more writers can publish their work in their own language. Lastly, there is the issue of translation, as, according to Gaski, “there are currently only few translators and even fewer support systems for translation from Sámi languages into Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or other languages.” One of the main reasons translations are so important when it comes to Sámi literature is because we exist across many languages and borders. Translating our work is vital if we are to share our work with our own people. Many have not had the opportunity to learn any Sámi language and thus rely on translations. For others writing in Sámi languages with very few readers, one of the only ways to increase readership and share their work is to have it translated. For Sámi literature to continue playing its essential role in our culture and to expand its benefits, we need more writers, readers, and translators, which is impossible without support—both financially and through the education system.

For their Voices from Sápmi series, Words Without Borders is presenting pieces by five contemporary Sámi writers: Moa Backe Åstot, Linnea Axelsson, Risten Sokki, Rönn-Lisa Zakrisson, and Elin Anna Labba, all of whom come from different regions in Sápmi and write in different languages. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Sámi writing—the vast majority of which has not been translated into English. Words Without Borders’ publication of this series is one of the first steps in encouraging more Sámi literature in English, regardless of what language the author writes in. The important thing is that Sámi voices are heard—that their stories are shared and made accessible to a broader audience. Doing so will not only enrich the Indigenous literary corpus, but also broaden literary horizons for all readers. Sámi stories have survived journeys through unimaginably rough terrain, through centuries of oppression and violence. Despite this, the literature has continued its journey to the present day. I have faith in its progress, but there is still a long way to go.

 

A selection of Sámi books available in English:

Matti Aikio, In Reindeer Hide (I dyreskind). Translated from Norwegian by John Weinstock. Agarita Press, 2015.

Ailo Gaup, The Night Between Days (Natten mellom dagene) Translated from Norwegian by John Weinstock. Nordic Studies Press, 2010.

Ann-Helén Laestadius, Stolen (Stöld) Translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles. Scribner, 2023.

Johan Turi, An Account of the Sámi (Muitalus sámiid birra). Translated from North Sámi by Tom DuBois. Nordic Studies Press, 2011.

Nils-Aslak Valkeäpää, The Sun, My Father (Beaivi, áhčážan). Translated from North Sámi by Lars Nordstrom, Harald Gaski, and Ralph Salisbury. University of Washington Press, 1997.
 

© 2022 by Mathilde Magga. All rights reserved.

English

Over the past several weeks, Words Without Borders has presented work by Sámi writers. Although all the authors identify as Sámi, only one, Risten Sokki, actually writes in a Sámi language. (Poet Rönn-Lisa Zakrisson writes in Swedish because she argues that it is the rest of Sweden, not the Sámi people, who need to hear more about colonialism in the north.) While the majority of writing about the Sámi experience is in Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish, literature in Sámi does exist.         

Discussing any aspect of Sámi history, culture, or language can be a complicated task. The Sámi people are spread across multiple countries—Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia—and there are nine surviving Sámi languages, which are part of the Finno-Ugric language family. It is difficult to explicitly state how many Sámi there are for a number of reasons. First, there is no official registry. One can register to vote in the Sámi Parliament, but not all Sámi choose to do so. In addition, years of colonialism and assimilation—involving different tactics by the aforementioned governments to oppress the Sámi (for example, forced enrollment of children in boarding schools where Sámi languages were forbidden)—led to many Sámi not only choosing to stop speaking their heritage language, but also to stop identifying as Sámi altogether. Many Sámi have therefore not grown up with the language or culture and are thus unsure whether to identify themselves as such. Naturally, this has led to the tragic reality of our languages: they are disappearing. It is hard to put a number on Sámi speakers, but there are believed to be between 20,000 and 30,000 worldwide. Northern Sámi is the biggest language group by far, with around 20,000 speakers, followed by Lule Sámi, with approximately 1,000. Kildin Sámi only has about 700 speakers and Southern Sámi even fewer. Some Sámi languages—such as Ume and Pite—only have a few speakers left.

Like many other Indigenous peoples, the Sámi exist across both borders and languages. This affects our history and culture, but also our day-to-day lives. For example, I grew up in Norway speaking Northern Sámi, meaning I can communicate with a Sámi person in Finland who speaks Northern Sámi. When I speak to my Sámi stepfather, on the other hand, I have to switch to Norwegian because he speaks Southern Sámi. While Northern Sámi and Southern Sámi do have many similarities, a Sámi from one language group would typically not be able to have a conversation with someone who speaks a language from a neighboring area. Either way, we are still part of the same culture, the same people. At times, these differences can create difficulties when it comes to tackling issues in our community, but it also means that we are a diverse people who are good at adapting to the circumstances around us.

These complexities are crucial when discussing Sámi literature. Because of the multitude of languages, most Sámi aren’t able to read all the Sámi literature being produced. In addition, the fact that Sámi live in different nations has a significant impact on literary production. Funding sources vary by country, and some might argue Sámi literature has gotten the furthest in Norway, where there is some institutional backing. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Finland, offer little to no financial support, leading to very little Sámi literature being published there. Considering how few Sámi people can read and write in their own language, any book published in a Sámi language would naturally have a small number of readers. This is especially the case when it comes to the Sámi languages with few speakers left, which means that writers depend on public funding. There are approximately 150 people writing literature in the various Sámi languages, but none of them earn enough to make a living from their writing alone. Still, by continuing to write and publish despite the many obstacles, Sámi authors are making it possible for new generations to grow up reading in their own language. They also make a powerful statement about how important language and literature are to our culture.

Sámi scholar Harald Gaski defines the Sámi term for literature, “girjjálašvuohta,” by looking at the Sámi word “girji”—which best translates to “book” in English—as “something that has a pattern or something that is written.” He continues that such a definition is more “inclusive  . . . of what Sámi literature can encompass and include, and hence it is quite natural for both joiks (chanted tales) and stories to be included as examples of Sámi literature.” A narrow definition of literature as confined to prose or poetry would overlook essential aspects of Sámi culture and history that we include in our understanding.

In 1910, Johan Turi became the first Sámi writer to publish a book in Sámi. His work, Muitalus sámiid birra (An Account of the Sámi), was published in Northern Sámi and Danish. Over the next sixty years, Sámi authors published approximately twenty books, ten of which were published between 1910 and 1915. As storytelling is such an essential part of Sámi culture, there is no doubt that stories and other forms of literature were being written and shared in these years, but in the publishing world, Sámi literature was close to nonexistent. Despite this, authors such as Johan Turi, Anders Larsen, Pedar Jalvi, Anta Pirak, and Hans Aslak Guttorm did write during this time, and many of them are seen as pioneers of our literature.

The Sámi literary landscape started shifting in the 1970s, when Indigenous peoples and other minorities worldwide started a global political movement to demand their rights—a movement the Sámi also participated in. The force of a global movement and the sense that things were starting to shift for Indigenous peoples likely inspired more Sámi to write. It may have also helped stress the importance of our language and sharing our stories and experiences, both among ourselves and with others. During these years, the Sámi literary world also evolved through the introduction of Sámi writing seminars, associations, and publishing houses, among other measures to further Sámi literature. The emergence of Sámi critics, too, helped support and push the writers themselves. The attention to Sámi literature was increasing, even if publishing the work itself was still challenging.

Another issue addressed in the 70s concerned the written Sámi language. Before this, Sámi in Norway and Sweden had adopted a different orthography than the Sámi in Finland. That meant that even if Northern Sámi people from Norway and Finland could understand each other when speaking, they could not read each other’s writing. This made it even harder for Sámi to access literature from and about themselves. It was not until 1979 that the countries agreed upon a standard orthography, and this, as well as the growing engagement around literature, was crucial for the revitalization and perpetuation of our language and literature. During this period, several new and influential authors emerged, including Synnøve Persen, Rauni Magga Lukkari, Kirsti Paltto, and Nils-Aslak Valkeapää.

Certain themes are constant throughout Sámi literature. For example, many Sámi works incorporate traditional stories that usually teach us something about how to behave in the world. These stories teach us to respect all living things, be they animals, beings from the underworld, or even the northern lights. This type of storytelling is a powerful tool in raising our children, but also in teaching others who are not familiar with our culture about what we value. In addition, it has been necessary to tell the world about the basics of our culture, such as in Turi’s Muitalus sámiid birra, where he explains hunting, reindeer herding, and other traditions. Nature has arguably been the most common theme in Sámi literature, as our traditions and values all stem from our relationship with the land. These themes can still be seen today, but the new generation of authors—Sigbjørn Skåden, Niilas Holmberg, Máret Ánne Sara, and Rawdna Carita Eira, to name a few—are also starting new conversations. More recently, Sámi authors have been opening up about issues within our communities that have been difficult to speak about—and therefore also write about—such as violence and abuse. We are also seeing newer realities reflected in Sámi literature, such as what it means to grow up as a Sámi person in today’s digitized world. This allows newer generations both to read about traditional ways and see themselves reflected on the page.

Literature can be seen as one of the main ways of keeping our traditions and languages alive, and as an expression of our identity. As Gaski states, “the Sámi do not have as many other traditions and ceremonies as other Indigenous peoples, and hence the joik and language are what have helped to bind us together, and they are also the media we have presented to the outside world as our most important cultural values.” Literature is one of our building blocks, and we are lucky to have publications in our language, since many other Indigenous peoples around the world do not. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go. Writing a book takes a lot of commitment and talent, and as mentioned above, it is far from economically profitable to publish in Sámi. In other words, the incentive to write in Sámi is lacking. Therefore, Sámi youth in particular need more resources to learn to write in their own language. We also need more financial support so that more writers can publish their work in their own language. Lastly, there is the issue of translation, as, according to Gaski, “there are currently only few translators and even fewer support systems for translation from Sámi languages into Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or other languages.” One of the main reasons translations are so important when it comes to Sámi literature is because we exist across many languages and borders. Translating our work is vital if we are to share our work with our own people. Many have not had the opportunity to learn any Sámi language and thus rely on translations. For others writing in Sámi languages with very few readers, one of the only ways to increase readership and share their work is to have it translated. For Sámi literature to continue playing its essential role in our culture and to expand its benefits, we need more writers, readers, and translators, which is impossible without support—both financially and through the education system.

For their Voices from Sápmi series, Words Without Borders is presenting pieces by five contemporary Sámi writers: Moa Backe Åstot, Linnea Axelsson, Risten Sokki, Rönn-Lisa Zakrisson, and Elin Anna Labba, all of whom come from different regions in Sápmi and write in different languages. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Sámi writing—the vast majority of which has not been translated into English. Words Without Borders’ publication of this series is one of the first steps in encouraging more Sámi literature in English, regardless of what language the author writes in. The important thing is that Sámi voices are heard—that their stories are shared and made accessible to a broader audience. Doing so will not only enrich the Indigenous literary corpus, but also broaden literary horizons for all readers. Sámi stories have survived journeys through unimaginably rough terrain, through centuries of oppression and violence. Despite this, the literature has continued its journey to the present day. I have faith in its progress, but there is still a long way to go.

 

A selection of Sámi books available in English:

Matti Aikio, In Reindeer Hide (I dyreskind). Translated from Norwegian by John Weinstock. Agarita Press, 2015.

Ailo Gaup, The Night Between Days (Natten mellom dagene) Translated from Norwegian by John Weinstock. Nordic Studies Press, 2010.

Ann-Helén Laestadius, Stolen (Stöld) Translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles. Scribner, 2023.

Johan Turi, An Account of the Sámi (Muitalus sámiid birra). Translated from North Sámi by Tom DuBois. Nordic Studies Press, 2011.

Nils-Aslak Valkeäpää, The Sun, My Father (Beaivi, áhčážan). Translated from North Sámi by Lars Nordstrom, Harald Gaski, and Ralph Salisbury. University of Washington Press, 1997.
 

© 2022 by Mathilde Magga. All rights reserved.

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