ESSAY: Sámi Literature: Trends and Travel Abroad

Sámi Literature: Trends and Travel Abroad
by Vuokko Hirvonen, translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers

Finnish literature is generally comprised of Finnish-language and Finland-Swedish literature, but a third category, Sámi-language literature, is often forgotten. By Sámi literature, I mean literature written in Sámi for Sámi readers. An average of 10 new titles (including children’s books) appear each year, published by small Sámi presses, of which there are some half a dozen, the largest of these in Norway. These publishers also strive to make Sámi literature better known by publishing translations of Sámi works, particularly in the Nordic languages.

Sámi literature comes from Sápmi, the Sámi-inhabited region that extends through parts of Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Altogether there are nine different Sámi languages spoken in the Sámi region, from central Scandinavia to the Kola peninsula, six of which have officially-sanctioned written languages, and thus literatures. Sámi literature in Finland is published in the Inari, Skolt and Northern Sámi languages, as well as Finnish.

The number of Sámi speakers is estimated at about 30,000 to 35,000, of which 80 to 90 percent speak Northern Sámi. These numbers do not reflect the fact that not all native Sámi speakers can read and write in the mother tongue, because they haven’t received instruction in Sámi as part of their education. There are many obstacles that keep Sámi literature from reaching readers.

Despite the fact that the readership for Sámi literature is small, most Sámi writers write in Sámi, which says a lot about the importance of the language. Because the majority of Sámi literature is published in Sámi, its access to large markets of readers requires translators and publishers interested in minority literature. Although Sámi-language literature began as early as the turn of the last century, and more and more literature has appeared over time, very little has been translated into more widely-spoken languages. Between 1980 and 2008, about a dozen works in Sámi by such writers as Inger-Mari Aikio-Arianaick (born 1961), Kati-Claudia Fofonoff (born 1947), Harald Gaski (born 1955), Rauna Paadar-Leivo (born 1942), Rauni Magga Lukkari (born 1943), Kirste Palto (born 1947), Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943–2001) and Jovnna Ánde Vest (born 1948) have been translated into Finnish.

The situation is significantly better in Norway, where the work of many contemporary Sámi writers is available in Norwegian. Anthologies of Sámi literature have been published in Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, English, Italian, Icelandic and Estonian. The only Finnish-language anthology of Sámi writing, Skabmatolak/Tulia kaamoksessa (Fires in the darkness), was published in 1974. There are numerous anthologies in the Scandinavian languages: Ildstedene synger (The hearths sing, 1984), Våja våja nana nana (1991), Vårt liv: Samiska dikter (Our life: Sami poets, 1991) as well as in English: Shadow of the Midnight Sun (1996), Beyond the Wolf Line: An Anthology of Sámi Poetry (1996), Female Voices of the North II: An Anthology (2006).

An anthology in Italian translation, Canti Lapponi (Sámi songs), appeared in 1992. A literary anthology of the Barents region in Finnish, Swedish and Sámi – Tästä alkaa tie (The road begins here) – was published in 1999. Icelanders have also had a chance to get to know Sámi literature through writer Einar Bra’s translations. He has published occasional translations of individual Sámi pieces, as well as the anthology Undir norðurljósum – samísk ljóð (Under the Northern Lights: Sámi poetry, 2003). The anthology Valik Saami luulet (Selected Sámi poetry) was published in Estonia in 2007.

Only one Sámi author has ever won the Nordic Council Prize – Nils Aslak Valkeapää for his 1991 book Beaivi, áhčážan (The Sun, My Father). Valkeapää’s prize increased interest in Sámi literature, and the Scandinavian version Solen min far (1995) sold more than 5,000 copies. The book was also published in English in 1997. Since Valkeapää’s success, Sámi literature has received more column inches in the media.

The rise of Sámi literature since the 1970s has raised the profile of women writers and witnessed the birth of Sámi-language children’s literature. Women in particular are interested in creating children’s literature in their own language, and at present it is second only to poetry among Sámi literature’s strongest genres. The increase in Sámi children’s literature created a demand for suitable illustrations, and Sámi visual artists have had the opportunity to use their own cultural background to contribute to the creation of these books. The Norwegian Sámi publisher Davvi Girji has made a particular effort to publish and translate children’s literature written in smaller Sámi languages such as Inari, Kildin, Southern and Lule Sámi.

The development of Sámi literature from the 1970s to the present reflects changes in the status of traditional Sámi minority culture. In the 1970s and ’80s, writers had personal experience of being torn from their native language, identity, and culture through their education. This collective experience erupted in their writing, and in the process a form of expression was created in their mother tongues. A strong element of these works was an ethno-political defence of the rights of the Sámi minority. Women’s place in Sámi literature was strengthened in the 1980s, and at the same time the spectrum of writing diversified: in addition to children’s literature and poetry, novels, short stories, and plays appeared, as did autobiographical memoirs. Many authors’ repertoires are broad, running the gamut from children’s books to poetry to prose.

In the 1990s, the status of the Sámis was recognized in many ways, including legislation. Sámi language laws came into effect in the Nordic countries, Sámi cultural self-government was strengthened, and Sámis may now receive instruction in their native languages throughout their compulsory education period in many schools. In short, Sámi authors no longer have the same kinds of collective issues to advocate for, and the focus in their literary work has shifted to a critical examination of the self and the immediate environment as well as the majority-minority relationship.

For decades, Sámi literature has done its part to strengthen a positive Sámi identity. It has used Sámi culture in its various forms – both those that have been long forgotten and those that still flourish, and the use of folk tales, narratives, mythology, and traditional yoik songs provides an essential resource in the construction of Sámi identity. By making visible that which has been invisible and shameful for centuries, literature has restored significance to the Sámi past and its culture. The yoik, for example, became a central symbol of ‘Sáminess’ in the 1970s, which was reflected in Sámi literature. Young poets in particular experienced for themselves the yoik mode of expression, and its idiom and intimate relationship with nature have been a basic material of lyric poetry. Almost without exception, Sámi poems are unmetered and in the vernacular, and are characterized by the yoik’s abundance of descriptive expressions. Epic poetry, for its part, shows the influence of oral tradition and beliefs. As an active community of middle-aged writers approach their sixties, a central challenge of Sámi literature at the turn of this century is the attempt to interest the young in Sámi writing. Brighter days are ahead, however, because over the past decade many young Sámi-language writers of literature for both children and adults have made their debut, including Niillas Holmberg, whose poems are featured in English translation in this issue of Transcript.


Note: This article was first published in Finnish in: Pohjois-Suomen kirjallisuushistoria (SKS, 2010)







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