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Winter 1999, Volume 16.2



Harald Gaski Photo of Harald Gaski.

A Language to Catch Birds With

Harald Gaski is a professor in Sami literature at the University of Tromsø, Norway. His latest books in English are the anthology
In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun: Contemporary Sami Prose and Poetry, 1997, and Sami Culture in a New Era: The Norwegian Sami Experience, 1997, internationally distributed through the University of Washington Press.


You should have read this, Uncle, along with your books by Hamsun, when you sat in the turf hut during the trips out to your snares and traps, the year you and my father got so sick of all the boiled ptarmigan you had to eat because the crows had gotten to the birds first and torn them to pieces. Or you should have read it, together with your Bible, when you later became one of the elders in the congregation and sat up at the preacher’s table, never as a preacher, but as one of those who should both correct and support those who were speaking. Because the word is important, it has power and must be administered correctly. The word has a meaning for everyone and, therefore, the people must take part in governing it. You also said, when I became somewhat involved in the Sami awakening, that it is just the way it should be that our language, too, must be heard. And then you told stories about your own experiences that confirmed the truth in what you said.

But nothing you said was complete, it seemed, before it was accompanied by a story to support the concrete language. You flew like a gaccepas (titmouse), and soared like a biehkan (rough-legged buzzard), and you taught me rievssatgiella (the ptarmigan’s language). For every animal has his own language, rievssatgiella is the language of the ptarmigan and njoammilgiella is the language of the hare. I learned both languages from you, and both had stories connected with them. Rievssatgiella was, in other words, both the snare for catching the ptarmigan and the ptarmigan’s own language. I think you felt I should master both in order to be able to catch a ptarmigan. Again, this dualism, like in the Sami tales about the lake with a double bottom, where the fish now and then could hide in the lower lake. Then neither spinner nor nets would suffice, the fish had literally vanished, hook, line and sinker.


Fooling Salmon With the Mind

Speaking of fish. I remember well the many times I sat by the the campfire on the banks of Tana river as a child, listening to the more or less fantastic salmon-catching stories, about long and tough pulling contests between salmon and humans, stories in which the salmon was given almost human qualities and abilities to both think and act according to a cunning plan. I have since then often thought about this as a parallel to the qualities one traditionally attributed to the bear. The bear was a highly respected sacred animal who even was able to understand human talk except for metaphorical circumlocutions, but at the same time an easily fooled creature, who in spite of his enormous strength still was surpassed both by the human mind and by the trickster fox. The salmon was the king of the river and sea, so why shouldn’t it be as wise as the king of the forest, the bear? The salmon, after all, made the pollack or the coalfish—a fish only able to survive in salt waters—turn at at a certain point in the river when the pollack wanted to be tough and show its strength, as the story tells us:

Once a salmon and a pollack met at the Sieiddá rapids on Tana river. It was early in the summer, the salmon had wintered over in the river and was on its way back to the sea, while the pollack, in its arrogance, had begun swimming upstream.

"Where on earth do you think you’re going?" asked the salmon.

"Upstream, like you. I’m no worse a swimmer than you are," answered the pollack.

"But where do you keep enough fat to live off? Remember there’s little food in the river," said the salmon, but the pollack answered self-assuredly:   

"Oh, I think I have enough fat in my liver."

"In your liver," said the salmon with a chuckle. "Look how skinny I am now. You surely remember how I usually look when I’m in the ocean, look at me now! No, poor fellow, turn around, and stay where the conditions are better for you."

And the pollack came to his senses, turned around and swam back to the sea, where it’s now bragging about having been all the way to Seistryket—the pollack stream—in Tana. And, it’s a known fact that people say Sáidenjavvi about the area below Tana Bridge, but Sieiddáguoika above the bridge—that is, the pollack stream and the Sieiddá rapids (Sieiddá is a place name), to show the differences in the strength of the current between njavvi and guoika. There is, then, a play on words between the likeness of the two place names.

The salmon is both strong and wise, and it is an honor for the fisherman to "fool" it into biting the hook. Even when it’s on the hook, there is no guarantee it will stay there. It’s actually at this time that the real battle begins, the battle of both strength and mind. The fishing equipment must, of course, be good, but it doesn’t help to play the salmon too hard; because if you do, you will just tear its jaw and lose it. You have to be clever enough to tire the salmon out so it’s just a matter of hooking it well, in the gills or through the head, so it will stay on your line. Then, later, you can sit by the fire, have your coffee and boast how big the fish was:"lei lossa guolli, dettii guoktelot kilo, tyve kilo !" (…"it was a really heavy one, it weighed twenty kilograms!") The weight is first expressed in Sami and then repeated in Norwegian with a Sami accent. It’s as if it isn’t quite enough to say only in Sami that it was a big fish that weighed twenty kilograms. Experience and the schools that educated us had implanted in us how poor and inadequate Sami was and therefore we had to confirm the Sami statement by repeating it in Norwegian as well. But only in certain situations. It wasn’t because we thought it would be more precise or more powerful if we said it in Norwegian, but, in short, because we had a habit of wanting to give it some variety through another means of expression. A story always becomes boring if the same punch line is repeated with the very same words, whereas a change of the expression, a more polished catch word or a surprising combination of two different points of view suddenly open up a sense of the dimension of what is expressed. And that’s where "Norski talk" could be put to use, because everyone understood the numbers in Norwegian, of course. And, in addition to that, when the y-sound in tyve (twenty) becomes more like an u- or i-sound, the Norwegian is no longer just Norwegian, but something which has been adapted to fit the need of the moment. And, the Sami have always been good at utilizing whatever is at hand, making something useful of it. In that way, Norwegian could also serve the need of the Sami language to amplify expressions. The Sami names for salmon become too precise and can almost be compared with scientific words for the species, words denoting age, sex and size. And scientific language has, as is well known, seldom evoked great emotions in speaker or listener, even if it is both on the mark and useful in its own sphere.


Language, Experience and the Mosquito Maidens

What can this preoccupation with language tell us about the Sami view of language? Is it only a means of communication or is it something more than that? Is language, in fact, a medium in which we exist as human beings and function as social beings? Is language tantamount to our experience of life and culture, or is it simply used to keep a conversation going? When Nils-Aslak Valkeapää in his book The Sun—my Father (1991), chooses to create a metaphorical poem of a migrating herd of reindeer and uses [in his poem] some of the wealth of names that exist in Sami to describe the reindeer’s appearance, age and sex, he does so not only to demonstrate the wealth of terminology within the Sami language—he does something beyond that: He plays with the language, conjuring up concepts that have never been used before in that fashion. He conceives, in a sense, new fictional animals by combining familiar words in new ways. And he creates different reindeer which, in terms of their being a part of the herd or outside of it, can easily be viewed as parallels to the artist and his or her position in society, as well as to all human beings in their common experiences of being part of a "flock" or alone.

To this wealth of words can be added a great number of Sami onomatopoetical expressions for sounds pertaining to migration, words for working the herd, for the baying of dogs,and the sounds of a thousand hoofs on frozen ground, for undulating moors over which reindeer horns move, for the sound of bells that, like a blanket of clouds, lift the sky up and give the basis for life in these northern regions. And, as if that isn’t enough, there are allusions to the Sami national anthem, and tracks left behind by the herd, both concrete tracks where it has walked and abstract tracks for us, the readers, to follow back into history. Whether we journey with the herd or only pass by it as we wander, it is impossible for us to survive into the future without the tracks, without nature: The River of Life, the daughter of spring, sap, the mosquito maidens and "the sun/red and warm/moved happiness/ into the morning." Because "nothing remains of us/but a yoik in the singing wind/a dream about being." But even so: "and time does not exist, no end, none/and time is, eternal, always, is," and we are all part of "the life’s circle/infinite/without/beginning/or end/fulfills/changes/colors"…"the horizon’s red dawn/ the starry peaks."

Valkeapää entices the reader to join him on new adventures on familiar territory. A journey on the Sami tundrathe vast, open mountain plateaus—together with the Sami artist can make us readers see other things than those we are used to seeing. The language is both concrete and abstract, now providing us with a firm foothold only to later take us along on a journey across the vast expanses of the mind. There we can be every bit as alone as on the earthly tundra, just as the discovery of our own wingspan always is experienced alone. In one way, this is parallel to sitting down in a reading room to study the Sami language and all of a sudden discover that Sami uses the same words for learning a language as for checking a snare; oahppat giela can mean both "learning language" and "checking to see if there is anything caught in the snare." Then the study room is no longer just a large and lonely room with books and students, it is suddenly filled with the sighing of the wind across the tundra , with childhood’s play-filled apprenticeship in preparation for adulthood’s work—the making of a snare to catch the ptarmigan; with both entrance and fence, measuring out, bit by bit, the proper height for the trap, goapmir ja ceakko bealgi (literally, the hand and the thumb pointing upward), knowledgeable guidance given by an uncle who seemed to have an endless amount of time to teach you the task with care. For it had to be done correctly. Even if the snare was placed 150 meters from the house, where the ptarmigan never came, it had to be put together correctly, "because how could you ever put together a snare in the woods, when you perhaps are both tired and cold, if you don’t learn how to do it correctly now." And the next day, on skis over the heath, off we went to set some real snares, where the ptarmigans stroll—yes, really stroll—since only two-legged creatures vázzet or vihket (walk or run), four-legged ones ruhttet (trot in a way only four-legged creatures can). That’s how I learned about that, and how to capture ptarmigan, but it wasn’t until thirty years later that I began to wonder why my uncle always had so much time to teach me all kinds of things. And why should I, this little skinny kid, learn to do everything so meticulously? Never was I allowed to be sloppy with anything, it had to be done properly, as if an adult had done it, even if it was done in miniature version.


My Uncle and the Abstract Heights

Not until later did I understand that the Sami upbringing of children was at that time more a communal matter than it is now, that my father’s older brother had a great pedagogical responsibility for his nephew, and that language was such a large part of what the children had to learn. Therefore, the tale, not the actual adventure, but the fictional tale based on reality, was an important companion to the learning process. We always talked a lot as we walked, as we worked, while we were having coffee and dipping the lump of sugar in the coffee, sucking it and dipping it one last time before it melted in the mouth. We talked, and a whole world of experiences was implanted in me, without my being conscious of it until thirty years later, when my uncle had been dead for a long time and I no longer could ask him if he knew how pedagogical he was. And this double learning, hands-on experience combined with mastery of language which stemmed from work but also gave the child tools with which to fly, lifted daily chores to abstract heights, where the buzzard soars and is able to watch earthly labor from an other angle. Did my uncle know that he was giving me wings, or did he just do what tradition dictated as his responsibility? How much was intentional, pedagogically structured teaching, how much was tradition’s subtlety? What was important for my uncle was that I should learn to manage in this world. With regard to that, too, the Sami method of learning was important, because it made room for double heights; we learned the practical activity by learning to do the work, and we learned to master the task verbally by learning the concepts related to it. But we also learned the possibilities for abstraction, which language provided because of its multifacetedness, through the stories that accompanied work, and by listening to the adults’ conversations about what we had learned, said and done. We often didn’t recognize ourselves in all that they were saying, but it must have been funny, because they were laughing. We never felt they were laughing at us, but at their own renditions of our activities based on their teaching. We were left with not only a feeling, but a certainty that language is a fantastic tool with which one can create one’s own reality.


Ensnare with Language

The Sami poet Paulus Utsi (1918-1975) had a project in mind with his writing: He wanted to capture the language, catch it with the very snares of language itself. He wanted to write a poetic trilogy, in which the titles of each part would explain how the project was proceeding. He was able to finish two collections before he died, the last one appearing posthumously, with his wife Inger as co-author. The title of this collection indicated, however, that he was working on the project, because the name of the first book could be read as an appeal to get down to work.

Until quite recently, writing has been an activity that the Sami have turned to more or less reluctantly, not always because they haven’t known how to write, but more often because this type of work never before led to any improved social status. It was good to know how to write, but writing was mainly the activity of the dattja, the others, the non-Sami, who regarded writing as something important. For the Sami, it was still, until not too long ago, most important to know ways that put bread on the table and fat in the frying pan. But Paulus Utsi was a wise man, who understood that the Sami also had to learn new ways, and, in many respects, also resort to the "arts" of the dattja in order to be heard and be taken seriously. In Sami tradition, everyone who discovers something new must also show that the discovery is significant, viable and of value. Therefore, Paulus Utsi was cautious when he set out to write poetry. First, some of his poems appeared in the journal Samefolket, which is published in Sweden. Then he wrote a small cycle of poems, let himself be heard here and there, gained recognition, became someone whose work people wanted to read more of; and so, all of a sudden, the time was ripe for Paulus Utsi to say to himself: Write! Capture the language! That was what he called his first collection of poems, Giela giela (Ensnare the language). In order to allow for many different interpretations, he omitted including an exclamation point in the title. Therefore, the call to action is just as much an inner appeal to the poet himself to have the courage to do what he has set out to do. It is first in the second collection of poetry that Utsi reveals more about his strategy, that it is the language that he wants to catch in the snare—and the weapon he will use is language itself, Giela Gielain (Ensnare the language with language). But then he died, on a cold winter night, all too young, leaving behind an open question for the reader: What would the title of Paulus’ last book have been, had he lived to write it?

Had he continued along the same path on which he had set out, Utsi might have selected the title, Gielain gielain, which, among other things, can mean "With the language among the languages." Thus it would still make note of the situation of the Sami language as one of many languages in the area where we live. Such a title would at the same time be an appeal that Sami remain one of the languages of the North in the future as well. Paulus Utsi was very preoccupied with the importance of a mother tongue, and he wrote several poems about "the mild and beautiful voice" that is the dearest possession a person can have. But because Utsi also wanted other people and societies to know about the Sami— after all, a minority culture needs publicity today, in order to survive—he felt that it was important to inform the outside world about the Sami and their ways. And because of the culture, the objects and traditional arts that the Sami have, there should be no reason for not wanting to exhibit them, Utsi felt. Handicraft of all forms, practical arts and the yoik were close to Utsi’s heart. Yoik is the traditional Sami music, a vocal genre performed without any accompanying instruments. To some extent, it resembles the chanting of the American Indian. In his art, Paulus Utsi was greatly inspired by the yoik, and as a teacher of crafts at the Sami Folk High School in Jokkmokk in Sweden, he also knew that field quite well.

I think it would be in keeping with Utsi’s spirit to say that, in the same manner as one strives to create an object of art that is beautiful to look at and pleasant to touch, one should create songs and write poems that are nice to listen to, give peace of mind, and instill you with pride on behalf of your people. Traditional art has played no less or greater a role in a culture where the collective aspect was central, not in the sense that no one owned anything, but in the sense that community is that which keeps the culture alive. In such a society, the artists do not exist only for themselves, they are a part of the division of labor within the tribe. The role of the artist should therefore be a topic of discussion among members of indigenous societies, since this role, too, has changed to keep pace with influences from the outside. For example, the point about the trouble Utsi took to become a writer, to do joavdelasaid (to idle), do something not useful for a living, may reflect a new attitude toward the artist’s role in society that stems from the time after the breakdown of the old Sami view of the world.


Relearning of Rievssatgiella?

Allow me to return to language as a tool in the process toward achieving a result, at the same time as it is the medium to explain the process, "duodji, mii duddjo duoji" ("craft which creates artistry" that is, the knowledge and the material which, together, enable the craftsman to produce artistic products). Sami duodji is traditional Sami applied art or handicraft, while modern art is called dáidda in Sami, and of art and craft one can make artful craft, that is Sámi dáiddaduodji. But this is something which no longer follows its original intention, the craft has taken a step or several away from its original situation, to where the once intimate relationship between the maker, user and use no longer is so intimate, or is governed by external motives such as the public’s acceptance of the product’s aesthetic qualities. Economic factors, business, or the building of a positive reputation as a skillful duojár, craftsman, are perhaps more important than knowing a knife’s process from raw material to finished product. Once there was a connectedness between raw material, product and process, where language and the world of experience made up important preconditions for closeness to the final result. Now we only notice the end result, and therefore we run the risk of becoming the victims of mechanization of the traditional cultural expressions as well.

A non-Sami can undoubtedly learn to make beautiful ornamental objects that are identical in appearance to what the Sami call duodji. The artist needs to know neither Sami cultural history nor the Sami language. He or she perhaps doesn’t even need to know very well where the raw materials come from, or what one does with them other than the purely technical process necessary to make a new duodji product, even without the cultural learning one receives growing up in a Sami environment. The person will probably refrain from it, however, in due respect to the minority group’s right to protect its own, but just the fact that a non-Sami could master Sami crafts is by itself thought-provoking, when our own artists are also abandoning the close relationship between individual, collective and product. Will Sami reality, the Sami view of the world and understanding of life, be linked with a spirit of fellowship or with the autonomy of the individual? Should the art of a people of nature be connected with nature? If so, what happens with this art when these people move to cities and densely populated areas? Will our new aesthetic sense become divorced from the experience and become, instead, a reverse picture of our traditional ideology where the interests of the community was the primary concern and the artist created for the community? What will happen to our language, in the next round, when the world of traditional experiences no longer exists or is totally changed? Paulus Utsi wanted to capture the language so that people would understand it. But the new reality doesn’t embrace the whole process from ávnnas (material) to buvtta (product) any more; it only has to do with measuring the attendance and sales. Language as a snare can no longer be opened by a the imitation of a ptarmigan’s laugh. Perhaps the release calls for a relearning of rievssatgiella (the language for ensnaring ptarmigans), even if one is only 150 meters from the quiet warmth of home…if the Sami even in the future will be able to hear the voice in the earth….


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