A brief history of Sámi literature

Sámi literature's history can be traced from the 1600s and the course of this history can be interpreted in the context of important Sámi, national and international political movements. Sámi literature is literature written by authors who are Sámi, who are members of the Sámi people. In this short article, the Sámi socio-political development will be illustrated as well as the expression of an independent Sámi voice through literature.

Modest blue, yellow and red book cover.
This volume was a result of the first seminar on Sámi literature in 1972 where many Sámi authors published their first text. The premise was that one language could not live through another language. ?állagat means 'Written Works'. Photo: Author.

The Sámi are an indigenous Northern European people who inhabit the Sápmi region, an area which extends across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Sámi population is estimated to be around 50,000. Obtaining an exact population figure is however difficult. There are in total ten Sámi languages. Sámi is a part of the Finno-Ugric language group and extends across and beyond the national borders of these four countries.

Sámi literature in the world at large

The first literature to be published that was written in Sámi was published in the southern Sámi area of Sweden. The development of a Sámi written language began in this part of Sápmi, in the 1600s, by priests and missionaries writing about the Sámi and translating religious texts to Sámi. The development of Sámi literature and the Sámi written language was however driven by the political interests of those holding power. In 1673 the book Lapponia was published, edited by the German professor Johannes Schefferus. The Swedes wanted to refute the rumour that Sweden received help from Sámi shamans to win a number of crucial battles in the Thirty Years' War. The book was a compilation of material collected by priests and their assistants from all around Sápmi and included the two love poems ’Guldnasaš’ and ’Moarsi fávrrot’ written by the Sámi student priest Olaus Sirma. These poems are the first fictional texts published in Sámi. The book was translated into German, English, French and Dutch and could therefore reach a large European audience. The poems are said to have inspired Goethe to write 'Nähe des Geliebten'.

In the 1800s, priests working in the Sámi areas wrote down epic joik lyrics on topics such as Sameland's first inhabitants and about resistance to colonisation. A fable on the origin of the people which tells that the Sámi are children of the Son of the Sun was written down by the Sámi priest Anders Fjellner in the middle of the 1800s. The text tells of how the Son of the Sun travelled to the land of the giants to woo and marry the daughter of a giant and how their three sons became, after the death of the Son of the Sun, stars in the sky and the Orion's belt constellation.

The development of the Sámi written language was restrained from the middle of the 1800s by Social Darwinism, the authorities in this period placing greater emphasis on the assimilation of the Sámi population. In Norway, assimilation was promoted by a policy of Norwegianisation, including the adoption of the resolution in 1898 that it was no longer permitted to use Sámi in the teaching of Sámi school children.

Sámi literary mobilisation

A Sámi political movement, which included prominent Sámi politicians, arose at the beginning of the 1900s as the national romantic period in Norway and Finland came to an end. Political mobilisation began in the southernmost areas on the Swedish side of Sápmi and Elsa Laula (1877-1931) was perhaps the most prominent Sámi politician in this period. In 1904 she published the pamphlet 'Inför Lif eller Död? Sanningsord i de Lappska förhollandena' (Life or Death? The Honest Truth Concerning the Lappish Conditions) and so became one of the very first Sámi to publish a work. Elsa Laula (later Elsa Laula Renberg) wanted to make the Swedish authorities aware of the difficult conditions the Sámi people lived under. Elsa Laula Renberg was a key figure in the ethnopolitical Sámi movement at the beginning of the 1900s and was one of the organisers behind the first Sámi national congress held in Trondheim on 6 February 1917. This is today the national day of the Sámi people and is celebrated across the whole of Sápmi.

Black and white picture of Sami woman in traditional dress

PICTURE: Elsa Laula Renberg (1877-1931), a prominent Sámi politician. Photo: By Unkown - Saemien Sijtes fotoarkiv, Public Domain

The first books written by a Sámi writers

Johan Turi (1854-1936) was a reindeer husbandry Sámi who lived on the Swedish side of Sápmi. In 1910 he published the book 'Muittalus sámiid birra' (An Account of the Sámi, 2012), the first book published in Sámi written by a member of the Sámi people. Johan Turi also wanted to tell the authorities about the Sámi people and Sámi culture. In Turi's own words:

 “I have been thinking that it would be best if there were a book in which everything was written about Sámi life and conditions, so that people wouldn’t have to ask how Sámi conditions are, and so that people wouldn’t misconstrue things, particularly those who want to lie about Sámi and claim that only the Sámi are fault when disputes arise between settlers and Sámi in Norway and Sweden” (sic).

An Account of the Sámi (2012) has been translated into eleven languages, more languages than any other Sámi book.

In 1912, the short social critical novel Bæivve-Alggo (Daybreak) was published. It was written by teacher and editor Anders Larsen (1870 -1949), who was from Nord-Troms in Norway. This was the first novel written in Sámi, by a Sámi. Anders Larsen published the Sámi language newspaper Sagai Muitalægje from 1904 -1911. His commitment directly contributed to Isak Saba becoming the first Sámi to be elected into the Norwegian Parliament for The Norwegian Labour Party for two parliamentary periods, from 1906 to 1912. Isak Saba is also the author of the Sámi people's national anthem, Sámi soga lávlla, which was first published in Sagai Muittalægje in 1906. The first collection of poems published in Sámi was Muohtačalmmit (Snowflakes), written by Pedar Jalvi from the Ohcejohka area in Northern Finland.

These authors are just some of Sámi literature's pioneers. Only a few Sámi books were published between 1914 and the beginning of the 1970s.

Ethnopolitical revival

A new Sámi movement arose in the 1970s, its origins being in the global protest movement. Minorities and indigenous peoples demanded political, cultural and economic rights. The first seminar in Sámi literature was held in the small Sámi settlement of Sirbmá in Finnmark in 1972. The seminar participants agreed that the Sami would have to start writing about themselves if the situation at that time (of all descriptions of the Sámi being written by non-Sámi) was to change. One language cannot live through another language. The letters ČSV were launched as a Sámi reference for the first time at the seminar. ČSV stands for 'Show Sámi spirit!' and were used by what was to be called the ČSV movement. The meeting resulted in the publication of Čállagat (Written Works), in which many Sámi authors published their first texts. The first Sámi publishing houses were also established in this period, which led to more publications in Sámi.

Black and white book cover with portraits of Sami people and barren landscapes

PICTURE: The front cover to Nils-Aslak Valkeapää's 'Beaivi, áhčážan' (The Sun, My Father) which won the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1991. Photo: Courtesy of DAT 1988, www.dat.net.

A unique aspect of the 1970s was that many women, of different generations, began to write books. Sámi women were, in this period, given greater opportunity for schooling beyond primary and secondary school level. A number of those who began to write literature in Sámi in the 1970s attended courses to learn how to write in Sámi. One of them, Kirsti Paltto (born 1947) from Ohcejohka in Northern Finland, was the first Sámi woman to publish a book in Sámi. The book, Soagŋu (Courting) was published in 1971 and is a collection of short stories. The first Sámi children's book was written by Marry A. Somby (born 1953) who was from Sirbmá on the Norwegian side of Tanadalen. The book was published in 1976 with the title Ámmul ja alit oarbmælle.It was translated into Norwegian with the title: Ammul og den blå kusinen (1977)(Ammul and the Blue Cousin).

The most well known Sámi author is Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943-2001) from Eanodat in Finland. He was a multi-talented artist, lyric poet, composer and artist. Valkeapää was in 1991 awarded the Nordic Council's Literature Prize for the book Solen, min far (1990) (The Sun, My Father, 1997). The Sámi original, Beaivi áhčážan (1988), contains poems and a series of historical photographs of Sámi from throughout Sápmi. Valkeapää, and many other Sámi authors, represent a diversity in artistic expressions and use this in their literary production. Other authors from this generation are Rauni Magga Lukkari, Jovnna-Ánde Vest and Synnøve Persen. Some of Lukkari's poems, like poems by the poets Karen Anna Buljo and Risten Sokki, have been set to music and sung by the famous Sámi artist Mari Boine. This has led to an even larger audience being reached.

Black and white upper body shot of young man in casual Sami dress, looking away from the camera

PICTURE: A young Nils-Aslak Valkeapä, perhaps the most famoua author of his generation. Photo: Public Domain.

The Sámi authors born in the 1960s and later are part of a generation that does not bear the burdens of previous generations, having benefitted from the socio-political movement which began at the start of the 1900s. They are also part of a generation where many had the opportunity to learn to read and write in Sámi at a young age. Many of this generation who did not learn their mother tongue as children also want to learn Sámi. Much of this progress has been due to new school legislation, Sámi teaching in schools, a global consciousness among indigenous peoples and the Sámi political movement. Some of the writers representing this generation are Inger Mari Aikio-Arianaick, Siri Broch Johansen, Sigbjørn Skåden, Ann Helen Laestadius, Máret Ánne Sara and Niillas Holmberg.

The struggle for language

The struggle for the Sámi language is important for many of the Sámi authors. Unlike many indigenous peoples around the world, most of the Sámi authors write in their mother tongue. Our language is seen as being our most important bearer of tradition and knowledge and is also important within Sámi literature research. Language is in many ways a source of power and identity and can, according to lyric poet Synnøve Persen, be used by the author as a means of power for touching the innermost in the reader. One major inspiration for the writers who write in Sámi is to be able to express themselves in their own language, in relation to their own culture, and to be able to tell their own stories. This gives a feeling of being Sámi and a collective feeling of belonging, something which has been a key aspect in the blossoming of Sámi literature. The great diversity in the artistic expressions among Sámi authors is also an important part of the Sámi way of living. Using and developing different skills is part of the Sámi way of coping and becoming a harmonious person.

The famous image of the woman during the second world war saying 'we can do it' holding her strong arm changed to a woman with a Sami headdress with the words Suohpangiehta’ can be roughly translated as ‘lasso arm’.

PICTURE: The mobilisation of Sámi continues today in different ways. Here is a culture jamming image created by art collective Suohpanterror from 2013. ‘Suohpangiehta’ can be roughly translated as ‘lasso arm’. Photo: courtesy of https://suohpanterror.com.

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