Words and silences

Issue 1/1991 | Archives online, Authors

A collection of poems and photographs by the Finnish Lapp artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää is an uncompromising statement of the culture of one of Europe’s last truly local peoples

After its supersonic journey across the skies, Concorde lands at Rovaniemi airport. The steel bird disgorges its cargo: rich Europeans on a day trip to Lapland. Among them are a few even more long-distance travellers, from Japan.

Father Christmas greets them cordially. They visit the Arctic Circle. They eat in the frosty outdoors, in front of a roaring campfire. They ride in a reindeer sled. It is the exotic experience they have hoped for; they laugh for the pleasure of it.

When Concorde takes off again, each of its passengers has a certificate to prove that he or she has visited Lapland. Many of them frame it and stand it proudly on the mantelpiece at home. It is a romantic souvenir of a world which is largely unknown abroad.

Is, and remains, unknown. For, not unexpectedly, the tourist experience of Lapland has little in common with its everyday reality. North from Rovaniemi lie hundreds of miles of wilderness: tiny villages, mountains, streams, gnarled, dwarfed trees and stunted grass. Lapp life is harsh and austere, lived according to the exacting conditions dictated by nature.

Deep in Finnish Lapland, in the midst of this landscape of silences, in a place called Beattet, lives the poet and singer Nils-Aslak Valkeapää. Past his house flows the river whose name, in the language the world knows as Lapp but which the Lapps call Sámi, is Könkämäeno. In the heart of winter the day is as dark as night, but in the summer the sun shines at midnight. Ways of life, of subsistence, artistic life and language are different from elsewhere in Finland, but contacts with the outside world are in order. Ringing Valkeapää from southern Finland, one encounters a long-forgotten sound: the hum of telegraph wires. And if Valkeapää is away on a journey, one can leave one’s message on Finland’s northernmost fax machine.

In his own surroundings, Valkeapää is known by his Sámi name, Ailohas; the Finns call him Ailu. He has breathed new life into the Sámi song tradition of juoigos, but few have known that for 20 years he has also been a poet.

Now the time of silence is over, at least momentarily. The Finns were, not to put too fine a point on it, astonished by the award of the Nordic Literature Prize to Valkeapää. Within a day or so, the artist’s diary was full up to 1993.

Valkeapää’s home is a symbol of Sámi life; of a culture that has never recognised boundaries. ‘From here, when I look towards Norway, I can see the lights of Kiruna.’ The exact number of Sami-speakers is unknown; it is perhaps best to ask Valkeapää, who has throughout his adult life acted as a sort of unofficial ambassador for his people. ‘There are perhaps a hundred thousand of us altogether, but how we are distributed in different countries, that’s more difficult to say. There are about five thousand of us in Finland, maybe a thousand in the Soviet Union. The rest are divided between Norway and Sweden. But we travel a lot; that is why it is so difficult to count us.’

The Sámi travel in order to herd their reindeer. In the northern parts of Scandinavia there are no border fences. The reindeer wander where they will — and their Sámi herdsmen follow them.

Valkeapää is a Sámi, but it is impossible to see him as an unlettered herdsman-poet. Born in 1943, he began his literary career with a pamphlet on the Sámi issue, Terveisiä Lapista (‘Greetings from Lapland’) in 1971. He has gained fame as a performer of old Sámi juoigos chants and as a renewer of the juoigos tradition. He also draws and takes photographs. He is, one might say, a multimedia artist.

Of Valkeapää’s poetry, Kevään yöt niin valoisat (‘How light the nights of spring’), with illustrations by the author, has been translated into Finnish. He has also illustrated another poetry collection, Ruoktu vaimmus (‘Home and heart’). But the work that has won him the Nordic Literary Prize is Beaivi áhčážan (‘The sun, my father’; DAT, 1988), a daringly successful experiment in bringing together poetry and photographs to form a unified whole.

The poems are Valkeapää’s; the photographs show Sámi people and life. The oldest of them date from the 19th century, the most recent from 1936 – except for one, smuggled in by Valkeapää, which shows the poet himself.

‘Researching the pictures took six years. I found them in archives strung across the world: Kirkkoniemi, Hamburg, Paris, Seattle. The geographical regions represented range from the Antarctic to the Arctic, from the Kola Peninsula to the Alaskan peninsula.’

The combination of photographs and short poems is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a great song of Sámi history. Valkeapää himself calls it a govadas – literally, the patterned skin of a shaman’s drum.

‘I do not wish to explain my poetry,’ Valkeapää says.

The award jury’s words were: ‘Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s book joins together the past and the present, documentary and fiction, creates a new form. The book gives expression to Sámi cultural history and demonstrates to the reader the richness of its language. The words’ multiple meanings inspire thought, and belief and pride in the Sámi language, and break the mould of language that functions at only one level.’

A large-scale composition for choir, orchestra and soloists by the Finnish composer Pehr Henrik Nordgren, based on these texts, was given at last year’s Helsinki Festival.

‘I seem to be better-known abroad than in Finland,’ Valkeapää says. His work has been translated into Norwegian, Icelandic, German, English, Japanese and French.

Sámi literature is a tiny speck in the ocean of world writing. The publishing house of DAT, working from Kautokeino, in the far north, does its best for Sámi books, but the big, rich publishing houses of southern Finland have failed to show any interest. It is not without reason that it has been said that ‘without its own literature, the Sámi language will not survive in contemporary society, but will die, accompanied by pious speeches in the majority languages.’ In spite of the attention now being directed towards Valkeapää and his work, this comment, from the northern Finnish newspaper Kaleva, remains sadly apposite.

The award comes as recognition of a fine poet, but is also a stern memorandum to Finnish officialdom: it is not the right of a majority culture to steamroller minorities; its duty is to help and support them.

How does the short-spoken, unpretentious poet react to the spotlight of publicity?

Do you hear the voices of life
in the roar of the river
in the rush of the wind

That is all I want to say
that is all.

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