Musings on Saami poetry – part one
Authors of the Week: Sweden
To ‘Birget’ as a multidimensional art practice and way of life
Muitte don geat su leat oahpahan Muitte
don maid son lea vásihan
Dál - šaddá bajándálki Ja
visot álgá duinna Don it
mana čiehkádit Čájehat
To ‘birget’ is to survive in a changing environment. To be
To ‘bergget’ is to speak a tongue deemed moribund.
To ‘bearkadidh’ is to pass on teachings that tie us to this land. To walk
in reverence of Our Mother.
To ‘birggit’ is to make new yoiks to dammed rivers. To
remember gods, replaced by wind turbines.
To protect the sacred. To
‘bierggit’ is to resist.
Or, in the words of Nango and Sara, to deal. To
Saami literature finds itself in a peculiar spot. On the one hand it embodies a voice that has been passed on orally by storytellers for millennia, influencing major literary periods worldwide. On the other hand it is repeatedly referred to as a literary movement in its infancy by members of the majority societies that have come to colonise and settle the vast expanses we call our home.
This ambivalence has often been addressed by contemporary Saami writers, such as Áillohaš who in a poem from 1983 stated that ‘Sápmi is after all / greater’, as well as more recently by writers such as Mary Ailionieida Sombán Mari, who said that ‘if we hadn’t been subject to Norwegian assimilation politics / our libraries would have been / full of writers from bygone eras / indeed our own Ibsen’.
This essay sets out to introduce the reader to the contemporary poetry scene in Sápmi, but in order to do so, we first need to define the borders of that scene by allowing Western understandings of literature to be questioned and ultimately dismissed altogether.
Saami poetry is interdisciplinary at its core.
It encompasses everything from traditional yoiks to performance art, while simultaneously making up the largest portion of our written literature. At the same time, the clear link between our oral storytelling and yoiking tradition and contemporary Saami poetry has come to give rise to an indigenous, indisputably Saami literary style, championed by pathfinders such as Áillohaš, Rose-Marie Huuva and Inghilda Tapio and carried on in the works of young poets and yoikers such as Niillas Holmberg, Marja Mortensson and Juvvá Pittja.
Today, Saami poetry functions both as a tool for liberation, and as an aesthetic expression of a Saami epistemology, which centres pluralistic interpretations of what it means to ‘birget’.
And if poetry is art, and art is resistance, contemporary Saami poetry in all its forms has spent the past decades on formulating a decolonial poetics of sorts, a Saami specific form of Indigenous Futurism which seeks to visualise an alternative way forward, where Saami rights are being not only acknowledged but respected by the majority.
Or, to quote the poet and artivist Juvvá Pittja, ‘it’s time to swallow the shame / my friend / we only long for our rights’.
The blurring of conceptual borders between activism and poetry as an art form to address our future problems, struggles and possibilities has become particularly strong in recent years. This could be seen, for instance, at the 2018 Markomeannu Festival which tried to present a dystopian global future where ‘indigenous people have found a way to create their own sanctuaries’. At the same time, whilst engaging with indigenous futurism, contemporary writers both long for the return a certain spirit that permeated our society at the beginning of the 1970’s and acknowledge that their own engagement with current social and political issues, while similar to, is still different from previous periods in our history.
The writer Elin Anna Labba highlights this marked change in a recent poem from 2021, by stating that ‘I am not like the artists during the Alta Controversy / who tied themselves to yoiks […]’ and later ‘my heritage is a hotchpotch of sorts that I long to finish / and nothing is ever finished this I know / it just takes time to accept one’s own parts / that I am but one half of my memory’.
Another example of how contemporary writers engage in acts of poetic artivism is Sámi Manifeasta, a poetic decolonial call to arms written by a Saami artivist collective in 2015. Originally presented as something of an intermarriage between a flash mob, an act of non-violent resistance and a piece of performance art at the 2015 Jokkmokk Winter Market, in front of a visually moved Swedish Minister for Culture. It finishes with the following two lines:
Let our voice be followed by the waves of echoes. Let courage encourage courage!
In many ways, the futuristic Sámi Manifeasta was an echo of its own, harking back to the first days of the ČSV Movement.
Čájet Sámi Vuoiŋŋa. Show Saami Spirit.
Čállet Sámi Verddet. Write, Saami Friends.
Contemporary Saami poetry is multilingual and vociferous.
It plays with the natural plurilingualism of the Saami society, in the face of decades of assimilation politics throughout Sápmi, by seamlessly crossing the borders between languages. Johanna Domokos states that Saami ‘authors and readers make poetic decisions based not only on their knowledge of their mother tongue, but also in relation to the languages that surround them’.
From this it follows that a Saami writer is a Saami who writes.
Indeed, a Saami poet is just that, a poet and a Saami, regardless of their choice of language.
This can be seen, for example, in the heteroglossia of duojár Anna-Stina Svakko’s 1991 debut anthology which demands a premeditated knowledge of not only North Saami from its readers, but also a cultural grounding, when faced with lines such as ‘around your / nuvttagiid / swathes of freshly fallen snow’.
In recent years, Anna-Stina Svakko has switched to writing in North Saami entirely, but she does not shy away from the challenges and unspoken historical connotations that this change brings forth. In a recent poem from 2022, she writes that ‘some words / are still lost’, echoing other Saami writers who have had to reclaim their language, such as Ann-Helén Laestadius who writes of ‘turn[ing] silent in the middle of a sentence’ or David Kroik, a South Saami writer and linguist who has chosen to pass on the language of his father to his own children, despite the fact that it would be ‘easier to just go with the flow, to allow oneself to be assimilated, to choose the easy way out and speak Swedish’.
Far too often, however, a distinct line is drawn between writers who grew up speaking their Saami language and those who did not, serving no one but our colonisers and those who find joy in perpetrating literal violence. Indeed, trying to define Saami writers as more or less ‘authentic’, based on their use of language, ignores basic ideas of linguistic fluidity within Sápmi, and strips Saami writers of the linguistic freedom we automatically afford writers from a majority culture.
Instead we must, to quote the scholar Gunvor Guttorm, remember that ‘[n]evertheless, people survived, mobilised themselves, in order to be able to rise up, and here we are,’ and that ‘[s]ome of us have been able to maintain our language [and] we haven’t taken it from anyone.’
Contemporary Saami poets are polyglots, used to treading the border between languages in many different ways, to writing about everything from love to resistance. This, we hope, will continue to be the case for many years to come.
Saami literature is multi-faceted in and of itself. This is particularly true of Saami poetry, which confidently rejects the one-dimensional scope of a page in favour of a strong sense of orality, where words exist in parallel dimensions, as read, spoken or yoiked. Because of this, when talking about Saami poetry, we need to take into account not only written poems but songs and examples of spoken word as well. The prolific yoiker and writer Áillohaš was one of the first to do this, and was followed by Saami musicians such as Mari Boine, whose debut album, it could be argued, featured a number of decolonial poems set to music.
In other words, when Mari Boine tells the listener of mearrasápmelažžii to ‘remember the ones who taught [your mother] to feel like this, to remember everything that she has experienced,’ she does so through the medium of a song turned poem that embodies the activist spirit of the time she was writing in.
Indeed, Mari Boine goes even further in this blurring of poetry and Saami music throughout her career by incorporating the poems of other Saami writers, such as Rawdna Carita Eira and Risten Sokki in her songs.
But is music really poetry?
In Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice writes about the many ways in which ‘assumptions about what is or is not “literature” are used to privilege some voices and ignore others’.
Saami poetry denies these assumptions altogether. It denies the very existence of literary borders.
Sápmi does not acknowledge borders at all.
We posit that in order to understand contemporary Saami poetry, we need to understand both the political and societal changes that have influenced our communities for centuries.
Contemporary Saami poetry would be nothing without the pioneering work done by the founders of the ČSV Movement. They, in turn, saw their work and the importance of constantly highlighting and supporting the Saami culture as the only possible reaction to the discrimination the Saami were facing from the states at the time. At the same time, members of this leaderless disestablishmentarian, movement were frequently dismissed as terror poets, which led to the Norwegian paper Dagbladet going so far as to refer to ČSV as a terrorist group, an assertion that was fiercely challenged by several Saami at the time, but without much success, as mainstream media refused to publish these rebuttals.
Consequently, when talking about contemporary Saami poetry, we also need to look at the literal – in the word’s both senses – void created by a lack of written Saami literature between the late 1920s and 1970s. It is of paramount importance to understand that the flood of poetry, both sung and written, that has subsequently exploded onto the scene, partly spurred on by the ČSV movement, represents not only a wish to put down oral stories into words, it is also a form of resistance which to this day continues to influence and inspire contemporary Saami poets.
Long may it last.
 Mari Boine, excerpt from ‘mearrasápmelažžii’, Jaskatvuođa maŋŋá, 1985.
 Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, excerpt from ‘Mihkkalii’, Mihkkalii, 2023.
 Carte Blanche, Elle Sofe Sara and Joar Nango: Birget; Ways to Deal, Ways to Heal, 2023.
 Áillohaš, from ‘Avvil 3. 5. 1983’, 1983.
 Mary Ailionieida Sombán Mari, from ‘Govadas baldon olbmot’. Beaivváš Mánát / Leve blant reptiler, 2020. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Juvvá Pittjá, from ‘heitet mohkohallame historjjá nu …’, p. 114. duođain in dieđe / vet verkligen inte, 2018.
 Markomeannu, from ‘Sáŋgárat máhccet’. Márkomeannu 2018 Program, 2018.
 Elin Anna Labba, from ‘två dikter’, p. 163. Inifrån Sápmi – Vittnesmål från ett stulet land, 2021, ed. Patricia Fjellgren and Malin Nord. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 ibid., p. 165. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Anders Sunna, Niillas Holmberg, Jenni Laiti, Timimie Märak, Maxida Märak and Max Mackhé, quote from Sámi Manifeasta, 2015.
 Johanna Domokos, from ‘On Sami poetics’, p. 451. L’Image du Sápmi, Vol II, edited by Kajsa Andersson, 2013.
 Anna-Stina Svakko, from ‘Unna vielljažii’. Virvelvind, 1991. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Anna-Stina Svakko, from ‘Čáhppesvilges govva’. Bágojda Báddnum – Beroende av Ord, 2022, edited by Anne Wuolab and Anna H Degerman. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Ann-Helén Laestadius, from ‘Rötternas tålmodiga väntan’, p. 137. Inifrån Sápmi – Vittnesmål från ett stulet land, 2021, red. Patricia Fjellgren and Malin Nord. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 David Kroik, from ‘Min pappas språk – mitt pappaspråk’. Hjärnstorm: Samisk Vrede, No: 128, p. 52, 2017. Quote translated by the essay authors.
 Gunvor Guttorm, from ‘Dál lea min vuorru – Now it is our turn’, p. 111. Arctic Highways, edited by Gunvor Guttorm and Yvonne Rock, 2022.
 Daniel Heath Justice: Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, p. xviii, 2018.
 cf. Kristin Jernsletten, p. 10, in The hidden children of Eve – Sámi poetics – Guovtti ilmmi gaskkas, 2011.
Johan Sandberg McGuinne
Johan Sandberg McGuinne is a South Saami and Scottish Gaelic poet, traditional yoik singer, writer, literary scholar and language activist. He works as a teacher and translator in Lïkssjuo (Lycksele), Swedish Sápmi, where he is also based. He is currently serving as the president of Bágo Čálliid Siebrie, the Saami Writers’ Association in Sweden, and as the Regional Representative for Sápmi in the Swedish Writers’ Union. In addition, he is a member of the Swedish Library Council, which serves as an expert body and advisor to the board of the Swedish Writers’ Union on library matters.
Photo by by Carl-Johan Utsi
Anne Wuolab is a North Saami author, translator, teacher, duojár and journalist. She is based in Njieriev-vuömmie (Norrbäck), Swedish Sápmi, and has been instrumental in the foundation of several Saami institutions and magazines in both Sweden and Norway, such as Bágo Čálliid Siebrie and the feminist magazine Gába. She is currently serving as the president of Tjállegoahte, the Saami Writers’ Centre in Jåhkåmåhkke. In addition, she works as a lecturer at the Master’s Programme in Literary Translation to and from Saami languages at HDK-Valand Academy of Art and Design in Gothenburg.
Photo by Carl-Johan Utsi