Essay / 3 April 2020

The Indigenous Inheritance

Listen to the land and learn for the future

Close-Up: Inheritance

Luomi is a succulent and c-vitamine rich berry that the Sámi treasure. It's also used a lot in oral Sámi yoik poetry as a metaphor for beauty and graciousness. Photo by Harald Gaski

Regarded from an Indigenous point of view, moving has most often been connected to the question of removal, removing people from their land and livelihoods and eliminating their relationship to Nature, to Mother Earth.(1) The relationship to land has been an essential quality which Indigenous peoples have always honoured and respected. For the Western mind, from the old Greek philosophers onwards, including the Christian view, a different attitude towards nature has dominated. Nature was something that needed to be subdued and was subject to utilisation. It was even regarded to be in opposition to culture. The only acceptable non-industrial use of nature was the admiration for its beauty, but again this was only as a sanctuary for the human mind where to find inspiration and recovery. Nature on its own premises was not a concept to be assessed. It was wilderness where predators roamed, it was something to be scared of, and therefore required regulations. Now, the scene seems to be changing, and the world is facing a move back to more basic values, a return to respecting the spiritual connection between the Earth and all its inhabitants — an attitude that is strongly represented in Indigenous cultures’ approach to life and living.

For the settlers, land was something to be owned. Individually. It was property. With property comes boundaries and the idea of harvesting in order to earn profit. The thought of belonging to the land as we, for instance, find it among the Sámi people of the Northern regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, is — for the Western mind — only a romantic idea of longing for one’s birthplace or another place to which the individual attaches significant remembrance. For the Sámi people it is a pivotal virtue which has to do with one of humankind’s basic values; to hearand to listen, expressed through the verb “gullat”. “Mun gulan dan sohkii” means “I belong to that family or group of people, to that tribe”. “Mun gulan eatnama jiena”; “I can hear the sound of the Earth” is an expression that goes all the way back to the myth which connects the Sámi people to the land, to earth. 

When the great Creator created the Sámi s/he knew of the hardships the people would encounter over time, so in order to comfort the Sámi and give them something to believe in, the Creator took the living and beating heart of a two-year-old reindeer cow and placed it in the middle of the Earth, so that every time the Sámi felt their existence threatened, they could simply lay their ear against the ground and listen for the heartbeats from below. And as long as the heart was beating, it meant there would still be a future for the Sámi. This subterranean heartbeat is one of the explanations for the Sámi people’s existence in this world; to constantly remind the rest of its inhabitants to keep up good relations with Mother Earth, nurse her well, and be gracious for the gifts she provides us with. 

Trout meets sausage. Traditional grilling over the embers. Photo by Harald Gaski

The traditional Sámi approach is to listen to and listen for messages from Nature — let the land speak to you, so to say, and hear our fellow creatures; animals, birds, the wind, the sky and the Earth. This ability to gullat/hear has always been regarded as a vital competence for our ongoing survival, not only as Sámi but as human beings in general. It has required affinity and adaptability to our environment, and has been transmitted to new generations through stories and the arts in a broad sense. But what happens today when the young people may well sit down for a while to listen to a story, but then usually in an organised manner, where the storytelling takes place in a school or a public library or, of course, when they are visiting their grandparents. Still, the context is more of a pastime activity than part of the children’s upbringing or a kind of apprenticeship, like it used to be. 

In earlier days, a child would join a grandparent, an uncle or an aunt in an activity with the aim of teaching the young one the practice of, for instance, how to set up a trap or a snare, how to make a bowl or a knife, how to sew, or some other skill the adolescent would need to know. This teaching was conducted more or less unnoticed, because the child was so occupied listening to the story that learning the necessary skills almost came as a bonus. The story would later connect with the skills learned, and thus the apprentice would have gained doubly; having learned important survival skills and a great story — which served not only as an entertaining supplement to the knowledge conveyed, but, in fact, as an integrated, conceptual part of the learning process. Practiced this way, the knowledge will never go out of date, but rather will always be applied to new experiences which will renew the content according to shifting times and challenges. The pedagogical portion of the transmission of knowledge will also provide new applications as communicative practices will always keep changing.

In Sámi art, we have seen this two-fold attitude of respecting traditions while at the same time adjusting oneself to a modern way of life, represented in artefacts that are products of nature exhibited in art galleries or otherwise displayed in correspondance with the requirements of the art institutions. It may be driftwood, tree trunks, pieces of wood or other materials found in nature that are relocated and exposed in a new setting as objects of art. The transformation may be viewed as an ironic commentary to the circumstances that Indigenous peoples have had to undergo; more or less forcibly being transferred from nature to culture in accordance with the Western view. Today the tables have turned and the irony of the situation is that it is the Western world that needs to direct its mind to start learning from Nature (again). And what is more appropriate then than to learn from Nature’s closest custodians; the Indigenous peoples and cultures.

(1) This essay is an amalgamation of and further elaboration on topics that I have touched upon in my recent articles “Indigenous elders' perspective and position” in Scandinavian Studies, volume 91 (1-2) (2019), pp. 259-268; and “Transformations” in eds. Nordnorsk kunstmuseum, Charis Gullickson, Aslaug M. Juliussen Intersections (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2018).


Harald Gaski

Harald Gaski is a professor in Sámi culture and literature at Sámi Allaskuvla / Sámi University of Applied Sciences, Guovdageaidnu, Norway.

Portrait photo by Stig Bronbo, UiT The Arctic University in Norway