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  • Johan Turi:First Author of the Sámi
  • Mikael Svonni

One-hundred years ago in the year 1910, Johan Turi's book Muitalus sámiid birra (An Account of the Sámi) first appeared. It was the first time that a Sámi had written a book regarding the Sámi situation in Sámi. The book's genesis has its own particular history. Now, a century after the work's appearance, a new edition has been prepared based on Turi's original handwritten manuscript (Muitalus Sámiid Birra). The present collection of essays examines Turi's masterpiece from a variety of different angles. The translations used in the essays below come from a new English version of Muitalus based upon the re-edited text of 2010 (An Account of the Sámi). Because the Sámi and English editions are meant to be used in conjunction with each other, they share the same format and pagination. Thus, in the essays that follow, cited page references apply to both the Sámi and the English editions.

Johan Turi was born on March 12, 1854, in Guovdageaidnu (Kautokeino), Norway. He moved with his family to Sweden and moved to the Talma sameby in the parish of Jukkasjärvi during the 1880s. Turi's family members were reindeer herders, but Johan seems to have been more interested in hunting and fishing. He had long considered writing a book about Sámi relations when at last in 1904 he happened to meet a Danish artist and ethnographer, Emilie Demant on board a train carrying ore between Torneträsk and the Swedish-Norwegian border. This encounter has been examined in depth by Kristin Kuutma both in a book (Kuutma) and in her contribution below; the meeting proved decisive for Turi's career as an author as well as for Emilie Demant's childhood dream of spending an entire year as part of a reindeer-herding family. [End Page 483] Turi and Demant could not understand each other's speech, as Turi spoke Sámi and Finnish, as well as some broken Swedish, and Demant spoke only Danish. It happened, however, that there was a person on the train who could speak both Swedish and Finnish and thus could act as an interpreter. The result of their meeting was that Turi promised to arrange for Demant to spend a year with a reindeer-herding family, and she in turn promised to help Turi write his book.

In an essay written many years after the fact, Emilie Demant Hatt (as she became known after her marriage) reminisced about her initial meeting with Turi and the events that led to their important collaboration (Demant Hatt). Her account provides us with concrete details of the process that led to the first book written in Sámi. When Demant returned to Denmark, she began to study Sámi with a Professor Vilhelm Thomsson of the University of Copenhagen, for she knew that only by learning the language could she truly come to know the Sámi and their culture. It was, incidentally, the first and last time a course in Sámi had ever been offered at the university. Turi kept his word and arranged for Demant to live with his brother, Aslak Turi, and his family over the course of a year. Demant returned in the spring of 1907 and accompanied Aslak's family for a year, participating in all activities related to herding, including the marking of calves, the round-up and separation of herds, and, of course, the migration. She experienced all that related to the nomadic life of reindeer-herding Sámi: the course of migration, daily and seasonal activities, the ups and downs of life in a goahti. And she became practically a member of the family, dressing in the same manner as everyone else—an important decision, in that it ensured her protection from the winter cold. During the year she learned more Sámi, gaining active competence in the spoken language as well. She had brought with her a large Sámi-Norwegian dictionary as a study aid, which her Sámi hosts teased her weighed as much as half a full...


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