- “My Hard-Earned (Sámi) Identity”:The Hard Work of Uncomfortable Reading
Aina minulta että mitäon saamelaisuusmitä luontoja minä kerron
joikasin käsi ojossa yksinäisyyttäKuukkeli vanha varoittajaistahti ja katsoi hyvinkas kun ei sanonutettä minun on pian sanottava hyvästit(Holmberg 2015, 73)1
(I’m always being asked whatis ‘Sáminess’what is natureand I tell
I stretched my arms and joiked2 lonelinessthat old informer, the Siberian Jay [End Page 216]
sat and watched wellwhen he failed to saythat soon I should say farewell)
In the above untitled poem taken from Niillas Holmberg’s collection Jos itseni pelastan itseltäni (2015; If I Save Myself from Myself), the speaker neutrally observes that he is frequently asked to comment on Sámi identity and their relationship with nature. Holmberg, too, is Sámi: the Indigenous people of the northernmost regions of Europe. Formerly referred to by the pejorative “Lapp,” the Sámi are comprised of a number of smaller ethnic groups with different traditions, practices, and even languages that are, for the most part, mutually comprehensible. The Sámi languages, cultures, and identity have been threatened by educational policies promoting national languages (Finnish, Swedish, Russian, and Norwegian) at the expense of the Indigenous languages. In addition, mining, energy production, agriculture, forestry, and tourism, both from abroad and from Southern Finland, have had a major impact on the region, and have negatively impacted traditional Sámi lifestyles and cultural practices (e.g., Frandy 2017). The poem also indicates that the speaker frequently has to “explain” Sámi culture, a point Holmberg has also noted in interviews (e.g., Mikkonen 2016). The need to “explain” indicates the power imbalance that allows the Finnish majority to remain ignorant about the Indigenous population but not vice versa.
Holmberg composes his poetry and songs in North Sámi and Finnish, and his work has been translated into more than ten languages. In an interview, he explained that “in my first books, my poems were almost as if from a diary. I wrote about the things that were on my mind each day” (Rasmus 2018). His more recent works, such as Juolgevuođđu (2018; Sole), are more overtly political, reflecting Holmberg’s increasing activism in campaigns protesting against infringements of traditional Sámi practices such as herding reindeer, hunting, and fishing in Sápmi. Holmberg’s home is Ohcejohka (Utsjoki), which he describes as being in “Saamiland (occupied by Finland)” on his website (www.niillas.com). For readers unfamiliar with the geography of the region, Western maps would situate Ohcejohka as Finland’s northernmost town on the banks of the Deatnu River (River Teno) that marks the border between Finland and Norway. For the Sámi, the river is not a border, but rather a natural highway connecting areas within Sápmi that also provides water and fish. In short, Holmberg has all the credentials for being a spokesperson for the Sámi; his poetry and music are easily read [End Page 217] through this lens. In interviews, in YouTube clips, and on his website, he encourages readers to respond to his works in this way. Indeed, this viewpoint is so dominant that we refer to it as the “Sámi script.”
Scripts are our default, habituated ways of behaving; they are inherently lazy. Racial prejudices follow scripts: rather than seeing the individual, we use scripts related to ethnicity, nationality, body shape, and so on to form lenses for interpreting behaviors. First articulated by Schank and Abelson (1977), scripts describe the way in which knowledge is stored, created, and applied in sequences. Scripts vary from micro-level linguistic exchanges such as greetings (“How are you?”/“I’m fine, thanks”) to extended sequences of behavior (Schank and Abelson’s example is about ordering food in a restaurant). Such sociological approaches to scripts highlight actions, which is particularly relevant when investigating the impact of literature on readers (Kokkola and Van den Bossche 2019). In recent years, cognitive literary studies have highlighted scripts to understand the actions of characters in fiction and also to understand how readers engage with...