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Brief background to The Frost-haired and the Dream-seer

by Harald Gaski (2014)

Can you hear the sound of life
in the roaring of the creek
in the blowing of the wind

That is all I want to say
that is all

To Indigenous peoples, these lines do not represent a romantic view of nature, they rather express a basic value in our cultures — reminding us of the fact that our livelihood and prosperity always have depended on a respectful relationship to Mother Earth. The sound of life is reflected in the ways we honor our surroundings. This is Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s reminder to us, which we can see in all his art work, but that perhaps is best expressed in his stageplay The Frost-haired and the Dream-seer. The text is in many ways Nils-Aslak’s legacy to us, the Frost-haired is a blond person, as Valkeapää refers to a light-haired person, but it also signifies the bright one. “The frost-haired one” in the play is a wise old man who seeks to convey his knowledge to a young disciple. The main point of this knowledge is the absolute necessity of always remembering one’s status as a part of nature. All things are mutable, all things change, but when human beings forget to care for their Mother Earth, we all face destruction. Indigenous peoples have a special role to play in reminding their fellow human beings of this crucial fact. In doing so, Indigenous peoples earn special regard from our Mother and deep and lasting benefits that are of incalculable value.

Nils-Aslak left us at the peak of his productive life and with several projects unfinished. He was returning home from a successful journey to Japan, where he had participated in a chain-poetry workshop with Finnish and Japanese poet friends. He was just going to take a nap while the sauna at his friend’s place was being heated. From that nap he never returned to life on this side, but went to meet The Sun, our father, on the other side, just like he himself had predicted ten years earlier in one of his poems from the award-winning book:

The heavens glow
I’m coming
The Sun, my Father
I’m coming soon, coming

As a musician as well as a painter and poet, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää reached for the special quality in that which is Sami.  He wanted the Sami to learn from our own traditions, from what has been handed down to us, at the same time that we should be open to impulses from the outside. He was awarded the Nordic Council’s Prize for Literature in 1991 with his book Beaivi, Áhčážan (The Sun, My Father), whose title alludes to the myth about the Sami as the children of the Sun.

Nils-Aslak was first and foremost the poet of the Sami – a poet in the broadest sense of the term, since his art must be regarded in its totality; from the association of words emerged music that created pictures, which again informed the words – not merely the choice of words, but also their placement on the page.  Typography is also aesthetics, and Nils-Aslak could never praise enough the musicality of the Sami language.  He loved to express himself in such a way that the words appeared with the greatest possible polyvalency of meaning.  His poems will come to be interpreted and translated in various ways for generations.  But Nils-Aslak was more than merely the poet of the Sami, his concern embraced all the Indigenous peoples of the earth, something that is clearly expressed in what was to become his last book, Eanni, Eannážan (The Earth, My Mother), published in the spring of 2001.  Here both photographs and poems bring together the rainforest and the wide open spaces,  the desert and the tundra. The book is primarily intended as the feminine counterpart to The Sun, My Father, and underscores women’s important position in Indigenous societies.

Nils-Aslak’s art, like all great art, reaches beyond all ethnic borders, as evidenced by the reception he received wherever he appeared – his radiance and presence on the stage were powerful, drawing the audience to himself in such a way that people joined him on his journeys.  His music was world music before the term had even been coined.  "The Bird Symphony," for which he received the Prix Italia in 1993 (published as a CD in 1994, Goase dušše), fully expresses his great affection for birds.  The migratory birds were his nearest friends; perhaps he saw in them a parallel to his own journeys around the world with his art.  His new home in Skibotn was a home for both him and for the birds he loved.  The house was furnished with various sculptures that had nearly become his family and that had received their names from his book titles and poems.

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää was a world name, but he never basked in his own glory.  On the contrary, he was a humble man with respect to the calling that he felt he had received. His greatest joy was to help others along, to find talented new yoikers, authors, and artists, and to give them the possibility of reaching out with their art. The traditional yoik was especially close to his heart, and surely one of his great services is his contribution to the revitalization of the yoik at a time when it was on the verge of dying out.  His "Sámiid eatnan duoddariid" will remain the second Sami national anthem, alongside the official one. When Nils-Aslak performed it for what was to be his last time at the Easter Festival in Kautokeino the same year as he died, everyone in the hall was deeply moved, and the standing ovation he received was the clearest expression of the place Nils-Aslak Valkeapää always will occupy in the heart of his people.

At Nils-Aslak’s funeral I put two eagle feathers on his casket, because flying and soaring were such important symbols for him in his life and in his art. One of his books is actually titled Girddán, seivvodan (I fly, I soar). The feathers were fastened to a piece of cloth, on which the sun-symbol that he himself so often used, was embroidered with pewter thread. Now, he is hovering on the other side of Life, closer to The Sun, our Father, and from there I’m sure he is rejoicing in the fact that his wish that the only piece he ever wrote for the theatre, has been performed by the Sami national theatre, Beaivváš, (which actually means the Sun).