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The Son of the Sun is Dead: A Commemoration of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

av Harald Gaski

Printed in Scandinavian Studies, Summer 2003, Vol. 75, No. 2.

I gazed up at the starry heavens last night to see whether a new star was shining there.  I was almost certain that this was where Nils-Aslak Valkeapää had gone, that the Sun – a father figure in Sámi tradition – would want to have his son nearer to himself.  In the myths, Gállábártnit, the Sámi ancestors, were elevated to the heavens after death because they had established such a positive reputation for themselves on earth.  They were highly accomplished moose hunters and the inventors of skis, and therefore, instead of being buried in the traditional Sámi fashion – wrapped in birch bark and laid in flagstone graves – they were taken up to the night sky, where they are found today in the constellation Orion’s Belt.  The Gállábártnit are the direct descendents of the Son of the Sun and the Giant's Daughter, and the Sámi can therefore trace their ancestry directly back to the most powerful force in the universe: the sun!

            Nils-Aslak Valkeapää used these myths in his writing, allowing the authorial voice to say, towards the end of The Sun, My Father, the book for which he received the Nordic Council’s Prize for Literature in 1991: "The heavens glow/ I’m coming,/ The Sun, my father/ I’m coming soon, coming."  And this is what he has done now, he has stepped over to the other side of life, the Sun has called him back.  That is why I scanned the night sky to see if a new star had appeared in Orion’s Belt.  Nils-Aslak’s accomplishments for his people were so great that he will come to be regarded by all posterity as a modern-day mythical being among the Sámi.  He spoke directly to the heart, transmitting a message that an indigenous people must never forget, namely that it is our obligation to care for the Earth, our mother.  Nils-Aslak Valkeapää tied the past and the future together.   He wanted us to derive knowledge from our traditions, to know the past in order to be able to create a secure future.  But he was also, nevertheless, uncertain about that which lies ahead: "Tomorrow/ another language also around the fire/ new migratory routes for tomorrow’s reindeer, the stones have other habits/ a distant time in time/ distant".

            Nils-Aslak Valkeapää was first and foremost the poet of the Sámi – 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 esthetics, and Nils-Aslak Valkeapää -- Áillohaš -- could never praise enough the musicality of the Sámi language.  He loved to express himself in such a way that the words appeared with the greatest possible polyvalence of content.  His poems will come to be interpreted and translated in various ways for generations.  But Áillohaš was more than merely the poet of the Sámi, his concern embraced all the indigenous people of the earth, something that is clearly expressed in what was to become his last book, Eanni, Eannazan (The Earth, Our Mother), published this spring.  Here both photographs and poems connect the rainforest and the vidde,  the desert and the tundra, together.  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 Valkeapää’s art,  like all great art  goes beyond all ethnic borders, as evidenced by the reception he received wherever he appeared – his radiance and presence on the stage were powerful, he drew the audience to himself in such a way that they 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, 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, then, 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 taken their names from his book titles and poems.

            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 he felt had been given to him. His greatest joy was to help others along, to find talented new joikers, authors, and artists, and to give them the possibility of reaching out with their art.  The traditional joik was especially close to his heart, and surely one of his great services is his contribution to the revitalization of the joik at a time when it was on the verge of dying out.  His "Sámiid eatnan duoddariid" ("Sámiland’s Vidder") will remain as the second Sámi national anthem, alongside the official one.  When Áillohaš performed it for what was to be his last time at the Easter Festival in Kautokeino this year, everyone in the hall was deeply moved, and the standing ovation he received was the clearest expression of the place Áillohaš always will have in the hearts of the Sámi.

            Nils-Aslak Valkeapää will be deeply missed; his warm smile, his lively eyes.  Even though his art will endure, the void he leaves cannot be filled!  Peace be with your memory, my dear friend!


Harald Gaski,

Tromsø, November 29, 2001