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Reindeer utsnitt_150x195

Valkeapää's multimedia reindeer herd

by Harald Gaski (2014)

In this section I wish to demonstrate how poem no. 272 in The Sun, My Father functions intra-textually with Valkeapää’s reindeer herd metaphorics.

In this section I wish to demonstrate how poem no. 272 in The Sun, My Father functions intra-textually with Valkeapää’s reindeer herd metaphorics. The reindeer herd is a central motif in several of Valkeapää’s books; it is found as pencil drawings in Trekways of the Wind, and it is found as photographs and painting in the book Nu guhkkin dat mii lahka (not translated into English) in addition to the typographically set reindeer herd in The Sun, My Father.

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I have chosen to use the concept intra-textuality in this case, with the meaning that textuality refers not only to purely textual forms of expression, but also to a multimedia perspective for different ways of describing and presenting a reindeer herd.

The interesting thing here is not solely the fact that Valkeapää constantly returns to the reindeer as an important metaphor and almost a medium through which to express his poetry and joy about what is beautiful. The truly fascinating feature is the almost identical way the reindeer herd is represented from book to book. Valkeapää has perhaps nowhere else expressed his joy over the beauty in a reindeer herd as clearly as in the poem “I have jumped off life’s circle” (Lean Njuiken Eallima Gierddus) (The book is only available in Norwegian; Per Kristian Olsen: Å eg veit meg eit land, 1991, 35-40). In this poems he writes “[…] reindeer in motion / the tundra’s ballet / […] and I / yoik the reindeer, tell as a gust of wind / how beautiful, how graceful, how pretty and fair / this / life’s living jewel / […].” Valkeapää extols the beauty of the north in many other places too, but here he is specific about how handsome he thinks a reindeer herd (in motion) is.

If we compare poem no. 272 in The Sun, My Father with the pencil drawings from Trekways of the Wind (without pagination) we see quite clearly that the same idea returns. The poem runs over several pages in the book: the herd is in motion from right to left, the opposite direction to our reading of the book. In both of “the poems” there are a couple of animals that stand a little off to the side from the rest of the herd, “eaidánas ealli” (an animal that gets along best by itself). While in no. 272 there are only tracks of the herd left on pages 7 and 8 in the poem, in Trekways of the Wind we zoom in on a close(r) picture of the herd on page 3 in the pencil drawing of the reindeer sequence. The two reindeer that are by themselves, separated from the rest of the herd on the first page of the images, are turned towards the herd, almost in the opposite direction, and thus emphasize the impression of an observer role, a parallel to the role of the artist in society (or of the noaidi, the shaman, in the old Sami society).

I will return shortly to “eaidánas ealli.” But while I am on the subject of the parallelism of this theme, the reindeer metaphorics or Valkeapää’s intra-textuality (or perhaps rather: intercommunication) with himself, I want to show how the reindeer herd is also included in the book that was made with a special eye on Valkeapää’s participation in the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in Lillehammer in 1994, Nu guhkkin dat mii lahka (So far the near). In this book the herd is first represented as three photographs that immediately follow each other.  This also constitutes a parallel to Trekways of the Wind in the way that in both books we come closer to the herd in the picture / drawing numbers two and three. In addition the last image in the book shows a reindeer herd and the sun, two important symbols in Valkeapää’s universe.

In So far the near there is however one important difference in the reindeer herd reproduction: in the paintings from 1992, reproduced about ten pages before the end of the book, another herd appears, an almost mythological reindeer herd.

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The herd is on the move, but there are two essential differences in this herd compared with the other representations of the reindeer herds. Here the movement happens from left to right. Not only so, but the herd is not tied concretely to any base. It seems more as if it is flying or running away, up toward the sky. This is a possible allusion to the conclusion of poem no. 558 in The Sun, My Father where the first person narrator returns to the Sun, to father, which is also a movement away from the earth and upwards to the sky: “the sky glows / I’m coming, / the Sun, my father / I am coming, I come / […] a path / to the sun.”

On the following pages there are five paintings which alternate in the primary colors red and deep blue. The foremost reindeer in the last picture (those that have come furthest up and forward) are hardly visible and seem to be disappearing into the clouds, into the sky. Especially in the two paintings in red one can dimly perceive a source of light that gives a clear gleam and outline of the individual animals in the herd, and as such strengthens the impression of a sun in the background that is drawing the herd towards itself.

The paintings in this series are part of Valkeapää’s more mythical and mythological productions. In these he has taken as a point of departure the rock carvings and magic drum figures and placed them in a new context, as bearers of a long tradition that in the Sami case (that is to say, Valkeapää’s use and understanding of it) goes all the way back to the Sami creation myths and the time before Christianity was introduced. The motifs in and of themselves are not new; they have followed Valkeapää the whole time from his first books, but as repeated paintings in a book, they represent here a new expression.

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää himself on various occasions spoke about one of the reasons why he did not become a reindeer-herding Sami, but chose another profession (for instance in a lecture at the University of Tromsø May 7-8, 1990). That explanation is the same as the first person narrator gives in poem no. 52 in The Sun, My Father: “I was expected to / I ought to / kill / time stopped / my heart pounded / reached my ears / blood rushed in my head / I saw the eyes of the young female reindeer, in her eyes / tears / or in my eyes.” In spite of the fact that Valkeapää never owned a large reindeer herd in real life, he compensated for this by writing, conjuring up, a private reindeer herd. In the perception of the artist’s work, this imaginary herd takes on a separate concrete form of expression as represented on the book pages in the form of drawings, paintings, photographs, and, not least, as traces in words in the form of terms and typography that gives names to the individual animals. On top of all this, he places the herd in a phonetic and realistic working context while it is on the move. On the CD where he himself reads aloud the poems from The Sun, My Father, it is clear that no. 272 is put into a context with a reindeer herd on the move. (DATCD 10).


Undulating sea of reindeer horns


The prefaces to the Scandinavian and English editions of Beaivi, Áhčážan have different grounds for leaving poem no. 272 untranslated. In the preface to Solen, min far I argue that the poem is untranslatable: “cannot be expressed in any other language than Sami.” Thereafter follows an explanation of what the poem expresses: a reindeer herd, and how the poem contains an aesthetic dimension in addition to the linguistic, and how the typography and terminology usage participate in giving the poem life, and really set it in motion. The preface to the English translation is naturally enough more introductory both of Sami culture and of the book itself. The explanation as to why poem no. 272 remains untranslated in The Sun, My Father points to the author’s own wish that it should only be expressed in Sami. The translators also draw support for the decision in Ezra Pound’s remark that some things can only be expressed in the original language. Moreover, it is stressed that in addition to the linguistic dimension the poem also contains a visual way of thinking behind it.

Purely objectively one can no doubt claim that it would be possible to translate the poem. Seen from the point of view of the translator, in principle everything should transferable to another language, but the question is what would be the purpose of such a translation. One possibility would be to do an explanatory rendering, to translate the terms in a descriptive way. Thus where it is necessary one would preferably use several words in English to bring out the content of the Sami term. It would be possible to do this with other poems, but in this special instance where one word in most cases stands for a concrete reindeer, one would either have to reduce the number of animals in the herd to maintain the typography, or alternatively increase the number of pages in the book.  In this way it might be possible to maintain the typographical setting, even if one would have to use many more words than the original has in order to make the reindeer names understandable for an English reader. This would disturb the balance in what the typography and terminology represent in the Sami original.

            The problematic part with such an explanatory translation however would be that one would most probably have to reduce the number of special terms for reindeer in the poem. This in turn would actually imply reducing the number of reindeer in the herd, meaning that one would be rustling someone else’s reindeer! This would be unethical with regard both to the law and to Sami tradition. Precisely with this sort of challenge Nils-Aslak Valkeapää brings out what is special about the Sami language, and the poem is in this manner supplied with a politicized dimension precisely by the simple fact that it demonstrates that the Sami language is superior to English for describing Sami experiences. Additionally, the author manages to connect language and reality together in a form that through its practice makes an interesting comment on the representational part of linguistic activity.

There exists another way of solving the translation problem, simply by letting the original stand, and provide a glossary of the specific terms for the interested. This is done by Prof. John Weinstock in his animation of the reindeer herd on the web. See In this way the Sami original is preserved in form but a glossary of the terms allows the curious to investigate further.

In principle there is thus no talk about untranslatability per se, but because of the poem’s other artistic intentions and references to facts, the need for a translation is less compelling. In the same way as a reindeer herd grazing and in motion during migration will be exotic for outsiders to observe, it might be just as exotic to allow the visual expression to dominate the reading of poem no. 272 in The Sun, My Father. Printing the poem in Sami even in a translation would perhaps somehow allow the foreign reader to appreciate its visual impact even though not understanding the words. Besides there is the important additional aspect that the author has read aloud all of Beaivi, áhčážan on CD and cassette, including music and natural sounds, so the reader / listener also has another medium to relate to, or through which to acquire extra information and perception.


Observer and object on the same tundra

If we take the first page of the poem as an example, “láidesteaddji  uuuuuuu uuuuuu roahpebiellu guŋká,” we already have here two words that in Konrad Nielsen’s dictionary take up considerable space in laying out their meaning: Láidesteaddji is “the one who (walking or driving) leads a reindeer after himself in order to get the others to follow along,” (Nielsen Lapp Dictionary I, 1932, 484), roahpebiellu means “1) large rectangular iron bell with coarse, rough sound, 2) name of a female reindeer that has such a bell” (Nielsen III, 308). Moreover this one line in the poem is written in italics. In comparison with the rest of the poem’s setting, this is supposed to indicate that onomatopoeia tied with reindeer and migration is included as an important component: on the one hand the uuuuuuu-sounds are of course reminiscent of shouts, driving shouts to get the herd to move. On the other hand roahpebiellu guŋká tells us that the bell is ringing, and therefore that the reindeer wearing the bell is moving.

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The next page of the poem affirms the impression that the text in italics represents onomatopoeic expressions that also create rhyme and vowel harmony, in addition to alliteration and assonance: duoddarat eallun bárusteame báraideame máraideame. The main message in this line is that the tundra is billowing as a herd, for duoddarat is tundra, eallun is the essive of eallu, a herd, and all three following verbs signify wavy motions. For their part the words in normal script describe being furthest forward in the herd, being leader and pathfinder.

It is not my intention to interpret every single word in this long poem, but I wish to explain sufficiently thoroughly that a reader with no Sami experience gets the impression of how carefully thought out the representation of the reindeer herd is, and also how the reindeer herd represents something more than just the herd itself. Page 3 of the poem concerns a billowing landscape represented by undulating reindeer antlers, but also amusing compounds like čoarvemearran biellobalvan (like a sea of antlers as bell clouds) leavvedolgin girjjohallá (motley as a lucky feather). The non-italic script represents various reindeer, cows and bulls, and various reindeer names based on hair color.

The italic script on page 4 still sustains movement and shows how the entire tundra is alive with the reindeer herd, but at the same time it also affirms that this represents the northern area’s basis of life, davviguovllu eallenvuođđu. The non-italic-script that is above the italic brings in new reindeer names, while the writing below is taken up by nouns and verbs. The substantives are for reindeer names, while the verbs describe motion connected with the reindeer’s way of moving, while the words furthest down such as e.g. gurgalit and šávihit mean to begin to go or move lined up in a row and to come pouring along with a great noise. Skavgalit means to frighten or chase away. These words together with the typography that is busy allowing the words (read: the animals) to spread out across the whole page, contributes to giving an impression of a herd on the verge of spreading out, something that is affirmed on the next two pages where the herd is spread over both book pages.

The first animal we meet at the top of page 5 in the poem is menodahkes, eaidánas ealli, which also represents the animal that thrives best by itself. Menodahkes, is used of reindeer, horses or cows that are in the habit of trying to avoid being taken hold of.  When it occurs as the first morpheme of a reindeer name, it refers to the reindeer’s appearance, as e.g. menodahkes čuoivvat. Eaidánas means a person or animal that prefers to keep to itself. It comes from the verb eaidat, to become a stranger to something or someone, to keep apart by itself, without having anything to do with others (Nielsen III, 859).

The eaidánas ealli-animal, the figure or metaphor for the somewhat withdrawn observer or evaluator we meet most clearly again in poem no. 558. There too it occurs at the top of page 3 in the long poem (thus occupying the same position as in no. 272), but there it is more clearly representative of the artist’s view or the shaman’s panorama over the society that he is a member of, although this position requires a certain detachment from that same society.

On the other side of the herd, furthest down the page, we have two new verbs, ravgat and oaguhit, where the first one means to be frightened and go away, run away, especially for reindeer, while oaguhit means to let a reindeer or a horse walk, or to drive carefully with reindeer when the snow cover is poor or the animal is tired. The verb just above is lávdá, which means that a herd spreads out, which affirms and is affirmed by the visual impression we get from the typographical arrangement of the words on the page. Again we have the same distribution on both sides of the italicized text, namely that on the upper part of the page are the nouns, the animals, the terms, while on the lower part of the page is a mixture of both nouns and verbs. The verbs represent movement and sound. The italicized text is introduced with gearráda that describes the waves washing up on land, while line number two plays on the similarity in sound in verbs and nouns where the herd stands in the center. This is also the case with words like jiellat (eyeball), and geallu (how it shines, radiates from the herd), in themselves clear positive-valued words that strengthen the emotional dimension in the text with regard to what is being described.

On page 6 of the poem furthest up the page we meet iđat and iđihit that mean respectively a strange reindeer which appears in the herd and to “get roaming reindeer into one’s herd” (Nielsen II, 364). The two words are a noun and a verb from the same root. It is natural that these are placed at the edge of the herd where of course they first come in, and on the other side of the herd we meet ravdaboazu and others that mean reindeer that stay at or near the edge of the herd. The herd on the book pages is in other words put together in a very realistic manner, almost an identical rendering of a real reindeer herd. At the same time the herd has clear parallels to humans in a crowd.

On the same page there are also people. They are there from a geographic connection relative to the seasonal dwelling place. They are identified by the nouns njárggahas and suolohas. The first means one who stays on a peninsula (i.e. undertakes summer migration to a peninsula), and the second means one who has a summer dwelling place on an island. They are also identified as herders by the terms guođoheaddji and eallogoahkka. Furthermore the verbs on this page describe human activity more than on the preceding pages, both in the shape of one seeing the herd, geahčadit, and missing animals that should have been there. There are also several words that can be glossed as drive-shout to get the herd to move. What is interesting is that the words furthest to the right on the page are of this type, while the words furthest left (and thus in the direction the herd is moving) describe the sounds that the herd and the bells make. This implies that the herders have got the herd moving so that it is now in motion from right to left. By contrast we continue our reading of the poem further through the book in the left to right direction that we normally read the text, so that the herd is again behind us. We walk in the opposite direction to it, and end up only seeing the tracks after the herd has passed.

The writing in italics on this page contains both sounds that the reindeer make, landscape, movement and finding and staying on the track even if it is snowed over and can hardly be made out (doalli, KN I, 544), together with an allusion to the text in the Sami national anthem “dávggáid vuolde” (under the Big Dipper – almost a mythical reference to Sápmi or Samiland). All of this helps unite the thematics in the two font types in the poem on the second last page.  It also mediates and stands for a double relationship to the Sami existence, not only as belonging to this area both through the activity and adaptation that reindeer herding represents, but also through a mythical legitimizing that this is our land – Samiland. None of this is mentioned explicitly in comprehensible text, but it is conveyed only through what for Sami readers would be a well-known reference, namely to Isak Saba’s “Sami people’s song.” This includes the words “Guhkkin davvin dávggáid vuolde, sabmá suolggai Sámieatnan” (Far up north under the Big Dipper, slowly rises Samiland). Like so many other of Valkeapää’s texts, this poem about a reindeer herd migrating has about it these extra culturally cued implications that ties it to myths, ideas and practical everyday life in a combination that opens the eyes of the observer to see the well-known through a new lens.

            It is interesting to note the detail that because our reading of the poem and the herd’s migration go in opposite directions, the drive-shouts to get the herd to move ahead become the words we take with us on our further reading of the book. Both the herd and we as readers are urged on and hurried by the same words, but we are driven in opposite directions. The tracks (the dotted lines) that start on this page (page 6 of the poem) and continue over the whole of the next page without another word therefore become the tracks of the herd that has now passed, and the tracks that we make on our wandering in the same landscape. But at the same time they exemplify and demonstrate how closely connected animals and people are with each other in natural man’s holistic and ecologically based understanding of our presence on Mother Earth.