It shows how indigenous people the world over have tried to argue for their rights to land, water and spiritual values, but have not been understood because the penetrating colonists have not been willing to listen to another type of reasoning than what they themselves represent. The lack of a common frame of reference and the ability to communicate between the indigenous representative and the colonizing new settler in the end makes the indigenous person silent: “I say nothing / [--] Just show them the wide expanses.”
The poem has clear parallels to the well-known speech Chief Seattle (also known as Sealth, Seathle, Seathl, or See-ahth) is supposed to have given in December of 1854 during the negotiations on an agreement between the local Indian tribes in the Washington territory in the present northwest corner of the USA and the newly named governor and chief negotiator Isaac I. Stevens who represented the settlers in the area and the American president. Seattle’s speech was held in his own Indian language, Lushootseed, and one of those present, Dr. Henry Smith, took detailed notes according to sources – although there is still a lot of controversy about the origin of the speech. That means we have a certain basis to relate to when we evaluate the well-known Indian chief’s rhetorical question to the governor’s wish to buy Indian land: “How can you sell or buy the air? If we do not own its freshness and the glimmer in the water, how then can the White man buy it from us?” Essential here are the similarities to Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s poem on the same theme, namely, the loss of the right to administer one’s own land, one’s history and identity.
Both texts represent indigenous literature on a high rhetorical level relating to trying to get the colonists to understand that they must think differently about the land they want to conquer. In his speech Seattle explains to the white governor how the land is one with the Indians, how their kinship and attachment is tied to the land, and that they therefore cannot give it away. Valkeapää’s poem also has a Sami parallel in an old epic yoik that was most probably presented as an antiphony between Noaidi, a shaman, and Suola, a thief, where the point is that it is the thief who has stolen dominion over the waters, the flowers and the fields. The shaman though has not given up his faith in the power of words, so he challenges his Sami listeners to fight against the settler’s dominance – a parallel to today’s situation for the world’s indigenous people in the cultural-political area.
The opening of Valkeapää’s poem is a description of how “My home” lives in the first person, how it is always with him everywhere, and how the environment around the home ties good memories and closeness to him: “The yoik is alive in my home / the happiness of children sounds there / herd-bells ring / dogs bark / the lasso hums / In my home / the fluttering edges of gáktis / the leggings of the Sámi girls / warm smiles.” The opening gives us the context in which to see the rest of the poem: it is full of precious and familiar sounds, it is reminiscent of the attraction of the billowing edges of the Sami women’s costumes and bell-clad leggings. (Compare also the book’s cover illustration.) At the same time it includes the yoik and the smile that tie the heart and the home together.
Valkeapää is not afraid to use the word “heart” in his poem in spite of its being perhaps the most clichéd expression of all. In Sami it is a little different relative to the literary tradition: the poetic usage does not have as long a tradition, and therefore has not managed to produce so many clichés. At the same time, the poem creates a connection between the first person’s emotional scale of feelings and a widened understanding of what home may be. The concept acquires a new dimension in the metaphor home-heart. The connection becomes so immediate that one no longer reacts to the way it is expressed. This is a parallel to the assertion that Valkeapää is not writing about nature, but writing nature. One might say that it becomes even more striking in English: the first verse line sounds “My home is in my heart,” something that can actually carry the thoughts to Country & Western music, something that according to Valkeapää himself is not so very unnatural, since C & W has always had the same point of departure as the Sami yoik, namely the love of what is familiar and near.
The proximity, the familiarity between the poet-first person (the person speaking) and us as listeners, or the primary addressees of the poem (the Sami readers) is maintained and strengthened on page two in the section: “You know it brother / you understand sister.” But it is interrupted when the intruders are introduced: “but what do I say to strangers / who spread out everywhere / how shall I answer their questions / that come from a different world.” The opening idyll is broken, the cultural collision a fact. The parallel with the modernized version of Chief Seattle’s speech and the old Sami yoik is obvious: how to get the other one, the outsider (who in addition thinks he has the power, authority and right to manage the correct understanding of the situation) to be able to see the matter from the side of the oppressed, of the minority?
The poetic images that follow are simple, but very descriptive, and besides make up a significant part of what in the poem moves indigenous listeners over the whole world. This is the migratory concept belonging that is not tied to just one place, but embraces the entire area that one moves in, and forms the cultural background of what one understands as his home: “You are standing in my bed / my privy is behind the bushes / the sun is my lamp / the lake my wash bowl.
Here, I omit an interpretation of the illustrations that are on the same pages as the poems, as well as the following five pages that contain only images, before we return once more to the words, and a specification of what the expanded definition of home implies, namely that the whole siida, the whole area, and all who live there, are included in the concept. It is not my intention to undervalue the meaning of the images as part of the total expression, where poem and images belong together, but in this text I choose to concentrate on the words. It is not a matter of ekphrase poetry here (poetry written as a comment to or inspired by images or visual art), but rather of Valkeapää’s multimedia or all-artistic expression, which I do not have room to look at more closely here in relation to the poetry section in question. I do however want to point out the one important fact about the images, namely that they symbolize several indigenous traditions, including those of other circumpolar people. In this way they contribute to extending the poems’ content to be relevant to others and not just the Sami. (The place names mentioned in the poem are Sami, and thereby situate the poem in Sápmi purely geographically, while the images draw their symbols from other indigenous peoples too).
On the next page the conflict between the internal mutual understanding (that is the understanding that the author’s voice insists on through the constant reference to “you know brother / you understand sister” and similar expressions) and the forces pressing from the outside is deepened. The intruders have law books that they display, and can claim that the land does not belong to anyone, and therefore falls to the State. This motive Valkeapää returns to further on in the poem, and also in later books, but on the following page the author’s voice becomes more rhetorical in its way of referring to the questions of the outsiders by asking how one is supposed to explain the understanding of where the home is from the point of view of a nomadic lifestyle.
After having elaborated in the poem about the meaning of the different places for the siida’s basis of life, and also about the connection of the geography and topography to the indigenous life-experience, the first person narrator returns to the contention of “the others” about having right on their side: “They come to me / and show books / Law books/ that they have written themselves / This is the law and it applies to you too / See here.” Whereupon the dejected, almost defeatist answer comes:
But I do not see brother
I do not see sister
I say nothing
I only show them the tundra
This answer has two levels of addressee. On the one hand, it conforms with the shaman’s admission to the Thief in the old antiphonal song from the colonization of Samiland. This is a power-relational acceptance of the colonist’s mastery over the Sami. On the other hand the shaman’s message is also directed inward toward Sami society as a negation of the above admission. Thus it constitutes a strong appeal between the lines to the Sami to stand together in defense of linguistic and cultural rights. Valkeapää’s text also expresses this resignation, but it is precisely in this apparent surrender of faith in the strength of one’s own arguments, that the opposition lies.
An additional aspect that is interesting in this context is the Sami tradition that shows disagreement by being silent, i.e. the very opposite of the Norwegian expression that “he who is silent acquiesces.” Therefore the poem has a binary argumentation about itself: it first tries to explain to the intruders in a language they ought to understand, but when not even that avails, then the poet returns to the Sami tradition of being silent, which of course is also misunderstood by “the others”.
“I only show them the tundra” is the resignation that is transformed into an understated opposition. From what the author’s voice has told us readers so far about his own and his people’s use of the tundra there is no doubt that the strongest argument lies precisely in the documentation of the way nature from the smallest details to the great relationships has always represented the home.
After two more pages of illustrations without text, as if to allow the full content of the assertion “I only show them the tundra” to sink into the reader, the first person narrator concentrates again primarily on internal communication. He sees the tundra, and we know this far into the text that the verb “see” carries more meaning than just registering that the tundra is there. It means understanding how important it is for the first person narrator and his people, for their survival, their sense of belonging and indeed their very identity.
On the next page and again on the second last page of the poem section, we almost move into the mythological sphere where the first person narrator’s heart reflects the sounds that in this connection represent the mythological entities namely the magic drum and the sacrificial stone. The sound of the beating of reindeer hooves can be reminiscent of the drumming on the magic drum, which has its counterpart in the thundering earth and the power of the sacrificial stone. In the chest of the first person narrator this “it” is heard, which affirms for him that what he has said is true. He hears it both with open and closed eyes. Toward the end of the poem, he hears a voice call, the blood’s yoik – his own blood, which encompasses his ancestors; and thus the memory of the people as a collective. This voice comes from “eallima duogábealde,” thus in a way from the backside of life, and continues, or goes to, the other side of life, “eallima duogábeallái,” “from the dawn of life / to the dusk of life.” Thereby the Sami case usage with inessive and illative is also included: “bealde” (in, on or from) and “beallái” (to).
This yoik of the blood leads us over to the last page of what makes up the text of the poem cycle. It is both a repetition of what is expressed on the previous pages, and at the same time also a summing up of the theme that points forward, and that concludes by affirming the truth, the legitimacy, of what has been treated in the poem. This is that the geography, the moods towards the landscape and the people in it, the persons, the sisters and the brothers are all included in the first person narrator’s heart, in his home: “All of this is my home / these fjords rivers lakes / the cold the sunlight the storms / The night and day of the fields / happiness and sorrow / sisters and brothers / All of this is my home / and I carry it in my heart.”
In a way the construction of this poem section is almost like a monograph with an introductory presentation of the approach to the problem: belonging, identity and the right to one’s own territory geographically, materially and spiritually. Further on there follows a more thorough documenting of the internal view of the question. Thereupon the conflict is introduced through “the others’” diverging view of the matter forcing its way out. Then the argumentation documents, almost down to the last detail, the Sami settlement and use of the areas over a long period, before the voice of the majority is expressed through reference to laws that they themselves have written. Herein lies the main parallel to the situation of other indigenous peoples: it is the colonizer who sets the conditions from which he himself assesses the situation and on the basis of which he judges. When the first person narrator has demonstrated that the communication is not functioning, he becomes an introvert and stresses even more strongly the emotional dimension of the matter, and ends the whole thing with an in depth summation of the introductory presentation that “My home is in my heart” and all that he carries with him.
The author’s voice tries to get his own people to realize that what we believe and think is reasonable. Then we only have to try our best to argue face to face with the majority society for our own right. This is what the shaman did during the first period of colonization, and what many others have done since then. Valkeapää places himself into Sami literary and cultural history on a level with the Sami classical writers Johan Turi, Anders Larsen and Paulus Utsi, who also stressed communication as an important means for increased understanding from the side of the majority society. They all place great weight on the inner values in Sami culture, the pride of the people, and how all of this is part of keeping up one’s spirits and contributing to a Sami lifestyle and culture continuing to exist.