By Tiril Sofie Erdal.
Yesterday, a family speaking a Sámi language entered the café I work in. I was surprised because I cannot remember the last time I heard their language in a public space. It struck me how strange it is that I found it so strange, considering it is a language of our natives. And I felt sad that they where so exotic to me. It would be less strange to hear someone talk Mandarin.
The Fall Exhibition, Norways biggest scene for contemporary art, is an exhibition with artworks selected anonymously, however, this year there was one exception: the sculpture Gimme Shelter (2004) by the Sámi artist Aage Gaup. The sculpture is of a stone figure crouching, covering its head, which is covered by hair, with its hands in desperation. The sculpture has skillfully carved human-like textures, and gives still a clear impression of the square stone from which it was carved. It is like the stone figure wants to crawl back into the mountain wall and hide, or perhaps it would fit better into one of the following coffins. Pointing towards this terrified person, the artist has lined up what seems to be two simple wooden coffins. The coffins are painted black on the outside and the lids are placed across the coffins, creating the shape of crosses. They can remind one of black crows or military planes, targeting the stone figure. The symbolism of the art piece is not too complicated. Coffins, military planes, crosses and crows are clear symbols of death. Considering this artwork is made by an Sámi artist, the cross shaped coffins can be a reference to the forces of Christian powers persecuting the Sámi throughout history. For not too many years ago, the Sámi people weren’t allowed to speak or learn their own language in school and their culture was oppressed. Being related to the Sámi was seen as shameful. Today a lot has changed and there has been done a lot of work to preserve their culture. However, we are met with a different kind of threat.
The Sámi in the past where at least seen as a serious threat. Shamanism, which was practiced for instance to heal sick people, was banned by the authorities of the church, because they believed it was black magic. The Sámi joik was associated with shamanism and was therefore also banned. It was seen as devilish. Today many people believe the joik is just the Sámi people’s folk song, but it is really more complex than that.
Stéphane Aubinet, PhD Research Fellow in Musicology at the University of Oslo, conducts research on the joik’s spiritual values. Joiks are apparently received from the Ulda and have a will of their own. Joiks not only describe the person the joik as about, in a sense, the joik becomes the person. The Sámi therefore don’t joik their own joik. Like a name, the joik sounds like them. The joiks bear characteristics of the person and are often characterized by being either feminine or masculine. If you for instance are in the mountains and miss your friend, or if they die, you can sing their joik and the person will be present through the song. The joik is a presence of the soul.
Animals can also have joiks and you can often hear what type of animal it is. A bear joik does not refer to the bear, it is the bear. When singing the bear, as well as being a human, you also become a bear. You don’t physically become a bear, but become animated by your wildness. The joik is a presence, not a meaning. According to Aubinet, animals have been known to respond to the joik and can therefore be used to affect them. He mentioned one particular case where yelling did not seem to help scare away the animals, but they responded to the joik. If you sing the joik of the puppies to puppies, Aubinet explaines, the puppies seemingly become very happy. The Sámi people don't pretend to know what animals are thinking, but see that they respond. This shows a humble attitude towards nature and the unknown. Since they don’t know what animals think, they don’t pretend they do. Instead, they listen to them. According to Aubinet, animals do not joik themselves. However, some spirits do. Joiks by non-humans can be heard as echoes in the mountains. These joiks come from the Ulda. The Sámi believe also the wind can perhaps in particular circumstances joik, but they are careful not to generalize. When you hear the sound of the wind from the valley, the joik makes it animated. The joik creates a connection between humans, nature and the spiritual.
In the age of the Anthropocene, we are forced to re-connect nature with humans. We can learn a lot from the Sámi people. In giving joiks (which are presences of souls) to different parts of nature, they show us that nature has souls. This serves as an inspiration towards a new way of looking at the world and has similarities to Deep Ecology. Deep Ecology is not an expansion of ethics covering the whole natural world, but an ontology with a deep respect for life. It doesn’t only focus on human life quality (anthropocentrism), but the whole natural world, with humans as apart of it, not separate (Næss, 1989, p. 28). Arne Næss argued we should change our fundamental beliefs about our selves and the world, not just look for values in nature, since our ethics are based on our view of the world (Næss, 1989, pp. 19, 20). It would of course be simplistic to see the Sámi people as perfect ecologists, but they live in a very fragile environment and their different view of the world can serve as an inspiration.
The installation of Aage Gaup in the Fall Exhibition has participated in bringing renewed attention to the Sámi people. Most Norwegians know way too little about their rich culture, and the oppression of the Sámi is a particularly shameful part of our country’s history. Yet in the age of the Anthropocene, we can all learn from the Sámi's humble attitude and great respect for nature.
Høstutstillingen (2018) Høstutstillingen 2018, Statens 131. kunstutstilling [Internet]. Available from: <https://www.hostutstillingen.no/2018/> [9. October 2018].
Næss, A. Translated and Ed. Rothenberg, D. (1989) Ecology, Community and Lifestyle. Cambridge: University Press.
Stéphane Aubinet, Lecture "Animals and Animaling in Sámi Joik," The University of Oslo, 5. October, 2018.
Gaup, A. (2004) Gimme Shelter. [digitalized photograph of sculpture]. Available at: <https://www.hostutstillingen.no/2018/aage-gaup/> [Found 9. October 2018].