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Poet's Corner: the sound of distant verses


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Just inside the Arctic circle--spread across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia--live the Sami, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. There are some striking similarities between the Sami and Native Americans. Traditional Sami have a nature-centered spirituality, live in tepeelike tents, and survive largely by hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding. Like American Indians, the Sami have also had to struggle to preserve their culture and way of life in the face of development.

These parallels come up often in the writings of poet, artist, musician, and de facto Sami ambassador Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa. Born in 1943, Valkeapaa grew up in a reindeer-herding family, and at various times lived within the borders of Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Like the poet and former American Indian Movement spokesman John Trudell, he incorporates his people's culture and political struggles into his work.

Charles Peterson, director of North Park College's Center for Scandinavian Studies, calls Valkeapaa a modern shaman because he acts as a link to his people's ancestors, just as Indian and Sami priests have done for thousands of years. "It's the same kind of spirituality and relationship to nature," Peterson says, "and it brings up the same kinds of stereotypes and prejudice that Americans feel toward American Indians."

Peterson has helped arrange a reading by Valkeapaa this Tuesday night at North Park College. Peterson first encountered the Sami people six years ago while living with his family near Oslo, Norway. He soon became aware of the racism and other problems the Sami face. Though he says Scandinavian countries are "a lot more egalitarian than here," Peterson acknowledges that they have "a problem in dealing with the Sami. There's a lot of prejudice."

Sami culture has been under fire ever since the first Lutheran missionaries came north in the 1500s. Peterson says that at different points in history the Scandinavians have enforced outright bans on the Sami language and other traditional forms of expression, such as yoik, yodellike chant-singing that incorporates both words and sounds. Describing the Christian reaction to yoik in his 1971 book Greetings From Lappland, Valkeapaa wrote, "Yoik was the voice of the devil in man. The devil must be burned with fire or beheaded. By this means one overcame evil spirits. Even an old man of more than 80 years of age was executed because he was irresponsible enough to yoik."

By combining yoik with modern music, Valkeapaa has helped restore the popularity of the practice among younger generations of Sami. But he raised Scandinavian eyebrows by introducing it to the outside world when he represented the Sami people at the opening ceremonies of last year's winter Olympics in Norway. Peterson says, "When Valkeapaa opened the Olympic Games with yoik, there was a lot of discussion from some Christian groups in Norway," who felt that it "shouldn't be allowed because it's a pagan ritual or pagan expression."

Direct cultural repression is mostly a thing of the past. Sami children can now study their own language in their own schools, and a largely symbolic but still important regional Sami parliament has been created. The bottom line is now mainly economic. Sami grazing lands are threatened by hydroelectric power projects, oil pipelines, and other forms of development, and many young Samis are drawn to southern cities in search of employment.

"The traditional life-style hasn't been wiped out, but it's been modified," Peterson says. "The challenge faced by them today is maintaining their culture and their way of life when they come into political and economic conflict with modern Scandinavia."

Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa will read his poetry in Sami with English translation at 7 PM Tuesday, March 14, in North Park College's Anderson Chapel, 3225 W. Foster. Admission is free. Call 244-5592 for more.

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