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Nils-Aslak Valkeapää
1943-2001
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Nils-Aslak Valkeapää
1943-2001

Chronology by Nathan Muus | Eulogy by Harald Gaski


Nils-Aslak Valkeapää
1943-2001

Kurt Seaberg
1995 ink drawing
for Báiki

For a moment I was with you
rested for a while

And now my friend, my dear bird
it is time to leave again
It is always like that towards the end

And I take out the white reindeer fur coat
not so new any more
but not worn either
And I take out the mottled fur shoes
new shoe strings
nice dark fur leggings
the silver belt the gákti
the silk scarf the cap
the fur gloves
And the food pack

I leave
to arrive
go away
to be closer

To the space of your thoughts
to your heart
I crawl
into the heart

I journey
on the sea of time
follow
the tracks of the wind

From Trekways of the Wind by Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, translated into English by Harald Gaski, Lars Nordstrîm and Ralph Salisbury and published by DAT in 1994. DAT has kindly given us permission reprint it.

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää
by Nathan Muus

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, (Áillohas), perhaps the most internationally-recognized Saami cultural ambassador, activist, joiker, poet, writer, artist and actor, passed away on November 26, 2001 at the age of 58. He is credited with helping to re-establish the joik.

During his lifetime Áillohas made numerous CDs, published several books and produced an impressive body of sacred art.

I first heard of him in 1975, when helead the Saami delegation to the first meeting of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples at Port Alberni, BC. He is said to have electrified the other Indigenous delegates when he stood up and joiked.

Later I read Greetings from Lapland, which was written in English, and I was struck by the similarity between the cultural, ecological and political issues of the Saami People in Sápmi and those of the American Indian Nations here. I had never before read anything written from this perspective.

In 1982 I attended a concert at the Science Museum in St. Paul, MN that featured Áillohas as the main joiker. He was backed by Seppo (Paroni) Paakkunainen and his jazz group from Finland which also included Ingor-Antti Ailu Gaup. This was Áillohas' first North American tour and it featured the innovative combination of joik with modern music. Although we did not know each other then, many of us at that concert and the one in Minneapolis on the same tour later became active in the North American Saami movement.

In 1989 Áillohas visited Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, through the efforts of Roland Thorstenssen, to present a seminar called "Sun, Thunder and Heaven's Fires." The Gustavus library amassed one of the best collections of his art work and writing in North America.

In 1995 the Nordic Center at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, MN, sponsored what was to be his last visit to North America, with BÝiki serving as the cultural consultant. There he presented a multi-media performance of poetry and joik called "Trekways of the Wind" which drew a standing-room-only crowd and also featured the photography of Niillas A. Somby. During that visit Aillohas granted me an interview and I found him to be a gracious and softspoken person.

In the winter of 1996 he was seriously injured in an auto accident and for a time lost the ability to walk and talk. He withdrew from public life in order to recover.

This past October he flew to Japan to take part in a cultural presentation of Saami poetry and joik and an exhibit of Saami art. He died in his sleep in his way back to Sápmi. Here are some of the highlights of his life:

1966: begins to earn his living as an artist

1968: his first joik LP, Joikuja, is released

1971: publishes Greetings From Lapland

1975: attends the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) first meeting at Port Alberni, BC

1982: tours North America with Seppo (Paroni) Paakkunainen and performs in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and St. Paul

1988: acts in and writes the score for Nils Gaup's The Pathfinder, which is nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film of 1989

1988: publishes Beáivi Áhcázan, (The Sun, My Father), a book of his drawings and poetry in the Sami language with archival ancestral photos

1989: presents a seminar, "Sun, Thunder and Heaven's Fires," at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

1991: receives the Nordic Council's Prize for Literature

1991: grants Báiki permission to publish an English translation of his poem "My Home is In My Heart" in its first issue 1991-92: appears on the Norwegian television series "Solens sĚnn og mÜnens datter"

1992: releases a four CD set to accompany the book Beaivi, Áhcázan

1994: opens the Lillehammer, Norway Winter Olympics with a joik, which draws worldwide attention to Norway's Indigenous People

1994: publishes an English translation of his poetry trilogy Trekways of the Wind

1994: presents a multi-media performance "Trekways of the Wind: the Sami Experience" at Augsburg College, Minneapolis,MN, and Suomi College, Hancock, MI

1994: receives an honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Oulo, Finland

1997: publishes The Sun, My Father in English without the photos

1999: receives an honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Lapland, Finland

2001: records a compilation CD of his joiks with Seppo (Paroni) Paakkunainen, which is released in Japan

2001: publishes his last poetry book, Eanni Eannázan

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

by Harald Gaski, Tromsø

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, Gállábárnit, 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 Gállábárnit 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.

For 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 Sámi's poet - 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 in not merely the choice of words, but also their placement on the page. Typography is also aesthetics, and Nils-Aslak Valkeapää -- Áillohas -- 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 Áillohas 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 be his last book, Eanni, Eannázan (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 Áillohas 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 Áillohas 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

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