Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

Defence of Earth

 

By Sigbjørn Skåden, Sápmi/Saamiland
Special to Prometeo
Text Read at the Meeting of Aboriginal Poets

In the spring of 1983 I joined a football team for the first time in my life. I had always liked football and had played it with relish from an early age, first with my father in our living room and later with other children in my village. This was an exciting year for me, I was going to start school that autumn, but now it was May, the snow was more or less gone, at least in the lowland, and the local sports club had made a call for the seven year old villagers to join the football team. A real football team which played real matches in real jerseys.

At the first practices I did rather well, having played football quite much and also having the advantage of being born very early in the year, thus being bigger and stronger than many of my teammates. I was made captain of the team. The feeling of walking on to the pitch for the first time with a proper jersey wearing the captain’s band was tremendous.

Because we lived quite far from the central village my father used to accompany me to trainings and matches. Quite soon I got a taste for being a captain, and the feeling of being in charge grew. The captain is the man steering the ship, I thought, and so should I too be the man steering our team, commanding my teammates, urging them to do better, forcing them if necessary. From watching football, both on TV and the matches of the elder teams from my village, I had learnt that shouting and commanding was a part of what a captain should do, and after a match or two I felt I was getting the hang of it.

It was during one of these first matches I shouted “you idiot” so the whole pitch could hear to one of my less able teammates, a boy who only was let on to the pitch when we led by four goals or more, for losing the ball for the 5th or 6th time in a row. This felt like the right thing to do, he was a shitty player and the captain should let him hear it if he ruined things for the team. The short period of playing for a proper team and being the captain had filled me with huge ambition, winning was the most important thing, preferably with as many goals as possible.

After the game I was happy and content walking towards the car together with my father, having won by ten or twelve goals. My father did not say anything. When we got in the car he first did not turn key to start the engine. I turned to look at him. He sat there with a sinister face. “How do you think it made that boy feel when you shouted you idiot to him like that?” he said. Then he turned the key and we drove off home.

At first I was angry with my father because he had made such a remark. What did he know about football? What did he know about being a captain? I did not speak to him the whole way home, and when he stopped the car at our house I was still angry, angry because he could not see that my shouting was a necessity for us to win. I went straight to my room without a word. But when the anger wore off I started feeling ashamed. Ashamed because I had shouted like that to that boy, ashamed for all the other harsh things I had shouted, and after a while I started feeling ashamed that my father had seen me like that, that all the others had seen me like that, consumed with uncontrollable, unsympathetic ambition.

After this I stopped shouting. Or, that is not true, at games I would still shout to my teammates, but all the time I heard my father’s voice in my head; it had become impossible to shout abusive things. Rather than shouting “you idiot” when someone did something badly, I shouted “well done” when someone did something well. And if someone did something uninspired like losing the ball I would sometimes shout “good try”. I never again shouted abusive things on a football field. What my father had taught me was what is decent and what is not.

Twenty years later another meteor shook the ground. I was at the national congress for one of the Saami political parties, held in Alta, a town in a fiord by the Barents Sea. The Norwegian government had started making plans for opening the Barents Sea for oil and gas drilling. This was one of the great discussion points of this congress, most of the delegates were negative to the idea of starting drilling for oil in the north. Even though it would bring work places to some local communities, the risks were too great. What with all the pollution that kind of drilling brings with it? What if there was a great oil leak? How could we risk the fish, the nature resource that our ancestors had lived upon for generations and generations, the nature resource that always had kept us alive, the nature resource that was the basis for the Saami culture by the Barents Sea. For the vast majority of us it was impossible to support the drilling plan.

But there was also that shadow of doubt. The coast needed work. Unemployment was a problem, and oil industry would mean extremely many new work places, it would mean an economic revitalisation of the local communities, at least on a short term basis. Even though nobody said this, many seemed to carry this doubt with them onto the speaker’s chair. Who were we to refuse people jobs, to refuse to support a big industry initiative by the coast, only because we feared for the basis for traditional life? Only because we feared for the fish?

Towards the end of the debate one of the veteran delegates asked for the word and walked up to the speaker’s chair. This man was a painter, an artist who had followed the Saami movement since the Saami revitalisation days in the seventies and had strived for improvement of the Saami situation both through art and politics. Upon the speaker’s chair he did not comment the oil debate at all. All he said was simply: “My friends. We must never forget that it is a just cause we are fighting. We must never forget that our struggle is the struggle for true justice. We owe this to ourselves and to the world.”

Language is power. The ideas expressed and advocated by language plant themselves in the mind, sometimes they set roots, sometimes not. This goes for both good and bad ideas. As poets we have a responsibility to search through the wilderness of global, regional and local discourse and seek out an ethics of languages, to find the words that express just and truthful ideas. In many ways our purpose and our responsibility is to find true language, and to expose false language. 

Perhaps as indigenous poets we have an extra responsibility to speak up, to pursue a poetic of sub-language, to tear the established apart, to break it all down to a core. Resurrection through language, upholding ideology, forwarding ideology, simply to share our position with the world.

Historically the position of the indigenous peoples of the world has not been an easy one. That I am able to speak the Saami language and use it in writing today is a combination of hard work and a strike of good luck. This is my family history. When my grandparents started school somewhere between the first and second world wars they hardly spoke a word of Norwegian, the language of the state. All they had learnt at home was Saami. That was all they knew. But at Norwegian schools in those days it was not allowed to speak any language but Norwegian. Saami children like my grandparents started school understanding nothing. And if they tried to say something in their own language, tried to ask the teacher to explain in Saami they were often beaten. If they tried to speak Saami during recess to their brothers and sisters or their friends, they were often beaten.

My grandparents tried to take the language away from their own children. They spoke Norwegian to their children. They were certain that this was the only right thing to do. How else should their children survive in a world where they were beaten for speaking Saami? In my family’s case the children disobeyed their parents. My mother and her siblings did not stop using Saami, even thought their parents wanted them to. Therefore I can use the language today. A result of luck and hard work.

But many have not been so lucky. Today the vast majority of the Saami population do not speak their own language. There is a word for what the Saamis and other indigenous peoples have been put through: Indecency. Throughout history, whenever other people have lacked decency, it is the indigenous peoples that have suffered most. We have seen it in Europe, we have seen it in Asia, we have seen it in Africa, Oceania and North America, and we have seen it here in South America. And we see it still. It does not stop. Indecency never stops.

Straight to the North of us, in Canada, I am ashamed to say that my own government, not the Saami self-government, but the Norwegian government, is involved in a large scale project seeking to extract oil from sand, so called oil sands. This means ripping apart great areas of lands and extracting drops of oil from it. In order to make it profitable they must use enormous land areas, areas that after the oil sand extraction will become a northern desert, useless for generations, maybe forever. The ones who will suffer most are the indigenous nations of Canada.

Here in South America, another project stands out. The Belo Monte Dam in Brazil. I am sure I do not need to explain to anyone here the devastating effect it will have if they flood enormous areas of the Amazon rainforest, if they destroy even more of the rainforest than they have already destroyed. And it is almost needless to say who will suffer most: Of course the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. 

These are only two examples of present day events. Events that are not only proof of indecency; this is barbarianism. In our time we look back at the historic witch burnings and shake our heads in disbelief at how barbaric people were a few hundred years before. In a few hundred – or maybe just a hundred – years from now, we will shake our heads in disbelief at projects such as the oil sand project in Canada and the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil. Projects like these are the witch burnings of our time, projects that are indecent to the degree that they are barbaric. It is things like these that my father taught me never to accept – not in myself and not in others.

My grandparents never knew that they had rights. They never knew that true justice for them was being able to speak their own language without being beaten and to live the way they wanted to live without being persecuted. Today we know. The indigenous peoples of the world have never – or at least very rarely – had the privilege of large numbers, effective weapons of warfare or the great wealth that hierarchy brings to some. It is possible – or maybe even probable – that my grandparents and the ones before them did know that the things they were put through were unjust in some way. They just never stood a chance.

We Saamis are unfortunate enough to not even have the word “war” in our vocabulary. The word war never existed in the Saami language. But we have other words. And in a world that – despite all – is more decent than it was when my grandparents started school eighty years ago, our words mean something to someone other than ourselves. This is an opportunity for us as people and as poets, a great opportunity that we can make something out of with some luck and hard work.

Perhaps the greatest Saami poet of all times, Mr. Nils-Aslak Valkepää wrote a short poem in the 80ies – one of his most famous and highest loved ones – that echoes this. I will let Mr. Valkeapää get the last word:

it wasn’t the wind
nor a bird that you heard
it was me
and my thoughts

Published on June 24th, 2012.

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