Valkeapää ensnared the world

By John Gustavsen

Translation Troy Storfjell

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää considered himself a guest on this earth. He wanted people to take responsibility both for themselves and for their surroundings. Through art he invited us to life. Nils-Aslak Valkeapää was a guest on this earth between 23 March, 1943, and 26 November, 2001. His long period of artistic production started with yoik at the end of the 1960s, and continued with writing, visual arts, music, photography and film. He was often termed a “multi-artist.”

He was born in Palojoensuu in Enontekiö commune, and his family—mother, father, sister and brother—herded reindeer. His parents could tell that he wasn’t like other children; he didn’t like the reindeer slaughter. In a picture from age three or four he appears to be very shy. A poem tells a little of who he was:

The earth sounded, echoed

Set out now, my child

Spread your wings out, fly

Discover your own intention, deliberate


(From Nu guhkkin dat mii lahka/ Så nært det fjerne, DAT 1994. Translated to Norwegian by Harald Gaski, Jon Toda log Kristina Utsi)


Nils-Aslak Valkeapää attended the teachers’ college in Kemijärvi in Finnish Lappland. But he never worked as a teacher. When he was around 25 years old, he stepped out into art. It was primarily yoik that occupied him, but he also drew and wrote. And he was angry, angry because Sámi children weren’t able to learn their mother tongue, and because the Nordic states occupied what he considered to be the land of the Sámi. This was the driving force behind his first book to come out, published in Finnish in 1971 as Terveisiä Lapista (in Norwegian as Helsing frå Sameland, Pax forlag, 1979, translated by Liv Hatle, and in English as Greetings From Lapland: The Sami, Europe’s Forgotten People, Zed Press, 1983, translated by Beverley Wahl). The book was published “in youthful anger,” and he tells us that “in my heart the bluethroat twittered, but at times a cold wind blew there.”

Valkeapää (“the bright head”) traveled long paths leading to his reception of the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1991 for his poetry and photography collection Beaivvi, áhčážán (Solen, min far in Norwegian, and The Sun, My Father in English). This was a high point of his life, leading to important appearances and performances. Many projects were planned or projected, but then the dramatic happened. “Áilohaš,” as his friends called him, was the victim of an automobile accident in 1996, not far from his home in Beattet/ Pättikä, forty kilometers west of Karesuando. For a long time he hovered between life and death, but eventually he recovered, and continued …

Read the complete article on Nils-Aslak Valkeapää written by John Gustavsen


John Gustavsen has worked with Valkeapää's poetry and is committed to spreading the poet's political involvement and his commitment to indigenous issues in a global perspective. John Gustavsen is a teacher, author and freelance journalist. Along with Marry A. Somby and Nils-Aslak Valkeapää he took the initiative to stapling of Sámi Girjecálliid Searvi, Sami Writers Association.