With an End in Sight: Sympathetic Portrayals of "Vanishing" Sami Life in the Works of Karl Nickul and Andreas Alariesto

By DuBois, Thomas A. | Scandinavian Studies, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

With an End in Sight: Sympathetic Portrayals of "Vanishing" Sami Life in the Works of Karl Nickul and Andreas Alariesto


DuBois, Thomas A., Scandinavian Studies


I ENTITLED THIS PAPER "With an End in Sight" because I hope to highlight the rhetorical or illocutionary purposes behind the decision to represent Sami people as a "vanishing" culture. In particular, I hope to explore what ends Karl Nickul and Andreas Alariesto had in mind when portraying the Sami communities they knew or remembered as lost pieces of the past, a decision which renders their works--one an ethnographic photo-documentary, the other a collection of folk paintings--documents of a lost world, glimpses of a vanished Camelot. I argue that these sympathetic portrayals of communities that, according to Nickul and Alariesto, were essentially extinct at the time their works were completed must be seen in conjunction with a submerged but assumed ethnographic image of Sami operating within Finnish scholarship at the time.

Nickul's and Alariesto's works, in other words, answer viewpoints that they assume Finnish scholarly or popular audiences hold. As we shall see, the elegiac, heroic quality of their works goes far to balance cold, Social Darwinistic assumptions operating in twentieth-century Finnish understandings of Sami culture. At the same time, the victimized image of Sami and the rhetorical assertion that it is already too late to save them have profoundly negative implications for Sami policies or Sami identity today. In order to use such works effectively in courses and research at the beginning of the twenty-first century--as Troy Storfjell has outlined in his paper in this collection--we must examine their assumed audiences and the overt or covert agendas brought to the topic of Sami culture by their creators. In this case, the assumed audience of each of these works was the same: Finns living in the middle of the twentieth century possessing a mix of romantic and (more prevalent) Social Darwinistic understandings of their country's indigenous minority.

I have chosen to write about Nickul and Alariesto because their works occupy important bridging positions in the emergent international field of Sami studies. Nickul's introduction to Sami culture The Lappish Nation: Citizens of Four Countries from 1977 (the original appeared in Finnish in 1970 under the title Saamelaiset kansana ja kansalaisina) has served as a key foundational study for English-speaking ethnographers interested in Sami people. Nickul's interdisciplinary work surveys Sami history, policies, Sami-language publications, and (then-contemporary) cultural and political movements, all from a perspective grounded in the ethnographic description of traditional Sami livelihoods, which forms the work's first chapter. And in this formative chapter, Nickul's own ethnographic work with Skolt Sami of the Suenjel siida during the 1930s, first published in 1948, provides a foundational image of an asserted pre-contact Sami life. Both the 1948 and 1977 publications will be examined here. Andreas Alariesto (1900-89) rose to prominence in Finnish art and in Finnish understandings of Sami people during this same period. Born and raised as a Sami in Sompio, Lapland, Alariesto became famous for his colorful paintings that set out to chronicle, in Alariesto's own terms, a world that had already passed, one that would fade into oblivion with his death. His paintings, often with accompanying wry explanations of their contents, became widely acclaimed in Finnish art circles and have been featured in galleries, art books, and even Arabia ceramics. (1)

It is clear in examining these men's works that we need to regard ethnographers--i.e. describers of culture--as authors. The ethnographer's attitudes, understandings, and personal agendas inevitably play decisive roles in the selection and presentation of materials from a given culture. The nature of this authorial role, sometimes artfully concealed under assertions of authority or objectivity, has been explored provocatively by James Clifford and others in the so-called "Writing Culture" movement of American anthropology (e. …

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