BÅASSJOERAEJKEN TJÏRR

RETURNING (TO) THE LANGUAGE OF OUR ANCESTORS

In December of last year I curated an event that looked into the relation between Indigenous languages and aesthetic practices. The event was a joint collaboration between Office for Contemporary Art – Norway (OCA) and Norwegian Crafts (NC), and it facilitated meetings and dialogues of dáiddars/artists Tomas Colbengtson, Raisa Porsanger and Sissel M. Bergh with duojárs/artists Unni Fjellheim and Taqralik Partridge as well as members Tatjana Kolpus and Inga Anna Fossli from the local organization, Oslo Sámiid Duodji.

In connection with the event, I also wrote a short text where I reflected on the importance of Indigenous languages, and the methodological choices that was made in the planning of the event. OCA has kindly allowed me to share this text here, and dáiddar Tomas Colbengtson has allowed me to share a picture of his work «Eatname», which I truly believe is a materialization of the essense of Indigneous language. I am grateful to you both!

BÅASSJOERAEJKEN TJÏRR

In the last few decades, a wealth of linguistic and anthropological literature has highlighted the fact that the language one learns has a major impact on how one thinks.[1] As Paul Disain, a Dene elder from the Arctic region of Canada puts it; “Our language and culture is the window through which we see the world”. The holistic perspective by which Indigenous cultures know, learn and believe, in other words, is very much shaped by language. In that way, an Indigenous language, is at its most basic a body of living cultural knowledge meaning that in Indigenous societies, where written materials have been the excemption rather than the rule, it is the spoken language that serves as literature; linked, not only to the people, but also to the landscapes in which they were created and to the current environments in which they continue to exist today.

In our languages then, lies not only our means of communication, but also our culture, our traditions, as well as the social norms and values that shape our society. This makes the loss of ancestral languages all the more profound as what is at stake is not only communication in our own languages, but also the link to our cultures, our norms and our cultural values. The year of 2019 marks the United Nations observance of the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”, which seeks to raise awareness of Indigenous languages and the danger of disappearance that they are faced with across the world, referencing the centuries of colonization, forced assimilation and genocide which has meant that many of the languages in question are particularly vulnerable to extinction. [2] In a Sámi context for instance, only 30% are still speaking one of the 11 Sámi languages – two of which has no natural speakers left.

Looking at the Sámi communities today, studies have shown that aesthetic practices, such as duodji[3] and dáidda[4], have been and continue to be vital in upholding and ensuring the continued survival of Sámi languages, cultures and connections to landscapes. Of old, the practice of duodji exists as an important component of an inter generational exchange of wisdom and skills. Children learn the practice – to duddjot – by seeing and reproducing. The parents and other elders “teach by living” – doing, and sometimes verbally communicating their own experiences.[5] Engaging in the material expressions of Sámi aesthetics thus facilitate a sharing, not only of a cultural practice, but also the knowledge, traditions, beliefs and history generated by that practice through the generations, linking the past with the present, connecting ancestors to their descendants and embedding a cultural competency in its practitioners.[6] Considering this fact, I have for this OCA event invited dáiddars[7], duojárs[8] and other practitioners within the fields of Sámi and Indigenous aesthetics to reflect on if and how their practice is intimately linked with their ancestral languages and the landscapes in which they evolved. The result is conceptualized in båassjoeraejken tjïrr.

A METHODOLOGICAL ENTRY POINT

The term båassjoeraejken tjïrr is of south-sami origin and it refers to the act of entering through a small door in the back of a goathi[9]. This small door led to the båasjoe, which is an area in the back of a goathi that has typically been associated with food preparation- and storage, and ritual practices. In the old days, after a hunt, the prey would always be brought into the goathi through the båassjoeraejken. One hunt in particular, had a specific assocition with the act of båassjoeraejken tjïrr, or entering through the båasjoe.

Of all the hunts, that of the bear, was most strictly bound by rituals and spirits. In the old Sámi religion, the bear is thought of as a holy animal, its power far too strong to go unnoticed in the human realm. After the animal was brought down, the hunters thus needed to be cleansed. This was done by the women in the siida[10], whom chewed albark and spat the red juice unto the hunter and prey through a brass[11] ring; after which the men could enter båassjoeraejken tjïrr.[12]  In this way, båassjoeraejken tjïrr, became a process of transformation through which an individual may enter a changed state having been cleansed and purified from the strong forces that, though not evil in themselves, are too powerful for mere mortals to handle.

Adapting båassjoeraejken tjïrr as a concept, the artists and duojárs that I have gathered highlight some possible aesthetic processes in which Indigenous people may enter their mother tongue, whilst at the same time achieving both healing and a cleansing. Which suggests that, in lieu of albark and brass rings, the practice of dáidda and/or duodji becomes the medium by which Indigenous people may reclaim the voice of their ancestors, reconnecting to their ancestral territories and begin to heal the trauma caused by colonization and subjugation.

Having set the event within an Indigenous context, the question arises as to how logistically this should take shape. Within the established boundaries of academia there is a long-held tradition for events such as this to be arranged in the form of seminars, conferences or panels. A recent wealth of literature, however, explore how Indigenous perspectives might challenge the canon of academia.[13] If we look to our own epistemologies, rarely is the traditional classroom learning of Western schooling thought to be conductive for achieving knowledge. Indeed, a Sámi epistemological perspective see knowledge as communally shared and jointly created through both verbal communications, or storytelling, and bodily practices.[14] The ambition then, for me has been to curate an event that takes the methodological attentiveness to Sámi traditions and epistemologies at face value. To this end, storytelling, both in the shape of talking circle and dialogue, as well as practice will be explored as mediums for knowledge building- and transference.

The talking circle in particular is important as it is an Indigenous and non-hierarchical form of dialogue where participants sit in a circle to symbolize completeness to discuss one or more topics. This ensures that the thoughts and feelings of everyone participating are equally valued, giving voice not only to the few, but to the collective. Instead of lectures, where the flow of information is one-directional, the event is thus conducted as a series of conversations where the invited participants speak with and engage the audience, so that we, as a collective, spend this evening  exploring topics related to our ancestral languages, our aesthetic practices, and our connections to landscape.


[1] Bloom Paul & Frank C. Keil. “Thinking Through Language”, Mind & Language Vol 16. 2001

Boroditsky, Lera. “Language and Construction of Time through Space” Trends in Neurosciences 41(10). 2018.

[2] It is estimated that an Indigenous language disappears every other week. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2012/07/vanishing-languages/

[3] Traditionally the term has been translated to mean craft, but it is more in line with the concept of a creative and aesthetic activity related to practical skills.

[4] Dáidda is a Sámi term meaning art.

[5] Balto, Asta. Samisk barneoppdragelse i endring. Oslo: Ad notam Gyldendal. 1997, pp. 70.

Triumf, Rauna. “Small stories: A guide to learning and teaching Sám i arts and crafts.”, Indigenous Research. Elders and Knowledgeable others in higher education. 2011. pp. 82

[6] Lehtola, Jorma. Sámi Duodji – Sámi duodjesearvvi 30-jagi ávvudančájáhuskataloga, edited by Sami Siida Museum, 2006.

[7] Artists are refered to as dáiddar (sg) or dáiddarat (pl) in nominative case.

[8] Practicioners of duodji are called duojárs (sg) or duojárat (pl) in nominativ case.

[9] Turf hut

[10] Siida, in this case, holds the meaning of ´community`

[11] Brass, or any type of metal really, is in Sámi communities thought to have protective powers

[12] Edsman, Carl-Martin. Jägaren och makterna: Samiska och finska björnceremonier. Uppsala: Dialekt- och folkminnesarkivet, 1994. pp. 59, 80.

Petterson, O. P, Bäckman, Louise & Rolf Kjellström. Kristoffer Sjulssons minnen : om Vapstenlapparna i början af 1800-talet / upptecknade af O. P. Pettersson, Stockholm: Acta Lapponia, 1979. pp. 134

[13] Balto, Samisk barneoppdragelse i endring.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai.  Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed. [1997]2012

Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2009

[14] Balto, Samisk barneoppdragelse i endring, pp. 70. Triumf, Small stories, 82.

[15] Cruikshank, Julie. The social life of stories : narrative and knowledge in the Yukon Territory. Lincoln, Neb: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

[16] Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies, pp. 94.

[17]Cocq, Coppélie. Revoicing Sámi narratives: north Sámi storytelling at the turn of the 20th century, 2008, pp. 14, Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies, pp. 95-6.

[18] Nunn, Patrick D. and Nicholas J. Reid. 2015. «Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7000 Years Ago.»  Australian Geographer

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