Performances, Texts, and Contexts: Olaus Sirma, Johan Turi, and the Dilemma of Reifying a Context-Dependent Oral Tradition

The Sámi writers Olaus Sirma and Johan Turi described Sámi song tradition for a non-Sámi audience through elaborate narratives of contextualization. The present article examines these narratives from the perspective of Sámi music, underscoring the insights they offer for the study of richly context-dependent genres.
Understandably, perhaps necessarily, the earliest scholarly and artistic attempts at collecting and representing oral traditions tended to gravitate to genres with a marked, even emphatic breakthrough into performance. [1] A genre in which the performer could be said to take the stage, perform, receive approval and/or censure and then yield the stage to the next performer was appealing to both medieval scribes and nineteenth-century folklorists, for it allowed them to recognize performances as “items” of oral tradition that could be profitably recorded and shared with a later reading audience. Such items needed to possess enough verbal cues that a later audience would be able to understand what they were about and why the scribe or scholar had decided to record them.
What happens, however, when a genre of oral tradition does not display such easily discernible boundaries? And what happens when, as in the case of Sámi joik, this tendency toward conversational embeddedness is accompanied by an understanding of the genre as wholly reliant on the context and interpersonal situation in which it is performed? In this paper, I revisit two texts of great importance to Sámi literary and cultural history: Johan Scheffer’s Lapponia (1673) and Johan Turi’s Muitalus Sámiid birra (1910). [2] The first of these contains the texts of the first two Sámi songs ever committed to writing, songs which Scheffer received—along with a detailed explanation of how they were used—from a young Kemi Sámi minister-in-training, Olaus Matthias Sirma (Čearbmá Ovllá). The second, Muitalus Sámiid birra [An Account of the Sámi], was authored by Johan Turi in collaboration with the Danish artist and ethnographer Emilie Demant. Turi’s Muitalus, written in 1908, appeared in print for the first time in 1910, and is thus now more than a century old. It is considered the first secular book written in Sámi, and I had the good fortune to work with Sámi linguist Mikael Svonni to produce a new translation of that work, a translation which appeared in 2011 (Turi 2011). What I hope to show in this paper is how Sirma and Turi endeavored in the texts they wrote to present joik not as discrete songs to be notated and catalogued, or set apart as reified works of art, but rather as implements in an ongoing social relation between singers, audiences, and the circumstances of life. I argue that Sirma and Turi were searching for a framework to present joik as an embedded, context-dependent ethnographic event, and because they found willing listeners in Johann Scheffer and Emilie Demant, they were able to include contextual information as a central element of their presentations of Sámi singing. I posit that these two men—the first contributors to the study of Sámi folklore—found ways to resist the atomizing or itemizing tendencies of folksong collection of their day in a manner that has much to teach us in our work as students of oral culture in the twenty-first century.

Sámi song

The Sámi (formerly called “Lapps”) are an indigenous people of the Nordic region, living today in Finland, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Sweden. Traditionally, they lived off a variety of different hunter-gatherer and herding activities, adapted to the differing local environments and resources of the region. Many Sámi today, as in the past, speak one or more of a set of roughly twelve closely related Finno-Ugric languages referred to by linguists according to geographic locations or Sámi ethnonyms (e.g. Northern Sámi, South Sámi, Lule Sámi, Inari Sámi, Skolt Sámi). Varieties of Northern Sámi are today the most widely spoken surviving Sámi language, with more than twenty thousand active speakers. Many of the other Sámi languages have dwindled to a few hundred speakers or are entirely extinct. Roughly half of the population of c. 80,000 that considers itself ethnically Sámi speak no Sámi language whatsoever. Likewise, many Sámi today no longer practice traditional livelihoods to any great extent. Nonetheless, Sámi ethnic identity has strengthened over the past century, in part through the valorization of distinctive traditional genres such as joik, and Sámi status as a unique people living within the Nordic region has been recognized by the governments of Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
The emphatic breakthrough associated with many genres of folklore cross-culturally is far from the norm in the often conversationally embedded, context-dependent Sámi musical genre known as joik. The North Sámi luohti, South Sámi vuolle, and Skolt Sámi levdd—all classified by musicologists and Sámi studies scholars as part of a single, overarching joik genre—share a tendency toward fairly brief musical motifs, crooned or sung full-throated, with lyrics that consist of a short poetic text, a name and epithets, or simply a string of vocables. [3] In some joik performances, such as Nils Mattias Andersson’s great South Sámi vuolle about difficulties on the mountain Oulavuolie, recorded by a Swedish radio team in 1953, the singer moves seamlessly between a speaking and singing voice throughout his nearly ten minutes of vocal performance, blurring the line between what a non-Sámi listener might recognize as a “song” and what might be regarded simply as commentary or conversation. [4] This same characteristic blurring of boundaries can be noted in the Forest Sámi Jonas Edvard Steggo’s bear vuolle, in which the singer seemingly interrupts his song to comment on the nature of the bear, only to be urged by the somewhat perplexed sound crew recording the performance to resume his singing. [5] One can recognize within such moments intermittent characteristics of voice and manner that folklorists would describe as “breakthrough,” but to focus on such performative boundaries without attention to the overarching mechanisms that tie the joik performance integrally to its ambient ordinary conversation, or to related narratives, [6] or even to silence, is to miss part of the elusive essence of the genre from a Sámi perspective.
As noted above, the “blurry edges” of joik coincide with a related tendency to perform joik as an adjunct of ordinary conversation or other daily activities. In their introduction to the genre, Kjellström, Ternhag, and Rydving recount instances of joik performance that reflect the seemingly spontaneous, emotionally charged situations in which individuals choose to joik. [7] Song performances could occur when a person was alone, in reaction to animals or landscape in one’s vicinity, or as a response to something now far away. A young Sámi named Torkel Tomasson, returning to his home tracts in the 1940s after his first studies at the University of Uppsala, far to the south, recounted his surprise at the intensity with which he began to joik his home landscape when first seeing it again. [8] In another account of roughly the same period, a distraught father burst into joik when coming upon the body of his son and the wreckage of the car in which he had died. [9] Nor has this tendency to burst into song at emotionally fraught moments diminished over time: a contemporary teenaged North Sámi joik performer Johan Máhtte Skum created a stirring luohti in honor of a winning goal in an important soccer championship game. [10] Joik can equally be used to contemplate absence: singers recount using joik to envision friends or places otherwise lost to them, keeping them alive in their memories through a musical portrait meaningful to any person conversant in the tradition, but tinged with deep personal and emotional significance.
Scholars of the twentieth century have been able to analyze joik in a manner that recognizes these important characteristics of the genre. Sirma and Turi wrote their accounts long before the advent of ethnographic contextualization, however, when genres of oral tradition were standardly approached from the point of view of established literary forms, and when the need for information beyond that provided in the text was often regarded as a failing. Facing the very real possibility of audience incomprehension or disapproval of joik in the absence of further contextualizing information, Sirma and Turi chose to present their songs in a manner that emphasized and spelled out their broader cultural meanings.

Olaus Sirma

Olaus Sirma enrolled at the University of Uppsala in the late seventeenth century, having traveled to the south of Sweden to receive training for the ministry. There he came in contact with Johann Scheffer, a German scholar who had been charged with the task of writing a book about the Sámi. [11] Scheffer drew on past published works about the Sámi as well as extensive notes and accounts from Lutheran ministers who had been posted in the north and wrote a book in Latin that became a sensation in seventeenth-century Europe. Olaus Sirma’s songs and explanations were part of the materials Scheffer used to write his book.
Scheffer does not include Olaus’s songs in any section devoted to music or entertainment. Instead, he embeds them in a chapter focusing on courtship and wedding traditions. As Scheffer explicitly states in his chapter, he relies upon the accounts of Samuel Leem and Olaus Magnus for much of his material about Sámi courtship and marriage. His information regarding the place of joik in these proceedings, however, is drawn entirely from Olaus Sirma.
According to Scheffer, courtship begins with a young man sizing up the reindeer wealth of the woman he hopes to marry. If a young woman is sufficiently wealthy, and the suitor has formed a good opinion of her at “publick Meetings, at Fairs, or when they [i.e. the Sámi] pay their usual Tribute” the suitor visits the bride’s father to make a formal suit. Scheffer details the ceremonial receipt of the wedding suit in the drinking of brandy and then the kissing of future bride and groom. If the bride accepts the groom’s attentions, Scheffer notes, the “Marriage is as good as concluded.” [12] The wedding, however, does not occur immediately, but only after a long series of preparations, including the groom’s giving of gifts to all the bride’s extended family and obtaining their blessings on the marriage, and the groom’s gift of both goods and labor to the bride’s father in anticipation of his eventual receipt of the bride and her reindeer. Writes Scheffer:

Nevertheless, the Consummation of the Marriage, after the Consent of the Parents is obtained, is sometimes deferred for a long time, nay for Two or Three Years … The Reason for this long Courtship is, because the Suitor lies under an Obligation of getting the consent, not only of her Parents, but of all the Kindred and Relations, before he can enjoy her, which must be done by Presents … [13]

It is in this protracted engagement period that Scheffer embeds the two joik songs he obtained from Sirma. Sirma’s original manuscript account is preserved at the Uppsala University library. In it, Sirma describes Sámi joiking in this way:

Dhesze wijsor begynna dhe, på dhetta, och annadt sätt: Siungandes somblige mehra, sombl. mindre, effter som hwar och een inbillar sigh dhem bäst kunna fatta och componera. Stundom repetera dhe samma sångh åfftare. Icke häller hafwa de någon wisz thon, uthan siunga, eller Joiga, denna wiisan, hwilken de kalla Morse Faurog, eller Brude wijsa, effter dheras wahna och som dhem bäst tyckes liuda.
[These songs begin in this and other ways. Some sing more, others less, according to their own inclinations to create and compose. At times they repeat the same song over and over. Nor do they have any set tune but sing and joik this song, which is called Moarsi fávrrot, the bride’s song, according to their custom and as it seems best to them to sing.] [14]
Although this passage comments on the performance mode in particular, Sirma also describes proper contexts and conduct for the songs’ use in his broader text. As apparent above, he refuses to consider joik as a functional equivalent of song or music-making as he understands these from Swedish culture, instead opting to import the verb joik (based on the Sámi juoigat—to perform a joik), underscoring the essential differences between the Sámi genre and any seemingly comparable variety of music-making among the Swedes. One of the presented joik texts, he notes, is sung in the winter, when journeying to a fair to see one’s bride-to-be. The second joik encapsulates the musings of a man thinking about the Lake Oarrejávri and his bride-to-be living by its shores, and is described as a “summer song.” The opening of this latter joik begins in this way:

Pastos päivä kiufwrasist jawra Orrejaura!
Jos koasa kirrakeid kornagadzim
Ja tiedadzim man oinämam jaufre Orrejawre
Man tangaszlomest lie sun lie,
Kaika taidä mooraid dzim soopadzim
Mak taben sadde sist uddasist,
Ja poaka taidä ousid dzim karsadzin,
Mack qwodde roannaid poorid ronaidh.

[Shine bright oh Sun on the lake, Oarre Lake!
If I climbed up on a spruce tree
And knew that I saw the lake, Oarra Lake,
In the heather where she’d be waiting.
All those trees I’d chop away
Which have started growing there lately,
And all those branches I would prune
Which have sprouts, good sprouts.] [15]

Over the course of the song, the lyric speaker expresses his yearning for his bride-to-be as well as his indecision about what actions to take. In the end, he resolves to take the road leading back to his bride: “Oucta lie miela oudas waldäman / nute tiedäm pooreponne oudastan man kauneman” [one alone I need to choose now / that I may better find my way]. [16] Scheffer’s chapter, shaped by Sirma’s firsthand input, describes the protracted courtship situation that makes sense of his joik texts: the endless longing of an extended engagement, the periodic absences due to differing work responsibilities, the insecurity about whether the long-anticipated marriage will ever take place. The chapter thus offers readers a key to understanding the songs as implements in a complex social interaction between groom and bride, amidst a monitoring community and environment.

To Scheffer, acquainted with the joik tradition from Olaus’s description and examples, joik is emphatically not a type of musical entertainment in itself, but rather a form of ritual communication within the fraught and delicate matter of courtship. Indeed, later in his chapter, when describing wedding ceremonies, Scheffer remarks pointedly: “They don’t know what a Fidler or Musick is, and Laugh at Dancing as a foolish Thing … as I have been credibly informed by Olaus Matthias, a young Student, and a Native of Lapland.” [17] Olaus seems to have made the function of joik clear to the professor and to have led him to underscore its embeddedness in the communicative/ritual framework of the courtship.
On publication, of course, the careful contextual framework suggested by Sirma and Scheffer seems to have had little effect. Readers were captivated by Sirma’s songs, but read them in isolation from all the social details provided in the text. The songs became, in classic literary terms, “transcendent”—i.e. decontextualized—and as such, they were to be experienced for what they could express to a reader of any cultural background. As Wretö shows, [18] the newly emergent independent songs became compared to the ancient lyrics of Greece and Rome, and were used to illustrate the universality of human aesthetic sentiment. Scheffer’s Latin rendering found further translation by literary greats of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as Herder, Goethe, and Runeberg, and in this way became frequently anthologized elements of various collections. Responding to this decontextualizing move, the Scottish scholar Hugh Blair writes in 1765 in admiration of the songs:

Surely among the wild Laplanders, if any where, barbarity is in its most perfect state. Yet their love songs which Scheffer has given us in his Lapponia are proof that natural tenderness of sentiment may be found in a country, into which the least glimmering of science has never penetrated. [19]
Within the English-speaking world, Sirma’s songs are perhaps best known through a single couplet incorporated into Longfellow’s 1855 poem My Lost Youth. Longfellow’s lyric speaker, apparently a man in his waning years, reflects wistfully on his childhood haunts. At the end of each stanza he alludes to Sirma’s lines “parne miela piägga miela / Noara jorda kockes jorda” [a boy’s will, the wind’s will / a young man’s thoughts, long thoughts] with the lines: “And the fragment of a Lapland song runs in my memory still: / A boy’s will is the wind’s will / and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.” James Taft Hatfield shows how Longfellow came upon Sirma’s poems as anthologized in Herder’s Volkslieder, and even locates Longfellow’s personal volume of Herder with a check alongside the poem in “an obscure corner of Craigie House.” [20] With no real familiarity with Sámi culture, and only the decontextualized song as his guide, Hatfield argues:

My Lost Youth, in its original content, and in all the applications which have been made of it, exhibits a misinterpretation of the Lapland song. The original argument is “The will of boys is the will of the wind”—fluctuating and unable to reach a clear decision on a matter of urgent importance; “the thoughts of youth are long thoughts”—that is, hesitating and uncertain—while to Longfellow, and ourselves, the significance is: “a boy’s mind is full of vague prophecies and longings; he has outreaching visions and dreams.” [21]

Of course, as Hatfield might have known if he had had greater access to Sirma’s notes and Scheffer’s chapter, the situation depicted in Sirma’s song has less to do with “urgent importance” than “vague prophecies and longings”—it is the direct result of a protracted and uncertain engagement. Hatfield’s study, although exemplary in its literary sleuthing of Longfellow’s sources and subsequent reception, fails to embrace the contextual information that Sirma and Scheffer provided. One could even argue that Longfellow’s adaptation of the lines from Sirma depict well the way in which joik works for Sámi people: becoming a musical motif running in one’s memory that finds its present meaning not so much in its verbal content but in its social context. In this way, Longfellow’s poem is perhaps a better cultural translation of Sirma’s song than any of the more literal translations that preceded it, in that it embraces rather than eschews the idea of contextualization.

Johan Turi

The story of Johan Turi’s literary career is an important one for Sámi cultural history. Turi wished to create an authoritative account of Sámi culture—a kind of Sámi updating of Scheffer’s Lapponia—with the explicit intent of helping improve the situation of Sámi people at the beginning of the twentieth century. Turi believed that if the Swedish government authorities and others in power were to understand the hardships, travails, and beauty of Sámi culture, they would work to preserve rather than stamp out the culture. In planning his book, he received decisive help from Emilie Demant, a young Danish artist who had come to the north of Sweden to experience Sámi life firsthand. Turi and Demant met on the Kiruna-Narvik train line that was used to transport ore from Hjalmar Lundbohm’s newly established mine at Kiruna to the Norwegian coast. It was Demant who obtained financial assistance from Lundbohm to publish Turi’s book, along with the loan of a cabin on a mountain alongside Torneträsk, where Demant and Turi spent an autumn writing and discussing the material that eventually became Muitalus. [22] One of the last chapters in that work is entitled “Sápmelaš lávlluid birra” [On Sámi Songs] and is meant to explain the nature and function of joik in Turi’s North Sámi culture. Turi begins his account in this way:

Sápmelaš lávluma dadjá juoigamin. Dat lea okta muitingoansta nuppiid olbmuid. Muhtumat muitet vášis ja muitet ráhkisvuođain, ja muhtumat muitet moraštemiin. Ja adnojit dat lávllut muhtun eatnamiin ja ealibiin—návddis ja bohccos—gottis. Dat lávllu málle lea ná—got dás vuollelis álgá. [23]
Sámi singing is called joiking. It is a practice for recalling other people. Some are recalled with hate, and some with love, and some are recalled with sorrow. And sometimes such songs concern lands or animals: the wolf, and the reindeer, or wild reindeer. The following is an example of this sort of song. [24]
From here, Turi launches into a long and elaborate story which many later readers have regarded as a digression, but which, I believe, is an elaborate and careful attempt to illustrate the meanings of joik in context. The account begins with one young woman (whom we later learn is named Elle) urging another woman (Anne) to joik Niillas, a rich and handsome man in the vicinity whom everyone wants to marry. Writes Turi:

Dál dadjá nubbi nieida nuppi niidii:
—Juoiggas dan du irggát Niillasa.
Niilas lea čáppat juohke nieidda mielas, ja juohke nieida háliidii oažžut alccesis boadnjin, ja dainna juige su olu. Ja dan lávllu namma lea luohti. Ja de dál alga juoigat Niillasa luođi:
Voja voja nana nana,
stuora hága, stuora geamppa,
stuora fávrru, stuora leambada,
voja voja nana nana,
go dat juo viekhalii,
de manai dego loddi,
voja voja nana nana. [25]
One girl says to another girl:
Joik your boyfriend Niillas.”
All the girls find Niillas attractive, and they all want him as their husband, and so they joik him often. And this sort of song is called a luohti. And so the girl begins to joik her Niillas-luohti:
Voya voya nana nana
He is so vigorous, he is so splendid,
He is so handsome, he is so warm
When he ran away, he was like a bird in flight
Voya voya nana nana. [26]

As Turi explains, this is Elle’s cunning way of surreptitiously testing how serious Anne’s feelings are for Niillas, the man with whom Elle wishes to establish her own romantic relation. As Elle knows, and as the narrative shows us, joik gives voice to interior emotions and also puts them on display for others to observe.

The second occasion of joik performance in Turi’s narrative is actually a case of non-performance. Anne challenges Elle in turn to joik the man that she thinks Elle is serious about, another wealthy (but less attractive and less intelligent) man named Máhtte. Elle and Máhtte have already become engaged, but Elle is no longer enthusiastic about the match. When invited to joik her fiancé, Elle refuses, making the excuse: “Ii Máhtte fuola mus, sus leat buorebut go mon” [27] [“No, Máhtte isn’t interested in me. He has someone better in mind” [28] ]. Such is emphatically not the case, but the statement allows Elle to avoid depicting herself as a hard-hearted woman spurning her fiancé’s love. Turi’s plot thickens, but it also calls attention to a crucial contextual reality of joik: such singing is not only potentially significant when performed, but also when a singer refrains from doing so.
From here, the narrative turns to Niillas, who performs a luohti of his own in praise of Elle. Niillas does so when alone, however, knowing that Elle is already spoken for and thus not available as a potential wife. Interestingly, the luohti which Turi attributes to Niillas is very similar in form and wording to that performed by Anne:

Voja voja nana nana,
stuora leambada, stuora geamppa,
ja stuora čeahpi,
voja voja nana nana,
stuora ja fávrru,
dat leai suohkana buoremus nieida,
voja voja nana nana. [29]

Voya voya nana nana,
She is so warm, she is so splendid,
She has such skill,
voya voya nana nana,
She is so great and handsome,
She’s the best girl in the parish,
voya voya nana nana. [30]

The repetition of lines and form may imply a certain stock vocabulary for songs of love, or, alternatively, a rhetorical aim of accentuating the similarities between the use of such songs in general. The difference between two similar luohti texts lies not in their wording, perhaps, but in their contextual details, particularly the questions of who joiks whom, and in what circumstances. Of course, it is a mystery how Turi knows the words of a luohti which was supposedly performed while Niillas was alone. By implication, the luohti must have been performed again in later occasions, after Elle and Niillas had established themselves as a couple. At this point, the luohti would take on a different meaning, one of confirmation rather than of longing, as in this first narrated instance.

At this point, Elle takes matters into her own hands, joiking a message that expresses her interest in Niillas and pointedly suggesting that Niillas could steal her away from Máhtte if he cared to try. Characterizing Niillas at first as Anne’s catch, she then describes Niillas as making Máhtte cry, an act which could only come about if Niillas were to steal Elle away:

Anne fillestii suohkana buoremus bártni,
Voja voja nana nana
Suohkana buoremus bártni,
Voja voja nana nana
Go válddii nuppi bártni moarsi
Voja voja nana nana
Ja guđii Máhte čirodit [31]

Anne bagged herself the best guy in the parish through trickery
Voya voya nana nana
The best guy in the parish
Voya voya nana nana
He took another guy’s bride
And made Máhtte cry. [32]

Niillas hears the joik and takes the hint, forming a romantic relation with Elle after all. Ever the artful storyteller, Turi lets us hear one more joik from the guileless and hoodwinked Máhtte before he discovers the truth, echoing in its warmth and wording the affectionate joik performances of Anne, Elle, and Niillas. In the end, however, Máhtte discovers the truth, allowing Turi to depict the performance of joik in anger:

Ja go Máhtte gulai, ahte Niillas lea Ellii addán gihliid, de son juoiggai ja čierui:
Voja voja nana nana
Stuora behtolačča.
Ja čierui ja morašii nu ahte goase jierbmi seahkana, ja suhtai Niillasii ja gottii bohccuid Niillasis. Ja go jugai gárremiidda, de juoiggai ja garrudii ná:
Voja voja nana nana
Biro, beargalat,
Mon gottán visot Niillasa herggiid,
Voja voja nana nana
Sáhtána behtolaš Elle
Mieska bittu
Gal dat dakkárat leat olu,
Voja voja nana nana.
Ja de ain veahaš čirodii ja juoiggadii. [33]
And when Máhtte heard that Niillas had given engagement gifts to Elle, he joiked and wept:
Voya voya nana nana
The great deceiver.
He cried and was so sad that he nearly lost his mind. And he began to hate Niillas and killed some of his reindeer. And when he had gotten himself drunk, he joiked and cursed in this way:
Biro demons, beargalat devils,
I’ll kill all Niillas’s geldings,
Voya voya nana nana
And that damned deceiving Elle, rotten slut!
There are many of her kind
Voya voya nana nana.
And then he cried some more and kept joiking. [34]

Depicting the intense emotion of a hate-filled joik, Turi also provides a clear example of the seamless alternation between speech and song that later song recordings of Sámi joik documented. Joik can serve as a vehicle for aggression, performed alongside physical acts like killing a rival’s reindeer and in accompaniment with antisocial acts like excessive drinking. Turi is intent on showing the genre in all its facets, not just in its most positive or productive ones, and his narrative helps illustrate and underscore this range of functions.

From here, however, the situation shifts, as Máhtte’s sister Ingir convinces him to court another wealthy girl named Márjá instead. Máhtte does so, and a wedding feast is planned for the coming Easter. Turi depicts the details of the engagement, the journey of the wedding party to the church village, libations of alcohol dispensed to spirits of the land, wedding joiks performed by guests, and blessing joiks performed by family members. Illustrating the religious use of joik to entreat localized female spirits (háldi) for their continued benevolence, Turi writes:

Ja dan báikkis láveje juoiggadit veaháš eatnama háldiid ná:
Háldi spanu
Čáppa nieiddaide lehkos giitu,
Voja voja nana nana,
Go ledje nu buorit,
Ahte leat várjalan min girkovuojániid,
Nu ahte eai leat fierran alla riiddiin,
Voja voja voja voja
Nana nana nana
Giitu lehkos ráhkis háldeáhkuide,
Voja nana nana
Ja várjal ain,
Voja voja nana nana
Min bohccuid
Voja voja nana nana nana. [35]
And in this place they used to joik a little the háldi spirits of the land as follows:
Thanks be
to the slender beautiful háldi girls,
Voya voya nana nana
Who have been so kind,
As to guard our church-going driving reindeer,
So that they were not injured going down the steep slope,
Voya voya voya voya
nana nana nana
Thanks be to the beloved háldi women
Voya nana nana
Continue to guard them,
Voya voya nana nana
Our reindeer
Voya voya nana nana nana [36]

Joiks can be directed at beings on the supernatural plane who will understand and appreciate the communications. The joik above both acknowledges ongoing or recent supernatural protection and helps secure continued support for the singer and community in the future.

Turi also recounts the later wedding of Niillas and Elle, providing details of the customs associated with weddings in general and providing a stark contrast between the wedding of Máhtte and Márjá—full of blunders and a lack of knowledge of how things work—and that of Niillas and Elle, favorites of the district. In this account, joik is depicted as a means for local men to express their frustrations in not getting Elle for themselves, and for others to confer praise and blessings on the new couple. As the wedding draws to a close, Turi depicts the celebration devolving into a cacophony of competing joiks, as each participant expresses personal views aloud: “Ja de dál juige ovtta jitnii nu ahte ii gullon ii mihkege” [37] [“And now they all joiked at the same time so that one couldn’t hear a thing” [38] ]. Joik is public, but it is also private: a personal expression performed out loud for all to hear but felt within the heart. In a sense all experience of joik is an overhearing of a private enunciation of values and opinions made audible through sung performance.
Turi goes on to describe the subsequent marriages of both Máhtte and Márjá and Niillas and Elle, telling of their ups and downs in married life and the ways in which other community members felt about them. After many turns of plot and character, Turi closes with the telling statement:

Juoigamuš lea dakkár go lea rievttes čeahpes juoigi, de lea nu hávski gullat, goase čirrosat bohtet guldaleddjiide. Muhto go dakkár juoigit leat, guđet garrudit ja bániid gasket ja uhkidit goddit bohccuid ja vela isida nai, ja de dat leat ahkidat gullat. [39]
Joiking is such that if it is really artful, it is very pleasant to listen to: tears nearly come to one’s eyes while listening. But if it is that kind of joiking that includes swearing and gnashing of teeth and threats to kill reindeer or even their owners, then it is terrible to hear. [40]

After so many turns of the story, it would be easy to assume that Turi had lost track of his tale or his original purpose for writing it. Yet this statement—clearly a reference to Máhtte’s joiking in anger at the beginning of the account—brings us back to the beginning of the story and sums up the varied uses and understandings of joik as a communicative act, always performed in context, and with clear reference to the situation at hand.

It is interesting to wonder why Turi worked so hard to present joik as this sort of deeply context-dependent, elusive genre, the meaning of which had to be sought in community dynamics and personal viewpoint rather than in some externally apparent framework of form and meaning. Perhaps, in keeping with his book’s overall agenda, Turi sought to remind his readers of the fact that the key to understanding Sámi people and Sámi culture lay in listening to the words of Sámi people themselves rather than in appraising their situation and way of life from the outside. Without inside information, the joik is nearly meaningless; when Sámi views are taken into account, however, the joik, like other aspects of Sámi culture, come to make sense as meaningful, intentional, and of enduring value. Perhaps in placing this account of joik near the end of his book, and just before an account of the tragic events of the Kautokeino Uprising, Turi meant to suggest that listening to what the Sámi have to say about Sámi life can greatly enrich, or even alter altogether, the ways in which the broader public, as well as government authorities, regard Sámi livelihoods, society, and culture.
What we can learn as folklorists from both Sirma’s accounts of courtship joiking and Turi’s more extended depiction of the same sort of context more than two centuries later is that joik never occurs as an isolated, context-independent act. It is never separable from its context. Perhaps joik resists performative isolation because it is inherently a device to stave off isolation—it is a means of linking persons and things to one another, a means of contextualizing people and of commenting on the situations in which people find themselves, despite the vagaries of time and space or the strains of interpersonal relations. Although enacted almost always by a single person, it is not a solo performance but, rather, a collaborative one—created not only by the singer but also by the audience, the figures being joiked, and the particular context in terms of time and place. Both Olaus Sirma and Johan Turi understood this essential aspect of joiking, and they presented the tradition as integrally context-dependent in their accounts.
It falls to those of us who describe ourselves as scholars of oral tradition today to consider how well we have listened to the words of Sirma and Turi. Do we accept joik and other highly context-dependent folkloric genres as necessarily embedded in communicative and social webs, or do we seek to isolate the songs and re-situate them as somehow “transcendent” works independent of their place and performance, much in the manner of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literati who first read and interpreted Sirma’s songs? My question is not meant to be rhetorical: even if many folklorists would immediately say that they value contextualization as an integral part of their study and presentation of oral performances, it is nonetheless a reality that anthologies of folklore come out every year in formats that confine contextualization to headnotes or footnotes and that present songs as isolated verbal texts. Modern technologies of filming and sound recording seem to offer a greater incorporation of contextual detail by their very nature, but choices of editing, camera angle, and annotation can still be marshaled so as to present performances as discreet nuggets rather than as enmeshed moments. The filmmaker looks for “good quotes” to pull out of a longer recorded (and discarded) interview, or edits a scene so that it presents a sharper notion of beginning, middle, and end. Pacing is altered by B-roll insertions or editorial reworking of the order or nature of the materials performed. The vast array of YouTube videos uploaded and watched every day by hundreds of thousands of viewers amply illustrate these tendencies: often their form, and perhaps also their appeal, lies in a kind of isolation, the sense that the video is a discreet work that contains within itself all the clues necessary for its proper interpretation and appreciation. The methodological and ultimately aesthetic question before us is whether we will use the frameworks of representation and analysis available to us in the twenty-first century—elaborate technology for the recording, preservation, presentation, and annotation of oral performances—to convey better the rich networks of association and emergent meaning that surround the performance of folklore, i.e. its blurry edges and provisional, evolving meanings. Or, failing that, will we fall back on itemizing and isolating tendencies of representation to reify and make static the songs we seek to understand? If we strive for representational schemes that maximize contextualization, then Sirma and Turi suggest valuable models for how to do so, even within the simple and seemingly confining technical parameters of the published text. It is perhaps in their complex narratives—as well as in the interjections that sometimes seem to crowd or interrupt a song performance in sound recordings—that the keys to the value and meaning of joik, and to our understanding of our work as scholars of oral tradition, may ultimately reside.


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Andersson, K., ed. 2008. L’Image du Sápmi. Örebro.
Arnberg, M., I. Ruong, and H. Unsgaard. 1997. Jojk. Kristianstad.
Bauman, R. 1975. “Verbal Art as Performance.” American Anthropologist New Series 77:290–311.
———. 1986. Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative. Cambridge.
DuBois, T. A. 2006. Lyric, Meaning, and Audience in the Oral Tradition of Northern Europe. Notre Dame.
———. 2008. “Un chanteur devenu poète: Sirma Ovllá et le début de la littérature samie.” In Andersson 2008:307–319.
Gaski, H. 2000. “The Secretive Text: Yoik Lyrics in Literature and Tradition.” Nordlit no. 5. Accessed May 2011.
Graff, O. 1993. “Den samiske musikktradisjonen.” In Aksdal and Nyhus 1993:384–441.
Hatfield, J. T. 1930. “Longfellow’s ‘Lapland Song’.” PMLA 45:1188–1192.
Hymes, D. 1975. “Folklore’s Nature and the Sun’s Myth.” Journal of American Folklore 88/350:345–369.
———. 2004. “In Vain I Tried to Tell You”: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. Lincoln.
Jones-Bamman, R. 1993. “As Long as We Continue to Joik, We’ll Remember Who We Are.” Negotiating Identity and the Performance of Culture: The Saami Joik. Seattle.
Kjellström, R., G. Ternhag, and H. Rydving. 1988. Om jojk. Hedemora.
Kuutma, K. 2006. Collaborative Representations: Interpreting the Creation of a Sámi Ethnography and a Seto Epic. FF Communications no. 289. Helsinki.
Rudy, J. T. 2002. “Toward an Assessment of Verbal Art as Performance: A Cross-Disciplinary Citation Study with Rhetorical Analysis.” Journal of American Folklore 115/455:5–27.
Ruong, I. 1997. “Remembering, Feeling and Yoiking.” In Arnberg et al. 1997:7–39.
Scheffer, J. 1674. The History of Lapland. Oxford.
Skum, J. M. 2006. Nilut Cup. Accessed May 2011.
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———. 2011. An Account of the Sámi. Trans. T. DuBois. Chicago.
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[ back ] 1. For discussion of this important term in folklore research and the “performance school” that employed it in particular, see Hymes 1975, 2004; Bauman 1975, 1986; Rudy 2002.
[ back ] 2. I quote the prose text of Lapponia using its 1674 English translation, The History of Lapland (Scheffer 1674). Translations of Sirma’s poems, however, are my own, based on the original Kemi Sámi texts. Quotations from Muitalus are taken from the 2010 edition of the text, edited by Mikael Svonni (Turi 2010). Translations of the Turi texts are my own as they appear in my translation An Account of the Sámi (Turi 2011).
[ back ] 3. Graff 1993, Jones-Bamman 1993, Ruong 1997, Gaski 2000.
[ back ] 4. Arnberg et al. 1997:158–162, CD 1, track 16.
[ back ] 5. Arnberg et al. 1997:28, 213; CD 2, track 54.
[ back ] 6. Stoor 2007.
[ back ] 7. Kjellström, Ternhag, and Rydving 1988:12–15.
[ back ] 8. Ibid. 14.
[ back ] 9. Ibid. 15.
[ back ] 10. Skum 2006.
[ back ] 11. For a full account of this relation, see DuBois 2006:5–13; DuBois 2008.
[ back ] 12. Scheffer 1674:285.
[ back ] 13. Ibid.
[ back ] 14. Kjellström et al. 1988:11.
[ back ] 15. DuBois 2006:5–6.
[ back ] 16. Ibid. 6.
[ back ] 17. Scheffer 1674:295.
[ back ] 18. Wretö 1984:49.
[ back ] 19. DuBois 2006:12.
[ back ] 20. Hatfield 1930:1189.
[ back ] 21. Ibid. 1190.
[ back ] 22. Kuutma 2006:83–102.
[ back ] 23. Turi 2010:167.
[ back ] 24. Turi 2011:161
[ back ] 25. Turi 2010:167.
[ back ] 26. Turi 2011:161.
[ back ] 27. Turi 2010:167.
[ back ] 28. Turi 2011:161.
[ back ] 29. Turi 2010:167.
[ back ] 30. Turi 2011:162.
[ back ] 31. Turi 2010:168.
[ back ] 32. Turi 2011:162.
[ back ] 33. Turi 2010:168.
[ back ] 34. Turi 2011:163.
[ back ] 35. Turi 2010:172–173.
[ back ] 36. Turi 2011:168.
[ back ] 37. Turi 2010:179.
[ back ] 38. Turi 2011:174.
[ back ] 39. Turi 2010:183.
[ back ] 40. Turi 2011:178.