Sámi folktales now available in English

By the FireBy the fire

Jim Dietz-Kilen
Des Moines, Iowa

By the Fire is a compilation of Sámi stories collected by Danish artist and ethnographer Emilie Demant Hatt and her husband, Dr. Gedmund Hatt, in the first two decades of the 20th century. As is often the case with folktales, they reveal more about the lives of the tellers than about the actual subjects of the tales. Toward this end, Demant Hatt’s introduction and translator Barbara Sjoholm’s afterward both add considerably to the value of this slim volume.

In 1922, while back home in Denmark, Demant Hatt translated 70 of the tales they had collected around various campfires in the Sápmi lands of northern Sweden into Danish. This new publication from the University of Minnesota Press is the first time they are available in English.

In her introduction, Demant Hatt sets an eloquent scene for the tales to follow: “The Sámi, both young and old, can still tell stories in faith and confidence when they feel secure and understood. The spirit of Fairy Tale perches at the edge of the hearth. The fire hisses, the flames flare and die back, the firelight is divided into light and dark, red and black. Across the tent walls glide huge shapes of people and dogs, fantastically clad men, dogs as clever as humans. The shadows playing around a low-burning campfire are the only proper illustrations for the stories being told. In the protective light everything may be named, all the horror and sorcery conjured by the darkness. Outside in the deepest night wander the dead, the spirits, the evil thoughts one person sends another. Out there live all the horrid sounds; out there are storms and clouds, the moon, stars and northern lights. Out there are the wild animals, the night, and all that is meant by that. Here inside the tent is the campfire; here is home, the great safe place.”

Gathered around the fire, these Sámi storytellers give voice to magical creatures, people with mystical powers, evil deceivers, and clever Sámi who trick their enemies. There are tales that meld Christian themes with those from much older folk traditions, stories that teach and enforce practical ways of living, and stories that reflect the oppression of the Sámi by neighboring Swedish farmers and official government policies.

In her afterward, translator Barbara Sjoholm places these tales in the context of frequent violence against Sámi herders and slaughter of their reindeer, both in Sweden and Norway, by farmers “enticed to the north with promises of cheap or free land. Their new farms were … often in the paths of the migrating reindeer … [bringing] nomads and settlers into conflict.” This conflict increased when the Swedish government began offering land that had traditionally been Sámi territory for sale to settlers. These troubles were recent memory for many of the Sámi amongst whom Demant Hatt sojourned, and some of the storytellers were activists for Sámi rights.

The stories in this book offer an interesting glimpse into the lives, concerns, and imaginations of the Sámi roaming across northern Sweden in the first part of the 20th century. What really brings By the Fire to life for the modern reader, though, are Demant Hatt’s introduction and field notes and especially Sjoholm’s afterward, which places the stories in a socio-historical context that significantly enhances their interest.

Jim Dietz-Kilen is chief development officer for Living History Farms, an outdoor history museum near Des Moines, Iowa. His ancestors emigrated from Norway’s Nissedal Valley in 1860.

See also www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/here-they-can-still-tell-stories.

This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.