In this essay South Saami and Scottish Gaelic teacher, translator and poet Johan Sandberg McGuinne delves into the upkeep of silent tacit knowledge through language and mannerisms, and how Saami kinship terms and naming practices honour one’s ancestral lineage and connection to the land.
Laaveme, dear cousin, this land sang us into existence, shaping our bodies like once the rivers and valleys, high peaks and wind-beaten tundra before us. This land gave us families and words to love and care for together, unwritten lines of embodied poetry to carry us forward in beauty and power.
Through the medium of South Saami1, I am able to sing the ancestors that came before me and, in turn, the places they cared for. Reclaiming my language means not only speaking it, but living it. The language, and with it the traditions it embodies, makes it possible for me to situate myself within a larger network of relations, both living and now gone.
To do so, is to live according to dåajmijes vuekieh, to be well mannered and to have buerie daepieh, to use and make use of traditionally speaking good skills.
Laaveme, I am not a well-mannered soul; it is far too easy to grow bitter these days. Aellieh maa, maadtoen mïevhkes gïele datnem annje gåatan lïjrehte.
But don’t, the soft-spoken language of your ancestors is still there to guide you home.
It is an unfortunate truth that we as Saami lament the loss of our languages on a regular basis. This in turn means that we have grown accustomed to the repeated declaration of our languages’ imminent death by outsiders and community members alike, and yet, at the end of the day, we are left with one truth worth holding on to; we are still here, our languages remain.
Laaveme, we approach each other so often through the medium of a colonial language, that the act of introducing ourselves has become foreign and distant over time. Knowing this, it is worth taking the time to ponder traditional forms of introduction, the sjeavods maahtoe, silent tacit knowledge, surrounding it instead, and question how and if knowing how to introduce ourselves in the same ways as our ancestors can become a powerful tool in a decolonial process, here in Saepmie.
Indeed, the question “who are you” might seem both casual and innocent, but from an Indigenous point of view, it demands something more than a mere name. This is true both in Aotearoa and in Saepmie.
Most South Saami are well aware of this, and young Saami are quick to explain who their parents and grandparents are, when asked by other Saami to introduce themselves.
Young ones, you make the lands of your ancestors proud.
Indeed, we offer each other our families out of respect and a wish to become part of something bigger.
Laaveme, let us remember those who are slowly finding their way home again. Let us guide our unknown cousins back to this way of thinking, to heal not just them, but ourselves as well.
We know all too well how Sweden and Norway’s colonial history has stripped people of their identities. To return is sometimes far more complicated than to be forced to leave in the first place.
This is something that we as Saami also need to be aware of to avoid feeding into a system of lateral violence, where people whose parents and grandparents chose to hide their Saami heritage from their descendants are further ostracised by members of their own community.
Yet, we must never allow our lineal knowledge to fade away, as it has done in so many Settler communities, where community is of less importance than one’s own, individual advancement in society.
As Saami, the lands and families a person belongs to define one’s position within an existential spiritual and physical legal framework, and this in turn is also what has made it possible for our people to not only survive but prosper in the past. Thus a mere name becomes practically useless, in particular because it fails to give the person asking the necessary tools to fully know who you are, not just to them, but to the place you’re currently in.
Introducing oneself through the medium of Swedish, or indeed English, one’s name more often than not becomes an individual denominator that distances the person from that which is maadtoe, land, ancestry, family and heritage. It circumnavigates the existence of laahkoe, an extensive set of South Saami honorifics and kinship terms denoting individuals’ relational responsibility to those around us, and it completely ignores the concept of aerpie-saajvh, inherited areas and now long gone ancestors who have crossed over to the other side to walk alongside us in spirit.
Laaveme, your name is beautiful, but let me honour you with our kinship terms as well.
Without maadtoe, or a clear understanding of it, our ability to become resilient and prosper as Saami risks ending up short-circuited. Indeed, when we use Settler ways of introducing ourselves – “my name is” – where we focus on ourselves as individuals rather than as members of a larger community, we demote our maadtoe to mere objects, instead of highlighting the ways in which we relate both spiritually, physically and genealogically to a place and a family.
Laaveme, you deserve more than mere letters to be printed on the first page of your passport.
Traditionally, South Saami have used place names and kinship terms to position themselves and their families in Saepmie. This has partly to do with the traditional understanding of maadtoe as both family and land. By referring to yourself as being of a place, you highlight not only your right to use said lands, but perhaps more importantly, your responsibility to care for and protect said land.
It is not for nothing that our word for the planet, Eatneme, also translates as “Our Beloved Mother”.
When speaking with others from the same family or place, the use of laahkoe is a way to show respect and acknowledge a person’s rights, and Saami we do not know are often referred to as ov-nohkens laevieh, ‘as of yet unknown cousins’, out of respect. Indeed, when kinship terms were omitted historically speaking, it was seen as a harsh sanction, stripping the person of their social network and thus, in theory, their ability to survive, as you would suddenly find yourself with no access to grazing and hunting grounds, thus leaving you stripped both of food and dignity.
The relational responsibility and duty to care for the land mentioned above is further emphasised by the fact that aerpie-saajvh could be both passed on to descendants and shared with others, so that people with ties to more than one land gained a higher status, by virtue of having it easier to bearkadidh, i.e. to live on and off one’s land in a sustainable way.
Today, this way of relating to the land as both place and ancestor has been carried over into many of the South Saami surnames we know today, even in their translated Norwegian and Swedish forms, such as Grahn (Kraenie, a person from Gran, a traditional Saami reindeer herding district), Kappfjell (Gaebpie, a person belonging to the mountain Gaebpie) and Jåma (Jåavma, a person belonging to the mountain Jåavma).
The understanding and use of laahkoe forms an integral part of our South Saami culture. This, laaveme, can be seen in our traditional handicrafts as well. To many, the patterns used by South Saami handcrafters may seem repetitive and merely decorative, but the truth is that they tell us important lessons about our South Saami epistemology, strength, belonging and reciprocal responsibilities shared by all Saami.
Maadtoej guelmieh tjaalehtjimmesne vååjnoeh. Your ancestors’ teachings are reflected in the traditional patterns you use.
What is more, while certain patterns are common throughout Saepmie, many stylistic expressions follow particular families, and tell those skilled in the interpretation of tjaalehtjimmie, the creation of traditional ornaments and decorations, who the person is, the maadtoe they belong to, and what their role is with regards to laahkoe.
Laaveme, let us come to each in love and respect.
Let us pass on the lessons of our ancestors, not because we have to, but because we can.
Having to reclaim your own history, traditions and heritage through courses, lectures and literature is hard, and without people who are willing to guide others, we risk losing our traditional, family based understanding of the epistemological values of our traditional patterns.
Let us continue to make things in accordance with our traditions, in ways that honour both our traditions and our maadtoe.
Laaveme, we owe this much to ourselves.