Nils-Aslak Valkeapää

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Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, musician, composer, writer, artist and activist: born Enontekiö, Finland 24 March 1943; died Espoo, Finland 26 November 2001.

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, musician, composer, writer, artist and activist: born Enontekiö, Finland 24 March 1943; died Espoo, Finland 26 November 2001.

Nils-Aslak Valkeapää was a hugely talented polymath: artist, composer, musician, poet, photographer and activist.

Born in Enontekiö in Finnish Samiland in 1943, he was the son and brother of nomadic Sami (Lapp) reindeer-herders. Although he left the traditional family occupation to train as a primary-school teacher, the variety and continuously inventive nature of his art suggests the restlessness of the nomad that was in his blood.

Samiland is the local, and now more favoured, name for Lapland. It covers 400,000sq km of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia, and is inhabited by some 70,000 Sami. Historically the Sami have always been oppressed by the majority, in early days by the loathed tax collectors, then by the deliberately assimilatory policies of governments that discouraged their language and culture, and destroyed their shamanistic religion. Today North Sami, the most widespread of the many Sami languages, is spoken in a "society" context by a mere 5,000 people. Some Sami experts fear it will be extinct within our own lifetimes.

Until very recently, the Sami were despised by their fellow Finns or Norwegians for being "primitive" or "quaint". Valkeapää was the first Sami to break down this prejudice, and became the first Sami writer to be recognised internationally. By writing in Sami, and with such success, he dramatically raised the status of the language, encouraging the younger generation to cast off their furtive shame and openly embrace it as an essential part of their culture. In all he wrote more than 20 books, which were translated into Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic, German, Spanish, English, Japanese and French.

His first book, Terveisiä Lapista, translated by Beverley Wahl as Greetings from Lappland: the Sami – Europe's forgotten people in 1983, was the second book by a Sami ever to be translated into English. This is a passionate, angry study of the plight of the Sami, written back in 1971 but addressing issues that are today more pressing than ever: loss of language, loss of land, loss of culture.

His best-selling book Beaivi, áhcázan (translated as The Sun, My Father by Lars Nordtrom and Harald Gaski in 1998) was awarded the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1991. This collection of short poems, accompanied by photographs of the Sami taken between the 1860s and 1930s, was lauded for uniting past and present, fact and fiction, to reveal the richness of Sami culture, history and language.

Not content with being merely a writer, Valkeapää was also a photographer and naïve painter, often accompanying his texts with his own illustrations, inspired by the Stone Age rock carvings that pepper the granite rocks of Samiland, and the hieroglyphics painted onto the drums of Sami shamans.

He was a celebrated composer and musician, revitalising the traditional Sami joik with its grumbly, often wordless chanting, by adding symphony orchestras, synthesisers, playing around with jazz or traditional Sami instruments. When he began recording in the early 1970s, he faced some criticism in Finland for corrupting Sami music, but he argued that to stick blindly to the past was to fossilise a culture, and ultimately to kill it. His marvellous composition " Eanan Eallima Eadni" unites traditional joik with modern instruments and sound effects to create a moving evocation of the looming grandeur of Samiland's mountains, the loneliness, the rhythm of reindeer moving over the fell, the mournful emptiness, the cry of a gull, the awareness of perpetual darkness even during the days of perpetual light.

Valkeapää's name reached millions around the world when he performed the opening ceremony at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994. He was also given honorary doctorates at the universities of Oulu and Lapland. His career was almost ended by a horrific car accident in 1996. He bravely resumed his work, but he confessed to having no memory whatsoever of writing his last book, Eanni, eannaz ("Mother, My Little Mother"), published earlier this year.

Valkeapää was also involved with Unesco and was a founder member of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, and was a pioneer activist fighting for Sami rights against the deliberate assimilation policies of the Finnish and Scandinavian governments. He railed against the sneering condescension of outsiders who looked down on the Sami. Instead he described himself as not only well-educated, but sexy. At the world-wide conferences and festivals that he attended, women (he claimed) were always keen to know him better. He was certainly very handsome, and charming.

Lately he withdrew from politics, tired of bureaucracy, but he remained an inspiration to Sami militants, who came of age during the celebrated Sami hunger strike of 1981 in protest against the damming of the beautiful Alta river. This was the first time the Sami had fought for their rights so effectively, and although the dam was built, it was on a smaller scale, while the uproar led in 1992 to Sami being made an official language in Norway and Finland – and later in Sweden.

Helena Drysdale