June 30, 2000

Sami artist reclaims the land through his work

Hans Ragnar Mathisen depicts the world as seen through Sami eyes.

Nunatsiaq News

TROMSØ, Norway — Through his maps and art, Sami artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen is making "a peaceful appropriation" of his peopleís land, traditions and culture.

For a millennium, Sami have co-existed with Norwegians — and with the Vikings before them.

"After 1000 years, we still have our language and culture," Mathisen said. "It shows Sami are very strong, but not stupid, because if we were stupid, we would fight with weapons and lose."

To do this Mathisen has chosen to enrich Sami language and culture through his series of maps that depict the world, as seen by Sami eyes.

Itís a world thatís viewed from the top of the Sami homeland, Sápmi, instead of from the south of Norway. Sápmi is a territory without national borders, whose towns, rivers and mountains are identified by their original Sami names.

Mathisenís maps — which he draws by hand, in pencil and ink — also incorporate animals, plants, handicrafts, legends, ancient Sami language, and symbols. Theyíre painstakingly accurate, as well as colourful and whimsical.

His maps are made to inform, please the eye, and catch attention, so if you look closely, you might find a joke written in tiny script around a border, or you can try to decipher a story written in mysterious mirror writing. Another map includes a small drawing of the moon with its geographical features, usually identified in Latin, that Mathisen re-named in Sami.

First map a sensation

When Mathisen finished his first global view of Sápmi in 1975, a young generation of Sami was just beginning to call for more recognition and rights.

"It made a sensation. This is one of the main objects that had an effect," Mathisen said. "I knew it would be touchy for Norwegians, so I decided to make it beautiful, and a cultural document as well as a political statement."

Twenty years later, Mathisen produced the Sami Atlas, an amazing hard-cover volume with maps presenting the geography of the Sami territory — and much more.

Used regularly in Sami-language schools, the atlas contains maps showing clan distribution, sacred places, and traditional reindeer grazing grounds.

There are also maps illustrating the various political or economic changes in the Sami region, and neighbouring areas. A map of the circumpolar world displays all the names of the indigenous peoples and their homelands — in Sami.

Original Scandinavians

The atlas reflects Mathisenís desire to reclaim the Sami peopleís rightful place in history, something Mathisen says Norwegians are only too ready to deny. Norwegians often maintain Sami are relative newcomers to Scandinavia, but Mathisen believes Sami were the original inhabitants of this land, and the creators of the many ancient petrogylphs or rock art found throughout the region.

"It would be hard to deny that these werenít the forefathers of the Sami people," Mathisen said. "I think most of Scandinavia was Sami-land, and little by little they were pushed up and off the coast."

Mathisen said Samiís use of coastal resources were the envy of others, and they were over-taxed and harassed by a succession of hostile, greedy governments.

"Weíre still feeding them, but they donít see it," he said.

People in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries have also devalued Sami, or as Mathisen suggests, even "demonized" Sami by portraying them as trolls, which are still important images in Norwegian folklore.

In the 1600s. Sami shamans who were reluctant to part with their drums were burned to death.

"Up to this day, the anti-Sami feeling is so deeply rooted," Mathisen said. "Itís a 1000-year-old tradition."

Although only a few hundred or so people in Tromsø regard themselves publicly as Sami, Mathisen is convinced there are many more Sami in the city, perhaps up to half the population.

Many deny Sami roots

He said some donít realize their Sami roots until they go to university, and discover that their home community was originally a Sami settlement. Others, despite having Sami speakers in their extended family, continue to deny any links.

When Mathisen was growing up, he also felt that his Sami heritage was a negative legacy.

Mathisen, 55, was born in a small Sami community north of Tromsø, but he spent seven years in Tromsø, from age four to 11, in a tuberculosis sanitarium. After his release, a loving foster family, whom he now knows were Sami, too, took Mathisen in.

Only later did Mathisen get back in touch with his cultural roots and relearn the Sami language. As an art student in Oslo, and later, as a Sami activist, he began to explore other indigenous peoples, too. He went to Burma, where natives there gave him the name "Keviselie"(a meeting with goodness.)

In his 1982 book of texts and woodcuts, called "The Circle of Life," thereís also a woodcut tribute to Nunavut: "Our land with snow star."

"Flying over Nunavut in northern Canada on the way to the first International Conference of Indigenous Peoples, Oct. 1975, I had many thoughts about the situation and the task of indigenous peoples in the world family:

A little snowflake in the Universe

Is better than all the darkness around it. Small stars, but we are many.

Together we could cover
A world in darkness.

As snow is the beauty of winter
May the purity and peace it symbolizes

Always be Godís gifts to you

Nunavut — our land."

Mathisen now works in a variety of art forms and materials, including stenciling, woodcuts, oil and watercolours. His prints often present simple, but powerful views of Sápmiís scenery.

Some contain or reproduce traditional Sami designs, such as the drum or rock drawings. Others have all of these elements and a political message too.

"When I get an idea thatís political, itís also the fruit of my imagination," Mathisen said. "What triggers it is what you hear, and it can be your thoughts, your feelings and even your anger."

He still lives in Tromsø, in his foster familyís former home, where heís added his own Sami tent and turf hut. These days, Mathisen is working on a major exhibition around the theme of drums and rock art. Its opening in October will coincide with the opening of a new exhibition at the Tromsø Museum on contemporary Sami culture.

Mathisen, who regularly exhibits his art in Norway, is finally able to earn his living as an artist, but he continues to work on a variety of projects, including cultural festivals and books.

He still considers himself to be a Sami activist, too, and recently designed a banner for Sami reindeer herders protesting the militaryís use of their grazing lands.