June 30, 2000
Sami artist reclaims the land through his work
Hans Ragnar Mathisen depicts the world as seen
through Sami eyes.
Norway — Through his maps and art, Sami artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen is making
"a peaceful appropriation" of his people’s land, traditions and
a millennium, Sami have co-existed with Norwegians — and with the Vikings
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."
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.
a world that’s 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
maps — which he draws by hand, in pencil and ink — also incorporate animals,
plants, handicrafts, legends, ancient Sami language, and symbols. They’re
painstakingly accurate, as well as colourful and whimsical.
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
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.
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
years later, Mathisen produced the Sami Atlas, an amazing hard-cover volume
with maps presenting the geography of the Sami territory — and much more.
regularly in Sami-language schools, the atlas contains maps showing clan
distribution, sacred places, and traditional reindeer grazing grounds.
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.
atlas reflects Mathisen’s desire to reclaim the Sami people’s 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.
would be hard to deny that these weren’t 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."
said Sami’s use of coastal resources were the envy of others, and they were
over-taxed and harassed by a succession of hostile, greedy governments.
still feeding them, but they don’t see it," he said.
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.
the 1600s. Sami shamans who were reluctant to part with their drums were
burned to death.
to this day, the anti-Sami feeling is so deeply rooted," Mathisen said.
"It’s a 1000-year-old tradition."
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
said some don’t 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
Mathisen was growing up, he also felt that his Sami heritage was a negative
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
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
his 1982 book of texts and woodcuts, called "The Circle of Life,"
there’s also a woodcut tribute to Nunavut: "Our land with snow
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:
snowflake in the Universe
than all the darkness around it. Small stars, but we are many.
A world in darkness.
As snow is
the beauty of winter
May the purity and peace it symbolizes
Always be God’s
gifts to you
Nunavut — our
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 Sápmi’s scenery.
contain or reproduce traditional Sami designs, such as the drum or rock
drawings. Others have all of these elements and a political message too.
I get an idea that’s political, it’s 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."
still lives in Tromsø, in his foster family’s former home, where he’s 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.
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.
still considers himself to be a Sami activist, too, and recently designed a
banner for Sami reindeer herders protesting the military’s use of their