“Burned by the polar night”­: An Interview with Sámi poet Inger-Mari Aikio – curated by Ming Di

Inger-Mari Aikio (Ima) is a Sámi poet writing in Northern Sámi. She has worked as a reporter, photographer, proofreader for the newspaper Sámi Áigi from 1982 to 1988 and news journalist for YLE Sámi Radio. She lives in Sámiland and has published 12 books in Northern Sámi: eight books of poetry, two children’s books, a novel and a nonfiction book. She was nominated for Nordic Literature Prize (2004) and was a finalist for Lappi literature Prize (2021).

Ming Di: Hello Ima, it was very nice meeting you in Morocco a few years ago. Where do you live now?  

Inger-Mari Aikio: I’m back to Buolbmatjávri (Pulmankijärvi).

MD: Can you describe Buolbmatjávri?

IMA: It’s kind of a village by Lake Buolbmatjávri. Less than ten homes here around the lake. Only 8 people live here permanently: 5 retired, one nurse, one working in the mine and me, a writer. Then there are summer cottages owned by Finnish people.

We fish in this lake, me and my mum. 

And there are hills around the lake.

We pick berries right outside our house (my grandparents built it) about 50 meters away and then we walk several kilometers to find the best berries.

And yes, in winter it is hard, we always fight against the cold and snow.

We have polar night for two months, it means no sun at all. I run away, if possible, for instance I was in Spain for two months last year. And this coming January I’m going again. First to Canary Island, then to Peru and Mexico. Maybe also to Costa Rica if things go as planned.

MD: Are you getting any support?

IMA: Yes, I got a three year grant and this is the first year.

MD: Grants from the Finnish government?

IMA: No, from Sámi Foundation which gets money from the Norwegian government. But previously I received support from Taike (in Finland) and other foundations.

MD: What was polar night to you as a child?

IMA: I don’t remember.

MD: Were you born in Buolbmatjávri by the lake?

IMA: I was born in Buolbmát (Polmak), 10 km from here, but I never lived there. 

MD: How long has your family lived in the Lake Buolbmatjávri area?

IMA: We’ve been here for 200 years. My ancestors came here from Inari. Prior to that, I don’t know where.

MD: What are some of the unique features of your community? 

IMA: We have our own clothes, especially clothing for cold winters (coats, hats, gloves, shoes, etc. made of reindeer fur) and then our colorful gákti to wear any time. Some Finns who work in the tourist industry often wear gákti to attract tourists and fool them that they are Sámis. 

Our main diet is based on reindeer meat (we use almost everything in reindeer) and salmon or white fish. We eat lots of berries such as cloudberries and lingonberries. 

MD: Can you talk about Sámi literature?

IMA: We had oral literature until the beginning of the 1900s. The stories were told at home or while herding reindeer in the mountains or at gatherings. Our traditional songs, “yoiks”, tell stories about people, animals and places. Most Sámi writers write poems. One of the reasons could be that yoiks are a kind of poetry too. 

MD: How about the Sámi languages?

IMA: There are nine different Sámi languages, our clothing tells where a Sámi comes from (clothing is different in different areas and for different Sámi tribes)

There are a lot of myths in our culture. We are the children of the Sun and the Earth is our mother. This must be very common among indigenous peoples. 

MD: Yes. And how about your religion?

IMA: Before Christians came with their churches and priests and god, we had our own gods. We had Grandmother Máttaráhkká and her three daughters Sáráhkká, Uksáhkka and Juoksáhkká. Each of them had her own task, for example Sáráhkká protected women. Besides these gods we had gods and spirits for most of the things in life, the wind god was Bieggaalmmái, the god of thunder was Dierpmes, Gufihtar lives underground, etc.

MD: At what age did you become aware of being a Sámi? How did you feel about it?

IMD: I’ve always had a strong Sámi identity. But I guess I started to think about myself as part of a global indigenous family as a teenager or a young adult. It was a big thing to understand that there are so many indigenous peoples around the world, not only in the Arctic. We are hundreds of millions and together we are strong.

MD: What is it like to be a Sámi?

IMA: Sami means minority, even in the so-called Sámi land. It means that it is difficult to get service in our own language. There is a Sámi doctor in our municipality and it feels amazing and incredibly secure to be able to speak Sámi with her. When I have to go to the Finnish doctor sometimes, I have the feeling that oh sorry, I am bothering you. 

We’ve learnt from the beginning that Finnish people are above us. Our language and culture are worth nothing. We are only good as a tourist attraction. Many times Finnish people speak to us as if to a child. We are not as civilized as them. 

Our young generation is very aware of what is happening and what the majority is trying to do to us. They are claiming our rights for the land and for our culture. It is a very frustrating battle and the government doesn’t listen to us. They are planning a railway through our reindeer herding areas, a big windmill park (a green colonialism!) on our holy mountains, more mines etc. We don’t want them, but they don’t listen to us. They say that we need to give something for the commonwealth. We have already given so many rivers, mountains and land or rather it has been taken from us. How much more should we give?! Our traditional livelihood means nothing to them.

We have Sámi parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden. We Sámis vote the members to our Parliaments. But! We can’t decide who is Sámi and who has the right to vote in our elections. It is the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court that decides! Sámi Parliament has the list of Sámis who have the right to vote and new voters can apply before each election. The problem is that when Sámi Parliament doesn’t accept some new voters (because they are not recognized as Sámis, for us they are Finns trying to take over the power also in our Parliament), then those take the case to the court. Finnish court doesn’t have any idea about Sámi people and culture, but they decide about our cases and of course they decide that we are racists, because we don’t accept those people to vote in our elections. There are many Finns already having the right to vote in Sámi Parliament elections. One was elected also to the Parliament by other Finns. He’s been making a lot of trouble all the time together with his supporters.

I’m very proud of our young generations. They are strong and willing to fight for our future. 

MD: How did you become a poet and when? Do you write about your experience as a Sámi or not?

IMA: I’ve always liked to write. It’s been part of my life since I was ten years old. I was a lonely child, reading and writing were my way of surviving. First I wrote in Finnish, because it was the language I was taught to read and write in school. Later we learnt one hour per week to write in Sámi. The orthography of writing in Sámi changed in 1979 and changed a little again in 1980. I had to learn the new way of writing. There are still many Sámis who have never been able to learn to read and write in Sámi (for example my mum and dad can’t write Sámi in the correct way), which is very sad.

I write about everything, not necessarily about indigenous issues, but as a human being who happens to be a Sámi. 

MD: Who inspired you as a poet? What are your favorite poets?

IMA: Áillohaš.

When I was young, Pablo Neruda was my favorite poet and a Finnish poet Tommy Tabermann. But I don’t read them anymore. Now I don’t really know. 

MD: Does the ethnic and cultural identity help you grow mature or hurt you as a poet?

IMA: I’m proud of being a Sámi. But it’s been a bit hard to be taken seriously as a poet in Finland. If you are a Sámi poet, you can’t be as good as a Finnish poet. Or is that a feeling only in my head? 

Many times I have felt that I’m invited to different literature arenas because they want something exotic or they want to show that they are open-minded and accept a Sámi in their program. This is my feeling in Finland, but in other countries my feeling is different. There I am as myself, as a poet, not as an exotic extra show in the program.

When my poetry book “69 čuoldda” (69 pillars) was chosen among the six finalists for the Lappi literature prize, my first thought was that ok, they chose my book, because they wanted one Sámi writer there too. Then I got mad at myself and asked why I can’t just think that they chose my book because it’s a good book! 

The wound of being despised is so deep that even things have changed somehow it affects my feelings. I think part of this comes from the previous generations. I carry their loads and bad experiences on my shoulders even most of the time I don’t even realize it. 

MD: Do you think it’s important to write about the indigenous life or not?

IMA: I think it is important to tell our stories. If we don’t tell them (in poems, songs, novels, films etc.) then other people will do it. They tell stories from their point of view – which is always a story told by outsiders. In those stories most of the time we are the exotic people in the tundra with reindeer and aurora borealis. Outsiders see only the surface. We know our stories; we can get much deeper than outsiders.

MD: Please briefly introduce two other Sámi poets whose literary work you think should be known to a wider audience.

IMA: We have a young and very talented poet Niillas Holmberg (b. 1990). He is also a novelist, playwright, actor, yoiker and musician. Yoik is our traditional way of singing. 

The other is Áillohaš (Nils Aslak Valkeapää, 1943-2001). He published his first books in the 70s. He was also a yoiker, actor and painter (artist). He was the one who helped me to publish my first four books. His advice helped me find my own poetic language. He won the Nordic Literature prize in 1991, the only time given to a Sámi writer so far. 

MD: I met Niillas Holmberg and another Sámi poet before. I’m always interested in indigenous literature. Is there a literary community where Sámi poets support each other?

IMA: We have the Sámi Writers’ Association, but nothing else. No real activities, only one meeting per year.

MD: What’s the first language you spoke? Sámi?

IMA: Yes, Northern Sámi. 

MD: You learned it from your parents?

IMA: Yes.

MD: Can you talk about your parents?

IMA: My father was a hunter and fisherman, but he also did some business later, selling timber to Norway and snowmobiles in Finland. 

My mum worked at home, had some sheep and cows. She used to fish and pick berries – and she still does. 

MD: Do you understand other Sámi languages?

IMA: I understand Inari Sámi well and just little the other languages

If someone speaks southern Sámi to me, I won’t understand much, so we have to speak English.

MD: English? 

IMA: Because they live in Sweden or Norway and I don’t speak Norwegian or Swedish so well. If someone speaks Scolt Sami, then we speak Finnish, because it is difficult to understand each other’s Sami.

MD: You learned Finnish in school?

IMA: Yes, I had to learn Finnish because everything was in Finnish in the school. The teacher spoke only Finish. So I learnt to read and write in Finnish. Later I learnt to read and write in Sámi too.

MD: When and where did you learn English?

IMA: Most of the kids here learn English in school. It starts very early, in the first few years in school. Then everyone has to learn Swedish as well, because it’s the other official language in Finland.

MD: Do you write poetry in Sámi only? Or in Finnish and English as well?

IMA: When I was young, I wrote in Finnish, because it was the language I learnt to use for writing. When I was around 20 years old, I made a decision to write in Sámi. It was very difficult in the beginning. Over the years Sámi has become the easiest language for me. It makes me feel so good to write in Sámi. I can express myself much deeper in Sámi than in other languages. 

Sometimes I also write in Finnish but very rarely in English, because my English is not good enough to express myself the way I want to.

MD: How does your poetry get translated into English and other languages? Directly from Sámi? Or do you provide a Finnish or English draft? 

IMA: Most of the time I translate my poems into Finnish. Sometimes I provide an English draft. 

MD: What are some special features of Northern Sámi that are hard to translate into another language? 

IMA: We have hundreds of words for snow, ice and reindeer. 

We are a nation living in nature. In order to cope with the harsh Arctic conditions and to engage in reindeer breeding and other natural livelihoods successfully, we must manage special information related to our environment. In addition to the reindeer herding vocabulary, the snow vocabulary is one of the richest and is poorly translated into other languages if only by a single word. 

Two poems by Inger-Mari Aikio


vare moai oktii

salošeimme duoddar alde

allin ja áidna olmmožin

boaimmáža biškkanas

guhkes máidnasa álgun

bihčosa luohti viidnin

njála suollemas geahčastat

bálggisin vilges balvvaid

čábbaseamus máidnasii

Fairy tale

I wish we once

had embraced on the fells

high, and the only human beings

rough-legged buzzard’s scream

as the beginning of a long story

golden plover’s chant as wine

the secret gaze of arctic fox

as a path to the white clouds

to the most beautiful fairy tale

(translation by Inger-Mari Aikio & Charles Peterson)


látnjá ii jeara diimmu

das lea mearihis olu áigi

muorra jearrá diimmu

ja rehkenastá

goas máihllis láhppo sohkar

soarvi ii jeara diimmu

das lea mearihis olu áigi

A tree

the sapling doesn’t ask the time

it has an ocean of time

the tree asks the time and reckons

when its sap will lose all passion

the snag doesn’t ask the time

it has an ocean of time

(translation by Inger-Mari Aikio & Charles Peterson)