A new symbol for an ancient people

A new symbol for an ancient people

A new symbol for an ancient people

The history of the Sámi flag 1

(for more illustrations (8 pictures) please see this link: 

  An important symbol for any group, be it a football team, a business corporation, an opera company or a nation, even a league of nations, is a flag. Other individual symbols were coats of arms, often becoming the motive of flags. The placing of a flag was a symbolic gesture, especially in conflicts and wars, when a victory was confirmed by the placing of the flag on the conquered item. Under the flag groups of people could identify their belonging, and pride and honour was closely linked to the flag. It became a sacred symbol.

No wonder that as part of the re-vitalization of Sámi culture, after decennia of oppression and attempts of cultural genocide, the Sámi people began to look for a flag of their own, something that would give us a common focal point of identification. As would be expected, artists have played and play an important role in the building of a young culture, including its symbols, such as the flag.

I am quite sure that Sámi artist in the past must have had thoughts about this, like for example Anders Fjellner (1795-1876), or Elsa Laula Renberg (1877-1931), both icons of Sámi cultural re-awakening. An artist like John Savio (1902-1938) must also have had thoughts about this, but there are no concrete indications in his sketches that point to a flag. One of his pictures that goes in this direction, would be his print “Gammelguden”(The old deity) where a person is kneeling in front of a Sieidi, a Sámi sacrificial stone, framed in a Sámi decorative pattern.

Until an alternative was realized, the Sámi had to put up with whichever flag dominated the country in which their homeland had been divided, four in all. Some would have to honour the flag of the tsar, later Russia, and then Soviet Union, then back to Russia. In Finland, Sweden and Norway the flags were all based on the Christian cross, showing the Nordic affinity to this creed.

In response to the harsh outspoken racism against us, no wonder it inspired some reactions, however timid. I am sure we would find numerous written responses looking back into the emerging Sámi publications of that time, like the novel Bæivve-Algo (1912) by Anders Larsen(1870-1949), and the periodical he intiated Sagai Muitalægje (News provider, 1904-1911), and also Johan Turi’s (1854-1936) critic in Muitalus Sámiid birra (Narration about the Sámi, 1910) especially the chapter about Jubonasj (Jo Bones), which also prompted a counter-reaction by Carl Schøyen (1877-1951) in his otherwise excellent book Tre stammers møte (Meeting of three tribes, 1918).

There were also individual stunts that would amaze us even today. In Buolbmát, a Sámi village in the upper part of the Deatnu/Teno/Tana river, now a border area between Norway and Finland, a Sámi father had enough of crude Norwegian assimilation attempt, and on the national day May 17 instead of the Norwegian flag, hoisted his dirty long johns! (related to me by Juhu-Niilas) In a more populated area, he certainly would have been punished, but I can’t help thinking that many of his neighbours approved of his action, among whom must have been some non-Sámi as well.

The first concrete suggestion of a Sámi flag that I know of comes from Nils Aslak Valkeapää (1943-2001), then a Sámi teacher and later to become a prolific artist from the Finland side of the border, in the authumn of 1967. According to the editor of the only Sámi newspaper back then, Ságat (News), Odd Mathis Hætta, Valkeapää had given him a pencil sketch, clearly based on the flag of the Soviet Union. Instead of sicle and hammer he had carefully drawn a reindeer horn and a Sámi knife. Although the editor shared much of his view, he found it too controversial for publication in the newspaper. He has been kind enough to send me a copy of this drawing, based on which I have made a colour representation. 

Aillohasj was not the only Sámi artist who attempted to propose suggestions to this newspaper. Not knowing of any other, including the above mentioned suggestion, I believed myself to be the first one to suggest Sámi flags, which I sent to Ságat with a letter dated 17th of May 1970 attached with papers with several colourcrayon variations of the Nordic flag template.

As a Sámi activist I soon left the childish exuberance of my younger days celebration of the national day of Norway May 17, and began to look upon Norwegian nationalism more critically (See my article: Nasjonalisme og menneskerett?( 14.06.1995) on the lower part of this link:  http://www.keviselie-hansragnarmathisen.net/33514858 .).

Every group and individual have the right to pride and self-expression, I a not debating that at all, as long as it does not diminish the nationalism or self-expression of others. True, the Norwegian celebration is unique in the world, and a feast for especially children, the poet Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845) did a very good job. But when I saw in the parade on this day Sámi children waving Norwegian flags, my heart started beating not of pride but of anger. True, they did not wave the flag the last time I saw them. A teacher from Máze later told me that he had instructed his schoolchildren not to wave the flag on their participation in the parade in Tromsø, rather let it rest on the shoulder, as can be seen in this photo from 1971, a clear but subtle demonstration, in my opinion.

Like the suggestion of Valkeapää, my flag was also based on an existing one.

Here is the last portion of the letter I wrote to Ságat,

Kunne ikke avisen Ságat ta initiativet til å utlyse en konkurranse om et samisk nasjonalflagg? Det var vel best at det ble en internordisk sak, slik at samer i Sverige og Finland, og for den saks skyld også Russland kunne være med?

Jeg vet nok at det av mange vil oppfattes som noe for dristig, uhørt, «nasjonal­romantisk", og hvem vet hva.

Likevel vil jeg understreke sakens betydning, den er nemlig stor. Vel, for ikke å være den siste, her er mitt forslag: Rødt kors over gult (oransje) kors på mørkegrønn bunn).

Why should not Ságat newspaper take the initiative to announce a contest for a Sámi national flag? It would be preferable to have it as an inter-nordic matter, so that Sámit in Sweden and Finland, and for that sake also Russia could participate as well? I am fully aware of that many would find this too candid, unheard of, ‘national-romantic’, and what not.

Yet I want to stress the importance of the matter, it is truly of mayor significance.

Well, to not be the last one, here is my own suggestion: Red cross over yellow/orange cross on a dark green base.

As can be seen from this letter, I already suggested the proper way to go about in the matter, but I am sad to say that my article was not published, probably of the same reasons. I was at a loss how to go about this matter. I was looking for other ways to visualize my Sámi heritage.

But I was not the only artist interested in a future Sámi flag. I will come back to that later.

Nástegiettáš 17.05.2011

The history of the Sámi flag 2

(illustration: Watercolour and ink on paper, see this link:

Naked flagpole 01.05.1970)

Needless to say, this text about the Sámi flag is seen from the perspective of one person, yet one who has followed the course of its history all along the three parts of this article; yes, one who has been deeply involved almost from the start, and whose concern for the importance of such symbols for a oppressed people as a counterbalance to the apathy, low self-esteem and other negative aspects that official and private racism has inflicted on our people. But it can’t be denied that this idealism also contains certain amounts of self-interest, the wish to self-realization and even pride, it is part of the human psyche and natural. It has been important for me as a human being, and as an artist to aim to serve my people and endeavor to contribute to its proper balanced uplifting and natural pride, and at the same time to take part in the same as an individual and professional artist, following the habits and rules, written and non-written that belong to the trade, so to speak. I know that there has been a discussion as to whether the Sámi should bother about the necessity of following heraldic rules regarding our flag or not, I will come back to that in the last part. But there are also rules on an individual level that one has to be aware of.

One day the flagpole will be naked

Foreign flags are taken down,

An important day in the History of Sámi people,

It shall also be recorded.

Who put up the flag of Conquest

On the sacred homeland of others

And quickly put superficial names

Over our beloved homeland?

Don’t bother to tell them

To pull down this flag,

They might put force behind

Their claims.

The Cross in their flag

Has become a scorn against themselves,

Someone seems to be hanging on it

Although it has been a long time ago

Since it became empty after that verdict.

A May-seventeenth greeting is this:

Shame on those who do evil and discriminate

Lie and curse for no proper reason.

Blessed are those who bless,

Light and warmth shall meet them

Who lift their soul and yearn for justice

No more words!

One Day

Someone will happen…

(Free translation of a poem written 29.03.1972)

In 1974 I headed a team in Oslo who made a Sámi Calendar for the following year, and had the audacity to put an empty flagpole beside May 17th, the National Day of Norway, at that time almost a risky thing to do. My co-revolutionaries, of course, liked it, but I was greatly surprised when I later came to Karasjok and met some beautiful women in full Sámi dress discuss “Åk’ta Sáme Jahki 1975” the name of our Calendar, and as soon as they understood that I was its very editor, they strongly criticized me for putting that empty flagpole there, I was appalled at that, and left in confusion and anger, lest I would have been torn to pieces. This experience taught me that I had taken for granted that all Sámi would endorse a cultural revitalization involving an unavoidable criticism of Scandinavian patronizing and racism against us over the years, but this was not so, at least not among every inhabitant of what aimed to be the Capital of the Sámi area. This discovery just made my commitment stronger, and I pledged to do some kind of cultural or artistic ‘prank’ on that very day each year, and the first one, an ink drawing, was a kind of ‘manifesto’ and involved a flag; I have not published until now, yet it is a adequate expression of my artistic temper at the time…

(Illustration 17.05.1971)

No doubt I was deeply involved in the issue, and it also led to other expressions, like the Sábmi map that I worked on 1974/75 as student of the Art Academy in Oslo, and it was published November 1975.

No wonder I became a bit startled and even worried when another artist also became involved in the Sámi flag issue, a co-student at the Art Academy in Oslo, Synnøve Persen. She was an artist that was more known for her good looks than for her art or her involvement in Sámi issues for that matter, and I can understand that she saw this as an opportunity to launch a career in that direction. Not knowing of my own involvement in the flag issue herself, she was in her full right to work on her own plan, although I would have personally preferred that on account of its importance it should be a broader involvement rather than a personal or individual quest, as I had stated in the letter referred to in my previous article. But when I saw the actual suggestion in the form of a serigraphy I have to admit that I was dumbfounded with amazement. This was an exact copy of a design that already had appeared as a cover of several books. At that time I did not know who had made that design, a simplification of the Deatnu gákti pattern/colours: A dark blue rectangle with the upper part in red, divided by a broad stripe of warm yellow, as the Sámi costume of Deatnu and Unjárga, also used in Karasjok, although the proper Karasjok pattern is without yellow. For a flag I thought, and still do, that this was too little and too much lack of content for a flag representing a people over a vast area. How would the Julev or southern Sámi react? I talked with her about this, and suggested that this would be rather barren for a flag, and would be better suited for a streamer, to which she seemed to agree. She made a serigraph of this as well. Berit Marit Hætta used these streamers in her illustration for the book cover of Samer tier ikke lenger (Sámi do not keep silent any more) written by John Gustavsen. I then resolved to write a letter to the Nordic Sámi Council suggesting they take responsibility for this, by announcing for example a competition open for a broader public, with the aim to propose a flag for the Sámi nation, in much the same line as the aforementioned letter. I went abroad for 2 years and did not become more involved directly. As the dam project of the Guovdageadnu River hastily approached, tension and activity was mounting. I took part in the first round as an observer in the gallery for the Storting, where Bjartmar Gjerde endorsed the project, to bitter opposition of many Sámi. I did not come back again until 1981, when I took part in the very last demonstration near the zero point, as a journalist. What happened in the meantime is history, and I cannot blame anyone for grasping the chance to use a symbol like a flag. It was a desperate need for such a symbol, and any suggestion, maybe even a pair of jeans on a pole, would be welcomed, as long as it could stand out as different. What was later know as ‘the flag of Synnøve Persen’, was waved on many occasion during the Alta conflict, and is today exhibited in the Tromsø Museum.

However, I have to say that it is problematic when it is stated again and again, even by her, that she made the flag when this is not the case. ( – Men i følge papirene må overvåkningen ha startet allerede i 1977, da Finnmark Dagblad laget en sak på at jeg som kunststudent tegnet et utkast til eget samisk flagg.   Nordlys 30.06.2003)  In my opinion it is a serious matter when someone claims to be the author of what others have made. I have tried to investigate as to who might be the original designer of this pattern. I have asked many, and they all agree that it is not Synnøve Persen. The first time it appeared was on the cover of a book catalogue with title in Sámi and Norwegian: “Kátalåga 1971 Kárássjåga Bibliotekka Sámi sierrabiliotekka, Karasjok Bibliotek, Spesialbiliotek for Samisk litteratur”. Printed at Spesialtrykk A/S, Oslo ISBN 82-7073-003-3. The foreword is signed Karasjok, mars 1972, Lars Hansen Juvik, Bibliotekar. I phoned him and asked, and he told me that the book itself was printed in Oslo, but the cover was assigned to the newly established sheltered workshop Karasjok Produkter to print, or at least to design (I had one of my exhibition posters printed here in 1983). I have asked Rolf Olsen who worked there then, but he can’t remember. My conclusion is that it is a work made by the team at the workshop. However, I am inclined to state that the originator of the idea itself must have been Nils Viktor Aslaksen, with roots in Deatnu/Tana, and himself an artist (visual art and poetry) and as far as I know the only one as such connected to this workshop at that time. It is a strikingly novel idea fit for a book cover with additional text, although it is more or less directly derived from the Deatnu Sámi Costume, which probably also explains its appeal. It was subsequently used on the membership card of NSR and also the cover for the book series Čállagat, where the colours have been varied from issue to issue.

Synnøve Persen has later been known to be a perfectionist in matters regarding detailed minutiae of protocol and accountancy; it has become her trademark on annual meetings of art organisations. The more remarkable it is that a matter like this have remained uncommented. Indeed, one suspects that had it been done by a less famous artist, it would clearly have been seen as an act of plagiarism.

Nástegiettáš 30.06.2011

1. LA 875 /LA 71070 24x36 17.051971 foto Nils Storslett. (Copyright Keviselie/HRM) 17.mai i Tromsø. Man har funnet det passende å feire Norges nasjonaldag, innby samebarn til å gå i nasjonaltoget, barn fra en bygd som de samme myndigheter truer med å utslette ved kraftutbygging/neddemning. Masi. Merk holdningen, uttrykkene, flaggene The teacher of this class from Máze Primary school later told me that he had told the pupils not to wave the flags, just keep them resting on the shoulder, as a kind of a ‘comment’, in fact a subtle protest demonstration…

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