26 October 2006


I get the impression that I am generally regarded as an “at-large” member of the humanities faculty at the University of Oulu. That’s okay with me, but at some point someone must have asked, where, exactly, are we going to put this guy? I suspect there was no space available either in English—which is, mind you, still a foreign language here—or history. In some ways it might have been most natural for me to make my nest with the geographers. They comprise about three-quarters of the population of my North American City class, except that geography is not a humanities discipline at Oulun yliopisto. The geographers’ digs are over yonder with the real scientists.

So, I have an office in the anthropology department. More precisely, I am camping out in the Giellagas Institute, which is a multi-disciplinary center for the study of Sámi culture. The Sámi are the people whom—back in the seventh grade, in Meadville, Pennsylvania—we used to call Laplanders. I remember that. Thank you, Mr. Nace. (Speaking of great teachers, the wonders of Wikipedia never cease. Today I learned that Laplander also is “another name for the Volvo L-3314 series.”)

Anyway, I settled in as gently as I could, and I have tried not to rock the Giellagas kayak. The sign on my door says that I occupy a tutkijanhuone, which means “research room,” I think. My name is on the door as well, so I suppose I should be doing research in here, instead of managing my blog. Academic freedom is grand, init?

One day there came a gentle rapping at my door. “Joo,” I said, just as nonchalantly as premeditation will allow. It turned out to be a colleague from down the hall who wanted to know if I would care to borrow a book that he had co-edited and co-written. It's an overview of Sámi culture, written—mainly in English—as part of a celebration linked to the opening of a museum in Inari, a major center of Sámi culture in the far north of Finland. I said sure, why not, thinking that it might help me decide whether to point myself in the direction of the Arctic Circle and Rovaniemi—the Santa Claus city—at the end of the semester, when I will have a few days to kill before heading back to Helsinki for my flight home.

As it happens, my office neighbor is a leading authority on Sámi culture. And the book that he lent me—Jukka Pennanen and Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi, Siiddastallan: From Lapp Communities to Modern Sámi Life (Inari: Inari Sámi Institute, Number 5, 2002)—is chock-a-block with fascinating information about the Sámi. For example, the subject of reindeer herding, interesting in itself, leads in turn to earmarking, which is not just a cultural practice but also—who knew?—a living language.

When I say earmarking, I’m not talking about pork legislatively directed to favored constituents. No, I mean the marking of ears. Each Sámi herder has his or her own brand, as it were, which linguists call a “signature.” Though the “alphabet” of knife cuts would seem to be limited, the signatures form very intricate patterns, which are considered the “words” of the earmarking language.

“The child of a herding family receives his/her personal earmark at birth….” During the pre-school years, the children are given “the tools needed for marking calves: a lasso and a marking knife.” The earmarks assigned to children usually are derived from those of the parents. “Each reindeer owner develops a unique ‘handwriting’ by which one can recognize the reindeer he/she has marked. This distinctive handwriting starts to evolve already in early childhood.”

This is demonstrated in the book with an illustration that can only be called a “family tree” of earmarks. In the standard notation system marks are depicted within an almond-shaped frame, right ear on the right side, left ear on the left. Right and left are not mirror images of one another; that is to say, markings are asymmetrical. “The right ear seems to maintain the marking basis of a family more clearly than the left one.”

Reindeer earmarking is, of course, subject to government regulation. “According to the pertinent statute, “an earmark can cut away up to a third of the ear’s length and a third of its width. Certain cuts, however, cannot be combined on the same ear.” The author of this particular essay, Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi, goes on to say that Sámi herders don’t need the legislation to tell them what combinations of cuts will cause the ear to “fall off, dangle or droop, or be prone to accidental damage.” They know from experience. But I’m sure they think it was nice of the government to codify it for them anyway.

I have been all over the World Wide Web, and I cannot find a digital repository of earmarks to use as a quarry for examples to attach to this post. Trust me. These things are sensational. They are vaguely reminiscent of Egyptian or Maya hieroglyphs. And like the Inca khipu, this living language is written and read manually as well as visually. The other day, I learned from a colleague here that English has a word that means “of or relating to the sense of touch; tactile.” That word is “haptic,” and I am very glad to know it, because in earmarking, “The hand and fingers are surely as important as the eyes and visual perception, both in marking reindeer and in recognizing the mark. The importance of the hand and fingers in recognizing earmarks arises especially in cases where the earmark has not been made clearly enough. The surest way to recognize an unclear earmark is to feel it with one’s fingers.”

Earmarking, like calligraphy, also is considered an art form. “A well-chosen earmark can be recognized from far away and is easy to distinguish from other earmarks, and it also contains features that are purely aesthetic.”

But the overriding considerations are practical. It is important to choose an earmark that cannot easily be “turned into another mark by making additional cuts in the ear.” If an earmark proves to be unsatisfactory, for whatever reason, a herder can apply for a new one, retaining the rights to the old one for eight years, “during which time one is supposed to get rid of the reindeer with the old mark.”

Earmarks can be inherited, purchased, or given away. “An earmark can also be pawned for a loan, though this is a rare occurrence. And finally, earmarks can also change hands through bartering.”

The tradition of earmarking—and Sámi culture generally—is endangered, and if I understand the message of this book, what may prove to be the camel’s nose under the tent is the humble snowmobile. And that is why the documentation of earmarking—the practice, and also the language—forms part of the mission of the Giellagas Institute.

Exactly how far north of Rovaniemi is Inari? I wonder.

Rounding up the usual suspects

I thought y’all might be interested in our Survival Finnish class—a very congenial, if motley, crew.

From left to right: Arindam, (India), Lee (England), Brucia (Belgium), Mark (Australia), Krista (Canada), Milla (our vivacious teacher), Inge (China), Alona (Russia), Stanislav (Ukraine).

Missing in Inaction: Ken (doing his Dr. Evil impression behind the camera, USA), Andy the Goalie (Canada)