The White Stone
Written by Kirste Paltto
Illustrated by Ulrika Tapio Blind
Translated by Rauna Kuokkanen and Philip Burgess
Davvi Girji, 2011, 101 pp.
I have always been happy when I have heard Sámi children speaking the Sámi language. When I listen, it’s as if little bells are tinkling in my ears. (Paltto, 2011, p.77)
This work of speculative fiction is written for young readers with soothing illustrations by Ulrika Tapio Blind. It has been translated into English from North Sámi by Paltto’s daughter and son-in-law, Rauna Kuokkanen and Philip Burgess. This text could be considered by Western readers to be folklore, legend, or fairy tale. The literature of the Sámi people is often interwoven with their oral traditions and ties to nature; this text is an excellent representation of how stories are told in the Sámi tradition. The White Stone tells the story of Elle, a young girl, and the things that she learns about being a Sámi person while on a journey to meet the Mountain Spirit. Elle meets Sáija, a Gufihtar (underworld) girl from under Ptarmigan Mountain, and together they help herd reindeer and play with other children on Elle’s spirit journey.
The White Stone is focused on teaching cultural values and traditions related to kinship ties and ways of being. Kirste Paltto says that Sámi “are often guided by practicality and tied to the land and its ability to sustain people and other living beings” (Kuokkanen, 2004, p. 93). Nature and the spirit of nature fills this text and informs the characters with the message that being able to communicate in Sámi is how their identity will be maintained. At one point, Golleniedia, the wise mother of Sáija, cautions Elle about losing her mother tongue, “They will try to trick us into forgetting our language, our ways of thinking and our way of life. But I hope you’ll never do that, even if someone tried” (p. 87).
The white stone, itself, is a magical object that has been given to Elle by a wagtail as a thank you for Elle preventing her cat from eating a bird. The wagtail tells her “when you are in trouble, listen to the Stone…Keep it next to your heart and it will warm you when you need it” (p. 27). At various times throughout the text the white stone sings to Elle reminding her to be strong, wise, and helpful to her people.
Characters cross the border between what is reality and what is the magical realm of the Gufihtar. For the Sámi the Gufihtar realm is nearly a mirror of the Sámi world, but the Gufihtar are wealthier that most Sámi and they have large reindeer herds that they tend. The theme of crossing borders is very much a part of Sámi existence outside of literature because their ancestral lands are in a place where current nation states also exist. The Sámi are an Indigenous people who live in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They speak nine different languages which, are not all mutually intelligible. For the Indigenous Sámi, the rights to their lands, languages, and cultures are all in need of protection, which is provided to them in varying degrees by the nation states that occupy their ancestral lands (United Nations, 2018).
This text deals with issues of colonization from the perspective of those whose lands have been invaded, and who wish for the people to remember their old ways and traditions. One evening, in front of the fireplace, Golleniedia explains to Elle and the other children:
One winter, strange people came to where the Sámi were living. They carried weapons and they stole from them. They even killed some of them. They stole the Sámi’s land, put up fences, and built houses. These were hard times for the Sámi…The Mountain Spirit has seen that today the same type of people are still taking the land, that they still carry guns, and build fences. He has seen how the Sámi are becoming separated from each other. He has asked us to go to the Sámi and tell them who they are. (pp. 49-50)
“Paltto’s books are deeply rooted in Sámi traditions. They are based on description of a whole community” (Kuokkanen, 2001, p. 83). This is an intergenerational text that includes elders, grandparents, wise spirits, aunts, brothers, and other kinship ties. In writing this text, Paltto has pulled from her own experiences of hearing stories and tells this story as if readers are in front of a fire on a crisp fall night. “Sámi writers have also a central role as they are the ones who constantly weave the past, present and future into a fabric that gives us the meanings we need to stay grounded in who we are” (Kuokkanen, 2004, p. 92). The feeling that the reader is being spoken to by a storyteller fills this text and allows the reader to believe that there is a magical world that not only reflects us, but reflects a holistic version of who we could be as humans.
The most successful aspect of this text is the way in which the characters’ relationships create bonds in both the real and the Gufihtar world. Paltto creates bonds that are playful and safe, but also filled with expectations of good behavior and kindness. These relationships are almost instructional, demonstrating the importance of relating to one another’s values and acting as a model for how people should be human to one another and strive to work together. At one point, Sáija tells Elle, “here you are not allowed to leave anybody out” after Elle asks if the little children always get to play (p. 47). At another point she tells Elle, “our reindeer are not marked. The herd is our common herd. Nobody has their own reindeer, except for the draught bulls. We look after the herd together. And we use it together too” (p. 62).
The illustrations throughout the text by Ulrika Tapio Blind deepen the reader’s understanding of the text and evoke emotions that bring forward the ideas of kinship, harmony, grace, and kindness. Often Blind uses yellows, reds, blues, and white space to create images that depict the characters in nature, or with structures and items that are undeniably Sámi.
Other books that may interest readers are: Bless Me Ultima (1995) by Rudolfo Anaya, and In Between Worlds (2016) by Máret Ánne Sara (a Sámi text in English translation). These texts connect the world of adolescence to magical knowledge that is sacred wisdom in a place of colonization and change while the primary characters develop a deep understanding and reverence for their culture through the journeys they take.
Paltto is a well-known Sámi author who writes for children and adults. She has numerous publications in Sámi, which have been translated into Finnish, German, Norwegian, and English. Her topics deal with everyday life and what it means to be an Indigenous person in a colonized place. She has won numerous awards, including the Sámi Parliament’s Culture Prize (1997), the Nordic Literature Prize (2001), and the Sámi Councils Literature Prize in (2002). It is important to note that Sámi Literature is very young in its lifetime of publications; the language itself did not have a uniform way of being written until 1978 (Internet Archive, 2008).
Amber Gordon, University of New Mexico – Taos, Taos, New Mexico
Internet Archive Way Back Machine. (2008). Kirsti Paltto. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20080224021742/http://www.rovaniemi.fi/lapinkirjailijat/epaltto.htm
Kuokkanen, R. (2001). Let’s vote who is most authentic! Politics of identity in contemporary Sámi Literature. In A. G. Ruffo & G Young-Ing (Eds), (Ad)dressing Our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literatures. Penticton, British Columbia: Theytus.
Kuokkanen, R. (2004). Border crossings, pathfinders and new visions: The role of Sámi literature in contemporary society. Nordlit: Special issue on Northern Minorities (15).
Paltto, K. (2011). The White Stone. Davvi Girji
United Nations Regional Information Center of Western Europe. (2018). The Sámi of northern Europe – one people, four countries. Retrieved from https://www.unric.org/en/indigenous-people/27307-the-Sámi-of-northern-europe–one-people-four-countries