Glimpses of people and their stories on the Finnmark Heath, post no. 10; English version.

The city of Alta has always been a place that I have merely passed through on my way to the Finnmark Heath. There is, however, one exception, namely the time when I participated in a conference on the Alta university campus some years ago. Before the seminar started, I had arranged to meet Brita Turi Romsdal for lunch at a café in the large mall in the center of town. It felt a little weird to be sitting talking with Brita in a city instead of at the Joatkajávri Lodge on the Heath or, for that matter, in her home in Tverrelvdalen.

As we sat talking and eating, she told me a little more about growing up in Máze. Brita’s father was a farmer. The photograph below shows her father as soldier around 1912, when he was 28 years old (reproduced by permission of Brita Turi Romsdal):

Britas far 28 år, i militæret

But the Turi family’s presence in Máze started before – with Brita’s grandfather, originally a nomadic reindeer herder, who married a woman from the village. They lived for a while with his wife’s parents, but then he acquired land and set himself up as farmer on a site in Máze called Hirsaluohkká, and built a log house there at the turn of the century. In the winter he also went to the coast to participate in deep-sea fishing in order to earn some extra money and bring back salted fish to his own household. This activity also made him proficient in Norwegian. In addition he traded in goods and ran the village’s postal services, and in 1915–25 he also travelled around as an itinerant preacher for the Norwegian Sami Mission (at that time named Norsk Finnemisjon).

Brita’s grandfather and his descendants thus ended up being engaged in farming, trade, postal services, and the religious life in the village. Brita’s father, Dure Niillasa Dure/Ture Nilsen Turi, took over the farm. He had other duties in Máze as well; he also served as sexton, grave digger and lay preacher. Like many others in the village, Brita’s family belonged to the Christian denomination called Læstadianism, but in their case of a relatively liberal variety.) Religion had long played an important role in the community of Máze. The first church building was, as mentioned before, built on Thomas von Westen’s initiative in 1721, but the building deteriorated after the national border agreement of 1751 between Norway and Sweden, and was torn down towards the end of the 1700s. When the population of Máze increased markedly in the 1900s, a new chapel was erected in 1930. In the picture below Brita’s father and mother are walking at the head of a small train of fellow villagers on their way to church:

Britas far &mor til kirke

One of Brita’s uncles on her father’s side, Dure Niillasa Johan/Johan Nilsen Turi, worked among other things as a postman in Máze. In the picture collection of the Tromsø Museum I found an old photograph that had to be of him. The photo is undated, but I would guess that it was taken in the early 1920s or thereabouts. Johan is photographed sitting on the wagon, while the man standing beside him is Johannes J. Gaup, also engaged in mail delivery, and married to Johan’s aunt, Dure Risten/Kirsten Turesdatter Turi. The picture is taken at Luvddet (Luvddiidčohkka)/Lodiken, situated nearly halfway between Máze and Alta (reproduced by permission of Tromsø Museum):


I have included this picture of mailmen, horse, and wagon also because it reveals a lot about the slow and laborious nature of transportation and communication in the period that Brita talked about, i.e. the time between 1920 and 1960, even if transport became considerably easier after the completion of the road to Máze in the 1930s. (Brita is herself born in 1936.) The cabin in the background in this picture from the 1920 belonged to the postal services and was in fact later bought by Brita’s eldest brother who transported it to Hirsaluohkká.

It is this eldest brother, Dure Nils Máhtte/Nils Mathis Turesen Turi that Brita mostly talked about. He ran the grocery store in Máze, was 23 years older than her, and served perhaps as an extra father figure. He and his wife had no children, but they eventually took in Brita’s son, Tore Fredrik Turi. In Brita’s portrayal, her eldest brother Nils Mathis (born in 1912) emerges as an exceptionally enterprising man. As a young boy Nils Mathis spent a year attending school in Alta because his father had told him that he should go there in order to learn Norwegian: And then you must go live with a Norwegian family, and not with a Sami one, his father had said to him, for otherwise you will end up talking only Sami. Nils followed his father’s admonition. He was clever in school, and returned from Alta as one of the few people in Máze at this time that was proficient in Norwegian.

It was then, at his return from Alta, that Nils Mathis started with his grocery store in Máze. He was then seventeen–eighteen years old (around 1930). His store became the social gathering place in the village. Here were both post office and telephone – and here was also a separate cabin that served as mountain lodge.

Due to his proficiency in Norwegian Nils Mathis also began to serve as interpreter for the parson – a task he had all the way up to his ripe old age. (Additionally Sámmol Rystiinne/Kristine Kemi Hætta also served as church interpreter.) The duty as interpreter was an important task. Since the parson did not understand Sami, it was the interpreter that served as mouthpiece for the congregation when they presented their wishes, joys and sorrows for the parson. And since the congregation did not understand Norwegian, it was once again the interpreter that became the mouthpiece, this time for the parson, when it came to translating the parson’s sermon and messages to his parishioners. This gave Nils Mathis considerable authority: Since neither party understood the other, they had no choice but to trust him.

31c.Masi kirke

Máze Church today

Brita and I played with the thought of Nils Mathis using his translatory wiggle room in order to for instance soften the formulations in a stern sermon by the parson, or to put in a good word for some member of the congregation. Many exchanges between people hinge not merely on what they say, but on how they say it.

Nils Mathis served as translator from the age of seventeen to seventy. Then he pleaded to be relieved of his duty (he died at 74, in 1987). I asked Brita if the Norwegian parsons had not become more proficient in Sami at this later stage, and then Brita could not help responding with a wry smile: “Well, yes … they tend to know a smattering of Sami.”

I think it is Nelson Mandela who has said that if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

In Finnmark after the war there were unfortunately all too many Norwegians in public office who did neither.

2017 Tekst © Fredrik Chr. Brøgger