Creativity, improvisation and innovation in cultural expressions

In this paper, professor Gunvor Guttorm, elaborates on questions of creativity, innovation, improvisation, repetition and traditional knowledge in the context of duodji

This paper has previously been published in the Sámi dieđalaš áigečála 1/2011.

Let me begin by mentioning three things that come to mind when writing this article. These are experiences from my duodji life that form part of me.

I am sitting with the duojár (a duodji artisan) Elle. Elle is sewing and I am assisting her. We are to sew gálssohat – reindeer fur leggings. The leggings are for a male relative who is to be confirmed. We have taken his measurements so as to know how wide the leggings should be below the knee, at the knee and around the thigh. We look at the gápmasat – the materials taken from reindeer legs – and the leather, in order to determine which of them match. We compare and match the pieces in terms of the thickness of the fur, their length, and which we should use for the čibbebealbihttán,[i] which for the gáttobeallin,[ii] which for the luddestanbihttán,[iii] and which for the čulggomiin.[iv] Elle points out that the thickness of the fur differs from one piece to the next, but she suggests that she could use the pieces with thinner fur for the knee area and the pieces with thicker fur for the side inserts, which she will then trim. Another part of the fur leggings are the stigát (shorts), so we consider whether or not to use a trouser pattern. However, we still have to remember to leave some room for the back pieces. We keep adjusting as we sew. Elle studies each piece of fur carefully to determine where to cut it to avoid bristles at the seam or to discover any differences in the thickness of the fur. Sometimes we take a coffee break when we need to think things through. As we proceed, we have to adjust and test things, and then determine how to proceed once those adjustments have been made, in order to obtain the best possible outcome. The object we are working on is not an innovative creation. But as we sew, we make new adjustments to the shape, the sewing and the cut. We are producing ‘traditional’ duodji (handcrafts), and leggings of this kind have been produced over the years by many handcrafters. Our parents, grandparents and great grandparents made similar fur leggings.

I am having an exhibition at an official gallery. At the exhibition my duodji products are on display and I have made a list of contents to differentiate the products. The public is looking at my handicrafts. One woman is looking at a sculpture that I have called Jumežat – the twins (see photo). She admits that she is drawn to it, and that it moves her. She asks whether I had any particular symbolism in mind and what my thoughts behind it are. I share my thoughts on the work, explaining where I gathered the materials and why I chose to collect them from that particular area. In addition, I tell her what I was thinking while I was producing it.

Some twenty years ago I was part of a jury for an artist organization. One of our tasks was to select members based on their applications. One person had applied and submitted their work. All the works were eye-catching and nice. When the time came to decide whether the person should be granted membership, we requested the assistance of a senior member in our organisation, and that member’s verdict was that the work was neither original nor innovative, and that it was a collective handcraft effort without ‘sufficient individual innovation’. Consequently, we declined that membership application. I have reflected on that decision numerous times, thinking that, if we had considered the work from a duodji perspective, then the decision would have been different, since, as a duojár, the applicant had impressive and innovative pieces of works. But on this occasion, in the context of that art organisation, we judged the work according to the criteria of a field which did not recognise these personal qualities.

[i] The main part at the front of the fur legging.
[ii] The main part at the back.
[iii] The inserts on either side of the knee at the front.
[iv] The insert at the back of the knee.

«Economic gain is a result not only of selling a product, but also of the status it holds in certain communities and domains. In this article I will investigate the aspects of creativity that are not covered by this global viewpoint and which do not correspond to the concept of innovation. Instead, I will consider the creativity that exists and is characterised by values that differ from those we associate with innovation and global commerce. »

Creativity and duodji
In this article, I offer my point of view on the interpretation and study of creativity in relation to duodji. The main perspectives are the creative process, the assessment of the finished product, and the contexts in which it is legitimate to identify creativity. I shall explore the concept of creativity in relation to cultural expression and in particular to duodji, the field of Sami design. In the current global arena, creativity is often applied as a ‘tool’ to generate new information and products, and also to fuel economic growth (Hallam – Ingold 2007: 2). In this regard, creativity is seen as closely related to innovation (see Bharucha 2010: 21–35; Svašek 2010: 62–75). But what about activities that do not aim at economic gain? Economic gain is a result not only of selling a product, but also of the status it holds in certain communities and domains. In this article I will investigate the aspects of creativity that are not covered by this global viewpoint and which do not correspond to the concept of innovation. Instead, I will consider the creativity that exists and is characterised by values that differ from those we associate with innovation and global commerce.

Creativity, environment and the immediate society
The three duodji situations I describe above illustrate how we portray creative activities, and also how we assess them. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that creativity originates not just inside people’s heads, but rather in both their heads and socio-cultural situations (Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 23). The advantage of this approach is that it allows us to view creativity in a variety of ways, depending on the domain in question (ibid., see also Guttorm 2010). According to Csikszentmihalyi, the individual, the environment and its ‘scholars’ (experts, institutions) all influence how new creations emerge and how they are rejected. In his opinion, a specific domain evolves as a consequence not of individual creativity, but rather of the time and environment in which the individual lives (Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 23–32; Csikszentmihalyi 1999: 313–333). Csikszentmihalyi posits that there are three main areas associated with the promotion of creativity: domain, field, and individual, which are prerequisites to creative solutions. Applying this knowledge in a duodji context, the domain would be duodji, the field would be a duodji circle, school, research institution, organisation, gallery, community of collectors etc., and the individual would be the duojár

Csikszentmihalyi’s model displays how the individual, domain, and institution interact when creativity is to be achieved. If creativity is to be achieved, then certain rules and methods have to be transferred from the domain to the individual. The individual will then create novelty on the basis of these. The institution influences whether that individual’s work is seen as an innovation within the domain (Csikszentmihalyi 1999: 315).

I have applied Csikszentmihalyi’s model to illustrate how three duojárs created works that can be regarded as innovations and how, in my opinion, each understands what constitutes new duodji (Guttorm 2010: 139–163). I have shown how the environment (or domain, to use Csikszentmihalyi’s terminology), both the immediate community and society more broadly, influence creativity. Csikszentmihalyi stresses the individual’s creativity and how it creates innovation. If you consider the duodji community as a totality, as the domain, then it is this that assesses and rejects the individual’s products. 

In the first of the three situations described above, I present a duodji process from everyday Sami life. When creativity is considered in this context, its purpose is linked to the values of the social group. In the second example we experience how my duodji is assessed as the achievement of an individual. I have relocated the duodji to an exhibition venue, a gallery where the public is accustomed to see and assess objects in terms of artistic criteria and to identify the novelty of the objects. My third example illustrates what happens when a duodji product that is assessed as high value in one environment, such as that of my first example, is transferred to into an environment that uses different assessment criteria, in this case, the art domain. In my profession I have often lectured about creativity and observed how little research – and particularly Sami research – has been done on the subject of Sami duodji as a form of ‘creativity’ (Guttorm 2001; Guttorm 2010) (see also Svensson 1999; Persen – Geving 1999; Eilertsen et al. 2002; Høydalsnes 2003; Somby 2003; Dunfjeld 2006; Bergmann 2009; Lundström 2010). Creativity is a term that is used on a daily basis and in all domains, and is therefore linked not only to artistic activities (Guttorm 2010; Boden 2008). In this article I will focus on the domain of duodji, as I believe it is necessary to build a perspective based on duodji.

We often think of creativity as linked to particular individuals with a particular and innate capacity for creativity, and that their work emerges from an ‘abundance’ of new ideas. However, a lot of recent research has focused on other aspects of human interaction that affect creativity (see e.g. Guttorm 2010; Kaufmann 2008; Svašek 2010: 63). One question that has been asked is whether it is possible to talk about creativity in general and universally applicable terms. Kaufmann warns against understanding creativity as something that is universally the same, since much of the research on the subject has been done in a Western context (Kaufmann 2008: 149).

An individual gift or the influence and support of the environment
The concept and phenomenon of creativity is complex and multi-layered. My intention, however, is not to explain creativity, but rather to examine some aspects of it that throw light on the duodji process. Kaufmann suggests the importance of questioning whether creativity is a concept in all cultures, and whether it can be viewed as a universal idea (Kaufmann 2008: 149–155). 

The individual has always been at the centre when addressing creativity. Lately, however, research on, and the understanding of, creativity have focused on the idea that creative processes are significantly influenced by human interaction. Research on creativity has started to emphasise the sociological as well as the collective impact (see Hallam – Ingold 2007: 1–19; Isar – Anheier 2010: 3). My argument pivots on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s account of how the environment impacts a creative solution and creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1990: 284). I extrapolate this to duodji knowledge and discuss whether working traditionally amounts to artless repetition without creativity. Kaufmann and others consider creativity from the angle of psychology, arguing that research on the subject has centred on personal talent at an individual level (Kaufmann 2008: 9). In his view, there is a need to research aspects of the subject that have to do with the broader culture and connections (ibid.). Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who has been researching creativity for the past twenty to thirty years. He has developed a model that explains how the environment affects an individual’s creativity. In discussing creativity in connection with duodji, based on his model, I set creativity in a specific context. 

Instances of cultural expression include both activities with a collective starting point and objects that do not necessarily aim to create either new designs or information, but which rather adapt an activity to new circumstances, thereby giving rise to new design or new information in the process. When this occurs, can the result be viewed as the outcome of creativity? If our basic idea of creativity is that it involves innovation by an individual, then production by means of conventional techniques does not constitute creativity (see Kaufmann 2008: 137). Cultural expressions that adhere to conventions do not exhibit creativity, in Kaufmann’s view (Kaufmann 2008: 149). He is, however, cautious about this point, contending that the concept of creativity relates to areas such as the environment and society. One may ask whether these are contrasting positions. Ingold and Hallam and Svašek observe that it is pointless to focus on results and to make them the sole basis of assessment. Instead, they place the emphasis on the process and the improvisation that it involves. They stress that it is unreasonable to divide creativity into ‘traditional’ handcrafts on the one hand, and scientific products and innovative artworks on the other (see Hallam – Ingold 2007: 1–25; Svašek 2010: 62–65). My example of the handcrafter who applied for membership in an artists’ organisation and was rejected because the work was seen as ‘too traditional’ illustrates the different approaches that are traditionally used in assessing various domains. Whenever I participate in an exhibition at a gallery, as I did with the Jumežat (‘the Twins’) piece, then I am equally aware that the audience will see my result and assess what they see. However, for me, participation in the exhibition is only one part of my experience with the piece. For me, it also holds the memory of skiing over ice-capped snow while out searching for burls on trees. Progress is difficult because of the skiing conditions, and so I climb from the valley up to the mountain, where I have a better view. There I survey the mountains, the lakes, the signs of activity and the snowmobile tracks. I can see the lake where we frequently go fishing and the human-shaped mountain. I reflect that the mountain probably gets its name from its shape. I ski downhill to the valley and continue my search for burls. I find some of good quality and visualise what I could create from them. Then, on a flame birch, I discover two burls next to each another, and I chop the tree so that they are preserved on a single log. Back home a few years later, I find these burls and study the log to see what I could make from it. I perceive the burls as twins. I slowly start to shape them, gradually hollowing and polishing and adding my understanding to the work. I shape the Jumežiid – the twins. This duodji piece has both a ‘front’ and a ‘back’. On the front I have portrayed mountains, the mountains and the lakes I so often gaze at when out skiing. On the back I have portrayed the beginning of life, and there I have put round shaped pebbles. 

My approach when producing work involves a complex process of frequent adjustments. This is the process Hallam and Ingold and Svašek emphasise.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that creativity cannot be an individual faculty that could be measured without taking into consideration the society and culture in which it exists. Csikszentmihalyi argues that a creative person is both ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’. Cultural systems contain structured information from which people learn and which gets passed on through teaching. These structures include phenomena such as songs, advice, cooking, fire-making, etc.

Innovation is a term that is increasingly employed in connection with creativity. In this context it is used to imply some novelty. In disciplines such as art and design, the term innovative is used whenever new and interesting products are portrayed or introduced into the domain. But what about duodji, which originates from certain areas and from specific cultural traditions? 

I have chosen to employ the term innovation rather than renewal, discovery or anything similar, because it has connotations of ‘bread on the table’, in other words, it suggests the idea of economic gain. I prefer the term creativity whenever the context relates to an individual’s activities as well as their societal aspects. I will use duodji as a starting point whenever I reflect on these aspects.

Transformation and renewal have been the founding ideas of modern society. Art, culture and design have been crucial as fields of influence and as a precondition for the renewal that we associate with modernity (see Svašek 2010: 63). However, over the past thirty to forty years, innovation has gained ground in the renewal discourse, even though the term was already used during the Enlightenment (see Meyer 2007: 5–8). Innovation Norway is a state-owned company that was formed in 2004 to promote innovation in organisations such as Statens nærings og utviklingsfond (State Industrial and Development Fund), Norges eksportråd (Norway Trade Council), Government Consultative Office for Inventors, and the Norwegian Tourist Board (Innovation Norway 2010). In this context, innovation is linked to the promotion of business, international trade, and tourism. Globalisation has many aspects, one of which is international economic and marketing activity. It is from this context that the term ‘creative economy’ has emerged, according to Bharucha (Bharucha 2010: 22–33). One implication of this focus is that creative activities based on traditional forms of expression tend to become invisible and are not perceived as creative activity.

Siri Meyer believes that in Norway innovation has almost reached the level of spiritual significance and that this way of thinking originated in the art domain. She describes how, during the Romantic period, artists were portrayed as people who searched for the new and the original, while simultaneously fighting against convention and tradition (Meyer 2007: 13). The upshot, she says, was an aesthetics that attributed to art qualities of the sacred and the divine (ibid.). Svašek highlights three concepts of how creativity is connected to the individual and innovation: during the medieval period, the artist was seen as a genius with particular qualities; the 19th century was dominated by the Kantian view of aesthetics, which saw genuine art as transcendental; and during the 20th century, the prevailing view was that art is detached from life (Svašek 2010: 64). Although the concept of art as particular and sacred has changed, the idea persists that innovation involves the creation of hitherto unseen novelty, and that art is only interesting when this condition is met.

One can question whether innovation and talent can only be ascribed to certain people. It is a view that promotes elitist thinking, because if it were the case, it would presuppose the existence of others with the ability to assess and validate whether someone is being innovative. The expectation that people have to be innovative has meanwhile spread to other social fields, Meyer (Meyer 2007: 28) and others have argued. This becomes clear when one considers the range of activities covered by Innovation Norway, which makes its assessments using criteria such as time, quality, quantity and profitability. According to Innovation Norway, innovative solutions have to be profitable, and they should be competitive with other products in the global market.

Innovation takes centre stage when discussing creativity. When applied to a product, the term innovation now implies significance that extends beyond the local region. One could say that since it is modernity that owns the concept of development, it is also modernity that defines the criteria according to which things are assessed as developed or not (Meyer 2007). Tradition is seen as standing in opposition to modernity. According to the established understanding of the aesthetics of modernity, only the individual can be innovative. This view has spread in the Western world such that products from cultures that do not focus on the contribution of the individual to their development tend to be assessed as lower in value (Svašek 2010: 63–65). Bharucha has, in my opinion, an interesting approach to the innovation and creativity discourse. Exploring the concept of a value, he argues that rather than focus only on the economic outcome from creative thinking, values should be viewed as alternative benefits enjoyed by particular groups. The aspect of sharing does not necessarily imply economic benefit, but is associated instead with other qualities such as exchange, generosity and respect (Bharucha 2010: 22). These often occur in the context of traditional activity, everyday life and in opposition to innovative creativity (ibid.). Here it is worth considering the first of the situations described at the outset, that of my collaboration with Elle in sewing gálssohiid – the reindeer fur leggings for a young male relative. Consider another example: in 2011, reporter Máret Sofe Holmestrand did an interview on NRK Sápmi radio with two women, Karen Inger Anne Proksi and June Brita Eira, from Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino (NRK Sápmi 2011). During the interview, Holmestrand observes that the two handcrafters have been creative in transforming their traditional gákti (confirmation gowns) from the 1980s into new garments like a bolero jacket, a skirt and clutch bags. The confirmation gáktis given to them by their parents had been hanging in the closet for over 25 years. Now they wanted to put them to use by redesigning and renewing them. Both say they highly respect their gáktis. They both have good feelings about them and now as adults they understand how to appreciate these high value gifts from their parents. When asked if those items could have been produced commercially, they hesitate (ibid.). As far as I can tell, they have a deep emotional connection to the duddjon – the handcrafting. They can make something new for themselves, while simultaneously expressing their gratitude to their parents. Bharucha identifies three factors that allow us to dissociate creativity from economic pressure: temporal activity, humbleness with regard to the work, and ecological thinking (Bharucha 2010: 26–29). I find the humbleness particularly interesting, since he views this as a value associated with both the present life of the individual and the past (ibid.). The values that these two handcrafters mention are the economic value of the product and that of respect. They are respectful to the traditional gákti garments received from their parents, and as a sign of that respect, they repurpose them as things they can actually use. 

According to Csikszentmihalyi, novelty has to be defined according to rules specific to the relevant culture in order to determine what is being renewed (Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 71). Handcrafting can be used as an example of the possibility to bypass and yet still remain within the tradition. Redesigning the gákti into something for use at Easter in Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino can be interpreted in two ways: either the individual decides to change or the situation challenges the indivual to change. Csikszentmihalyi posits that creativity has to be linked to terms of value and realisation (Csikszentmihalyi 1990: 284) . The values depend on shared understandings within a certain environment, culture and society. When this form of knowledge changes to the extent that it becomes extraordinary, such that people adopt it, assimilate it into their ‘knowledge base’ (body and mind), and ultimately pass it on to their descendants, then this is creativity, according to Csikszentmihalyi. Approval or rejection of an action is the outcome of people’s interests and cares. If a particular idea, artefact or invention does not interest people, then it is not considered creative and hence not preserved for future generations (Csikszentmihalyi 1990: 287).

I want to reflect on how improvisation has emerged as an alternative perspective when evaluating creativity. For instance, Tim Ingold, Elisabeth Hallam and Maruška Svašek find improvisation to be an essential part of creativity (Hallam – Ingold 2007: 2–21; Svašek 2010: 62–78). According to Hallam and Ingold, one aspect of improvisation is that people make decisions while performing an activity. In social life there are no strict rules, and even if there were, the individual would still have to find new ways to interpret them and then adjust their behaviour accordingly (Hallam – Ingold 2007: 2–21). Bharucha’s view on creativity considers improvisation essential with regard to temporal invention (Bharucha 2010: 26–27). If we consider my initial example, where I and Elle were making the fur leggings, this involved numerous improvisations and adjustments to the situation. We are both aware of the desired outcome, namely a pair of fur leggings, yet we cannot visualise the whole work process from start to finish.

Hallam and Ingold have an interesting view on creativity. They contrast the idea that creativity implies an opposition between renewing and maintaining with the idea that maintaining is linked to conventions or regulations whereas innovation is supposed to breach conventions. They argue that, when we reflect on creativity under the assumption that maintaining also involves creativity, then improvisation is at the core. Improvisation has to do with the work process, whereas innovation measures creativity with finished results (Hallam – Ingold 2007: 3).

The difference between improvisation and innovation, then, is not that one works within established convention whereas the other does not, but rather the former characterizes creativity by way of its processes, and the latter by way of its products. To read creativity as innovation is, if you wish, to read it backwards, in terms of its results, instead of forwards, in terms of the activities that gave rise to them. (Hallam – Ingold 2007: 2)

According to their explanation, improvisation emphasises the approach by which people achieve their results. They point to four aspects of improvisation:

1) Generative: the person does not design alone; many other people are also involved in the activity.
2) Relational: activities are connected to the responses that the individual receives from others.
3) Temporal: activities are time-based/seasonal and hence temporal.
4) Working methods.

These aspects allow us to form a picture of the whole process of how we work together with others, with regard to the environment and time (Hallam – Ingold 2007: 4).

Returning to the duodji of June Brita Eira and Karen Inger Anne Proksi, the interview shows that they are in communication with their community as they talk with their parents. They dress in their new creations in situations where many others also wear their gáktis, thus exposing themselves to criticism, compliments etc.

In my understanding, Hallam and Ingold view creativity as a process that also has an impact on the individual’s emotions, mentality and performance. Daily activities and social interactions play a part in design work. In this context they explore and argue why repetition requires creativity (ibid.).

Copying or imitation, we argue, is not the simple mechanical process of replication that it is often taken to be, of running off duplicates from a template, but entails a complex and continuous alignment of observation of the model with action in the world. In this alignment lies the work of improvisation. (Hallam – Ingold 2007: 5)

Their view that traditional art forms involve improvisation makes it difficult or impossible to discuss traditions as pure repetition. Because traditions are passed down from generation to generation, it is easy to assume that they do not change and accordingly that people are not allowed to use their creativity (ibid.). I agree with Hallam and Ingold that traditions involve an emphasis on improvisation, transformation, change and renewal, requiring people to be creative. When Elle and I were crafting the fur leggings, we needed to make adjustments and do research while working. The fact that we were sharing the sewing process meant that we talked about the boy for whom them were intended, and had him in mind all the time. Each of us had different connections to the boy, his parents, and their social environment. In a doctoral thesis about social connections in the South Sami area, Maja Dunfjeld describes how people arrive at common understandings with regard to certain designs and ornaments (Dunfjeld 2006: 195–197). Dunfjeld’s research underlines that communications among people working with duodji are characterised by an openness to changing possibilities and an interest in maintaining design and pattern (ibid.). As I understand her, she describes how creativity is present in the duddjon proces.

With regard to the question whether tradition is nothing more than repetition, my answer would be that, although it involves a certain degree of repetition, it also entails development, and this implies renewal. I believe that Ingold and Hallam’s position on improvisation can be applied to the duodji situation. The nature of improvisation is to find solutions while working.

Those who assess a certain product are the stakeholders of the domain, to use Csikszentmihalyi’s terminology. Every change in a society requires people to adapt to a new situation. Those who create duodji today are creating objects that are similar to duodji crafts of the past, yet they do so in new situations and under different preconditions, as the above examples have shown. Among other indigenous peoples it has been observed that new connections and the availability of new materials create changes in life, making it necessary to find new methods and approaches to traditional crafts, and this presupposes thinking in new ways and adapting old working methods to new situations (see e.g. Berlo – Phillips 1998: 28–32). Adjustment and improvisation are therefore at the core of such crafts.

With this perspective on traditional duodji, is it possible to address creativity? Although duodji is traditional, it changes in ways that reflect the changes in people, their life situations, needs and connections. This shows that even traditional duodji methods allow for creative solutions.

Even when crafting a ‘traditional’ duodji, the person can improve her/his way of working and implement new ideas, and even if it does not have a global impact, it is still innovative.

English translation: Peter Cripps for The Wordwrights ANS.


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NRK Sápmi 2011: ‘Buorre iđit Sápmi’ Monday April 18th 2011 – 07:35