Celebrating Sámi arts

Scandinavia House’s recent performing and visual arts festival showcased Sámi culture

Photo: kennethhaetta.com Sara Margrethe Oskal, renowned Sámi actress and filmmaker.

Photo: kennethhaetta.com
Sara Margrethe Oskal, renowned Sámi actress and filmmaker.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

The American-Scandinavian Foundation in cooperation with Sámi Teáhter Searvi presented “A Celebration of Sámi Culture & Arts” at Scandinavia House in New York City on May 11 and 12. The rich program showcased Sámi culture with lectures, films, poetry, monologues, storytelling, dance, and chanting. Traditional and very colorful Sámi costumes were worn for most of the performances.

Mary Sarre presented a lecture about yoik, the traditional Sámi chanting. It was followed by Elle Sofe Henriksen’s short film, “The Yoiking Hand,” in which three yoikers demonstrated the movements of their hands and explained why they moved them in a certain way.

Henriksen offered two additional short films. “The Wind Whispers There is Someone Behind the Tundra” shows dancers traveling through time and space who find objects that connect them to their Sámi ancestors. “Sámi Bojá” is about a reindeer herder who is responsible for his family’s herd. Although he may have a tough shell, he has chaos inside him.

Sara Margrethe Oskal introduced her film, “Aurora Keeps An Eye on You,” a brutal but at the same time beautiful story from contemporary Sámi society that mixes drama and Arctic magic. In it a frustrated mother offends her daughter, who takes revenge on her little brother in a way that provokes the Northern Lights.

Oskal also staged Cradle of My Heart, a poetry performance with traditional yoiks and photos in which she describes how fragile people are and how difficult it is for them to be fully themselves. She also acted out “The Madie,” the story of a girl whose parents want to find her a husband, but she refuses to follow the proper courtship rules.

Several other storytellers gave entertaining performances. Harriet Nordlund, accompanied by guitarist Erik Steen, narrated the Sámi Creation myth in “The Daughter of the Sun.” Inga Marja Sarre enacted “Gufihtariat,” a story about the mythical people who live under our feet and cannot be seen by us. Sarakka Gaup told about her father who was removed from his family after WWII and forced to forget his Sámi origins.

A fitting conclusion to the program was Anitta Suikkari’s rendering of the poem, “Hey Hey Mister President.” It was a protest speech, reminding its listeners of the rights of the indigenous peoples and of the exploitation of their land.

Although this celebration was a special event for everyone in attendance, it was particularly rewarding for those who knew little about the Sámi people. New Yorker Nancy Langer was glad that she attended and she reflected on her introduction to Sámi culture: “This program about the Sámi and their interpretation of life in the northern reaches of Scandinavia was very interesting to me and opened my eyes to a culture I knew nothing about.”

Langer went on to point out similarities between the Sámi culture and other cultures she had experienced. “When I heard the singing of a Sámi song, it sounded eerily similar to the chants of Native Americans and of Peruvian Quechua.”

She mentioned other memories evoked by this celebration. She experienced the frozen tundra and the Aurora Borealis in Canada a few months ago. She also recently viewed several large images depicting life among the reindeer people in Siberia in an exhibit of photographs by Sebastião Salgado, the renowned Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist.

Events such as this one are important to acquaint people with cultures new to them and to forge links between the different cultures of the world.

The following articles about Sámi culture have appeared in The Norwegian American Weekly: “Sami Actress on Tour” (October 24, 2014) and “Hacking Objects of Desire: The Work of Three Sami Artists” (October 31, 2014).

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.