I’m Alive, says ISÁK

Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen uses music to fight for her Sámi language and culture

Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen

Photo: Alier Ajak
Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen is bringing Sámi language and culture into the mainstream with her trio ISÁK’s debut album. Its title, Ealán, means “I’m alive.”

Tove Andersson

Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, 21, is a Sámi artist from Tana in Finnmark who has captured the hearts of Norwegians with the joik Máze. She has developed her own sound by combining joik and Sámi lyrics with modern pop and electronica. As a young Sámi she follows in the footsteps of famous world music artist Mari Boine.

At 6, Isaksen performed on stage in her native language; at 16, she was the leader of Nature and Youth, the largest environmentalist youth organization in Norway. And last year she won Stjernekamp, a popular song contest on TV in Norway. It was only natural that her band, ISÁK, performed one of Mari Boine’s songs, Elle, when Boine was awarded the jury’s honorary award during the 2017 Norwegian Grammy equivalent, Spellemann.

ISÁK’s debut album tells Isaksen’s story, about her experiences as a Sámi who had to fight for her right to speak Sámi, in a country where the constitution gives her the right to speak her language, yet she got bullied. With the album, Ealán, she is putting those years behind and looking forward.

As she sits in front of me, drinking tea and running from interview to interview, I ask her what it means to have support from the whole country.

Isaksen has created positive interest in Sámi language and culture. “That is what I aim for,” she says. “This is the fight I’ve chosen to take, on behalf of my people and with my people. Being more visible, achieving positive focus, and knowing that we are approaching our goal leaves me with a sense of gratitude,” says the girl who has Mari Boine as a role model.

Sámi, Norwegian, and English

Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen

Album cover: Ealán (I’m alive)

It is exciting to hear an album with a linguistic mix. Northern Sámi is spoken by 90% of the Norwegian Sámi. There are no official statistics on the number of Sámi people, but it’s estimated that there are 50,000 in Norway. With that in mind, it is exciting to hear an album using that language. ISÁK’s sound has deep, traditional roots.

Isaksen’s story is a reminder of the Sámi history. The establishment of the Sámi parliament in 1989 was largely based on a recognition that oppressive policy goes far back in time.

The Sámi culture was threatened with extinction, but they countered with an emerging global indigenous movement in the mid-1970s that ultimately changed both the Sámi self-understanding and the authorities’ view. The adoption of a specific Sámi Act in 1987 aimed to promote Sámi languages, culture, and way of life. This included the establishment of a national Sámediggi (Sámi parliament) and a new Sámi clause in the constitution (now section 108) in 1988, which addresses state obligations to safeguard and develop the Sámi language, culture, and way of life.

The devil’s music

In the 1950s, joik was banned, as it was associated with the invocation of the devil. Today, prejudices against joik still exist.

“Just recently, someone asked if I could teach them to yodel,” Isaksen says. “There is a lot of ignorance and many prejudices. People also often judge their own. The Sámi people are spread over large areas and internal conflicts often arise. There are many different Sámi and many forms of joik.”

She tells me that joik is usually without words, but she sometimes uses words, as in Máze, a traditional joik, recorded by Mari Boine and Liu Sola, who bring the story of the struggle for resolution of the Alta-Kautokeino conflict 30 years ago. The conflict was a series of massive protests concerning the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in the Alta River in Finnmark.

Photo: Tove Andersson
At 19, Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen brought together producer Daniel Eriksen and drummer Aleksander Kostopoulos to form the trio ISÁK.

“‘Beautiful Masi, Masi of gold’ are words that I sing in my joik,” says Ella Marie, who transforms the joik into a modern sound.

Is it true, I ask, that you are willing to chain yourself up to protect the Repparfjord, as did people in the ’70s for Alta River?

“Yes, it’s just by luck that we have an ecosystem in the Repparfjord. The ecosystem is being completely eradicated, but still the government is willing to repeat what they did 30 years ago. In addition, this area is Sámi reindeer pasture,” she says.

Isaksen also raises her voice against problems in her own culture, such as violence and abuse. When she says that 50% of Sámi women have experienced domestic violence, this is supported by research.

The road from feeling unheard to making her voice known from north to south has been a rollercoaster. When she was 19, Isaksen started the multicultural trio ISÁK with producer Daniel Eriksen, who has a Norwegian-Gambian origin, and drummer Aleksander Kostopoulos, who has Norwegian and Greek roots. They have been described as “the hottest name in Sápmi” and a band with obvious international potential.

When she named the album Ealán—“I’m Alive”—one understands that this is a young woman who has found her voice and knows how to use it.

This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2020. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.