Beautiful gifts with Sámi symbols

A young Sámi artist celebrates her heritage with pride

Sami art

All photos by Ellen Marie Martinsen
Norwegian artist Ellen Marie Martinsen had studied the meaning of traditional Sámi symbols and decorates her own ceramics with them.

TOVE ANDERSSON
Oslo

When Ellen Marie Martinsen grew up, the traditional Sámi way of singing, the joik, was a sin, and the Sámi language was kept “secret” among families. Now Ellen Marie openly embraces her people’s past and creates beautiful art with pride.

Sámi culture has been oppressed for many years, but it is now becoming more visible. Ellen Marie has her own way of connecting with her heritage.

Sami art

Ellen Marie Martinsen proudly wears her traditional Sámi costume, the kofte.

For Ellen Marie, it started in North Cape Municipality, where she was born. Everyone on her mother’s side of the family speaks Sámi. She remembers the language being there all the time but, notably, not in the schools.

“My family didn’t teach us Sámi” says Ellen Marie. “‘We did not need to,’ my mother, who worked at a bank, explained. The adults, however, spoke Sámi over our heads, as their own adult language. Only later was Sámi taught at school, and finally, after years of struggle, children could learn the native language of their people.”

Ellen Marie tells how she found her passion for Sámi art.

“My mother had bought a cup from the town Rovaniemi in Finland with some tiny Sámi symbols. It was a revelation! I had to learn more about the Sámi story and culture,” she says.

But her family could not help her.

“I had to use self-study to learn more about the symbols,” says Ellen Marie. “I learned a lot about the Sámi, their history before and after Christianity, about the Sámi spiritual world, culture, and modern history. I convey much of this today when I lecture at schools for elderly and youth.”

 

People who see her pottery are interested in the symbols and what they mean.

ellen marie martinsen

Ellen Marie Martinsen decorates her ceramics with Sámi symbols.

As joik is experiencing a renaissance, so is duodji, the Sámi handicrafts. Duodji tools, clothing, and accessories are functional and useful. They often incorporate artistic elements. Pearl embroidery, woven shoelaces, wood carving, and knifemaking can be found today. Traditional duodji pieces are considered valuable art by collectors from all over the world.

The traditional costume, the kofte, is another living tradition, and Ellen Marie proudly wears hers.

ellen marie martinsen

In her studio on the island of Gotland in Sweden, Ellen Marie Martinsen sells a variety of Sámi crafts in addition to the ceramics that she makes.

The Disney production team behind Frozen has also done much to bring the Sámi culture to the public eye beyond Norway. They hired a composer with Sámi roots, Frode Fjellheim, and the song “Vuelie” opens the film and Broadway musical. Fjellheim was later celebrated for bringing joik to Hollywood. The sequel, Frozen II incorporates even more Sámi elements. 

Today, Ellen Marie lives on the beautiful island of Gotland, Sweden, where she is considered exotic. “She welcomes visitors to her pottery studio, but she has also started to make a living as a photographer. Some of her beautiful work may be seen at “Finnmark i bilder” on Facebook.

And if you happen to travel to the north of Norway on a hunt for the northern lights, you might find her work at the souvenir shop in Honningsvåg, North Cape Municipality. I think you’ll find it all to be well worth the trip.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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.

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