Sámi yoik survives and thrives
Once banned, this ancient musical expression is evolving and making a comeback
Judith Gabriel Vinje
What is probably the most ancient music in Europe is still alive and thriving, thanks to the efforts of the Sámi—the indigenous people of Scandinavia—to preserve their unique tradition of yoiking.
Not a song, not a yodel, but a mystical, haunting body of tones without definite structure, the yoik (also joik) is continuing to emerge on the world music stage, while remaining a vital, unchanging part of Sámi tradition. The Sámi people who originate in Sápmi—the northern tundra region of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula—treasure the age-old practice that is constantly renewed and constantly evolving.
According to oral traditions, the fairies and elves of the arctic lands gave yoiks to the Sámi people.
A yoik is meant to express the soul of anything—tree, reindeer, tent, human being.
There’s no one way to do it—it’s an improvised expression of the spirit and as such is unique, ephemeral, and untouchable in any other way. There are no rules on notes, intonation, or scales and few or no lyrics, although sometimes there are nonsense words or short sentences and names interspersed. The yoik follows the Sámi worldview of there being no beginning, no end.
Sven Lugar, a member of the Pacific Sámi Searvi organization in Washington State, describes what yoiking feels like to him: “A spinning energy lifting yourself. Yoik pulls me into other realms and often, I use it as my starting point for a shamanic journey.”
And yet, otherworldly as this all sounds, the most common item can be yoiked. In Sápmi, each reindeer has its own yoik that herders call it by. Ancestors are yoiked, as are friends and lovers. Sámi children are given their own yoik at birth or adolescence.
The Sámi believe that the yoik is not just about something but that it actually is that something. It’s not so much a folk song as ritual, according to David Ward of The Guardian, who describes it as a sometimes “trancelike expression of the identity of a person, place, or animal.”
It is not really composed but, as Ward describes it, it can be received during moments of “adjágas,” a Sámi word suggesting a mysterious state between sleeping and waking. It was used by centuries of Sámi shaman as part of their ceremonial and healing methods.
Yoik has had a dramatic history, almost sentenced to extinction when over-eager missionaries declared it to be the “devil’s music.” As far back as the 1500s, the yoik was forbidden. It was wrongly interpreted by Christians—specifically, Protestant missionaries—who did not understand the nature of the highly spiritual phenomenon.
Yoiking was a key part of the Sámi traditional religion, performed by a noaidi or shaman who used the ceremonial drum to accompany his incantations. An ill person would be given a specific yoik when they were sick. The noaidi was also a prime target of the persecutions directed against the Sámi.
Ceremonial drums were confiscated and many were burned. In the 1950s, it was forbidden to use yoiking in Sámi-area schools. For many years, the yoik was done in secret. It went underground and in fact emerged as a form of secret communication.
It almost disappeared by the mid-20th century, but during the 1960s and 1970s there was a revival of Sámi culture, and the yoik became a vital part of a cultural renaissance.
The Sámi people have survived centuries of prejudice, discrimination, and abuse. Yet throughout generations of oppression, these indigenous people of the north have managed to retain their ethnic and cultural identities.
Censored no more
The yoik is no longer limited to the tundra. Sámi artists are performing internationally, often with a rock-style framework. Probably the most famous Sámi singer is Mari Boine, a Norwegian best known for adding jazz and folk rock to the yoiks of her people (Further reading). The Finnish folk band Korpiklaani introduced yoik metal in the late 1990s.
Today, you may yoik in a recording studio or on a stage, often for a Scandinavian festival or musical event. These yoik hybrids and the intermixing with more Western music forms can be called “yoik songs.”
Recently, yoiks are being “sung” in two different styles: a traditional style, known as the “mumbling” style, and a modern style sung mostly by young people and used as an element in contemporary Sámi music.
For those who want to try yoiking for themselves, Troy Storfjell of Pacific Lutheran University has this advice: “Do a lot of listening. See if you can find someone to teach you. Record yourself, and listen.” Storfjell, who is half Sámi, half Norwegian, admits that it took a long time before he felt he was good enough to perform in public. His 11-year-old son also yoiks. Storfjell, a registered member of the Norwegian Sámi Electorate, says he finds “a lot of similarities” with some Native American chants.
When I was teaching Norwegian Heritage at Camp Norge in California’s High Sierras, the sounds of would-be yoikers filled the forest as dozens of young campers each picked a tree or a rock to yoik. The sound they made trying to capture the essence of tall pines was impressive, if not authentic.
The future of the yoik has an open path now, Storfjell noted, especially with the increasing solidarity the Sámi have with Native Americans and other indigenous people. The Sámi people have gained significant independence after centuries of neglect and abuse.
According to Ursula Länsman, writing in Folkworld, “The yoik has survived through the centuries. It has renewed itself and changed its meaning, but it is still indispensable for the Sámi people. To consider the power of the yoik, we need only consider how eagerly outsiders have tried to destroy it.”
Further reading: “Mari Boine, Sámi cultural ambassador,” The Norwegian American, July 14, 2017
Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Ravens of Odin, a Viking reenactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects for several publications.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.