FolkWorld Scene from Inside

Ursula Länsman, member of the Sámi Band Angelit, introduces in this article her fascinating culture, the culture of the Sámi from Northern Europe. This is a FolkWorld article which is at the same time part of our series FolkWorld Scene from Inside
FolkWorld article by Ursula Länsman of Angelit:

Sámi Culture and the Yoik

Sámi - The sun people

Angelit 1995; photo by The Mollis The Sámi are an indigenous people of Northern Europe. They live in the land of Sámi (or Sápmi), which spans four realms: Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland. The Sámi population is estimated at 75,000. The Sámi are linked by a shared history, culture, dress, language and family roots.

A Norwegian proverb says that all Sámi people are related to one another to the eighteenth generation this demonstrates how important family is to the Sámi. Reindeer husbandry, fishing, hunting and gathering and handicraft are traditional Sámi occupations. Culturally and economically, reindeer husbandry is the most important.

People, the natural environment, events, beliefs and teachings form the traditional core of the Sámi yoik, tales and stories, since immemorial time to present. The Sámi people have always seen themselves as a part of nature, as equal to it. They consider themselves the daughters and sons of the Sun.

"In ancient times the Finns chased the deer and the Sámi people further and further north, towards the edge of the Ice Age. In this harsh and hostile environment, the people of Lapland found a new dwelling.
'Safe from people and safe from the gods, they have achieved that most difficult of goals, namely that there is nothing further that they need to wish for', wrote Roman historian Tacitus. This is the first known description of the Sámi people in history.

Ursula Laensman of Angelit 1995; photo by The Mollis The yoik tradition and its status has changed considerably over the last two centuries. From the 16th century onwards, Christian missionaries tried to root out the shamanist beliefs of the Sámi. Implements of the traditional faith, such as witch drums, were destroyed; the yoik was declared a sin and thus forbidden. In the late 19th century, 'thanks' to revivalist preacher Laestadius, the yoik tradition vanished underground. The effects of this period are visible until this day. The yoik still stirs mixed emotions, particularly with the older folk.

In the 1970s, there emerged a demand for the right to existence of Sámi country and the Sámi culture. The Sámi people began to expound their status as a living people in the world today. An exotic culture in tune with the natural environment, the Sámi culture flourished anew, and today there are yoiks everywhere, flowing in rivers and streams. The Sámi culture is a living one, and perhaps a bit mythical for those not familiar with it.

What is the yoik?

The yoik is the folk music of the Sámi. A yoik can tell of the past and the future, with a range of subjects as wide as the life of the singer. A yoik can be about animals, people, places, feelings, hopes and, in this day and age, even about a ski-doo. The traditional yoik are usually about people smirking, admiring, pitying, proposing marriage and seducing. One type of yoik is called the luohti.

A yoik is not merely a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it's like a holographic, multi-dimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is that something. It does not begin and it does not end. A yoik does not need to have words its narrative is in its power, it can tell a life story in song. The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures.

Angelit 1995; photo by The Mollis A yoik is like a miniature portrait. Many yoik enshrine the belief that the Sun is the father of the Sámi people and that the Earth is the Mother of Life. The natural environment is used as a parallel for human existence: animals or natural phenomena are allegories for features and events of human life. A yoik is a thing unto itself for the Sámi. Even if no people existed, the yoik would still exist.
For the singer, the yoik is a way to process and release emotions. It is a release and a cleansing where one can express emotions inexpressible in words. A yoik creates a telepathic link to the story or person it features. Many men have won a wife for themselves by using the yoik.

There is no way to experience the power of the yoik except to listen to it. Its natural character and the voices of the natural elements do not become apparent until the listener has thrown himself upon the winds.

The yoik has survived through the centuries. It has renewed itself and changed its meaning, but it is still indispensible for the Sámi people. To consider the power of the yoik, we need only consider how eagerly outsiders have tried to destroy it. Whether this has been due to fear or to a lust for power remains a mystery.

"When the Southerners came to civilize the savages, they were obliged to uproot everything that could not be understood with Southern knowledge. The yoik has survived many a harsh winter.

Photos: Angelit (then still known as Angelin Tytöt)/Angelit's Ursula Länsman 1995 in Wuppertal, Germany
Credit: The Mollis

Ursula Länsman's band Angelit (formerly known as Angelin Tytöt or Girls of Angeli) has just published a new CD, where they combine old traditional yoiks with modern dance beats, trying to bring Sámi traditions to a broader audience.
The CD is published by Finlandia Records Innovator Series, a devision of Warner Finland, and is reviewed in this issue.

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