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Rights + Justice

Through Dance, Reclamation

Sámi artists celebrate their cultural identities in the 15th annual Coastal Dance Festival.

Dorothy Woodend 22 Apr

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

For centuries, the Sámi people ranged across Northern Europe, hunting, fishing and keeping reindeer in territory that stretched from Norway to Russia. A policy of enforced assimilation instituted by governments in Finland, Sweden and Norway sought to strip away Sámi culture and replace it with more European traditions.

Like Indigenous people in Canada, the Sámi were subjected to near-total cultural obliteration. In addition to residential schools, other methodologies like language suppression, religious conversion and the destruction of sacred sites were enacted. Often this erasure took place within families, with a deep sense of shame inculcated into the very youngest members of Sámi society.

How to find a way back to a place of identity and pride is the focus of the 15th Coastal Dance Festival in Vancouver. The festival launches this week with a focus on Indigenous artists from Nordic parts of the world. It features performance work from Sámi artists of Norway and Sweden, collaborative exchanges with Indigenous dancemakers from across Canada and a series of panels and presentations illuminating different creative practices and cultural traditions called Artists Sharing.

A program dedicated to contemporary Indigenous dance will feature four works including Hidden Path, a new performance work from Camilla Therese Karlsen. Hidden Path combines traditional storytelling and poetry with dance, acrobatics and aerial performance work. Karlsen is from the sea Sámi people of northern Norway.

Camilla Therese Karlsen wears a red patterned dress, black tights and ballet shoes. Her long brown hair obscures her face. She hangs from a rope running down the middle of the photograph. She is holding an antler. Behind her is a dark blue background. The scene is lit with stage lighting.
The Coastal Dance Festival features a work called Hidden Path by Camilla Therese Karlsen, pictured here. The piece was the result of ‘A long and hard process for myself and my own fight against the shame, a shame that divides families into those who accept the heritage and those in denial,’ she says. Photo by Knut Utler, courtesy of Coastal Dance Festival.

On the eve of the Festival’s launch, The Tyee posed a few questions to Karlsen about her work as well as the current realities of Indigenous people in Norway. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Could you talk about how you came to know about Sámi culture?

Camilla Therese Karlsen: Sámi culture was around us always, the elephant in the room no one wanted to talk about in the local society. How did I find out my family was Sámi? I was a teenager and my parents one day told me I should register as a Sámi the day I was old enough to vote. It was a shock, the base for the identity I had built was pulled away and I was free falling.

It took me a long time to accept it, but seeing how my mother worked so hard, to hear her talk about it with fervor and longing, I slowly understood. I understood how much she grieved the loss of a culture, lost to her because her parents made the choice of following the hidden path: becoming Norwegian in name and on paper but keeping certain traditions alive hidden behind the four walls of home. Escaping the assimilation through denial.

Were the Sámi people subjected to practices like residential schools and cultural assimilation, like Indigenous people in Canada?

Yes, the children of Sámi people were taken away from their parents and put into residential schools to become Norwegian. Sámi language was forbidden there, and many children suffered great trauma from going through years of school understanding very little, if anything at all. Many children also experienced physical and psychological abuse.

In general, Sámi people were treated as less than valuable people, less intelligent, less developed, a lower race. The assimilation went on and on. It caused the joik [the traditional Sámi song form] to be banned. A few Sámi languages died out and most of them are still today fighting not to disappear. My culture, the culture of the sea tribe, almost vanished.

In addition to aggressive methodologies like violence, humiliation and subjugation, more insidious things like being denied the right to use language or practice traditional culture have very long-lived traumatic effects. How does your work as an artist help to push back against this kind of erasure and/or obliteration?

My latest work was a long and hard process for myself and my own fight against the shame, a shame that divides families into those who accept the heritage and those in denial. I dove deep into the history, talked to Elders, fighting against it by building knowledge and understanding the many facets of the “Norwegianing” process.

At the same time, it was important for me to have participants in this project who are not Sámi, for them to learn, for me to learn from their point of view, to spread the knowledge. And, finally to inform the audience, to reach out to those still on the hidden path, to awaken the Norwegians who still do not know, do not understand. Through creating work that raises awareness I hope to do just that, [to] fight obliteration by sowing seeds of knowledge that can grow to become trees of acceptance.

How has dance and culture allowed you to reclaim and celebrate your heritage?

Writing and performing allow me to research, explore and experience the culture in many ways, challenging the views and looking at it from different perspectives. My great grandfather Ephraim Pedersen Oterodden was a storyteller and my mum dreamed I would explore that treasure. So, the first project I did with my company Ulv & Ugle was based on a few of his stories, in her honour.

At one of the performances someone reached out to me. It turned out this older lady was a researcher and writer who had been looking for descendants of Ephraim for years. Hearing her talk about his artful storytelling and how she could recognize a lot of his work in my performance filled my heart with joy and strengthened me in my choice to embrace my heritage.

Leanna Wilson, left, and Tooma Laisa, right, stand facing each other, holding each other’s arms. They are wearing traditional white tops with blue trim. They are lit with stage lighting, and the background is black. Behind them to the left and right, two people wearing similar white shirts are singing. One is playing guitar.
Leanna Wilson, left, and Tooma Laisa, right, perform as part of the Coastal Dance Festival. Photo by This is Living Now, courtesy of Coastal Dance Festival.

Your work Hidden Path recently premiered. Could you talk about the genesis of this project, how you came to it and how it has developed since its debut?

This project was born with the first words written at [artists residency] Lásságámmi in 2018, after having carried it deep inside for years. It was inspired by the journey my mother and one of her best friends made fighting for the right to take back Sámi culture.

[These] two strong women made a huge impact in our area by wearing the traditional Gákti in public, starting language classes and workshops to learn duodji (Sámi handcraft). Their fight against shame, their strength to stand up against all the criticism and harassment impressed me and helped me find pride in the heritage of our ancestors.

Their fight made me see how important it is to stand up and talk about it without fear. My way came through writing and then communicating it through performance. In 2020, I got financial support, and with a group of highly skilled and deeply motivated performers, we managed to do an international pre-project during lockdown.

In 2021, I found co-producers and with a lot of financial support, me and my faithful group fought our way through pandemic limitations and managed to produce and premiere a multifaceted performance with an important message, against all odds. I guess it fit the theme of the performance that we had to struggle, that we had to show that we were determined. Just as the Sámi people have been. Only in this way have our culture, our joik and our languages survived.

Cultural repression can take many forms, but shame is often the first and brutally efficient tool of destroying a people from within. What role does culture offer in rebuilding a heritage that has been systematically decimated?

Culture, in the sense of art, can be an important force driving the motivation behind the resistance. Art can shed light on the political situation to a greater population, and so bring more strength to make change in an oppressive social structure.

Art can become a window for those living with the shame, so they can look in wonder at the light of their heritage out there. Maybe to the extent of being able to let it flood into their own chambers so that the light can chase away the shaming shadows.

The Coastal Dance Festival runs April 20 to 24 at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster.  [Tyee]

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