For over a hundred years, from the middle of the 19th century to the postwar period, the indigenous Sámi minority of Norway was the target of an official policy of forced assimilation, essentially an attempt at ethnocide, which brought the Sámi language, way of life, and society to its knees. The painful process, very similar in many ways to the boarding school system of Canada, was however fiercely challenged by a new generation of young Sámi activists that ultimately brought the government to acknowledge the rights of the Sámi nation and the need for official representation. This liberation movement, which arose in the ’60s and ’70s, ultimately lead to a dynamic revival of Sámi culture that can still be experienced today: from summer arts festivals to academic representation and the spread of traditional crafts, contemporary Sámi culture, despite still facing numerous challenges, is more vigorous than ever before.In this teeming milieu of cultural development, numerous young Sámi figures have sprouted up in the past couple of years to showcase the intersection of their unique artistic vision and their traditional background. It is in this context that Elin Kåven, a singer, artist, and dancer from Karasjok in Arctic Norway has grown and developed her artistry, all the way from the frozen expanses of her hometown to the country’s most famed stages. Now in the process of recording her fourth full-length album under the moniker Elin and the Woods, Kåven agreed to talk to the Wild Hunt about her music, her life between Sápmi, her Sámi homeland, and the city as well as the profound links that bind her to the ancient Sámi beliefs and spirituality.
Since she was a little girl in her home village of Karasjok (population 2,696) in the county of Finnmark, Kåven was drawn to music and singing. As she grew up, the artist who had the biggest influence on her was without a shadow of a doubt Mari Boine. Boine, another native from Karasjok, was then all-but-unknown to the general public, but later came to be one of Norway’s most revered folk singers, going on to be knighted by the king of Norway for her dedication to the arts. Seeing this almost rags-to-riches story develop as she watched made Kåven all the more inclined to develop her musical tastes that grew to be rather eclectic. “My all-time favorites where Nirvana, Bjørk and Fiona Apple. My teenage dream was to play in a rock band,” she said.
Yet, it took her quite a few years to fulfill her music ambitions. By her early 20s Kåven, like many young Sámi and country-folks, had moved to Oslo, Norway’s bustling capital. Far from home, and even though the city harbors a significant Sámi diaspora, she experienced a growing detachment from the Sámi nature and the wilderness of her native Finnmark, something that acutely impacted her for the years to come. “In Oslo people are all the time chasing something, I feel. The cities can drain you if you are not in the flow and focused, they are like a jungle actually, it can eat you alive if you don’t know what you are doing there.”It was in this context that, after a few long years, Kåven decided at the age of 24 to finally kick-start her music career. Released in 2005, Lahka was a four-track rock album which not only served as an artistic stepping stone for Kåven, but also as a way to reconnect with her native Sámi language that she felt had been neglected since moving down south. Lahka, just as each and every song on Kåven’s future releases, was sung entirely in Northern Sámi, the regional Sámi idiom from her home district. Despite being professionally recorded, produced, and distributed nationwide, Kåven ended up not fully satisfied with the final product: “In the end, I realized that I didn’t want to be a rock artist…I wanted to be something else, but didn’t know exactly what.”
It was during this period that Kåven started being involved with dance, more particularly belly dancing. As she went on to join dance showcases in the United Kingdom, the young Sámi dancer from the far north became the target of quite a bit of attention. One day, a fellow dancer even came up with a nickname that would prove most enduring, the arctic fairy. Kåven recalls, “As I did a lot of dancing in England, I once got feedback that said I looked like an arctic elf that has been under the tundra for over a hundred years to come out dancing.”
This encouraged Elin to both develop her art and reflect upon the folklore and traditions of her homeland. “I took all this feedback as a compliment, and after awhile, I understood that my own magic skill in life is to look like some kind of otherworldly creature, like a huldre (forest fairy), elf or other kind of nature spirit. I am very fascinated with fairy folk, and I connected with them especially the realization that I actually have the power to remind people of such creatures.”
This experience inspired Kåven to bring her artistry closer to her own Sámi and Nordic roots, which materialized in the form of her first full-length album, Jiknon Musihkka (Frozen Music) in 2009.Produced by renowned Norwegian jazz-man Ole Jørn Myklebust, Jiknon Musihkka was a complete departure from Kåven’s first album. Instead of sharp electric guitars and energetic drumming, the album presented ethereal, almost-ambient soundscapes in which Kåven’s distinctive singing hovered over waves of piano, electronic effects and various folk instruments. This dreamy atmosphere, that one could maybe place at the intersection between New Age, world, and pop music, was both truly refreshing in its form while deeply traditional in spirit and would prove to be a defining feature of Kåven’s music from then on. This well-thought-out musical brew proved popular among connoisseurs of folk and Sámi music across the country, and the album was met with positive reviews. This ultimately fostered Kåven’s drive to create and since then, she has released a further two full-length albums; Máizan (Thaw) in 2012 and Eamiritini (Rimeborn) in 2015, produced by Finnish multi-instrumentalist Juhani Silvola. In these she was able to voice her visions of the wild Nordic nature, and her connection to her ancestors’ ancient spirituality.
Being brought up in mostly-rural Finnmark, which can claims just 75,000 inhabitants for an area twice the size of New Jersey, Elin has since her childhood been fascinated by the invisible forces that shape our world. “I always wanted to find out more about the things that are not easy to understand. Ultimately, I realized I had the ability to remind people that there once were other beliefs, and we are not the only ones who have lived on this earth. I found that very intriguing, and I felt that it could be something that people will appreciate and would be an honorable work for me: everyone has a right to know where they come from, what our society is built upon, and how we became who we are now.”
Kåven’s bonds with the magic in this world weren’t just born out of the mere contemplation of nature, but actually run deep in her family. Her great-grand-uncle, Johan Kåven, born in 1835, is still spoken about in Finnmark to this day for being the last great Sámi shaman who carried on aspects of Sámi spirituality from before the time of his people’s forced conversion. Unsurprisingly, the figure of her ancient kin has been a tremendous source of inspiration for Elin. “Many people in my family have different kind of powers similar to Johan Kåven’s, the power still runs in the family. I don´t think I will ever be a shaman in the traditional way of thinking of a shaman and healer, but I think the force of the universe is available to everyone who respects it, and my shamanistic heritage could shine through in my music.”
Besides singing in her native North-Sámi tongue, Kåven has been progressively integrating more and more mythical and folkloric concepts and figures in her lyrics and concept art. In the video for her song Lihkku Niehku (Dream of Fortune), Kåven personifies a beguiling spirit who pursues and curses a lone musher in the frozen plateau of Finnmark. Living up to her nickname of arctic fairy, she also reprises the role in Ulda niktá (Ulda’s allure) in which she lures unsuspecting children into the woods where they mysteriously vanish. For Kåven, who studied interior design and decoration, utilizing multiple media to showcase her artistic vision is an obvious choice. She herself designed the cover and sleeve of her second album, Máizan, as well as her numerous and colorful stage costumes inspired by her years as a dancer. “I got so much inspiration for my outfits and costumes from the dance scene, where there are actual costumes, not just clothes or outfits as music artists use. I have so much inspiration from the dance community in my concerts and visual arts.”
Kåven’s peculiar costumes, which most often mix traditional Sámi handicrafts (duodji), alternative fashion, and natural materials such as reindeer horn, are a central part of her dynamic live shows which often aren’t just entertainment but also serve as a way to promote and educate about Sámi culture.
As she released her second album, Máizan, Kåven signed with the German label Nordic Notes, which specializes in traditional, jazz, and folk music from the Nordic nations. Soon after, she began touring outside of her native Norway, especially in Germany, where she had to take up the challenge of showcasing Sámi culture for people who most often had very little knowledge of it: .“I have been touring in Sápmi, Norway and abroad and I notice a big difference between these: abroad, Sámi culture is very exotic and exciting, people are very interested in learning more. During concerts I tell a lot about Sámi culture and values, and the background for joiks and so on. If I don’t tell it onstage people will ask me after the concert. People are interested in the authentic sound and music from Sápmi, and want to learn more about us and our lifestyle.”
As it turned out, being thrust into the limelight as a representative of sorts for a whole culture brought about even more interest in the subject for Elin herself. “When I started with music, I did not anticipate that I would have to be some kind of history and cultural teacher as well as an artist: All I wanted to do was to sing. But it turns out all the questions people ask me are so interesting questions, and it makes me wonder and find out more about my culture and other cultures as well. My audience have, in many ways, inspired me to seek this information: I feel like they have been pointing out the way for me and seek answers to questions I had never thought about before.”
Yet, even if people abroad often know next to nothing about Sámi culture, many people in Norway have only very little knowledge about the systematic oppression Sámi faced up to less than half a century ago, and in some cases, to some extent, still do: “The biggest challenge for me is the lack of knowledge about the history, lifestyle, life values, and actual life situations of the Sámi people today. So many people who never have been in the north of Norway have no idea what it means to be Sámi. It was hard for me sometimes when I realized that a journalist who interviewed me had no idea what I was talking about and had no understanding of the concepts I was trying to explain.”
As an indigenous nation that was affected by colonialism and state-sanctioned dispossession, the Sámi tend to be very aware of the struggle other indigenous peoples around the globe face such as the recent Dakota pipeline controversy. “We, here in Sápmi, have experienced the exact same thing, and we are still experiencing this kind of ignorance from the government. We had a big demonstration in the Alta-Kautokeino canyon in 1981 after the government decided to build a dam. This ended up as a big demonstration with hunger strikes and police and military forces came from the south. The demonstrations didn’t help, they still built this dam, and it has affected the environment here i Finnmark a lot. But this huge demonstration started a process for the indigenous peoples’ rights to land and water here, and the establishment of the Sami Parliament as an advisory council.”
Even though — just like in the Americas where relations between native and latecomers can often be difficult — tensions between Norwegians and the Sámi still exist, art can and is used as a bridge between different groups to foster cross-cultural understanding and cooperation. For Kåven, who has played both in front of mostly Sámi and Norwegian crowds, both in the south and in the north of the country, it is the common folklore, mythology, and history of Norwegian and Sámi which is the most fascinating.
“The Norse and Sámi gods have a lot of similarities in their characteristics and legends, for example Dierpmis, who is basically the same as Thor with his hammer,” she said. “There are many theories regarding how much the Norse and Sámi people have been engaged with each other. Some say that some of the Norse earls could actually have been Sámi, and others say that the Norse could have sought the advice of Sámi shamans, and that they were kin and traded with each other. There are also stories about how Harald Hårfagre (King Harald Hairfair), married a Sámi girl. All this is very interesting but I have just started digging into it and my goal is to find out why there is still such a big gap between the Sámi and the Norwegians, why there are still so many misunderstandings between us, even if we have this long history in common.”
If Kåven’s goal indeed is to bring more visibility to Sámi culture, while showcasing her art, one could say that she’s been rather successful as of late. After wooing Sámi audiences in local events such as the Kautokeino Sámi Easter festival in 2011, Kåven made her first high-profile national appearance in 2013 at the centenary celebration of Norway’s women’s suffrage, which was attended by members of the royal family and broadcast live on national TV and watched by hundreds of thousands.
Following this much-publicized performance, Kåven multiplied her live appearances, both in Norway and abroad, until the spring of the current year, when she entered the national contest for representing Norway at the Eurovision song contest 2017. Working this time with renowned producer Robin Lynch (Pink, Cher), they wrote and recorded First Step In Faith, which placed fourth among the 10 contestants. Despite not making it to the Eurovision itself (Norway’s pick, Jowst, finished 10th out of 26), Kåven and Lynch decided to soldier on and go back to the studio to record a full-length album. Hopefully it will be released next year under the moniker of Elin and the Woods. One could only hope that this new venture will bring the deeply spiritual shamanistic echoes of the arctic fairy to shores yet unseen.