“Let’s joke! You can joke your friends, joke a beautiful mountain or just joke being sad or happy.” Anna-Reetta Niemelä, a teacher of Sámi language and culture in the village of Karesuvanto, high in northern Lapland, has me baffled for a moment.
Clad in her bright red and blue “gákti” tunic, her accent takes me some time to tune in to. “Joik” – once she shows me how – turns out to be a Sámi chant that reminds me of the better-known rituals of Native American tribes or Buddhist monks. It has the same spiritual overtones and was once banned as un-Christian by missionaries but its roots were too deep to die out completely. Its resurgence is a sign of the rebirth of Sámi culture.
Anna-Reetta explains that a joik is a way of conjuring up a feeling. It is not a song, in the sense of having words or a tune, or even being repeatable. I might project a joik to represent me, like some audible version of Princess Leia’s hologram in Star Wars, but it will change as I do. It is raw emotion. The Sámi give each of their reindeer a joik and the animals will come when they hear it. She sings a joik that belongs to her son, Matthias, who is now 21 and in the Finnish Army, after he fell in love with the outdoors – “the real life” – at the age of eight. Her voice becomes younger and more open, and I can feel the strength of young limbs skiing over mountain tops. Anna-Reetta’s enthusiasm is so contagious that she soon has me chanting along with her. “Do not be afraid of anything. Let it all come out,” she says.
Then she ends by summing up her happiness at our meeting with another joik. Yes, the joik is on me.