Decolonial Performance in the Swedish Part of Sápmi

Project Spotlight: Notes from a guest visit at Giron Sámi Teáhter.

Indigenous Sovereignty Representation Activism
A performer in the role of Diplomat Lars Norberg, wearing a suit and bowler hat, faces away from viewers, his hand outstretched towards two large splotchy black-and-white archival images.

Giron Sámi Teáhter is a professional touring company whose administrative base and rehearsal spaces are in Kiruna/Giron, a mining town approximately 150 kilometres north of the polar circle. The company’s roots go back to 1971 when a group of young activists deployed the medium of theatre as a decolonial tool to protest the damming of lakes and rivers by hydroelectric power companies. Since 2015, when actor, playwright and dramaturge Åsa Simma accepted the post as artistic director, the theatre has increased its efforts to achieve the status of a fully state-funded National Sámi Theatre in Sweden. Simma has also actively furthered the company’s decolonial labour through implementing a repertoire of politically charged plays and active collaborations with other Sámi cultural institutions as well as initiating a mentorship program that trains young Sámi actors, playwrights, directors, dramaturges, set and costume designers and stage technicians.

In the fall of 2021, I had the privilege to spend a month as a guest scholar at Giron Sámi Teáhter, which allowed me to follow the rehearsal processes of two productions, socialize with and interview members of the cast, present my research project to the Board of Directors and talk with and learn from key Knowledge Holders.

Two Sámi performers stand in front of a projection symbolizing the large painting over the altar in Kiruna/Giron Church, facing towards the audience.
Kristin Solberg and Paul Ol Jona Utsi in Bury My Heart at Udtjajaure (2021). PHOTO: ARON KARVONEN. COURTESY GIRON SÁMI TEÁHTER.

Colonial borders

Sápmi is a transnational territory that stretches over the Northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland all the way to the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Sápmi has been and continues to be divided by historically shifting geo-political borders, which have had varying degrees of impact throughout the centuries, ranging from double taxation and impediments for cross-border reindeer herding to forced displacements and the separation of families. To this day, cultural workers have to negotiate different political regulations, legislative systems and funding opportunities, all of which create unequal working conditions and complicate collaborations across borders.

The fraught issue of these geopolitical borders that separate an entire people was the topic of Giron Sámi Teáhter’s latest production that opened in September 2021, Begrav mitt hjärta vid Udtjajaure (Bury My Heart at Udtjajaure). In 2003, the late diplomat Lars Norberg (1934-2021)—who had played a key role in the peace negotiations during the Balkan Wars—was recruited by the Swedish government to negotiate an agreement with his Norwegian colleagues to once and for all regulate cross-border reindeer herding. Norberg soon discovered that neither Norway nor Sweden were interested in improving the situation for Indigenous populations. In fact, both countries consistently broke their own national laws and international treaties by depriving the Sámi of the right for self-determination over their lands and natural resources, some of which had been legally documented since 1751. In various talks and interviews, Norberg addressed the systemic discrimination against the Sámi and called out the political hypocrisy in his provocatively titled book (Bury My Heart at Udjajaure), which is a direct allusion to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a historical account of how Indigenous Peoples in the United States were mercilessly deceived and robbed of their territories by the American government.

Directed by Eva Gröndahl and based on a dramatic adaptation by Tomas Bresky, the stage production consisted of a series of quick scenes whose enhanced physicality and witty visuality, at times deliberately bordered on cartoonish—using theatrical humour as a means of critique. The goal was to effectively tease out the absurdity of a situation in which petty bureaucrats at the Swedish foreign ministry and a self-glorifying and choleric Norwegian ambassador eagerly highlighted their respective countries’ international reputation as progressive and democratic defenders of civil rights, yet at the same time denied these same fundamental rights to Indigenous people.

In an interview with me, the assistant director Anna Åsdell (who has been affiliated with Giron Sámi Teáhter since 2009) emphasized her belief in the utopian potential of theatre and performance to have people reflect on history and social justice. She hoped that the production would remind people, and not least young audiences, of how the Sámi have been mistreated by governments and state authorities: 

“Simply put, things have not been handled correctly. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. And we need to remind people of this, Sámi, non-Sámi, people in power and also our youngsters. There have been a lot of conflicts when it comes to the right to land and water, for example. And Bury My Heart at Udtjajaure explains a bit how and why this has happened.” – Anna Åsdell [1]

Onstage, the power struggles between Norberg (played by Tomas Lindström) and various government representatives were manifested through the clever use of two simple ladders on which the characters climbed as a way to visually enhance or decrease their status. For example, a self-righteous Swedish deputy assistant sat on top of her ladder during her initial meeting with Norberg, patronizing him from above while simultaneously flirting with her husband on the phone. This initial hierarchy changed when Norberg grabbed a ladder himself to access a book hidden on the highest shelf in the deputy assistant’s library. He grabbed a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and, without saying a word, showed the cover to the deputy assistant. Visibly shaken by Norberg’s silent accusation that twenty-first century Sweden was a colonial power, she slid down her ladder and, unable to even stand up straight anymore, crawled off the stage in a panic.

Gröndahl contrasted these satirical moments with Norberg’s interactions with a Sámi couple that oscillated between skepticism and hope. Initially Ellamari and Nila (played by Kristin Solberg and Paul Ol Jona Utsi) questioned Norberg’s legitimacy to act as a negotiator on their behalf, but they eventually realized that he was trying to create a dialogue with and seek the informed consent of the involved Sámi villages. The Sámi couple also worked as an emotional point of reference for the audience, who were introduced to the conflict at stake through their eyes and voices. The production drew heavily on musical numbers to drive the narrative forward and highlight the main issues at stake. Ellamari and Nila started the first scene by performing a contemporary fusion of rap and joik to lament the closure of the Norwegian-Swedish border for reindeer herders. The rhythm track consisted of drum beats mixed with reindeer cow bells and sampled moo sounds. The lyrics immediately set the scene: since time immemorial, the Sámi have been following nomadic reindeer from the Swedish winter settlements in the forests to the Atlantic Coast in Northern Norway during the summer months. All of this changed with the implementation of national borders, when the Sámi people’s right to use the land was outweighed by capitalism’s perpetual hunger for natural resources and private property.

A performer in the foreground, playing the role on Nila, raises both hands, palms down, while speaking, gazing with purpose into the distance. Behind him, another performer in the role of Ellamari crouches, crossing her arms in front of her torso and smiling.
Paul Ol Jona Utsi and Kristin Solberg in Bury My Heart at Udtjajaure (2021). PHOTO: ARON KARVONEN. COURTESY GIRON SÁMI TEÁHTER.

Poignant projections on the LED screens in the background quickly transported the audience through various settings, ranging from majestic mountain landscapes with reindeers to images from contemporary protest actions against the exploitation of Sámi territories by trans/national forestry, power and mining companies. “There are no green mines” read a banner displayed in one of the demonstrations, calling out the false promises by politicians and corporate managers to take the environment into consideration when test drilling for new iron ore or rare-earth mineral mines.

The last song, performed after Norberg had been dismissed because his investigations became too embarrassing for the Swedish government, acted as a call for global Indigenous activism. Sámi activists participated in protests held in Paris in conjunction with the UN Climate Change Conference in 2015 [2] and also joined First Nations at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. [3]

An illustration shows a red sky with a setting sun over dark green hills. A crow flies at left and two human figures walk through the landscape, silhouetted at right.
Billboard image for Vingslag/Sojiiguin. COURTESY GIRON SÁMI TEÁHTER.

Sámi mythology and storytelling

In a parallel process, Giron Sámi Teáhter was working on a production for young audiences: written and directed by Björn Söderbäck, Vingslag/Sojiiguin (Wing Strokes) was rooted in the rich tradition of Sámi storytelling. The starting point was a bird’s eye view—both literally and figuratively—over Sápmi. Two talented newcomers, Nina Valkeapää and Takakehto Charles, impersonated two birds who witnessed how the vast mountain landscape in Sápmi was shaped at the end of the last Ice Age, the arrival of the first humans—that is, the Sámi—and the gradual take-over by settler colonialists. Deceptively simple, the production gradually revealed its structural complexity as different story levels become apparent. 

Of central importance was Stallo, a key figure in Sámi mythology who, according to the pioneering Sámi author Johan Turi, is “half human and half troll or devil.”[4] While the Stallo is not a particularly intelligent creature, he is very scheming and prone to angry outbursts. Several scenes in Vingslag/Sojiiguin depicted Stallo’s fruitless attempts to capture and eat children. Apart from providing a lot of potential for comic entertainment onstage, these scenes also worked as a metaphor to illustrate the Sámi people’s struggle against colonial authorities. [5]

An additional educational dimension of the production was that Vingslag/Sojiiguin was rehearsed and performed in two versions, one in Northern Sámi and the other in Swedish. The target group was constituted by school children aged six to twelve. After each performance the actors engaged in a question-and-answer session to offer additional information and contextualization on Sámi storytelling traditions and organized a workshop with their young audiences who got a chance to learn more about Sámi culture and mythology.

Such outreach efforts constitute one of Giron Sámi Teáhter’s most important pedagogical and decolonial tools. As the Sámi literature scholar Harald Gaski notes,

Within children’s literature, there has been a special effort to retell the old fairy tales and legends so that they will not be forgotten and disappear into the modern media culture. This is done because there is a desire to find a great deal of valuable, traditional Sami knowledge and wisdom in the old myths and tales. [6]

Due to the colonial politics of the state and the church, Sámi languages were suppressed for several generations, not least in the residential Nomad schools that were administered by the Lutheran Church of Sweden. Theatre and performance for children and young people play a vital part for the promotion and revitalization of Sámi languages, something that forms part of Giron Sámi Teáhter’s official mandate. While the Swedish government unequivocally recognizes and supports the Swedish dramatic legacy (as demonstrated by its fulsome support of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm), this level of recognition and support has not been extended to the Sámi Theatre. For several decades, Giron Sámi Teáhter has struggled to become officially recognized as a fully state-financed National Sámi Theatre, which would allow it to hire a permanent ensemble, double its numbers of productions and significantly increase its touring and outreach efforts. To this day, the political resistance to this ambition remains staggering. [7]

The two productions Bury My Heart at Udtjajaure and Wing Strokes are only two examples of how Giron Sámi Teáhter deals with the themes of sovereignty over lands and resources, cultural and mythological heritage and language education. They illustrate the artistic depth and breadth of the company and its manifold outreach efforts to speak to both adult and young audiences, educating majoritarian society about Sámi culture and history, and promoting the revitalization of Sámi languages.


[1] Åsdell, Anna, Interview with the author, Kiruna/Giron, 20 September 2021.

[2] Sandström, Moa, “DeCo2onising Artivism”, in Marianne Liliequist and Coppélie Cocq (eds),  Samisk kamp: Kulturförmedling och rättviserörelse, Umeå: h:ström, 2017, pp. 62-115.

[3] Kuhn, Gabriel, Liberating Sápmi: Indigenous Resistance in Europe’s Far North, Oakland: PM Press, 2020, pp. 38.

[4] Turi, Johan, Turi’s Book of Lappland, transl. E. Gee Nash, London: Jonathan Cape, 1931, pp. 173.

[5] Besa, Andrew F., “The Stallo Throughout Sámi and World History”, Sámi Culture, (accessed 21 March 2022).

[6] Gaski, Harald, “Song, Poetry and Images in Writing: Sami Literature”, Nordlit 27 (2011), pp. 51.

[7] Gindt, Dirk, ‘“We already carry out a national assignment”: Indigenous Performance and the Struggle for a Sámi National Theatre in Sweden’, Theatre Research International 47.3 (2022). 


Additional References

Labba, Elin Anna, Herrarna satte oss hit: Om tvångsförflyttningarna i Sverige, Stockholm: Norstedts, 2020.


Author Biography

Dirk Gindt is Professor of Theatre Studies at Stockholm University. His current research studies the history of Sámi performance in the Swedish part of Sápmi, with an emphasis of the decolonial labour of the involved artists, and charts the struggles to inaugurate a National Sámi Theatre in Sweden. The project adheres to ethical research guidelines and protocols as formulated by the Sámi Parliament of Sweden (Sámediggi) and is conducted in close dialogue and collaboration with Giron Sámi Teáhter.