Exploring Sami culture in a positive way

Stina Therese Lorås Hessaa in southern Norway with a professional copy of one of the few Sami drums still in existence.| Photo by Sigbjørn Hessaa.

With her first-ever Canadian performance, Norwegian-Sami artist Stina Therese Lorås Hessaa brings her world premiere to this year’s Coastal First Nations Dance Festival from Feb. 27–Mar. 4.

Known as a dancer, performer, playwright and theatre director, 41-year-old Hessaa comes to Vancouver from Trondheim, Norway. Her work has toured stages and festivals in countries all around the world, including India and Bangladesh. She will participate in the Indigenous Dance Artist Panel and perform twice on the festival stage at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA).

“I like making new things,” Hessaa exclaims. “It’s exciting for me.”

Having never been to Canada before, Hessaa is looking forward to meeting new people. She is keen to see festival performances by other Indigenous performance groups and wants to meet other Indigenous people at the event. She will be the festival’s first-ever Norwegian-Sami artist, allowing for the showcasing of Indigenous stories, song and dance from the Pacific to Scandinavia.

Ongoing journey of learning about heritage

Hessaa learned about her Sami heritage as an adult about six years ago when discussing a project about refugees with her 90-year-old grandmother. Her family has roots in the northern tundra of Norway which was largely destroyed by the German forces at the end of World War II, she says. Before the war, 95 percent of people in the region identified as Sami; after the end of the war, hardly anyone did.

There came a period of assimilation where Hessaa’s grandmother, who had spoken Sami during her early childhood, began to attend school and was not permitted to speak her own language. There was so much shame in her Sami heritage that her grandmother didn’t tell anyone about it until she was 90 years old.

When Hessaa finally learned of her Sami heritage, she went on a journey of her own by creating several plays and performances inspired by her discovery including her most recent work, Heritage, which is still touring in her home country. It was a process that expanded to include the Norwegian-Sami artist’s whole family. Her mother, as a painter, has begun to explore Sami themes. And her two older children are learning of their heritage along with Hessaa while her two younger children will grow up knowing of their Sami roots.

“The journey of learning I was Sami includes shame and a sense of worthlessness,” Hessaa says. “I needed to work through this myself by learning about both the positive and negative aspects of my heritage.”

A story to tell

Hessaa has created a new piece explicitly for Vancouver audiences.

“It is not about assimilation. It is just about Sami culture,” she says. “I feel it is aimed at young people and it even has a touch of the #metoo movement. I want it to be relevant. I’ve come to the point where I can work with the positive parts of my culture.”

Hessaa will be weaving together various elements of theatre, dance, storytelling and sound to create her newest work. She will also be performing the traditional Sami singing form known as joik, which has been compared to the chanting of some North American Indigenous cultures. Before her trip to Vancouver, she is going to take exams in joik – yet another step in her cultural journey.

The Norwegian-Sami artist looks forward to the challenge of creating a new piece. Her choreography can be very technical but she also aims to be expressive. With training that began in ballet, Hessaa’s interpretation of her own culture is about telling a story.

“I have a story I want to tell. I try to find the best way to tell it,” she says.

For more information, please visit www.damelahamid.ca.