Where Elle Sofe Sara Goes to Refuel

Photo of Elle Sofe Sara by Ánne Kátjá Gaup

Hop in crushers, we’re going to the Arctic. We take a walk through the woods with Sámi reindeer herder, choreographer, and filmmaker Elle Sofe Sara. The wind blows, the snow falls, the noses run, the hearts beat wild. She talks the importance of refuelling, travel, an old Sámi tradition called ‘ribadit’ where you grab your crush’s belt and walk around with them, and what it was like to move from the tundra to London at the age of 19. We are blessed to know her.

Some helpful vocab:
Sámi - Indigenous people of Northern Fenno-Scandinavia. 
Sápmi - Traditional territory of Sámi people, spanning what are now considered four nations: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.
Avži - the village in which Elle Sofe grew up, and of which her family still comprises half its residents.
Guovdageaidnu - the centre of Sámi culture, and where Elle Sofe and Svea both live.
Sámi Language - a Finno-Ugric language unrelated to Romance or Germanic languages.
Ribadit - ‘Pulling of the Belt’, a Sámi tradition and the title of a film and dance piece made by Elle Sofe Sara (https://ellesofe.com/portfolios/ribadit/)
Gákti - Sámi traditional dress: handmade, decorated, sacred, and very expensive.

Elle Sofe’s project ‘Vástádus eana’ (‘The Answer is Land’): https://ellesofe.com/portfolios/vastadus-eana-the-answer-is-land/
The poem by three Sámi artists of the same title: https://digitaltmuseum.no/021048772629/rajacumma-kiss-from-the-border-gazaldat-eana-vastadus-eana-papir
Elle Sofe on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ellesofe/?hl=en
Elle Sofe’s website: https://ellesofe.com/

Listen to the episode


Transcription of Elle Sofe Sara's interview



jb - Jozefien Buydens

ess - Elle Sofe Sara

sv - Svea Vikander


sv: We’re going to this place near the town I live in. It’s called “Avzi” but the way that it’s spelled is (spell), so when I first moved here, I thought it was pronounced, “Av-zee.” So yeah, it’s a very small town on a river.

Elle Sofe Sara says that she’ll pick me up and drive me there. I get on my snow pants and parka, snacking on some Swedish knackerbrod while I wait for her. [snow pants zip sound].  I get a call from Elle Sofe, and she says she’s at my house but I look out the window and I don’t see her.

where, where are you? did I give her the wrong directions?

Then she pulls up and I hop in.

Because you see, it turns out that I hadn’t given her the wrong directions—I had moved. This person, whom I had never met, knows where I lived until just a few months ago. There’s no other Canadians in this town. We’re the only ones. And everyone just kind of knows where everyone else lives. Normally, I think that makes things more convenient. Just not this time.

[car driving sounds]

sv: We chat awkwardly as we make our way up the other side of the valley.

ess: I grew up here

sv: In Avzi

ess: In Avzi. In that blue house.

sv: oh really?

ess: yes

sv: does your family still live there?

ess: it's, my sister and her husband have bought it so they live there.

sv: oh, ok

ess: my parents live in the other house next door.

sv: so nice.

She wanted to build a house here but that she couldn’t afford to, so she and her husband bought a house closer to town. It’s so expensive to build things here. You can only dig into the ground a few months of the year, and those are the months in which mosquitos and no-see-ums descend upon the earth like a plague. But there are no mosquitoes now, as we park and get out of the car.

[getting out of car sound] Everything is white. Elle Sofe directs me toward a side road winding through a sparse, birch forest. We’re walking uphill and the wind is blowing. So if you hear us breathing heavily and sniffing our running noses, that’s why. It’s actually pretty warm today, uh, about minus 9 degrees celsius.

ess: but I was thinking a little about, eh, the art studio.

sv: yeah

ess: yeah because that's the concept of this podcast. I was thinking about it and I think that I'm not that attached to a house, or a certain house. I'm more attached to places. I use the places —or the spaces that are available in this area or in other areas. I can just bring my stuff to a place, I have more of this nomadic thought, perhaps, in how I work, in that I don't need one sudio that I use all the time. I work sometimes here and sometimes there.

sv: And do you think that's connected to being Sámi? Or is that just you personally having adapted.

ess: Uh, I'm not sure. I think it, I mean it's connected to the Sámi very clearly. For me.

sv: yeah

ess: Because we are just kind of borrowing a place for the time being. Not using it more than we need, and I kind of take it in that

sv: that's exactly what you do, right?

ess: I take in that in how I create.

sv: can you describe where we are? What you see?

ess: Well we see, we are coming back to Avzi, the place where I grew up. And here it's a small village, with about 70 people living here. And when I grew up, there were like two families mainly, so it's like, my family or my relatives and then there's the other, the Haetta family kind of, so.

sv: I ask Elle Sofe if this is still true today.

ess: The families are more further apart, but we are still, I'm related to half of the village, yeah. But of course the other half have been my neighbours. Where you build a house is still affected by families living there. So, I wouldn't build a house in Heamogieddi or other small villages outside Guovdageaidnu, because if I don't have a connection there.

sv: You just wouldn't feel comfortable, or..?

ess: Well, it's not, I don't know. It—how would I say it? I wouldn't, I don't know, I don't feel that it would be my place to build a house.

sv: This path in particular is one that Elle Sofe walked as a child.

ess: And also now, when I have moved back, it has been like a place where I, I go, to, yeah, just to meet myself in the nature. Yeah, this path is a, it's a road. To a water called Vuorasjávri, and it's a nice fishing water near where I have grown up.

And I feel that more and more, in the later years I also need a place where I can be filled, to refuel. And this is kind of a place that, and I also kind of discovered that working as an artist you are very much developing stuff all the time and, like, giving very much. That half of the work is also kind of the refueling. Yeah, so it's not just producing new things, new art, new films, new performances. But refueling part, maybe it's 50% and it's as important as the production. Because the refueling also gives to the artwork. So I have been more focused on that the last year. I really take conscious decisions to make those times for myself.

And now we're going up hill, in this small road, to V-javri, yeah we will soon see the water. But it's frozen now. [laughter] And yesterday I saw reindeers, yes, they were crossing the water. And so I called my cousin and he's like, "Oh, really, are they there already?" and then he drove up to put them the right way.

sv: So they were going the wrong direction?

ess: he came here on his snowmobile to get them back to the herd. Because this other side is another reindeer herding district.

sv: She gestures to a 30-foot wide section of frozen river with an island in the middle of it.

As we walk further, Elle Sofe explains to me that her cousin herds reindeer using a snowmobile. When we approach the lake (which is also frozen), I notice snowmobile tracks in the snow. She says they’re probably his. They’re not the only tracks in the snow.

ess: these are rabbit tracks. You see two, two small.

sv: yeah, it's like a little leap. OK, I have to take a picture.

We haven’t seen a single other person the whole time. It is so peaceful out here. It's like what you imagine when you do a guided visualization.

I love it when there's this frost on the branches and you can see each branch individually.

Having reached the lake, we turn around and begin to walk back.

ess: Of course when I was younger I used to dream about having a bigger studio. At the same time, I see now that I have a space in DaidaDallu and I have sometimes a space in the theatre and some other locations in GDG and that works well as well. And I have sometimes the cycle that I am with the reindeers in October and parts of April.

sv: what happens in April?

ess: In April we are moving the reindeer from this place, in Guovdageaidnu, to the coast, in Skaidi. So it's also a migration with the reindeer where my husband and the other herders need help from others. Yeah, because there's, the reindeer need to be herded 24/7.

sv: Don't they naturally want to go? I thought they liked the coast.

ess: Yeah, they want to go. So it's not we, who are moving the reindeer, the reindeer, they go themselves, and we follow.

sv: OK and just make sure everything's ok?

ess: Yeah, because reindeer, they go where they find food. So if there is, the snow has melted more on this side but there is another herd there, then we have to prevent them from going there and mixing with another herd.

sv: I ask Elle Sofe if she gets ideas for her work when she’s out walking, or herding reindeer. She says no.

ess: I think they actually come when I'm in motion. I think they come when I am traveling, like when I am here, I don't notice the rabbit tracks or snowmobile tracks, they are very common, so. It's maybe when I meet other cultures or perspectives that I see more my own perspectives.

I have also got inspired by saying or poems. This new work, 'The Answer is Land' is also a poem by three Sámi artists.

sv: She very carefully explains to me the way that this works but I don't think that I quite understand. You can find a link to the poem in the show notes. And then we're back to the car. I search for a Kleenex to wipe my dripping faucet of a nose.  Elle Sofe offers me some toilet paper. They don’t really do Kleenex here. But everyone has a roll of toilet paper in their car.


ess: Well I just kind of started out with films and theatre in school when I was 14 years old. That was so much fun for me because I wasn't really a good student at school. I found it very, not so much fun. [laughter] And so when we could do theatre and films at school, I found my path and I found, Wow, this is so much fun and, this I can do. So from there I just decided that I want to go to this gymnasium that has this theatre and dance and I want to learn more.

sv: and the Gymnasium here is a high school, or, how old were you when you went to gymnasium?

ess: 16 years old. 16 to 18 you go to gymnasium and I moved to another town. First Alta, which is about 2 hours away, and then to Tromsø, which is about 6 hours away so, yeah.

sv: that's pretty young, to make a move that far.

ess: Yeah, it is I guess but in this village we didn't have those genres so I had to do it. And I found it really, I really liked it and it was really worth it for me.

sv: what kind of projects were you working on, when you were 16?

ess: Hmmm well, I was just kind of getting to know what it's all about and just actually dancing very much. Like modern and ballet and hip-hop and all sort of genres, just to dance and to get familiar with what it's all about. But I also started out with my own choreographies to Sámi music or to joik, and that was with me from the start. And I remember that I used to perform in small events or something and then get calls from the college or university and could I come and perform, and when I was just very young and made a choreography or joik to some Sámi music and that's kind of the start. It just took more and more time so I got very involved in everything.

sv: So, being Sámi, how did you feel that your family felt about your desire to become an artist, dancer, filmmaker? How did they feel about it?

ess: Well, my closest family, like my parents, they were very supportive. I think that's also, they have been very supportuve to all of us, also my brother and sister, because we have all gone to very different paths. My brother is a carpenter and my sister is a teacher and I am an artist, so we have gone different paths. I think that our parents have always been very supportive and when I moved to London when I was 19, they said, "OK, you can do it, we can support you. But we have no idea what awaits you there and how we can help you to manage this. But we support you and you can do it."

sv: That's so sweet.

ess: Yeah. It's maybe sometimes when we are at DaidaDallu, with the Sami artist collective, we all kind of have that in common. My generation of new Sami artists, we don;'t have any, like, our parents or grandparents who are being artists or anything in that category. They don’t know anything so we don't have any grown-ups we can ask about that stuff.

sv: That's so interesting. Can you explain why that is, that nobody has a parent or grandparent who was an artist?

ess: I mean, there have been some Sámi artists in the beginning of 1900s but not so many. Like, in my family on my mother's side, here in this area, they were reindeer herders and they moved with the reindeer from this area to the coast. Like we also do today. But at that time they worked both the mother and the father worked full time with that. And the kids went to school but in the beginning the reindeer herding kids had school in the summer months, or, connected to the cycles of how they move with the reindeer. So it's just been very other culture and focus. And it's maybe, how can you say, maybe like after WWII, after 1950s that the Sámi community in this area had more modernization or institutions, that people started to work also outside the family.

sv: So, if you were a creative person early in the 1900s, and you were herding reindeer, you would find a way to be creative in that, in your tasks in life, I guess, right? I mean, there were, there are Sámi arts, there is joik and duodji, I'm sure there are other ways to be an artist that aren't just, like, you and I being professional artists, it's not the only way to be a creative person, right?

ess: Of course, I maybe said it a little bit wrong. Of course there are also artists. Like, in my family. There are great handicrafters or great joikers or great poets, in a way? How they can tell stories or how they can also have words in the joiks or tell about something in a certain way that is very poetic.

sv: Can you mention a little bit about language, I think some of our listeners won't know about Sámi, or that there are six living Sámi languages, can you talk about why they're stressed, or threatened?

ess: Yeah, Sámi languages, there are originally 10 Sámi languages and I speak Northern Sámi, which is the biggest language, there are about 20,000 people who speak it, so it's not a lot. And the Sámi languages, are one of those that have undergone this Norwegianization process, or Swedenization, it was forbidden to speak in schools like when my parents grew up. So it's not that long time ago, my parents remember that they couldn't speak Sámi and they learned Norwegian in school, in the boarder schools. And so Sámi language has been through rough times and now Sámi is an official language in Norway but of course there is a lack of books and material to learn it. And also, children's series and children's books and everything. So, me and my husband, we both speak Sámi fluently but we also see that Norwegian is a big, that our kids also get very influenced by Norwegian or English.

sv: So, getting back to you and your time in London. What was that like? You went from Tromso to London, what was that like?

ess: That was very, like, really big change. That was a huge contrast to what I was used to. And also, both, I just started dancing when I was 17, the dance techniques, so I was new to dancing and also this kind of living in the city and yeah, everything that comes with that. So, it was, I was really exhausted the first time. Like, the first months. There's so much sound, also, in London. It's never quiet. So I was really exhausted but at the same time I really loved the school, I loved to learn something new that was completely new to me.

sv: What school were you at?

ess: Laban Trinity, it's a contemporary dance school, which is based on Rudolf Von Laban's theories about space and time. So it has both the focus on dance technique but also choreography. So that's maybe why the school was a good place for me.

sv: In what sense? What about that made it a good place for you?

ess: Well, I think I knew from the start that I want to create my own work, that I don't want to dance in someone's work, that that doesn't give me as much as to create something from zero. And also because I felt that there is, there is a lack of that expression that I like to see on stage and I would like to create. So I wanted to, I knew that I wanted to create my own stuff.

sv: And when you say that there's a lack of expression you'd like to see, what kind of expressions are you bringing to the stage, now?

ess: Mmm, now I am working on a new performance called "___Eana", 'The Answer is Earth' and there I am working with joik, traditional S song, and I am choregraphing the audience, the audience is participating in the work, with seven performers, joikers and dancers. And what I'm trying to kind of do there is to give this experience to be part of something. Part of a community or part of a traditional song. To be there, experiencing it with the body. And I don't know if I have seen that kind of work other places, but it's kind of this, how—how, I'm, interested in how we can take Sámi perspectives or views, also on dramaturgy and time, how I can shape that in an artwork. In a performance for example. That I don't just use linear story, but that I can in some way make the audience experience things in a different way. To experience the ground that we are on, that we share. Or experience time in a different way. That's kind of my nerdy stuff that I feel that there is a lot of potential, not just to do theatre in Sámi language and that's Sámi theatre, but that you actually look, at what can a theatre be, what can a performance be, in a more whole sense.

sv: are you making work for Sámi people, for non-Sámi people, for both?

ess: I'm making work for everybody. I think my work is from a Sámi perspective but it is universal as well. It has, I think it's for everybody. I don't think that if it should be only for Sámi or only for, I think that's, I don't think about that.

sv: What is that like, being an artist mom?

ess: That has been a big shift in my artist life. Because I was 30 when I had my first child. And until that point, since I was 16, I had been just focused on dance and working wherever people asked me to come. But when I became a mom I became more rooted also in this village. So I had to kind of shift a little bit. And at first I just kind of took every job that I got. Also in theatre, choreography, films, stuff like that, and also administration work for the Sámi artist collective. But two years ago I took a decision that this is too exhausting to do so much different things. That I took a choice and I said, "OK now I'm going to focus on these two projects and that's it."

sv: And the two projects are "The Land is the Answer" and...

ess: The other project is a feature film. Called "Arru". That means...'hindring', I'm not sure about your Norwegian. I'm not sure about the English word. I'm sorry. But I think that's also maybe a work in progress title. So I am quite sure that it will change. It's those two projects that I'm working on and yeah, it's very exciting.


ess: This ribadit tradition, it's something, when I worked with a performance a few years ago I interviewed elderly Sámi about dancing. And that was not something that the elderly knew about. They'd say, "I don't know anything about dancing, we didn't used to dance."

But then when I asked them more about how they moved when they were young, in the parties, or other places, then they described this tradition. Which I kind of have then, which I see as dancing in a way. it's not formalized dance, certain steps or something like that. But it's maybe more that it just occurs in that moment.

sv: it's ritualized in some way. When Sámi people in the past were doing this movement together, it had a meaning...the movement's not accidental, it has meaning to it.

ess: So that's why I call it a tradition as well. Because most people knew what it was, or had seen it before. So it's not just something one or two people did, but it seems like when I then decided to make this film, I wanted to know a little bit more about it, I spoke to elderly people about it

sv: so what were the movements?

ess: Well they were holding the belt, because there is a belt on the midje

sv: On the middle?

ess: On the middle. Both men and women have it and you can hold the belt from behind and you can hold it sideways or turn in certain ways and it's not, it doesn't seem when I have talked with people that it's anything formalized, you just do it the way you want. And also very important, in relation to how much space there was in the place.

Because back then the houses were much smaller, also the houses where they had wedding parties. So it's not that much space, like, in today we have weddings in the sports hall, which is quite big. So there's much more space on the floor. But tradition was that the guys could pull a girl in the belt at wedding parties. You could hold them in the belt and kind of walk around or turn around, that's how I got it described.

sv: And what did that signify?

ess: That was kind of, if you were a little bit interested in that girl, that would be a way to approach. So that's how I understood it, and...there's also stories where the guy's mother also comes to hold the girl in the belt. Because the mother is then agreeing that this is a good match. I think its very funny. I mean, if I, I think I would be so embarrassed if I was like 20 years old and my mother came to help me to [laughter]

sv: So it was only men who would hold women's belts? And someone told me that sometimes there would be a tugging and sometimes the belt would break? This seems kind of, like, gáktis are really special. And expensive. Like, your gákti belt, I would be really angry if I had a gákti and I had a belt and some guys broke it.

ess: Yeah, I mean, there are many different stories of how it ends. It doesn't always break. Or the girl can also take it away, like to open it.

sv: She would unbuckle, or untie her belt? And then walk away? What did that mean?

ess: Well I think then she would be like "Ugh, screw you guys, I'm not part of this."

sv: So would that be signalling that she did not want to get married to that guy or wahtever. And then he has to give her belt back? that's very humiliating.

ess: Yeah I think so. [someone] also told me that she went to get her belt from a guy and in the end there was an aunt who helped her with that or something like that.

sv: Wow, so this guy took her belt home? Jerk.

ess: Yeah but she got it back. And she also described parties in the 1960s, like in a wedding, that all generations are there at the same place. So there are also this, she's describing there are security guards, elderly women standing around in the hall, watching everything and being security guards. And if anyone, if it gets too much trouble, they will go and intervene. And fix things.

sv: What if a young couple was really getting along, would they also intervene? If they were dancing too close or spending too much time together? [laughter]

ess; I don't know.

sv: I'm sure they would do something.

ess: I don't know if young people would do that in front of elders. Maybe that would happen somewhere else. We are very, like this 'intime' zone is further away among Sámis. We don't talk that much about love or these kind of feelings.

sv: Why do you think that is?

ess: I don't know. I think that is something that we should talk more about. Like intimate feelings or sexuality, or I don't know. It's more like, I never talked about that with many people.

sv: Your work addresses some of these themes, right?

ess: I think that working with dance it naturally comes up.

sv: So um, let's talk about your studio space. Which for today was the great outdoors. Can you tell me, what do you like about it?

ess: I like that it gives me calm and gives me also energy. Yeah, and it's something that I can't control. It has its own mind.

sv: What's good about that?

ess: I don't know what it exactly gives me. But there is something about being outdoors that connects me back to reality in a way. And it also, if I am stressed about developing these new projects, then I can kind of connect to the outdoor, or to nature, or to the ground, "OK, I am just a small piece in the bigger picture."

Its not, sometimes working with, or as an artist, can become very egocentric, also. Your artistic voice, your blah blah blah. I get a little sick of it or also myself, to investigate all the time. I really like to be in different environments, to get perspective that OK, I'm just a small person in this world.

sv: it's nice not to feel like the centre of the universe. It's nice not to feel like that. So the other question we ask is what you would change about your space. What would you change about your beautiful outdoors?

ess: About change...That's a hard question, Svea. But like, if we, the outdoors is not the only space I work in. I work in different places. I would like, it would be really nice to have a real dance studio here in this place. Where every time I come to a real dance studio I just like, Ahhh, the floor is warm, there is dance mats, there's speakers that have good sound... I really want to have such a place sometime, where I could work sometimes.

sv: Do you ever think about climate change, or global warming? I was thinking maybe you would change that, I don't know. It's a big issue up here, in Sápmi, and for reindeer herders in particular.

ess: That is a big issue. But it's also one of these things that is, it's very huge. A huge issue so I have to kind of also, sometimes kind of protect myself in a way that I don't feel bad about it every day. Even though it affects, especially the reindeer herding future. Which is also the future of my kids. But I have to maybe think a little bit, what I can do to reverse it and to change climate change. But I also have to be present and look at the beauty which is now. Many things in Sámi society are very difficult. There are many, many social issues or many political issues, that are there all the time. And they are pressing, in our culture and language. Which can be very hard if you really get into it and experience it every day. I have to be aware of it but also to appreciate the nice things that we have.