Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Riddu Riddu

You fly to Tromsø, which is two hours north of Oslo.  It's beyond the Arctic Circle, pretty cold even at the height of summer, and it never gets even remotely dark.  From there, you get a special bus to the tiny settlement of Manndalen (or, in Sami, Olmmáivággi) - another two and a half hours.  Most people are in tents dotted around the local Cultural Centre - a lucky few get a caravan.  This place is seriously remote.  Surely, you think, this can't be the site of a major indigenous festival?

But it is.  Since 1991, Riddu Riddu has happened each July, as a celebration of Sami culture, and a means of connecting it to other Arctic peoples, and to the indigenous cultures of the world.  This year a bus drove 29 hours from St Petersburg to bring a large party of indigenous Russians (including an extraordinary Siberian dance group) to the Festival.  To begin with, I thought the Siberians were Japanese - but no, there was another, even larger, group of Ainu.  There was a shaman and a storyteller from Greenland.  Buffy Sainte-Marie and her band came from Canada.  Moana and the Tribe were there from New Zealand (winning the prize for the longest journey).  My personal favourites were Sotz'il Jay - a Mayan group from Guatemala, whose performance was billed as dance, but seemed to me closer to shamanic ritual, as the entranced performers moved between human and animal identities.

It's important for us (and perhaps especially for me, as director of Origins) to recognise that the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe, have an indigenous history and identity every bit as intense and significant as that of Native Americans, Australians and Polynesians.  It is salutary to be reminded that, right here in Northern Europe, children were put into residential schools, women were forcibly sterilised, language and culture were suppressed, and indigenous ethnicity was considered shameful.  many of the festival events are harsh reminders that it was only in the last 20 years or so that the Sami were able to reclaim their cultural identity with pride.  It's very touching to hear their languages clawing their way back, and to see the traditional clothes being worn.  

So it is also very powerful to watch the film Biekka Fábmu, which the Festival made about its 20th anniversary in 2011.  It was intended to show a success story - the arrival of Riddu Riddu as a central element in Norway's cultural programme, the integration of indigenous identity into a pluralist social space.  But July 22nd 2011 was the day of the bomb in Oslo and the shootings in Utøya - the day Norway was traumatised into re-assessing its image as an open, multicultural nation.  The Festival Chair's own daughter was on Utøya: she was eventually found wounded but alive.  The Festival ended early, with the concert for that night becoming an act of commemoration and mourning - and a gesture of solidarity amongst those who strive to create an accepting and diverse world.

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