Mari Boine never intended to become an internationally recognized spokesperson for Sami culture. Nor did she aspire to a life on-stage as an exceptionally powerful singer. In fact, her great aspiration was to become a teacher, an admirable hope—but both she and the world are glad that fate intervened. Since then, she’s emerged as one of the leading advocates for the Indigenous people of the Norwegian Arctic, whose social position is analogous to that of First Nations in Canada, and a recording artist with more than a dozen LPs to her credit. It’s a remarkable story, and she’s a remarkable person.
“I was a young woman, and I went to teachers’ training college,” Boine tells the Straight, in a Skype conversation from her home on Norway’s northernmost coast. “Both me and my husband then, we were both Samis, and we had our first child, and we spoke Norwegian to him—without questioning, without wondering ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then, during those years at the teachers’ training college, I for the first time heard my people’s story, and I understood what happened about all this colonization of the mind and all this convincing people who are close to nature and have this nature religion, convincing them that what they had was from the devil. And then I just realized I have to take care of my language.
“I mean, I grew up with my language, but I wanted to become Norwegian and forget everything,” she continues. “I was so ashamed of everything about my culture—and then that all changed.…I tried to say ‘No, no, I am not the one who’s going on-stage. I’m not the one who is going to sing. I just want to be a teacher, and a mother.’ But I had nothing to say. I just had to follow.”
The 62-year-old Boine’s musical career has paralleled her acceptance of her Sami roots, beginning with her embrace of the language that she once wanted to forget.
“I knew that we had the traditional singing, and I knew that the Christians, like my parents, they were so afraid of those traditional songs,” she explains. “But I started to question ‘What is this?’ and ‘Why are we ashamed of our heritage? Where on earth does this come from?’ And then I learned by reading, because the old people didn’t really want to talk about this. They had accepted, okay, ‘What is our religion? It’s gone, gone by, and should be forgotten.’ But then I started to read, and to see, and to study. One friend of mine who is a religious historian, she wrote a book about shamanism, and I started to understand more and more. At the same time—and I was a very shy person—this music started to come through me, and suddenly everything changed. It was like a wise old woman started to whisper the songs in my ear.”
Some of Boine’s older albums have shamanic content, inspired by traditional joiks or herding songs, and consisting of ecstatic paeans to nature. That remains an aspect of her work, she says, noting that her most recent composition is “a prayer to the sun, our father, and the earth, our mother”. But in 2017 she released See the Woman, sung entirely in English, a strategy intended to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around her own nature.
“People wanted me to be a guru or a shaman, and I said, ‘I’m an artist! Okay, this shamanistic music goes through me, but I’m not a shaman,’ ” the singer says. “Of course, artists can also have this healing power; I know there’s healing in my music. But I also wanted to show there’s a woman behind this. I think in Germany they were shocked [by See the Woman]. I have a big audience in Germany and they just wanted me to be this magical woman from the North. They didn’t want to know my story.”
Boine laughs, acknowledging the contradiction: by embodying the mystical aspects of Sami culture, once endangered by colonialism and the loss of a traditional nomadic lifestyle, she ran the risk of not being seen as an individual. And in this phase of her career, her task is to integrate all the different aspects of her history, her artistic interests, and her personal life into a unified creative expression.
For this, she adds, there’s no better vehicle than song. “I’m so glad I have the music,” Boine explains. “I say that because I see my voice as a gift, as a talent somebody decided to give to me. They gave it to me, so I could be taken on this journey—and I’m so glad they didn’t give it to the neighbour’s daughter!”
Mari Boine plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (October 5). She will also join Lil’wat singer and composer Russell Wallace in conversation at the Native Education College at 3:30 p.m. on Friday (October 4).