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The Sami Yoik

Kathryn Burke

The yoik, a unique form of cultural expression for the Sami people, can be understood as a metaphor for Sami traditional culture itself. Like the Sami people, the yoik has been misunderstood, ridiculed, appropriated, and even threatened. A form of song which utilizes a scale and vocalizations which are unfamiliar to virtually everyone in the Western (American and European) world, the history of the yoik is representative of all the encroachment and abuse that the Sami people have suffered at the hands of outsiders. Though threatened by Christianity and modernization, the Sami traditional way of life has survived along with the yoik. Both have adjusted to new global and local circumstances and continue to endure. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure preservation of the yoik in its traditional form. As a key element of the Sami culture, the yoik should be accepted and recognized by the world as a valuable, unique, viable form of music. This recognition will aid in the preservation of traditional Sami culture as an entire worldview.

            Ursula Länsman of the Sami group Angelit defines the yoik thusly:

A yoik is not merely a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it's like a holographic, multi-dimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is that something. It does not begin and it does not end. A yoik does not need to have words – its narrative is in its power, it can tell a life story in song. The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures.


This description provides a good starting point for understanding the yoik. The concepts of "music" and "song" in Western culture are not completely applicable to the yoik. First and foremost, a yoik is not a song in the sense that it is about something. Gaski explains the research of Ola Graff:

The reference to the object of a yoik is not something which someone may add to or leave out from the melody…[t]he melody is closely connected to the referential object in an indissoluble relationship. Linguistically this is expressed through the fact that one does not yoik about somebody or something, there is a direct connection; one yoiks something or someone.


Other significant differences between Western and Sami "music" relate to sound and structure. The yoik is "almost exclusively vocal" (Krumhansl et al. 5). Occasionally a yoiker would gradually increase the pitch of the melodic pattern as the yoik continued. Unlike most Western music, the use of musical instruments (with the significant exception of the drum, to be discussed later) is not expected in the traditional yoik. In fact, "[t]he advent of accompanying instruments has made the gradual pitch changes impossible." (Laitinen). Another important distinction between the yoik and the Western song, according to acclaimed multimedia Sami artist Nils-Aslak  Valkeapää, is that "[t]he yoik was never intended to be performed as art" (Valkeapää, cited in Krumhansl et al. 6). However, the yoik does have many social functions: it can serve as a tool for sharing memories, for community building (both within a family and within society as a whole), for personal self-expression, to calm the reindeer or frighten the wolves, or even to transport one between worlds (Krumhansl et al. 6). A third notable distinction between Western song and the yoik involves form.  Ánde Somby, a noted Sami and scholar and yoiker, describes the differences in form between Western song and the Sami yoik tradition:

The regular concept of a western European song is that it has a start, a middle and an ending. In that sense, a song will have a linear structure. A yoik seems to start and stop suddenly. It hasn't a start or neither an ending. Yoik is definitively not a line, but it is perhaps a kind of circle. Yoik is not a circle that would have Euclidian symmetry although it has maybe a depthsymmetry. That emphasizes that if you were asking for the start or the ending of a yoik, your question would be wrong.


The structure of a yoik thus follows the Sami worldview of "No beginning, no end". Sami see the world as following the circular patterns of nature; this is reflected in the "depthsymmetry" of this prominent form of cultural expression.


Giuseppe Acerbi, an Italian explorer who traveled to northern Scandinavia in the late 18th century, provided one of the first written non-Sami interpretations of the yoik; his comments were far from favorable:

I attempted several times, both by the power of money and of brandy, to make the pastoral Laplander utter his notes, that I might form…some idea of their music: but the utmost I could accomplish was to extort from them some hideous cries, during the continuance of which I was sometimes obliged to stop my ears with my fingers. It is scarcely credible, though it is perfectly true, that the mountain and w ¡ndering Laplanders have not the least idea of any thing connected with harmony…[a]rtificial music appears to be wholly banished from these forlorn and solitary districts.

(Acerbi 66)

This scathing evaluation demonstrates the vast difference in cultural conceptions of musical aesthetic. Acerbi's comments highlight the unfamiliarity to Western ears of the vocalizations utilized in the yoik.

            "The primary vocal characteristic in the traditional performance of yoik has been described variously as 'constrained' or 'compressed'" (Jones-Bamman 111). The technique used in yoiking requires careful breath control, because the vocalizations tighten the throat and place stress on the vocal chords. The resultant timbre is heard as "harsh" or "nasal" by outsiders. Also, the yoik makes use of intervals which often sound either too long or too short for Western ears. The articulation of notes in the yoik is also dissimilar to music from other areas: yoikers often use glissando notes, "sliding in and out of pitches." This feature of the yoik makes it difficult or even impossible to accompany a yoiker with musical instruments. A yoik exhibits a rhythmic structure which is unlike that valued in Western music; to the non-Sami ear, a yoik may sound as though it has no rhythmãthere is none of the symmetry which Western culture finds so appealing (Jones-Bamman 111-114).

            Despite these general characteristics of the yoik, this genre can be divided into three distinct regional dialects, which roughly correspond to the dialectical areas of Sami language. The North Sami form of the yoik, which is the form most often associated with the term "yoik", is also the most common. The prominence of this type of yoik is probably related to the fact that three-fourths of the Sami in Samiland live in the North. The Northern yoik (luohti in Sami) is characterized by the use of a pentatonic scale (with no half-notes). The notes of the yoik often leap up and down. A luohti always has a specific subject, usually a person, described in an intense voice. This form of yoik also makes use of a marked rhythm, with syncopations, altering accentuations and vocal timbres, and the addition of glissandos and ornamental figures (such as vibratos). Different breathing styles are used to produce the desired sounds (Laitinen).


The vuolle is the South Sami form of the yoik. This form's characteristics include the use of just two or three notes close together on a scale. The vuolle also contains "varying melodic spans consisting of several long sounds interspersed with quick glissando and ornamental falsetto notes" (Laitinen). Thus the scale structure and melodies distinguish this dialect of yoik from its North Sami counterpart, the luohti.


The Eastern Sami form of the yoik, the leu'dd, is itself differentiated by form and structure from the Southern and Northern dialects. The leu'dd is sometimes described as an "epic" form of yoik; it often consists of a long, personal narrative in a more poetic form. This narrative could serve to "[record] the unwritten history of the native village in poetic terms" (Laitinen). The Eastern Sami yoik dialect is unique, "bearing elements quite alien to the spoken tongue" (Laitinen). Improvisation plays a key role in this form of song. The yoiker may incorporate elements of the vuolle and the luohti, change his melody, and touch upon a wide range of subjects with no apparent theme. The proportion of Eastern Sami to the larger whole of the entire Sami population is very small. Thus it is not surprising that the leu'dd is by far the rarest of the yoik forms.


As mentioned above, the yoik both reflects and helps to reinforce the Sami cultural values of community and cooperation. Ownership of the yoik as understood by the Sami provides a relevant point of discussion for this contention. Harald Gaski explains and interprets the distinction between concepts of ownership of a song in Sapmi and in Western culture:

It is not the one who composes a yoik who owns it, but rather that which is yoiked. To no greater or lesser extent is the producer, in this sense, loses the right to his or her product, while the subject assumes dominion over this same creation. This the traditional role of art in a culture in which the central focus is on collectivity, not in the sense that the individual owns nothing, but rather in the respect that a perceived solidarity is what actually holds the culture together. In such a society, an artist is not simply an individual; she or he is also a representative of the entire culture, one element in the distribution of labor within the whole.


Gaski's analysis of the ownership of the yoik highlights the relevance of the yoik to the Sami worldview. Throughout generations of oppression, encroachment and conflict, the Sami people have managed to retain their ethnic and cultural identities through solidarity. "In the comprehensive and personal nature of its feelings the yoik brings people together, creating solidarity" (Lehtola 106). It is true that many Sami have been assimilated into the majority culture of their respective countries; however, enough of the others have resisted the attempts of missionaries, violent intruders, governments, and technology to change the Sami way of life that Sami traditional culture, the yoik included, has survived. Community coherence, influenced by forms of cultural expression such as the yoik, has enabled this survival.

            The yoik also promotes a sense of belonging on a more personal level. Traditionally, receiving one's yoik was an adolescent rite of passage.  ¡nde Somby comments: "In our tradition it was very important for the personal identity to get a yoik. It was like getting a name if you got your own yoik" (Somby 4). This emphasizes both the role of the yoik in personal identity (receiving a yoik was an important part of being a Sami), but also the role of the yoik in building community. By following a tradition and accepting one's yoik, one is affirming one's identity as a member of a group. Gaski states that "[i]n the social context where the yoik belongs, people will…recognize both the yoiked person and her melody" (Gaski). The truth of Gaski's statement requires that each member of a siida, the traditional Sami village or community, be fairly well-acquainted with the other members. Extensionally, since the "subject" of a yoik can be virtually anything—a reindeer, a snowmobile, a marriage, the trees, the snow, etc.—the complete understanding of a yoik is possible only "in the social context where [that] yoik belongs" (Gaski). Thus Gaski's statement implies the necessity of an understanding of the entire locality of a yoik to truly appreciate it.

When we consider the "referential function" of the yoik, this necessity becomes even clearer. A sort of boundary is created, separating the "insiders" and the "outsiders". This again enhances a sense of community among the "insiders". One Sami described the feeling this way: "When I come to some place and they yoik me I know they welcome me kindly and accept me as one of them" (Mikkel Isak Oskal, cited in Krumhansl et al. 6). The yoik's "referential function" also enables the yoik to "remove distance: the friend who is gone is brought back through a yoik" (Lehtola 106). "Mikkel Gaup, a Sami author and tradition bearer, remembers: 'By yoiking my parents I can experience the feeling of being together with them, although they do not live anymore ’" (Eriksson, after Gaup in Krumhansl et al. 6).

Despite all of its social functions, the yoik is by no means limited to the "public" sphere; yoiking while one is alone is just as common. While this fact can, unfortunately, be partially attributed to the influence of Christian missionaries who denounced the yoik as "evil", this suppression of Sami traditional religious practice is not the only reason for yoiking in solitude. As mentioned above, the yoik can serve as a device for bringing people (or places, or animals, etc.) together.  ¡nders Baer, a Sami, explains: "A luohti [yoik] is like a friend; when you are alone out in the mountains and remember a good friend, you yoik his luohti and it makes you feel good" (Jernsletten, quoted in Krumhansl et al. 6). Another important reason for yoiking alone is, logically, a "natural desire for self-expression" (Krumhansl et al. 6).

One more crucial aspect of the yoik in traditional Sami culture is its role in shamanism. Yoiking was a key part of the Sami traditional religion, whether performed by an "amateur" at home or a noaidi, the siida's resident shaman. Along with the drum, "the other essential tool for the noaidi was yoik" (Jones-Bamman 79). In the Sami traditional religion, there were three worlds: the "real" world of the living, the Saivo world, a paradise where Sami went after life on earth, and upper world of the gods. Also, each Sami had two souls, one which stayed with the individual until his death, when that soul would join the spiritual realm of the dead, and one which was capable of moving between the two worlds even before the individual's death (Jones-Bamman 76). A noaidi was one of a special few whose soul was able to travel between the three worlds in a trance state. This was useful for confronting other spirits; locating lost objects, choice game or grazing areas; and "looking after the health of those in his community, thus ensuring that the balance within the cosmological system was maintained at a personal level as well" (Jones-Bamman 77). A noaidi used the ceremonial drum and special yoiks to achieve this trance state. "The yoiks that the noaidi knew and used were perceived as having power which could change the course of events if used appropriately by a knowledgeable specialist" (Jones-Bamman 80). Members of the siida would come to the noaidi for medical help, divinations, and reindeer advice. However, the noaidi also served as a source of yoiks which could be used more informally by "laymen". In the early 18th century, Isaac Olsen observed the following among the Sami in northern Norway:

Thus the noaidi teaches his people and his followers to yoik…for every purpose…and the prayers, songs, and magical songs which serve one shall not be used by another, he teaches those…songs…to people when they are sick, illuminating certain words, prayers, and songs when they have hurt themselves…

(Jones-Bamman 81)

Again, we see the importance of community and cooperation in the Sami traditional worldview, as reflected by the cultural expression of yoik.

            The role of the yoik in shamanism, however, proved to be the basis for a systematic suppression of this cultural expression by Christian missionaries and the governments of Scandinavia (in the form of assimilation programs and boarding schools). Christian missionizing occurred in Sapmi during the late 1600s and the 1700s. Lehtola characterizes this time period:

The intent of Christian priests seems to have been the complete destruction of the old world-view, not just the shamanistic practices. Besides the traditions firmly linked to shamanism, the church judged many other unfamiliar customs to be heathen, such as the secular yoik tradition.

(Lehtola 28)

Thus we see that from the beginning of the presence of Christian missionaries in northern Scandinavia, the yoik tradition in Sami culture was threatened. The specific tactics of the missionaries (who worked very closely with the nation-states) centered on persecution. After introducing the ideas of a single god of a heaven and the devil who ruled in hell, Jesus, and the Bible (all of which are oriented to a more "Western" mindset), the missionaries condemned the old religion as heathen and evil. "All people who practised the old religion were held to be people who had given themselves to immorality or the Devilãthey were believed to have sold their own souls, their relatives' souls and even their children's souls" (Lehtola 29). The missionaries furthered their cause by targeting noaidis, forcing them to surrender their traditional faith (Swedish Institute website, hereafter cited as SI). The ceremonial drums were confiscated by the missionaries; many were burned or otherwise destroyed. Any Sami who practiced yoiking, ceremonial or secular, was said to be "communicating with spirits and the devil through their yoiks" (SI). Therefore, many Sami who wished to continue practicing their own traditions were condemned not only by the foreign missionaries, but also by other authority figures (such as teachers and governmental officials) and even other Sami, who had accepted the teachings of Christianity (especially Læstadianism).

            All of these forces proved immensely successful in limiting the reach of the yoik. This archaic form of expression, however, refused to be extinguished. There were Sami who were able to retain their traditional worldview and religion by moving "underground". Veli-Pekka Lehtola describes the strength of the yoik as a form of cultural expression, even after the suppression tactics of the majority cultures:

Yoik retained a rebellious spirit… It was based on a quality of double-meaning, a certain ironic ambiguity—a code. Sami researcher Harald Gaski points out that the epic yoiks of the 1800s contained clear political standpoints, but under the surface. For example, the yoik "The Thief and the Noaidi" works on two levels so that the Sami community understood its content differently than outsiders like ministers and researchers.

(Lehtola 106)

Similarly, Richard Jones-Bamman describes the response of the Sami to this cultural suppression:

Even with the organized attempts of various authorities to discourage yoiking…the most common outcome was that the genre simply disappeared from audible detection, only heard when it was considered safe to do so, either when alone…or within the immediate family (presuming there were no familial objections).

(Jones-Bamman 28)

The Sami not only moved their yoiking tradition underground, but they also adapted their yoiks to the new circumstances. "Many supposed Sami converts adopted only those aspects of Christianity which either did not seriously interfere with indigenous beliefs, or at least did not entirely discount their potential incorporation into local interpretations of Christian dogma and rituals" (Jones-Bamman 203). A sort of hybrid religion was the result of this forced conversion to Christianity. In a sense, many Sami were able to "worship two gods": they professed a belief in the Christian faith to satisfy the outsiders while centering the core of their religious faith in their "indigenous" beliefs.

            This process of adaptation and compromise proved vital in the resurgence of interest in the yoik after World War II. By this point in time, the yoik had become a "sinful" behavior; many assimilated Sami, as well as the Christian (Lutheran or Læstadian) majority, considered the yoik to be heathen and evil. Boarding schools had prevented many children from ever learning the art, or even hearing a yoik. "By the mid-20th century, the art of yoiking was close to disappearing" (SI). However, during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, the Sami traditional culture, including the yoik, experienced a revival. In fact, the yoik became a "central symbol of the åSami renaissance'" (Lehtola 106). This renaissance became an entire cultural movement.

            Sami culture was in need of a revival. Centuries of oppression, suppression and prejudice inevitably had adversely affected the self-image of a Sami. Assimilation had taught them to be ashamed of their culture and traditional practices. The following quote highlights the difficulty in reviving this music form among a people who had been so aggressively Christianized and assimilated:

[T]he yoik did not 'die' anymore than Sami culture did. As the result of research undertaken in the 1940s and 1950s…the genre was found remarkably tenacious in both Norway and Sweden…Clearly it was not as widespread as earlier sources would lead one to believe was once the case, but concerted efforts uncovered a surprising number of older people who still yoiked with considerable skill. Joiking was still primarily a very private affair, however. Centuries of negative reactions, both from outside and inside sources, had taken their predictable toll, with fewer people joiking overtly, and many actually denying any knowledge of the genre.

(Jones-Bamman 29)

Clearly, the Sami needed to find pride and strength in their collective self-image. The Sami cultural movement needed a leader to help them mobilize to work for equal treatment and respect among the other peoples of Scandinavia and the world.

            No discussion of this cultural movement is complete without an examination of the contributions of Nils-Aslak Valkeapää. Born into a reindeer-herding family, Valkeapää realized early that he was destined for more "academic" pursuits. ¡ilu, as he is often called, indeed achieved great success in his endeavors. He utilized his skills in writing (poetry and nonfiction), music, graphic art and even drama to help mobilize the Sami in this "cultural reawakening."

It may be said that Nils-Aslak Valkeapää's public performances, which began in 1966, raised yoik to a new flourishing and to a new identity as a symbol. Because of the possibilities given in its secret codes and concealed meanings, it is well suited as a weapon. Valkeapää brought together yoikers and organized large concerts, strengthening the status of yoiks.

(Lehtola 106)

As well as raising awareness of and pride in the yoik within the collective Sami consciousness, ¡ilu also achieved unprecedented recognition for the yoik on a global scale. Without Valkeapää's efforts to incorporate the music of the Sami into world music, it is quite probable that the yoik would have died out altogether. ¡ilu released his first record, Joikuja, in 1968. The yoiks on this pioneer album have been described as "both accompanied and unaccompanied, gently intimate and strongly declamatory" (Laitinen). Valkeapää incorporated folk music, instruments, and more melodic tunes into the yoiks on this album. These hybrids of yoiks and more Western music forms can be called "yoik-songs" (Angelin Tytöt website). The explosion of the yoik song onto the world music scene can be partially attributed to its ability to fuse different musical elements together while remaining distinctive.


However, despite the distinctive qualities that the yoik retained in its transition to the global scene, the yoik-song cannot truly be considered a yoik. As discussed above, a very important aspect of the yoik, at least traditionally, was its function in the community. Valkeapää himself, quoted above, has noted that the yoik was "never meant to be performed as art." Thus, in becoming a sort of commodity, the yoik has lost an important characteristic. Traditionally, Sami yoiked for themselves or their communities, whether the reason for the yoik was personal self-expression or spiritual aid in reindeer herding. Today, many yoik in a recording studio or on a stage. The yoik has "changed from [a] participatory form [of expression] to a stage art" (Lehtola 108). Although this transformation has been unquestionably beneficial in raising global awareness of the Sami as well as other indigenous peoples, it must be noted that the traditional significance of this art for the Sami community has been altered.

            So the question arises: "Is it better for the Sami voice to be heard globally through a mediated form of expression, one which must be altered from its traditional form to gain worldly acceptance, or for them not to be heard at all?" Naturally, I believe that the Sami presence in world music is a superior alternative to endless centuries of silence; however, I also believe that a concerted effort must be made to maintain this vocal tradition in its original form as well. As discussed above, the traditional yoik encompasses many elements of the Sami traditional worldview: community, cooperation, a closeness to nature, shamanism, and a tendency to persevere. These values should not have to be adjusted to fit Western standards, whether the adjustment is in cultural expression or ideology. Sami artists such as Mari Boine, Wimme, Daednugatte nuorat (Youth from the shores of the Tana river), Maze nieiddat (The Girls from Maze) and Johan  ¡ndersen have all maintained a connection to the traditional Sami worldview in their popular musicãthey perform both traditional yoiks and yoik-songs on their albums and in their live performances (Lehtola 106-108).

            Overall, it is clear that the Sami have made enormous progress in their endeavors to gain recognition as an independent culture. The yoik has been a valuable tool in that process; it has raised global awareness of the Sami and all indigenous peoples. The yoik is also representative of the entire Sami culture and worldview, in its structure and meaning. This parallel highlights once again the importance of the preservation of this ancient culture and its manifestation in yoik. In conclusion, I will once again quote Ursula Länsman of Angelit: "The yoik has survived through the centuries. It has renewed itself and changed its meaning, but it is still indispensable for the Sami people. To consider the power of the yoik, we need only consider how eagerly outsiders have tried to destroy it" (Länsman).

Works Cited

Acerbi, Giuseppe. Travels through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland, to the North Cape, in the years 1798 and 1799. Vol. II, Chapter VII, pp. 66-68. London: 1802.

Angelin Tyt&ouml;t Biography. April 2003. <>

Gaski, Harald. "The Secretive Text: Yoik Lyrics as Literature and Tradition". Nordlit No.5. 7 Nov. 2000. April 2003. <>

Jones-Bamman, Richard. Negotiating identity and the performance of culture: the Saami joik. Diss. University of Washington, 1993.

Krumhansl, Carol L., et al. "Cross-cultural music cognition: cognitive methodology applied to North Sami yoiks". Cognition 76 (2000) 13-58. April 2003. <>

Laitinen, Heikki. "The Many Faces of the Yoik". Finnish Music Quarterly. Issue 4, 1994. April 2003. <


Länsman, Ursula. "Sami Culture and the Yoik". FolkWorld No. 9. May 1999. April 2003. <>

Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. The Sami People: Traditions in Transition. Trans. Linna Weber Muller-Wille. Aanaar-Inari 2002.

Somby,  Ánde. "The Alta Case in Norway". World Commission on Dams. Dec 1999. April 2003. <>

The Sami People in Sweden. The Swedish Institute. Feb 1999. April 2003. < >