What started as a national final entry about Sami protests against a dam project turned into the yoik that was heard all around Europe.
And the man who brought that unexpected international attention to his people’s cause, and to the Sami people of Northern Europe in general, Mattis Hætta, passed away this past weekend at the age of 63 due to an undisclosed illness.
Though “Sámiid ædnan,” the Norwegian entry for Eurovision 1980 that Hætta performed alongside Sverre Kjelsberg, only came in 16th in a field of 19, its legacy far outshines what its performance at the contest suggests.
As with Portugal’s 1974 entry that was a signal to kick off the Carnation Revolution, “Sámiid ædnan” started with what was nominally a provincial issue in Norway and turned it into international awareness for the rights of indigenous people in Northern Europe.
Born March 15, 1959 in Kautokeino, Norway, Hætta grew up in the Northern predominantly Sami village of Máze. In 1972, the Norwegian government wanted to relocate the village for a dam project. However, in 1973 the government desisted after strong resistance from the Sami, due mostly to concerns over wild salmon fishing and reindeer herd management disruption.
But the government came back with a new water project called the Alta-Kautokeino waterway, with protests and civil disobedience reaching its height in the Fall of 1979, when the construction of the waterway was set to begin.
In a series of protests in front of the Norwegian Parliament building, Hætta led the crowd with a traditional Sami yoik – a repetitive traditional chant, sometimes without lyrics and meant to evoke through sounds from the singer’s throat nature or spirituality.
Yoiking at the time was seen as a rebellious activity, as Norway’s government had often banned yoiking as part of its Norwegianization policies (replacing the traditional ways of the Sami, often through force, to assimilate them into mainstream Norwegian society).
Kjelsberg took Hætta’s yoik, and formed a chorus for a song called “Sámiid ædnan” (“Sami Land”) alongside Ragnar Olsen. They recorded the song, and even though the protests were ongoing in Norway, entered it into Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix 1980.
Nominally an underdog in the field of ten that year – up against the usual MGP heavyweights such as Jahn Teigen and Anita Skorgan – they shocked viewers by tying in first place with Åge Aleksandersen and Sambandet’s “Bjørnen sover.” In a tie-breaker round, the nine MGP jury members selected their favorite of the two, with “Sámiid ædnan” narrowly getting the win in a 5 to 4 vote.
They performed 11th on the night at Eurovision 1980 on April 19th, 1980, in The Hague, The Netherlands. They finished 16th of 19 on 15 points, with Germany and Morocco giving the most points with 6 and 4, respectively.
That was also the first time that yoiking was heard on the Eurovision stage, and it is that first that makes it a beloved entry despite its performance that night.
Norwegian historian Katri Somby names this song as an important moment in Norwegian and Sami history, with the song having a profound effect on public opinion in Norway. A Sami Parliament was one of many reforms that came out of the protests.
Kjelsberg and Hætta collaborated on an album afterwards, and also participated later in the Sami Grand Prix song contest, formed in 1990.
Hætta also worked as an actor, and featured in “Kautokeino-opprøret” and the youth series “Hjerterått,” both mostly remained actively employed and involved in local Sami political and cultural activities.
The creator of an important moment in the history of Norway and Eurovision, we at ESC United send our condolences to his friends, family, and people.
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