How Indigenous festivals contribute to understanding ritual(s)


As part of the REDO team of researchers (funded by the Norwegian Research Council*) exploring the relationships between rituals and democracy, I have been privileged to spend time at a number of Indigenous festivals. In particular, I have been considering the multiple activities that make up the Riddu Riddu festival in arctic Norway. More properly, it is located in a valley in the Sámi territory of Sapmi. Each July large numbers of people gather to hear Indigenous performers from round the world as well as to hear talks, join in discussions, buy crafts, and party in the continuous sunlight of the arctic summer. Many different styles of music are performed on the main stage, from rock and reggae to the traditional chants of various Indigenous peoples, especially the Sámi yoik. I’m interested in the different ways in which performers draw on the resources and repertoires of Indigenous rituals to create and offer what they offer to their audiences. Then there are theatre pieces that catch people up into something transformative, illustrating the ways in which entertainment can take on the flavour of profound ritual. In this vibrant context of cultural interchange and spectacle, I’m examining the subtle and explicit expressions of Indigenous vitality, sovereignty and community-making. I’ll be writing more about that soon.

Alongside that annual event, I’ve been participating in other Indigenous gatherings. Every two years there is a wonderful extravaganza of Indigenous cultural display in London’s Origins Festival of First Nations. I should note, then, that I have been deliberately capitalising the word “Indigenous” to refer to peoples, nations or cultures that self-identify as such, and have found recognition in international forums such as the United Nations. There is a large debate about what “Indigenous” might mean and how scholars might use the term – especially because it is employed, like many self-designations, somewhat polemically or perhaps strategically. It is, perhaps, roughly synonymous with words like “native”, “aboriginal” or “First Nations” – all of which draw attention to modes of belonging to particular places, lands or communities. This too deserves more discussion!

In June 2015, I was involved in the making of the short film above. It showcases some of the performers and artists from the Origins Festival, especially in events at the British Museum, at RichMix club and in a park in west London. These provided unrivalled venues for considering what these eloquent Indigenous people wanted to convey to their audiences and others. I think there’s a richness in the video that deserves watching more than once to catch its nuances. It is intended to provide insights into significant issues for Indigenous peoples as well as to encourage further discussion and engagement.

Graham Harvey (Open University)