Salmon, the Sami and joik - a night at the Harbor History Museum

Philosopher Martin Lee Mueller, storyteller Georgiana Keable and vocalist and composer Torgeir Vassvik, all of Norway, performed Aug. 8 at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor.
Philosopher Martin Lee Mueller, storyteller Georgiana Keable and vocalist and composer Torgeir Vassvik, all of Norway, performed Aug. 8 at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor.

At first, the unfamiliar sounds and music conveyed longing or yearning.

Later, accompanied by a guitar or a drum, the music echoing through Gig Harbor’s Harbor History Museum sounded more like an ancient folk song.

“You’re hearing music from antiquity,” said museum member Douglas McDonnell, who arranged the Aug. 8 performance. “It goes back 1,000 years.”

A trio from Norway — storyteller Georgiana Keable, philosopher Martin Lee Mueller and vocalist and composer Torgeir Vassvik — came to the museum to present an evening focused on the life journey of the salmon and the music and culture of the Sami, an indigenous people who live in the northern reaches of Europe.

Keable, while stepping around feathers, shells, rocks and a decorative paper salmon placed in a circle on the floor, told most of the “story” during the two-hour performance, with help from Mueller and Vassvik.

Vassvik both sang, spoke and alternately drummed lightly while performing a version of “joik” — the vocal art of the Sami — using a reindeer bone, a water bowl, a white plastic tube and a Norwegian folkloric instrument called a munnharpe.

The three developed the script together in a year-long process.

“It took a lot of time to find out how to tell this story, but when we hit on personifying both the wild and the ‘farmed’ fish, it was a huge breakthrough,” Keable said. “Many people say it’s the first time they have really felt that a fish is a living being.”

The performance, the only stop in Washington State, was part of a five-city tour originating in Victoria, British Columbia. The event, “Being Salmon, Being Human,” was inspired by Mueller’s book of the same name and based on his doctoral dissertation.

The evening also held a cautionary tale about how salmon farming — in preventing the salmon’s natural journey from occurring — kills the salmon’s spirit and essence. In the wild, some salmon travel more than 2,000 miles through oceans to return to the stream where they spawned.

“I’m drawn into a fjord .. (the currents) are powerfully strong ... I see alders. I see boulders. I see taller birch,” Keable said, from the perspective of a salmon on its journey.

Mirroring the perspective of a farmed salmon penned in by netting, storyteller Keable put her hands to her face as if trying to remove a web.

“I put my nose up to the net,” she said, “and see my brothers and sisters doing the same thing.”

“When we die,” Keable said later, “our bodies will be cut up into pieces and wrapped in plastic and floated across the water.”

Underlying the performance was a political statement about the aggressive growth policy Mueller said the Norwegian government has taken with respect to salmon farming.

“The new Norwegian oil — not black, but pink,” Keable said at one point in the performance.

Wild salmon populations have declined in Norway by half in the last 30 years, Mueller said, citing fish farms as the main reason.

“This is the new Norwegian dream,” Keable said. “We call it Lakseeventyr — the Salmon Fairytale. We create biomass. We mass-create life at any cost.”

Mueller said the storytelling group was formed when a friend, the storyteller and folklorist Tiril Bryn, read a draft of his doctoral dissertation and told him, “We must find a way to bring your work to the stage.”

Bryn then contacted Keable and Vassvik to form the group.

Vassvik said nature was the inspiration for his music.

“I come from a village where no one was Sami where I grew up,” he said. “Norway . . . made a lot of shame around Sami culture.”

Now, Vassvik, who has released two records and is working on a third, has played in more than 20 countries.

Arrangements for the three performers to appear at the museum began 10 months ago by McDonnell, who met Mueller during the Elwha Dam dismantling.

The timing of the performance was opportune, Keable said during a break, coming after Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation to phase out the farming of Atlantic salmon and other non-native fish in the state by 2022.

With the focus on Sami music and culture, the event also echoed the recent gathering of 100-plus tribes and Native nations, hosted by the Puyallup tribe, during the “Paddle to Puyallup.”

The performance “was enlightening and heartbreaking at the same time,” said Dave Hackett as he stacked chairs after the event. Hackett, along with his wife Cindy, is a long-time volunteer at the museum.

“To me,” he said, “it’s very contemporary in that they brought the whole industry of salmon farming to life in a whole new way.

“Salmon farming seems very soulless compared to the way salmon were meant to live and the way they want to live.

“Factory farming is factory farming — it takes an animal’s soul.”