Norwegian Vuelie Sámi Frozen 2 indigenous Elsa tribe movie Disney culture
"Frozen" characters pose for a photograph at the "Frozen 2" film premiere in London on Nov. 17, 2019. (Photo credit: David Fisher/Shutterstock)

Disney Signed Contract to Respectfully Portray Indigenous People for Hit Movie ‘Frozen 2’

Disney’s (No. 20 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) “Frozen 2” is currently in theaters breaking box office records, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The new animated sequel went in a slightly different direction than its blockbuster predecessor “Frozen.” The creators of the film, Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck and producer Peter Del Vecho, tasked themselves with representing the Sámi people respectfully and accurately in “Frozen 2.”

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The original “Frozen,” which debuted in 2013, opened with a beautiful tribal chanting sequence that may be unfamiliar to North American ears.

The filmmakers decided to use the song, titled “Vuelie,” at the beginning of the original film, but there was no mention of the origin of the song or the culture it came from. It comes from a tribe of indigenous people who live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia called the Sámi. The rousing hymn was written for the film by a composer and musician from the tribe named Frode Fjellheim, according to Now Toronto. He adapted the song from an earlier rendition he composed titled “Eatnemen Vuelie,” which means “Song of the Earth.” Fjellheim’s inspiration came from joik, a Sámi vocal tradition that was banned by the Norwegians as they colonized the indigenous people in the area.

The movie’s main characters are Elsa and Anna — two fair, blonde women who live in the fictional Norwegian kingdom of Arendelle. Given Disney’s choice of imagery for Elsa and Anna, the use of the song and lack of recognition of its origin, a commotion stirred on the internet regarding cultural appropriation and the company’s track record of whitewashing cultures it habitually uses as the backdrop for its films.

The media giant also took heat on social media for its decision to “borrow” from Sámi culture with respect to indigenous clothing. For example, Kristoff, a white character who looks Norwegian, dons clothing normally worn by reindeer herders of the tribe. Modern-day Sámi people can be fair as a result of ethnic cleansing and colonization that took place for more than 100 years in the region.

The debate on the internet spawned a conversation between tribal members and Disney about inclusion and recognition. That conversation led to a contract between Disney and Sámi tribal leaders that gave high-ranking members collaborative rights to “Frozen 2.” The agreement allowed the indigenous tribe and its culture to be represented respectfully and appropriately.

Though the contract is confidential, Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, disclosed to Now Toronto non-confidential parts of the contract. Del Vecho and representatives from the Sámi parliament signed a contract that is printed to look like a handwritten document in calligraphy.

The tribe’s role in the sequel is significant and members of the Saami Council, a non-governmental organization of the Sámi people, and Sámi parliaments located in Norway, Sweden and Finland also collaborated with the film’s producers. Even Verddet, a group of experts in Sámi culture, acted as cultural consultants for “Frozen 2.”

Jesse Wente, director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, told Toronto Now that he had never seen anything like the agreement by a major movie company before the release of “Frozen 2.”

“This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories,” he said. “It hasn’t happened before.”

“It’s a treaty,” Wente continued. “It’s in keeping with how indigenous nations have tended to negotiate with other entities in the past. I think it’s a great precedent for how indigenous nations might deal with a corporation the size of Walt Disney, as well as governments and other agencies, around the use of their cultural and intellectual property in popular entertainment.”

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