Last Tuesday, as part of their excellent event series in conjunction with the 8 Seasons in Sápmi exhibit, the Nordic Heritage Museum hosted a screening of Suddenly Sámi, the documentary by Ellen-Astri Lundby about her discovery of Sámi heritage. This was my second viewing, and almost as powerful as the first.
Lundby is a charming and deft storyteller. As she explores the heritage her mother kept from her, she brings us along to northern Norway, meeting with relatives and finding clues to her family’s past. With several parallels to my own experience of suppressed heritage, I found Lundby’s story profoundly moving. Her mother reminded me of my grandmother, her cousins of my uncles, the rural scenes, my former home, the Laestadian hymn, my childhood church. Even the fish boning and the carving of a carcass were familiar, having witnessed both many times as a child. But it was the unfamiliar reindeer corral scene that moved me to tears.
Pondering what it means to be Sámi, Lundby jokes that despite her people being Sea Sámi, and the fact that only 10 percent of Sámi herd reindeer, reindeer might make her feel more authentic. After a comedic scene of her wrestling with antlers, she is shown in a breathtaking longshot, standing alone in the middle of the spiraling herd in the snow. Beyond its stark beauty, the image seems symbolic of the ancestral search itself, which is not linear, but widens and narrows and circles in on itself, less like a tree than a whirlpool.
After the movie (attended by over 90 people, on a weeknight!), Scandinavian Studies professor Troy Storfjell of Pacific Lutheran University, anthropologist Sharyne Shiu Thornton of the University of Washington, and the writer Sunnie Empie participated in a panel discussion moderated by curator Lizette Grunden (listen to the audio here). The concept of cultural identity, which in the movie is questioned both directly and indirectly, was the main focus of the conversation, and incredibly important for those of indigenous heritage.
(I encourage you to listen to the entire thing, so you don’t miss the questions and stories from the audience, but forgive me for announcing the wrong date wrong for our January event. It is the 20th, not the 21st.)
When the revitalization of Sámi culture started in the 1980’s in Norway, it was too late for Sundby’s mother to go “home,” to revalue the people, stories, and landscapes of her past. Sundby has the distance and freedom to do this, to feel her way forward, as do the six Americans in Ellen Marie Jensen’s book “We Stopped Forgetting.” As do we.
When Lundby visits the Norwegian Sámi parliament, she asks: “How can I feel more Sámi?” and is told “You don’t need to feel more Sámi, you need to view yourself as Sámi.”
That sounds simple, yet even in Sápmi, there is no agreement on the issue.