Melissa Lantto has a compelling post over at Retracing Roots about perceiving some self-destructive behaviors (such as alcoholism) within her adopted Sami community, and tying them to the indigenous experience of assimilation.
This comes close to home for me, having discovered that within the same family line (from Swedish Lapland), I am the descendant of both whiskey merchants and Laestadian clergy. Laestadius was the 19th century half-Sami religious leader who demanded complete temperance from his followers, and is alternately credited for preserving Sami culture and criticized for burying it under a severe, fundamentalist doctrine.
Sami or not, we are each of us descended from the colonizer and the colonized. Does our heritage inform our current choices? Can we reconcile competing narratives? What stories do we share with our children? In what culture do we located our “pride”?
Samuel Balto, 1898 in a photo by Čáliid Lágádus via Norske Polarhistorie
It has been over 30 years that I learned about the “family secret” of my Sami heritage.
In about 1978, my mother’s cousin, May, called to ask for photos, since she was making a trip to Karasjok. Married to a Japanese-American over family protests, I answered that I didn’t think they would be interested, since my mother had always said that my grandparents would have been upset over this marriage.
“There are some things you don’t know about yourself . . . “
May responded “Well, there are some things you don’t know about yourself,” and proceeded with the story of the Sámi who came to the United States in 1898, hired to teach the Alaskan Eskimos reindeer husbandry. In that group were my great-grandparents, Anders and Marit Balto, their daughter, my Aunt Mary, and great-uncle, Sam Balto, foreman of the Sámi group. Well I thought this was exciting and exotic, especially after being a “European mutt” amongst a wonderful Japanese family of Samurai heritage.