Penny’s Story

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.

I was sure my deceased mother did not know about this, although May’s family did. Her mother was Aunt Mary, and May reported that when her parents argued, her dad would call her mother a “dirty Lapp.” At long last there was an explanation for my grandmother’s reticence when, as a kid, I would ask her if she was part Eskimo (she had brown eyes and darker skin) and when I wondered why she always sucked the marrow out of broken bones. She never dropped a hint about her heritage, claiming that she was “Norwegian.”

Penny’s great-grandparents and Aunt Mary in 1898 in a photo provided by Penny’s cousin May to Báiki

Over the years, I’ve been been put in touch with Sámi relatives in the Finnmark area of Norway. Two of them have overnighted with us when traveling to indigenous people’s conferences. And in Summer 2011, we attended a huge family reunion in Karasjok, with 300 of my closest cousins! It was inspiring to spend time in a Sámi town complete with the legislature and a fantastic museum, to see the land first claimed and built on by my great-great grandfather, and to visit in the home of so many gracious relatives.

“A family reunion . . . with 300 of my closest cousins!

I suppose the most difficult aspect of this is the inability to talk about this heritage with my grandmother, who was so ashamed of it that she and her two sisters vowed to keep it secret upon their move from Nome to Kitsap County in hopes of avoiding the teasing (and worse) that they anticipated on the playground and in the Scandinavian community. And really trying to comprehend the rejection that this amazing indigenous group has experienced and continues to experience.

But me, I’m thrilled with being Sámi!

—Penny Koyama

(Ed. Note: Read more about the Sami in Alaska here and in Báiki, whose editors are bringing their excellent Sámi Reindeer People in Alaska exhibit to the Vesterheim Norwegian Museum in Decorah, Iowa from December 1, 2012 to November 10, 2013.

Many thanks to Penny for sharing her story. Feel free to leave a comment or question! If there is no comment box below, click on the title of this post and check again.)

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