Retracing Roots: Generational Shame


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”?

Melissa says: “To live with shame your whole life is, of course, not easy but most importantly it is very very sad. To not be proud of who you are, well there are just no words for it. Yet, despite all the problems and the hurt felt throughout the generations passed the Sámi community is still strong, still proud, still speaking the Sámi language, and still supportive of each other.”

That is the indigenous paradox.

The American Psychiatric Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.” Without denying the pain and shame experienced by our Sami ancestors, we can celebrate — and inhabit — their resilience, of which our existence is immediate proof.

Resilience is something I can honor in my Russian whiskey-trading ancestor, who travelled great distances to the Jokkmokk market each February, selling what he could to the Sami to feed his family back home. It is also something I can honor in my Laestadian ancestors, who refused to drink even a sip of the “devil’s piss,” doing what THEY felt was necessary for the survival of their families.

I honor them all. I am grateful for all the lives that made mine possible.

—Julie

Update: My newfound cousin Roland in Sweden urged me to watch this reality show in which Americans discover their Swedish roots. It is often silly, like all reality shows, but incredibly moving. Highly recommended!

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