My Lucky Sámi?


Following is a book review by my friend Xavi, chair of the Sámi Siida of North America (SSNA), an artist, history buff, and all-around swell person. I met Xavi at the 2012 Siidastallan, the bi-annual gathering of Sámi-Americans. In addition to a love of all things Sámi and French, it seems Xavi and I both have Gold Rush relatives. As I have no family in Seattle, where I’ve lived since graduating college, I was surprised to learn recently of family ties not only to Seattle and the Sámi Reindeer Project, which continue with my distant DNA-cousin Lloyd’s reindeer in the Northwest Territories, but according to geni.com, to one of the “Three Lucky Swedes,” Jafet Lindeberg.

Jafet Lindberg reportedly founded Nome, struck gold, ran with masked vigilantes, and was portrayed by John Wayne in the movie The Spoilers. If geni.com can be trusted, he is related to “my” Lindbergs of Norbotten, who have Sámi ancestry, and it seems, boatloads of entrepreneurial pep.

Many thanks to Xavi for his review, and to the Solbakks for translating these valuable letters. I’ve ordered the book and can’t wait to read it.

1873 – 1962

Book Review

by John Edward Xavier

Sami Reindeer Herders in Alaska: Letters from America 1901-1937

A hundred and twenty years ago there began the American Reindeer Project in Alaska, probably the most heroic and yet profoundly human Sámi involvement in North American history. In the ever-growing body of work recounting that history, a valuable book has now been contributed by Sámi authors and editors Aage Solbakk and John Trygve Solbakk along with their Sámi publisher ČálliidLágádus. The Solbakks’ work comes to North America now in Sámi Reindeer Herders in Alaska, as a translation of the original 2009 Sámi language publication under the title Sámit balvalusas Alaskas. This welcome English language version, solidly translated by Kaijja Anttonen, opens new doors to yet another view of a landmark in Sámi North American history, the Reindeer Project.

Now, well over a hundred years later, there remains considerable interest in this entire era (1894-1930s), and so the Solbakks publish in that context as well as that of today’s increasingly active North American Sámi communities. Those communities and other North American audiences continue to be attracted to the many tales of reindeer herder families who became gold miners, many of whom moved to the Pacific Northwest where their descendants can be found today. That colorful era of 1894 to the 1930s has persisted as a topic revisited and reinterpreted by film-makers, novelists, and many researchers, who continue to use varied approaches, for which a couple of prominent examples come to mind.

Among those contemporary projects, there is the long-standing exhibit, “The Sámi Reindeer People of Alaska,” soon to re-open in Hibbing, Minnesota. This exhibit, the fruit of long-time Sámi-American activists Faith Fjeld and Nathan Muus, currently features exhibit booklet illustration and layout by Marlene Wisuri. Secondly, there are sources in social media, including a Facebook page “Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum.” The Sitka, Alaska museum and its Facebook page feature Jackson’s work with the Sámi. Further and earlier accounts of this fascinating topic derive from a group of credible sources such as Vorrren, Niemi, the Lomens, Sámi-American periodicals Arran and Báiki; andNorwegian American Studies  of the Norwegian American Historical Association (NAHA). This last group is referenced in the Solbakks’ work, in yet another vindication of Alf Isak Keskitalo’s landmark essay, “Research as an inter-ethnic activity,” (latest reprint in 1994, in Arctic Centre Reports), where he discussed the merits and implications of research as a starting or launching point for cross-cultural relations.

So, then, what have the Solbakks done that justifies yet another publication on the Sámi role in Alaska (and Canada)? The answer is simple: they have opened new doors by offering a fresh and close-up look at the Sámi experience through the letters of those Sámi reindeer herders (in English translation). This collection of letters is the first of its kind to see print in a book-length English-language collection with commentary. Those many letters, intensely personal and yet insightful, were written by the fully literate Sámi, and sent from North America over a three-decade span for publication in the Sámi-language newspaper Nuorttanaste, in Sápmi. This compilation by the Solbakks is in the long-standing tradition of America Letters from North American Nordic emigrants to the homelands of Europe. Given the long period of time covered in their book and the number of letters involved in their selections from the old files of Nuorttanaste, the Solbakks were obligated to pick and choose.

The Solbakks have picked and chosen well, including letters of prominent Sámi historical figures such as Samuel Balto and Johan S. Tornensis. In those chosen letters, and the many photographs, furthermore, the reader will also see many other names that echo over the centuries of Sámi history, including (alphabetically) Boyne, Eira, Gaup, Haetta, Klemetsen, Sara, and others.

The Solbakks have gone beyond a skeletal history of a succession of letters; they correctly felt moved to flesh out what could have been a mere compilation, truly skeletal in nature. The Solbakks applied professional and cultural skills and nonetheless did so in an accessible way. This work includes a substantial introduction; personal research in both Sápmi and North America for new material, especially photographs aplenty and personal interviews; commentaries on photos and topics to carry the narrative; recognition of Canadian aspects of this era; and a generous willingness to draw on letters by a cross-section of the families in question.

Indeed, the letters are the stars of the show here. This was how the Sámi kept in touch, in letters were penned by herders, wives, gold miners, businessmen, spiritually conflicted individuals, and storm victims. And indeed, the Sámi kept in touch, in what is the ever-fascinating “long reach” of this numerically small group, retaining contacts not only with the homelands through Nuorttanaste and personal letters but also with Sámi in the United States itself. The Solbakks thus confirm once more the connectivity of the Sámi, with relationships we know of from other sources as well.

As for one case of the long reach and connectivity of the Sámi, it has long been on the record that several of the first wave of Sámi had made enormous sums of money as gold miners (in the millions in today’s purchasing power, about a ratio of 100 to 1, where ten thousand dollars then=one million now). Counted as the most successful of those early gold miners was a Sámi herder who organized the first legal mining district in Nome: Johan S. Tornensis. Once he became wealthy, having removed in one year alone about $50,000 in gold, he and others similarly fixed traveled around both to the Sámi homelands and the United States itself.

One poignant letter in the Solbakks’ book involves the mass destruction of property in a great storm in the Unalakleet area in 1915, as recounted in a letter by Nils Persen Bals. Sámi icon Samuel Balto pours out a moving narrative of his historical, emotional, and spiritual experiences. Other letters include references to World War I and the Great Influenza that followed in 1919, as well as the expected keeping-in-touch mentions of births, weddings, deaths, dedication to hard work–and the waxing and waning of fortunes related to reindeer and gold. All of this recounting is through the letters, the stars of the show, carrying the historical narrative along. This book– in making available all of these narrative letters–once more illustrates the crucial role played by ethnic-based publisers, in this case ČálliidLágádus – ForfatternesForlag – Authors’Publisher.

Beyond the merit of any particular family stories and photographs, the Solbakks have offered up a work of considerable accomplishment in its perspective on history, a work that is approachable, and more than that. This book should be included in any personal or institutional library in the areas of Sámi or broader indigenous or emigrant studies, and would also supplement US, Canadian, and Alaskan history studies in general.  An improved next edition of Sami Reindeer Herders in Alaska would profit from inclusion of more legible maps, as well as the addition of brief bibliographic and index supplements. Nonetheless, this is a book that does what its authors set out to do, letting the letters be the stars of the show, and so it is a book destined for a solid position in Sámi and Sámi North American studies. This work is clearly appropriate for both personal and academic interests.

***

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