“We steal from out descendants because we’ve forgotten our ancestors” is increasingly heard in discussions of climate collapse and adaptation. The myth of the bootstrapping, solitary individual has been a destructive one.
Five years ago, my dream of walking in my ancestors’ footsteps came true when my cousin Jeanette and I travelled through Sápmi. This video was taken around midnight, in my grandfather’s home village of Tärendö. (“Tear-in-two,” Mom called it. What I thought was Freudian for heartbreak turned out to be close to the local Meänkieli dialect.)
Grandpa was the last of his family to leave in 1903, so we didn’t expect to find any relatives in Tärendö. All ties to America came from other villages, where the family scattered long ago, so we were surprised when our hosts, Inge and Lasse (referred by a mutual friend) not only recognized our family surnames but shared a few of them.
Inge said, Heinonen? We are related, then!
Lasse drew a chart that showed how our great-grandfathers were cousins. Both men had changed their Sámi surnames to Swedish, hoping, perhaps, to keep old traumas from our shading our futures. (If only!)
Lasse gave me some papers from the Swedish government granting him permission to herd reindeer and own his earmark. When I tried to give them back, he said no, you take them. I’ve thought a lot about those papers, and the rights by which the state assumed its authority, and Lasse’s wry smile. So much to unpack.
But I want to tell you about this bridge. When it was under construction in 1938, they began by installing the arches. Before the roadway was laid down, an old lady from the village decided to cross. She was seen climbing up one of the arches, her tiny form doubled over, making progress one step after another. She clambered all the way up and over, and down the other side.
Maybe she was eager to see a friend on the other side?
“Now the kids do it for fun,” said Inge. Or maybe it was Lasse who told that story.
And maybe my leg was being pulled, in true Sámi fashion. But I prefer to think that the story is true, that the old lady was a relative — and that I inherited her pluck.
“Traveler, there is no path, but what you make by walking.”