Swing and Joik

I enjoyed this recent post by Mauri Kinnunen about a 1937 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune, in which joiking is compared to swing music, and cocktails prove disappointing to some Swedish Laestadians. It may be a stretch to compare joik to swing, but both are characterized by energy and improvisation.

Go read the article, then come back and enjoy these clips.

Instrumental “cocktail swing” recorded in Sweden in the same year as the article, 1937:

The amazing Marie Boine inhabits this spine-tingling “Goaskinviellja / Eagle Brother” at the Oslo Opera House in 2009:

Returning to My Roots

Erik Vilhelm Lindberg

The mysterious Erik

This blog has been quiet for a while as I worked on other projects, but it seems like a good time to share what I’ve learned on my roots adventure.

After having my DNA tested and helping to launch Pacific Sámi Searvi, I worked to gather all the information available about my family’s history from FamilyTreeDNA.com, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, geni.com, and other resources, including census records and newspaper archives.

Last April, I shared the fruits of this research with my parents on a visit, but they were not terribly interested. My mother is certain some of the names in my files are incorrect, and she is deeply suspicious of the internet, as well she should be. It is true that there are errors in the online trees, and now some of them are my fault (I am quick to correct them, of course, when brought to my attention).

On that visit to my parents, a cousin stopped in for coffee. I peppered her with questions, but she just laughed and suggested I call her brother. He in turn gave me the phone number of a 91-year old relative living in Oregon. Was I getting the run-around, I wondered. The notorious Scandinavian reserve runs strong in our family.

But “Auntie,” as she asked me to call her, was delighted to receive my call, and invited me over. She was anything but reserved, spry, bright as a tack, and so exuberant in her generosity that we stayed up past 11 pm going through photograph albums. What a treasure trove. I came home with audio (she was happy to be recorded), photographs of her photographs, and colorful stories about her childhood in North Dakota. Her mother Hilda was my grandfather’s little sister, and to my surprise, preceded him in immigrating from Sweden. An elder sister had arrived even earlier, followed by their father Erik and a brother John (the men returned to Sweden).

On the wall of her “plunder room,” Auntie has a large photograph of Erik, my great-grandfather, in an oval frame under not-entirely-transparent glass. I could not stop staring at it. Why did he return to Sweden? What inspired (or required) his daughters to emigrate? What about my grandfather? Continue reading

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.

***

Celebrate Sámi Day

Celebrated every February 6 since 1993, Sámi National Day (Sámi Álbmotbeaivi) commemorates the first international, pan-Sámi organizational meeting held in Trondheim in 1917, considered the beginning of the Sámi rights movement.

It will be celebrated locally from 4 pm to 8 pm this coming Thursday at Pacific Lutheran University’s Scandinavian Cultural Center in Tacoma. (See link for directions.)

Sámi National Day (Sámi Álbmotbeaivi)
Thursday, February 6, 2014

Scandinavian Cultural Center, PLU, Tacoma

4 pm Opening and Anthem
4:30 pm Exhibit Tour
5 pm Concert by Risten Anine Gaup
6:15 pm Sámi Documentaries

The celebration will open with welcoming remarks and the singing of the Sámi national anthem, followed by a guided tour of the new Sámi exhibit and time for refreshments and socializing. The talented Sámi joiker Risten Anine Gaup (above) will perform around 5 p.m. Two short documentaries will be screened beginning around 6:15 pm, followed by a short discussion.

Props to PLU professor Troy Storfjell and the Scandinavian Cultural Center for arranging the celebration. I plan to be there and hope it is well-attended!

Here is a taste of Sámi music and art for those unable to attend. For many outside Scandinavia, their first time hearing joik, the long suppressed folk music of the Sami, was when Nils-Aslak Valkeapää (1943-2001) performed at the 1994 Lilyhammer Olympics. His friend the Sámi scholar Harald Gaski said “it is in the totality of his expression that you understand Nils-Aslak best.” Listen to his haunting joik from “The Sun, My Father” here as you contemplate the paintings below.

In describing Valkeapää’s poetry (the man was a creative force!), Gaski mentions parallels to Chief Seattle’s apocryphal but famous speech of 1854 in which he asks rhetorically: “How can you sell or buy the air? If we do not own its freshness and the glimmer in the water, how then can the White man buy it from us?”

It’s a question that haunts, given the continued ravaging of resources in the name of profit, in Sapmi and everywhere. But there is hope. The indigenous worldview or cosmology that prioritizes beauty, balance, and harmony over individualism, competition, and materialism never went away and still offers a future on this planet. I love the abstract tension in these two paintings by Valkeapää and the way they suggest both the power of nature and lightness in which the people and animals appear on the land.

Lihkku Sámi Álbmotbeivviin (Happy Sámi National Day!), wherever you find yourself.

The Quiet Struggle: Shame and Pride

Many thanks to Kai Turi for the translation of this Norwegian documentary episode. Watch and read along.

“Here live the Sami. We are alive and kicking!”

But it has taken many years to get here. The Sami are connected with the somewhat murky, ugly and shameful. Sami children were sent to boarding schools to be Norwegian.

Boarding schools were in many ways child abuse in the public sector.

Sami people have waged a silent battle, but not without resistance.

“It was pretty awful to find out maybe we were Sami, we just had negative opinions about the Sami when we were growing up. It was not a nice thing. I was embarrassed and did not want to know. I wish that I had received this information earlier. It took a long time before I dared to figure this out.”

Susann grew up here in Manndalen in a regular, Norwegian family. But one day she got a lesson at school that would change her life.

“All students in the class wrote down the name of the farmstead they came from. Then we saw that 90% of all the names we had written, were Sami…Up there you Ordamielli. Over there you have Rouhtu. Down there you have Ribet, Suddasluohka, Gáiskeriidi…Most places in the village had a Sami name. And it had to mean something. I was curious and began to find out more.”

Continue reading

Confusion and Inclusion on Constitution Day

IMG_8940Depending on whom you ask, Seattle’s Syttende Mai celebration is the largest or second largest in the USA, meaning thousands attend each year, which may be some consolation to newbies who did not find parking and missed out on the fun. Having applied to march, we gave ourselves plenty of lead time, found a 10-foot pole for our flag and a choice spot on Market Street, and checked in at 5:30 pm for the 6 pm march. We were directed by a friendly official with a clipboard to wait behind a marching band.

"viking" engineersNear us, engineering students with Viking horns attached to their hardhats demonstrated a remote-controlled, Frisbee-tossing robot (very cool). Drill teams in white boots stamped in place in a parking lot. At the west end of the street, gorgeous Fjord horses endured caresses and the dramatically-pinched noses of passing schoolkids. The sun shone. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy.

Shortly after 6 pm, the parade began to inch forward. The same official approached, scolded us for “being late,” and directed us to “go to the front of the cars.” Surprised, we hustled forward, closer to the front of the parade, in front of the marshals’ cars (Volkswagen bugs on loan from Carter Subaru, in true multicultural fashion).

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I spied the Norwegian consul, whom I recognized from a luncheon earlier in the day.

Where should we should march, I asked.

“Behind the cars,” he said.

We retreated, stopping briefly to greet Grand Marshal Bård Berg and his wife Bennie , resplendent in their gakti.

But before we could retreat further, the consul waved us forward:

“In front of the cars!”

We laughed. The problem with being a “first” in a century-old tradition is that nobody is sure what to do with you. We weren’t in Norway, however, where bringing the Sámi flag to the parade can engender more than confusion.

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We fell into step and did our best to keep the banner straight and the flag high. Friends called our names from the sidewalks. A college roommate I hadn’t seen in years appeared before me, beautiful in her bunad. What a thrill!

And what an honor for the searvi to participate this year with a Sámi grand marshal leading the parade. I was glad our fickle Seattle weather was smiling on Bård and Bennie. As we turned the corner onto Market Street, however, it began to sprinkle.

“The foxes are having a wedding!” It was a brief sunshower and afterwards, the light was theatrical, making the flags around us glow.

As we walked past the announcer’s stand, the searvi’s mission statement was announced, loud and clear over the speakers, followed by a brief definition: “the Sámi are the indigenous people of Scandinavia.”

It was a golden moment for Pacific Sámi Searvi and our mission. Next year, there will be more of us, perhaps in gakti. It may take years to get it right, but a celebration of Norwegian’s constitution isn’t complete without including the  amendment ensuring the right to inclusion for all its people.

Check out the beautiful parade photos on the Post-Intelligencer website, and others here and here.

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All photos © 2012-2013 Julie Whitehorn.