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.

No Dead Ends: Labyrinths in Sápmi & Elsewhere

IMG_6156I’m taking a fascinating free, online class through the University of Toronto called Aboriginal Worldviews and Education. One of our first assignments was to write about a “meaningful place.” It was hard to settle on one, as there are so many within shouting distance, but I decided to write about a remote stone labyrinth where (in which?) I have walked in contemplation and more recently, in grief. The labyrinth is located on an island north of Seattle, a place that I came to know through two friends who lived there, a married couple who became, over the years, like surrogate parents (he shared my Finnish and Sámi heritage, she my passion for books and lost causes). Last year they passed away within a few months of each other, and were buried in the cemetery near the labyrinth, behind a storybook white-steepled church.

When I visit, I park my bike near the church and walk through the woods to the labyrinth under a canopy of Douglas fir and maple trees.  In the distance there is the sound of the surf, and rain or shine, you can smell the salty air. It’s a beautiful place.

The tradition I learned on the island was to bring a pebble to leave in the middle of the labyrinth. For the bereaved, or at least for me, this is a helpful ritual of laying down one’s burden of grief before returning to the everyday.

Unlike a maze, the circles of a labyrinth contain only one path, with no dead ends. The way in is the way out, and the simple act of concentrating on your next step is calming. I prefer to walk alone, although walking with others requires you to synchronize your pace, so that no one is lingering or rushing, and that too is meditative.

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Reindeer Shoes

The “oldest shoe in Norway,” presumed to be of reindeer skin, was found in 2006 preserved in a snowdrift and recently re-estimated to be 3,400 years old. Three thousand years is a long time to innovate (if you live near Toronto, visit the Shoe Museum to see some of those innovations), but in 1916, when Ernest Shackleton and his team set out for the South Pole, they relied on boots and sleeping bags of reindeer skin, custom-made in Norway. The old technology would have served them very well, had they been able to stay dry. Shackelton wrote that by the end of the trek, water had ruined their sleeping bags, leaving them bald of fur, and his men resorted to wrapping their boots with rope to add tread.

With over two million dollars and many years of planning, the Shackleton voyage was recently replicated, right down to the reindeer skin, by Australian adventurer Tim Jarvis and British mountaineer Barry Gray, who reached their destination on February 10, 2013. It will be interesting to find out if they had better luck keeping dry.

What qualities of reindeer hide make it particularly useful on ice? Emma Winka of Tärnaby, Sweden, reminisces:

“The winter shoes were made from hide that still had the hair on. That made the shoes warmer and the hair on the bottom made the shoes less slippery in the snow. That’s why winter shoes were sewn a bit differently than the summer shoes. On a winter shoe there was a seam across the bottom of the sole. The hair on the front part of the sole pointed back and the hair on the back of the sole pointed front. That way the shoes got a good grip when you walked in the snow and you didn’t slip. There was another difference between the winter shoes and the spring-summer shoes. The winter shoes had a little point at the toe that stuck up. All the winter shoes except shoes for very small children had that little point that stuck up. That point was to help hold skis to your foot if you went skiing. Skis in those days had bindings that were like loops and if you had shoes with a little point that stuck up at the toe, that loop-binding wouldn’t slip off.” (Read more here: An Interiew with Emma Winka)

Desiree Koslin writes in her paper (pdf) on gakti:

“There are dozens of terms that specify reindeer and reindeer skins in the categories of their age, sex, color, the time of year they were slaughtered, which part of the animal the skin comes from, the type of tanning and fat used for preserving the skin. Each type has specific uses in the making of clothing and footwear. The making of a pair of winter boots, gállot, require two head skins and four leg skins.”Sámi shoemakers were women, and they prepared their materials with expertise and discernment. They would have been present at the slaughter to select the best skins for good color and strength. Above all, they harvested the sinew for their sewing needs, from along the spine and the back of the legs. After cleaning, drying and softening, they were twisted and doubled. The sinew swells when wet, and maintains a leak-proof seam. Stab stitch, over casting, felled seam, and placing welts of cloth in the seams are techniques used for different parts of the garments or shoes.”

To see shoes being made, check out this video.

Below is a photo from the “8 Seasons in Sapmi” exhibit at the Nordic Heritage Museum in 2012.

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Lapland, From Icy Plunge to Blazing Sky

Check out this love letter to Sapmi in the New York Times. The story is in the travel section so I didn’t have high expectations, but it would have been nice to read more than one sentence about the Sámi: Early excavations suggest that this part of Lapland was inhabited as long as 11,300 years ago by the native ancestors of the Sami indigenous people, who still herd reindeer and eke out a living in the northernmost parts of Finland.”

We entered the hut, which had one changing room with a wood fireplace, and a larger sauna room. Then we set about roasting ourselves, ice-hole bathing, roasting and snow-angel-making in a cycle of extreme temperature change that Finns, and some controlled studies, say is good for the health.

Sitting in a bar that night, one of the men in our group remarked, “This whole country is about being either too hot or too cold.”

The next night, whole swaths of the sky danced with brilliant greens, purples and reds. Inside the curving, billowing, twisting streaks, the action was psychedelic. Tiny ripples, hundreds in parallel, danced like the light of a plasma lamp but with more variations of color and movement. What was green one second flashed to red, translucent and miles long. A streak that ran from horizon to horizon might phase out, then reappear at another location, or bend into the shape of an oxbow and spring back.

Finnish legend says that the lights are formed by a giant arctic fox running so quickly its tail sends plumes of snow from the fells, glittering across the night sky. It’s an unbelievable explanation for an unbelievable phenomenon that somehow smacks of truth

Finnish legend or Sámi legend? The Finnish word for the lights, revontulet, means foxfire, and is said here to come from a Sámi myth.

The reindeer people under threat this Christmas – Survival International

In pictures: The reindeer people under threat this Christmas - Survival International

Survival International has published a seasonal picture gallery to emphasize the reindeer’s key role in the lives of the world’s northern tribes.

Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said today, ‘For many people around the world, reindeer are synonymous with the festive season. Few of us know, perhaps, that for various northern tribes the animal is integral to their survival and their human story. It is a great tragedy that the burgeoning Arctic extractive industry is exacting such a heavy toll on reindeers and their herders alike.’

via In pictures: The reindeer people under threat this Christmas – Survival International.

And from Greenpeace International:

Please help us to defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples of Russia!
One day before the opening of the Arctic Council meeting in Sweden, Russian authorities moved to suspend the activities of RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North), the country’s main organisation representing the Indigenous Peoples. Basing their decision on an interpretation of inconsistencies in the organisation’s bylaws, this seems to be a thinly veiled attempt by the Russian government to silence the voices of Indigenous Peoples who are speaking out against the dangers of drilling for oil in the Russian Arctic.

But we have an opportunity here: YOU have the power to stop this censorship.

Let’s flood Russian President Putin’s inbox with millions of letters, expressing our deep concern about the suspension of RAIPON. We must remind the President of the vital importance of Indigenous Peoples’ voices in the legitimate political process around the Arctic, both in Russia and on the international stage. Make any changes you want to the letter, sign it, and send! And then forward on to everyone you know. Together we can defend the Arctic and the rights of its people!

Please sign the petition here.

Ancient Origins of Yule

Recently I was asked to create a small exhibit at the Swedish Cultural Center to illustrate the ancient origins of Scandinavian Christmas traditions. Below are the tidbits I pulled together (only a few of which made it into the display). The objects in the display, owned by the Center, include beautiful weavings and Yule decorations such as a Julbok, a cheese press marked with an “x” to keep away evil, and a Christmas porridge bowl.

Update: There is a fascinating account of Christmas traditions in Sàpmi here, and an exploration along of pagan Yule traditions from a Norwegian perspective here.

Are any of these surprising to you? Do you have any corrections or additions? Please let me know in the comments.

Date of Christmas
For the church’s first three centuries, Christmas wasn’t in December—or on the calendar at all. December 25th already hosted two other festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the “Sun of Righteousness.” The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell within a few days. Roman church leaders decided to take advantage of the popularity of this season when they chose the date to celebrate Christ’s birth, an event that probably occurred in the month of September.

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