Longish Thoughts on Sámi Shorts

Lloyd Binder’s reindeer. Photo from Canadian Reindeer.

When Stina Cowan of the Nordic Heritage Museum asked if I would introduce the Sámi short films at SIFF’s 2014 Nordic Lights Film Festival, I didn’t hesitate. Two years ago, it was a SIFF screening of the documentary Suddenly Sámi that seeded the formation of Pacific Sámi Searvi and my personal journey of discovery. Since that time, there have been significant events for Sámi culture in our region, including a large duodji exhibit bringing artifacts and lecturers from the Ajtte Museum, the first local celebration of Sámi Day at Tacoma’s PLU, the first Sámi Grand Marshal and Sámi flag in Ballard’s Syttende Mai parade, the first “official” Sámi-American participation in Astoria’s Scandinavian Festival, and the first English translation of Emilie Demant-Hatt’s “With the Lapps in the High Mountains,” by local author and translator Barbara Sjoholm. Searvi members also rallied on behalf of Idle No More and Gallok.

It was exciting enough to have four Sámi-related films at SIFF; I did not expect a personal connection. Imagine my surprise on learning that the reindeer in Tundra Cowboy are my DNA cousin Lloyd Binder’s. While I haven’t met him in person (FamilyTreeDNA linked us), he was kind enough to answer my questions when I contacted him online.

Both Lloyd and his reindeer are descendants of the Yukon Relief Expedition of 1898, which brought Sámi herders and reindeer from Sápmi through Seattle up to Alaska. His maternal grandfather Mikkel Pulk joined the expedition in its second year, and in the 1930s, Mikkel and his wife Anna were recruited by the Canadian government to teach herding to the Inuits. The Pulks remained as herders for over 30 years. Their daughter Ellen, married Lloyd’s father, Otto, an Inuvialuit from Coppermine, N.W.T., now known as Kugluktuk (Otto also owned a herd for several years in the 1940s). Lloyd earned an economics degree from the University of Calgary and served as director of economic development and tourism for the Inuvik region before turning to herding. It’s in his blood.

Like his employee Henrik Seva (the subject of Tundra Cowboy), Lloyd is a man of dry wit. When I asked how he keeps the reindeer from mixing with the indigenous caribou, he responded: “vigilance.”

It is possible that I am also related to Henrik, as he and my grandfather were both born in Pajala Municipality in northern Sweden. The Sámi gene pool is small, even though, like the offspring of the Yukon Relief Expedition, it is dispersed over vast distances.

On the morning of the screening, the sun painted the sky pink and gold, and I feared that few people would show up for a Saturday matinee. SIFF attracts devoted cinephiles, but in Seattle, a rain-free January weekend must be taken seriously. There was standing room only in the theater, however; the shorts had a large and very appreciative audience.

Marja Bål Nango in Halvt ditt og halvt datt (Half of This, Half of That)

Of the three student works by Sámi filmmaker Marja Bål Nango, Halvt ditt og halvt datt (Half of This, Half of That) initially concerned me for its apparent equivalency (using a split screen) of a Sami gakti with a Norwegian bunad, both of which Nango is shown putting on and taking off. I wanted to protest: they aren’t the same! (e.g., the gakti is everyday wear while the bunad is a costume, for special occasions). Nango no doubt intended to provoke that response, as she deftly segués to more complex issues of self-identity. With a stark white background and tight focus on their youthful faces, she interviews several peers about self-identity, and you can watch their emotions shift as they struggle for words. It is powerfully intimate. While it features Norwegian citizens, the film has universal scope; asking if language is essential to identity and what it means to be “half of this, half of that” or “part” anything. I found myself thinking several times of the exhibit about race at the Pacific Science Center. This short would make an excellent addition to it.

Scene from Juletrollet

Nango’s second film, Juletrollet (The Christmas Troll), depicts a Sàmi girl envious of her Norwegian playmate’s Christmas tree. The playmate is curious about Sàmi customs, but whether her questions are benign or condescending isn’t clear. Verging on melodrama, the story is redeemed by a final scene in which the friends perch outside in the dark, singing to the stars. Nango’s characters finds serenity in a holiday that promises more than it delivers.

Still from “Before She Came, After He Left”

My favorite of her three shorts, Før Hun Kom, Etter Han Dro (Before She Came and After He Left), was filmed in an impossibly beautiful fjord. The winter chill is palpable; noses drip, boots crunch. After the tragic death of a boyhood friend (who may have also been a lover), a young father is tormented by grief, and his fiance is confused and concerned. Inner landscapes are revealed in flashbacks and small gestures, and the visual lyricism carries multiple layers of meaning, like the work of Akiri Kurosawa. I hope it gets a wide audience. (Check out Nango’s most recent collaboration, Indestructible.)

Amazing flying machine from “Tundra Cowboy”

With a faster pace and frank documentary style, Tundra Cowboy saturates each of its 18 minutes; the story of Henrik Seva unfolds energetically and economically. The blood and guts of reindeer slaughter are candid without becoming grotesque, the wide pans of the reindeer are thrilling but stop short of cliché, and a convivial springtime calf-marking in Sweden provides nuanced and colorful contrast to Henrik’s monochromatic, solitary life on the tundra. The heart of this story is Henrik’s motivations, which are rooted in loss and quietly heartbreaking. One of my favorite moments is when the camera rests on Henrik’s face as he stops speaking, and then stays there, allowing the viewer to meet him in the still space he treasures. A thoroughly enjoyable, multi-dimensional film. (The 18-minute short is available to rent or buy here.)

After the screening, several audience members approached with questions about the Sàmi, the shorts, and the searvi. As there was no time for a Q&A session (the theater needed to be cleared for the next film), I promised to write this post and include links as well notes from my phone conversation with Tundra Cowboy’s producer and director, Marc Winkler. If I am able to chat with Marja Bål Nango, I’ll post again.

Marc is a Canadian journalist for CBC who lives in Yellowknife, N.W.T. with his wife and two daughters. Tundra Cowboy is his first documentary. Prior to meeting Henrik Seva in Inuvik in 2002, he had never heard of the Sàmi.

Left to right: Cinematographer Luke Eberl, Henrik Seva, Director Marc Winkler

What inspired you to make the movie?

My fascination with living in isolation like that, and knowing Henrik. He seemed like such a grounded person and I thought it might have something to do with having so much time for his thoughts. I wanted to talk to him about that. Although he uses a lot of technology, his pace, his everyday life is very different.

Do you think his groundedness is due to that?

Slightly. He does have a lot of time to mull over things, and time to explore his relationship with his reindeer. That is what he loves, caring for reindeer; I found that connection fascinating. He sings to the reindeer — and there are all these Sami traditions (connected to herding). The fact that he would travel all the way to Canada to maintain that connection . . . that says something! His grandfather, a herder, is his hero. He found a way to recreate his grandfather’s connection to reindeer.

Doesn’t he get lonely?

Sometimes he wants to see people and he does go to the town every 10 days for “R & R.” He was recently married, since the filming. He’s not a hermit!

How was it to film there?

It was really cold, minus 40 outside, with huge winds all the time. The camera batteries kept freezing. But it was beautiful! The tundra is a magical place and so peaceful. Henrik was patient with us, although he was busy herding. We were glad he took so much time.

Did he joik for you?

Yes, it was a very important thing for him to do. He was pretty shy about it, but he gave us the little example in the movie. For me it illustrates the beautiful connection he has with the reindeer. It is a love song, and it has the practical benefit of making the reindeer used to his voice.

What was left on the cutting room floor that you wish you could have included?

So much! The film was as long as an hour, and I got it down to 18 minutes. I wanted it to be subtle and focused. There are so many other elements that I tried to puzzle in there, such as the way colonization affected the Sami culture. Like the residential schools here (in Canada), there were government schools in northern Sweden. Henrik was sent to one, and he was punished for speaking Sami. He was not allowed to eat the food he was accustomed to. Reindeer herders were looked own on. He underwent ten years of assimilation, and it was a struggle for him; he felt divided over who he was and whether his culture was worthy or not. It is such a worthwhile project to explore . . . but that is another movie.

Also, the whole land and environment issues in Northern Sweden, the forestry and mining projects that are pushing herding into smaller and smaller places. If things keep going like this, it will not be a viable livelihood. In the 1920’s, the government was going to take away their rights to hunt, fish, and herd. Henrik’s grandfather made a deal with the king that they would herd but not fish and hunt. Others could fish and hunt, but not herd. So not all Sami are treated equally.

What are you working on now?

I just had a new daughter so I’m taking a break right now, but some any ideas have come up from doing this. Many different ideas, but nothing solid yet.

Marc and I talked a while longer about the Sàmi and the environmental issues that threaten reindeer herding — forestry, mining, and mineral extraction. I hope his success with this first documentary inspires many more.

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Dressing In and Out

stoorstalkaUpdate: The exhibit will now travel to the Swedish-American Museum in Chicago, opening in January, 2014.

As luck would have it, I didn’t make it to see Dressing Swedish: From to Hazelius to Salander, the traveling exhibition from the Swedish Embassy in DC, until the final day (final hour, even) of its stay in Seattle. Which is too bad, as it was more interesting and diverse than I expected, and thoughtfully presented. Kudos to the curators, Dr. Charlotte Hylten-Cavallius and Lizette Graden of the Nordic Heritage Museum, and to the Multicultural Society of Tumba, Sweden, which supported the project.

Included among the many gorgeous Swedish folk costumes was one with a “Muslim” headscarf and several Sami items, including a child’s gakti from Karesuando and a modern outfit from Stoorstalka (“design by Samis for Sami people, and equally cool souls”).

It is interesting to muse on the fact that, while many cultures (in warm climates) have gone without clothing, none have gone without decoration. Tattoos and body piercings are older than the loom, and jewelry is universal. It is fascinating to explore the history of artistic expression in clothing.

In curious contrast to the intricate embroidery and colors in the exhibit, my own inherited Swedish-Sami subculture of Laestadianism is ascetic, shunning self-adornment and art itself. Its founder Lars Levi Laestadius, a botanist turned priest and then revivalist, encouraged his followers to dress modestly, and over time, this was codified into nuanced prohibitions on jewelry, neckties, cosmetics, open-toed shoes, and even the color red. In some Laestadian circles, women and girls still wear head scarves. Many clues to the class, marital status, and personality of the individual are telegraphed through clothing choices.

Torjer Olsen, research fellow in History of Religion at the University of Tromsø suggests that the use of clothes as symbols may be particularly important for groups like the Laestadian communities, where it is difficult for women to communicate verbally because they are considered to be subordinate and not allowed to speak in public.

The skirt remains a gender specific garment heavy with symbolism. Olsen claims that the girls’ skirts, especially short ones, are a play with symbols. With skirts they can both dress “in” (as part of the congregation) and “out” (in line with the majority society). This way the girls communicate both their loyalty to and distance from the congregation.”

I mused on this as I admired the Stoorstalka “party skirt” (top photo), which borrows from tradional Sami gakti, but being made of synthetic fabric instead of wool or silk, is washable and less expensive. Being neither too short nor too long, I can imagine a trendy Laestadian wearing it (and a rebellious one rolling up the waistband to make it shorter). There is a ruffle of tulle peeking out underneath, though. That could get a girl in trouble with the standards enforcers.

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Some of the displays came with artist statements.

Fia Kaddik, Photographer and craftswoman, Jokkmokk.
This bag symbolizes the threat to our mountain areas . . . the red ribbon in the middle represents Mother Earth, who is beginning to burn herself out as a result of all the mining that is taking place in our mountain areas.

Lena Viltok, Craftswoman and designer, Jokkmokk
In addition to being decorative, the silver also reflects Sami folklore about silver protecting against evil. In the olden days, the evil could be Stallu (the Giant) or other evil forces that wanted to destroy the Sami. Today the evil forces are all the exploitative developments that reduce the reindeer pasturelands and make it increasingly impossible for us to live our lives. This is happening to me now with the mineral prospecting that is taking place in the area where the reindeer graze and breed, and where our son must find his future livelihood. But we struggle on and hope that the silver will protect us. This is why I have called the bag “lellet” (to live).

Way to represent, Fia and Lena. I found myself wanting to touch your duodji in solidarity, but it was suspended in a bowl above grasping hands. Probably a good thing.

snusmarkIn the next room was a display case with three pairs of Denim Demon jeans, all painstakingly preweathered (you can even see the round imprint from a can of snus). A placard announced: ” . . .as our clothing is designed with the Sami in mind, it needs to be durable and hard-wearing to withstand the rigors of reindeer herding and living in harsh conditions. We gave seven pairs of jeans to seven Sami who wore them for six months without washing them.”

Voi, voi. I’m assuming they were bachelors. I have mixed feelings about this kind of marketing, and would love to be persuaded that the owners are not exploiting the Sami in the same way Ralph Lauren exploits Native Americans. (Update: the owners are Sami and the jeans are made in China.)

In elegant contrast to smelly jeans were the felted wool birch coats designed by Minnesotan Lauri Jacobi. I admire her work and would happily wear one of her coats if they weren’t so expensive. An American of northern Swedish ancestry, Jacobi’s are beautiful, made of natural materials, and useful, which incidentally are three of the requirements for authentic duodji (Sami handicrafts). I couldn’t resist purchasing a pair of “pine needle blanket” fleece mittens in gakti-inspired colors. (The gift shop clerk asked if they were oven mitts!) They will remind each time I wear them of my mixed and colorful heritage. Maybe I’ll knit a cable to attach them, as my mother did for our mittens as kids, for threading through our cloat sleeves.

In the final room was a hybrid costume from David Norman, whose grandfather was from Dalarna, Sweden. His statement explains that he worked in a Native American community in Tacoma, and his students made his regalia so he could dance at powwows, an incredible honor that moved him to reciprocate (an example of the respectful exchange encouraged in this essay).

“In the Native culture it is proper and encouraged to add your own story to the Native regalia. Weaving together two

cultures has been a way to honor both and add a Swedish touch to my Native dress. It creates opportunity for me to relate my own story to the Native culture in which I now participate.”

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I liked Mr. Norman’s story and regalia, but found it curious that the tribe (the Puyallup?), was not named, an omission that does not seem to honor Native custom, but perhaps there are reasons not obvious to me.

A Facebook friend recently posted photos of her mother’s wedding and her own, in which they are both wearing a Swedish wedding crown that has been handed down for generations. I find that lovely.

Sadly, for so many of us, the items that carried our ancestors’ cultures have disappeared. It is up to each of us to reclaim and refashion what we can.

A Big Bloody Hole With a Backhoe

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Sofia Jannock (left) and Lovisa Negga (right)

“Someone will make a big bloody hole with a backhoe in what we love, which is forever beyond repair. I get so angry.” Lovisa Negga

Two powerful Sámi artists are raising their voices against the mining near Jokkmokk.

On Friday, Lovisa Negga will take to the stage in Stockholm and dedicate Mihá Ja Gievrra, which means Proud and Strong, to the protest. The song (the title track to her new album) is sung in Lule Sámi, my ancestral tongue, which I find (not surprisingly) very beautiful. Negga says it is “a peaceful struggle song” that can “strengthen me and other people when things feel a bit hopeless.”

You whisper loudly
Everybody hears it
Shout it out, you are proud and strong
Whisper loudly
Let everybody know
Speak from your heart, proud and strong

The world is still generous
The power is heartless
You feel insignificant but will last forever
The one who dares say something
Will defend the mute
So use your voice, and free us all

Sofia Jannock’s new music video for her song Áhpi-Wide as Oceans includes images from the protests in Kallak interspersed with images from the Alta demonstrations of the 70’s and 80’s.

“The events in Kallak becomes a symbol of the exploitation of Sápmi . . . I wanted to get  the historical picture. These are issues that affect people personally, in everyday life, so it feels good to take them everywhere. Not just on the news pages.”

Read more in this article for SVT  (in Swedish). If you haven’t already, please sign the STOP MINING IN JOKKMOKK petition here.

You can find previous releases of Negga’s music here and Jannok’s music here (Amazon).

Another remarkable voice is Maxida Märak with the Downhill Bluegrass Band. Here she is with a cover of Steve Earle’s The Mountain:

Solidarity with Gállok

IMG_9997KallokOn August 12th, several of us gathered at the Swedish Club in Seattle for dinner and a photoshoot to demonstrate solidarity with Kamp Kallak, the group protesting the mining project in northern Sweden. Kallak is the Swedish word for the area; in Sámi it is Gállok. The mine site is near Jokkmokk, famous for its annual wintermarket, a 400+-year old tradition that has a special place in my heart, as my eighth great-grandfather Igor Ivanoff (1620-1680) is said to have traded at the first market.

Our special guest from Jokkmokk was May-Britt Öhman, resplendent in her Lule Sámi gakti at left. A dam safety researcher, May-Britt was in Seattle for a conference and gave us the nitty-gritty on the situation in Gállok, particularly the risk to the Lule River dams and water safety in the entire watershed. She encouraged our advocacy. Later we dined at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront, pounding tiny crustaceans with tiny hammers, feeling far away from the barricades yet nonetheless, united in passion.

Please sign the STOP MINING IN JOKKMOKK petition here.

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An Evening of Yoik and Friendship

Beautiful gakti.

Visiting the Pacific Northwest from Norway last week were members of the Gaup family, who  met with our group in Tacoma after performing at Chief Leschi School. It was a magical evening of stories, yoik, and new friendships.

The youngest Gaup, Risten, is a recording artist who recently performed with her sisters at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Risten Anine Kvernmo Gaup

Risten’s father Ánte Mikkel, the reknowned yoiker, just won the Norwegian Sámi Parliament’s Sámi Language Motivation Prize for 2013 (for his work as an author, yoiker, and teacher). A engaging performer, he taught us about the history of yoik and demonstrated its variability. He even took requests, recalling various yoiks for the fox, for example. With a rapt audience and seemingly tireless performers, we could have spent the whole evening there.

Ante Mikkel Gaup

Yoik cannot be defined; it must be experienced, but this explanation helps:

For the singer, the yoik is a way to process and release emotions. It is a release and a cleansing where one can express emotions inexpressible in words. A yoik creates a telepathic link to the story or person it features. Many men have won a wife for themselves by using the yoik.

There is no way to experience the power of the yoik except to listen to it. Its natural character and the voices of the natural elements do not become apparent until the listener has thrown himself upon the winds.

The yoik has survived through the centuries. It has renewed itself and changed its meaning, but it is still indispensible for the Sámi people. To consider the power of the yoik, we need only consider how eagerly outsiders have tried to destroy it. Whether this has been due to fear or to a lust for power remains a mystery. (Ursula Länsman)

Renee listening to a fox joik.

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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.

A Special Syttende Mai this Friday

Dr. Berg, Grand MarshalThere will be notable Sámi presence in Seattle’s Syttende Mai parade this Friday, with a Sámi scholar for a Grand Marshal, and first-time-ever participation by Pacific Sámi Searvi, representing Sámi descendants and culture in the Pacific Northwest.

This year’s Grand Marshal is Sámi scholar Bård Berg, who teaches history and philosophy at the University of Tromsø. Berg lived in Seattle for a year while he was a Fulbright scholar at University of Washington’s Department of Scandinavian Studies, doing research on the immigration of Sámi people to the Pacific Northwest.

Syttende Mai is the celebration of Norway’s Constitution, signed May 17, 1814. Norway’s Sámi Act of 1987 provided the legal basis for Sámi participation in the government, and in 1988, Article 110a officially ended assimilation policies, stating, “It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sámi people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.” A year later, the first Sámi parliament convened in Norway, and in 1992, Norway passed the Sámi Language Act, making Sámi an official languages counties with large Sámi populations, namely five municipalities in Finnmark County and one municipality in Troms County. An estimated 20,000 Sami in Norway speak Sámi.

Throughout the day there are events to delight adults and children, including a luncheon at Leif Erickson Lodge, fjord horses at the Nordic Heritage Museum (where admission is free all day), and musical acts at Bergen Place. The parade, which starts at 6 pm, draws thousands of observers and includes over 100 marching bands, drill teams, community groups,  and classic cars.

Seattle’s Syttende Mai celebration is the third largest (behind Osoo and Bergen, Norway) and has been celebrated here since 1898, before Washington was even a state.

Check out the official site for more information.

Want to walk with us?  RSVP on Facebook or just look for the Sámi flag during check-in at Adams Elementary (28th and 62nd NW) and introduce yourself. The parade starts at 6 pm.

Think sun, for children of the sun.