Two years ago this month, at the last “live” Jokkmokk winter market, I recall standing in front of a display case of silver spoons in the Áttje Museum, struck by the thought that silver was a red thread through my ancestral history.
It can be traced from the 1600s when silver was found at Nasafjell, where soldiers, convicts, and Sámi were forced to work. In 1659, Norway destroyed the mine. In 1772, Karl Laestadius goes to work at the mine as an “executive” — perhaps a bailiff or sheriff of sorts — who has to pursue those who flee. (One of those who did not flee was my ancestor Olaf Tomassan Fannj.) The mine failed and Karl took up drink and farming. His son Lars Levi became the charismatic reformer of Karesuando who preached against vanity and wealth. His followers melted silver jewelry into cups and spoons. (His brother Per Laestadius estimated in 1839 that a silver belt was worth 15-20 reindeer!). The red thread continues to my Laestadian father in 20th century America, forbidding his daughters to wear make-up or jewelry, but giving his last baby girl a silver “teething” bell, which I still cherish.
If I could teleport to Áttje today, I would no doubt have similar aha! moments at the new “Mijá árbbe” exhibit, which features some of the 480 Sámi artifacts whose ownership was recently transferred from Etnografiska Museet.
This is not a geographical move as they were already there, on loan, but a victory nonetheless. Imagine having to seek permission from Stockholm each time you want to exhibit or study an item in your own archive.
Unlike Norway and Finland, Sweden has no national Sámi museum, and lags behind in the return of artifacts.
We don’t watch shows together often but we make exceptions for holidays — and when someone is ailing. Last week as a birthday treat we watched Paddington Bear 2, which was absurdly fun, and so like our quirky youngest to suggest.
It was important for me to share with our son that, at his age in the 1660s, our ancestor Olaf Thomassen Fannj (whose name may be a variant of “fanahit,” stretched, or “fadnu,” a flute made from the stem of angelica), was a slave. He was conscripted by the Swedish state to work in a silver mine in Gällivare, to haul ore with his reindeer.
The conditions were dreadful and the penalties severe (e.g., repeated submerging in a frozen lake). The road to the mine was, they say, lined with bones for a long time.
To avoid forced labor, many Sami moved away, and when the government’s tax collector came to Kaitum in 1667, he wrote that “all had escaped,” and that there was no tax to collect. At the same time, in neighboring Sirkas, there were only nine taxpayers left. As a comparison, in 1643 Sirkas and Kaitum, which by that time were treated as one unit in the tax records, had had about seventy registered taxpayers. In 1667, the Sami population in the whole of Lule lappmark had decreased drastically and by then only fifty-five people were registered in the tax record.
According to Hultblad there were almost 200 taxpayers a decade earlier. The stress that the mines evidently brought on the Sami population was not in line with the government’s intention for interior northern Sweden, and policies had to be revised. From 1670, the number of people registered in the tax records slowly and steadily increased again, but it was not until after the tax reform in 1695 that the increase gathered real momentum.”
At 13:53, when Sara began to sing Sámi eatnam, I imagined Olaf — a young man with wind-whipped cheeks — loading his sledge with rocks, then stopping, suddenly alert, listening.
He is a slave in a Swedish colony, and a soldier is approaching, snapping a length of rope. But he has heard a sweet voice from the future.
Knowing about genealogies is a vital part of the Sámi cultural heritage, the conceptualization of history and Sámi identity. Genealogy in general traces lineages of kin relationships back in time. In Sámi, there is no one single term for genealogy, as for example whakapapa in Maori, probably because the traditional Sámi conceptualization of kinship relations is not linear, but instead covers an extensive network of multiplex relationships between ancestors referred to by the collective noun máttut (in the plural) in Sámi.3 The Sámi understanding of a genealogy is therefore more like a seine fishing net with hundreds of important net cells, covering all the lineages of the extended families, in a holistic multilevel totality with many branches.
— Read on brill.com/display/book/9789004463097/BP000003.xml
An important contribution to Sámi stories of loss, recovery, and the struggle for equality, as well as the right to manage one’s own cultural heritage on one’s own terms. As Barbara Sjoholm charts the transformation of Lapland to Sápmi in objects, joiks, and storytelling, Sámi voices emerge to share essential aspects of their history. As we say in Sápmi, ‘Čálli giehta ollá guhkás—A writing hand reaches far.’” —Káren Elle Gaup, coeditor of Bååstede: The Return of Sámi Cultural Heritage
I thought about the book often during my trip, first while in Venice for the Biennale, because the cover artist Brita Marahkat-Labba is exhibiting there, then in Karasjok, as I meditated on the excellent exhibit at the RidduDuottar museum, which includes the drum that was seized from Anders Poulsen in 1692, and recently surrendered by Denmark. And again in Oslo, where the new documentary about Brita was screening. (If you have a VPN, you can watch it on SVT.)
A few other notable repatriations this year:
To date. only four of the 70+ drums authenticated as Sámi have been returned from museums and private collections. One was found in Rome recently, mislabeled as Inuit. Two others, located after a long search in Marseilles, are on loan for exhibits at the Áttje Museum in Jokkmokk (where my newfound cousin Tia — check out her Patreon — is enjoying her own epic returning) snd the East Asia museum in Stockholm.
Other notable returns this year include:
Chief Sitting Bull’s leggings and a lock of hair (stolen from his corpse) after a DNA test identified a more appropriate heir than the Smithsonian.
Patrice Lumumba’s gold tooth — after a photographer interviewing the descendant of his torturer/assassin said (rough translation) “WTAF?”
A Maaso Kova and other unethically obtained artifacts — to the Yacqui tribe from the Etnografika Museet in Stockholm.
Speaking of Sweden, dare I hope that the artifacts pillaged from my ancestral Unna Saiva return to Sápmi in my lifetime? Before I am no longer able to return myself?
One of the most rewarding aspects of expanding awareness of Sámi culture is helping friends refine English versions of their Sámi texts.
Ville is a joy to work with.
In addition to his resonant voice and righteous saxophone, he is blessed with a wry poetic sensibility. I love his humor. On this song, he collaborated with several phenomenal artists: Hildá Länsman (joik, vocals), Jan Ole Kristensen (guitar), Svein Schultz (bass), and Gunnar Augland (drums).
A thought: if it’s true that art can help subvert our dominant, destructive paradigm of endless economic growth, maybe there is also a case to be made for translating art. Particularly poetry from indigenous languages.
Poetic language, like holistic epistemologies, is often elusive, elliptical, prismatic, labile, contextual, and subversive. It resists a single meaning. At its most powerful it welcomes and expands the ego, the lonely individual, connecting one to all, and all to life.
Below, a new music video and links to help you celebrate all month long. Enjoy!
Arctic Highways. This Facebook live event includes remarks by the Ambassador of Sweden to the United States, Karin Olofsdotter, a special presentation of the exhibition “Arctic Highways,” interviews with the artists, and performances (Sara Ajnnak) from City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden. 3 pm, February 6, free.
Älven min vän(The River My Friend) film, streaming online February 10, 2 pm PST, free. A portrait of the lives of four Sámi women and their relationship to the Lule River in Sweden. The film shows the consequences of the forced resettlement of Sámi people who were displaced from their land because of the construction of river dams and were alienated from their indigenous culture and way of life (such as reindeer husbandry, clothing, language, food and music). At the same time, the film shows the deep relationship between the women and the river. Register for this free event and receive a link to the movie. Then join the Zoom event to meet the director Hannah Ambühl.
Nordiska’s Book Club: Black FoxThursday, February 24, 6 pm PT, free. Port Townsend author Barbara Sjoholm’s book Black Fox: A Life of Emilie Demant Hatt, Artist and Ethnographer is the subject of this month’s book club by the Nordiska shop in Poulsbo. Though not Sámi herself, Emilie Demant Hatt became closely acquainted with a variety of Sámi cultures during her travels in Sápmi in the early 1900s. Free.
Indigenous Police/Koftepolitiet | Egil Pedersen | Norway | 2021 | 12 minutes Koftepolitiet is a Sámi short film told with humor and political sting. It is an identity satire about how people, both the Sámi and the majority population, consciously and unconsciously define what is the “right” way to be Sámi.
Svonni vs the Swedish Tax Agency/ Svonni vs Skatteverket | Maria Fredriksson | Sweden/Sapmi | 5 minutes A Sámi woman tries to convince the Swedish Tax Agency that she has the right to make a tax deduction for the purchase of a dog. Why can’t the Swedish authorities understand that Rikke is a herding tool and not a pet? A humorous short documentary about cultural clashes and the struggle to practice Sámi culture in today’s Sweden.
AntiphonyBook Discussion, online February 26, 3 pm PT, Free) The Swedish American Museum in Chicago, Illinois, hosts a book club that reads a wide range of books from the Nordic countries. Antiphony by Laila Stien (translated from the Norwegian by John Weinstock) is a novel about a woman who goes to Northern Norway and becomes acquainted with three generations of Sámi women.
If you have roots in northern Sweden, don’t miss this lovely Sámi Day program. The trusting, upturned faces of the children, filmed at the Sámeskola in Gällivare, brought tears to my eyes and a familiar mix of joy and grief. Some of their ancestors and mine undoubtedly attended “lappskola” together in the village, in a darker age (it ran from 1756 to 1912). The priest Lars Solomon Engelmark complained in 1804 that my morfars farfar Erkki (who was somewhere between the ages of 6 and 11) was “mindre beskedlig i sitt uppträdande,” poorly behaved. A generation later, the priest Lars Levi Laestadius recorded the expense of educating Erkki’s child: “5 riksdaler.” The family soon moved to Tärendö, where my grandfather was born. If like me you can’t parse the Swedish subtitles, skip to 23:24 for a greeting from the Sámediggi (the handsome guy in black is my cousin Frederik Österling), then stay tuned for the singer Astrid Lindstrand Tuorda (who some of you will remember from NaNu 2019 in Seattle, when she and her dad Tor joiked so powerfully at the campfire). Her rendition of the Sámi anthem is simple, soft, and pure, like snow falling on Dundret. Enjoy. The light is returning.
As it did last year, the museum will collaborate with the Scandinavia House in New York to present the festival virtually.
While I truly miss the experience of watching films together with friends, virtual festivals are Covid safe and convenient for working people.
Other films to be screened include Giitu giitu/Thank You Lord, a visual short film about “the Laestadian trance” by filmmaker Elle Sofe Sara. I’m intrigued, being familiar with liikutuksia (“movement”), the repentance ritual still practiced in the Old Apostolic Lutherans and other Laestadians.
Suodji/Shelter is a darkly comic film by Marja Helander (whose lovely Birds in The Earth is currently looping in the Finnish Landscapes exhibit). During the 1918 Flu Pandemic in Utsjoki, the Helander’s relative Ovllá-Ivvár decided to fool Death and take his fate into his own hands — what if one tried to do that now?
The full program will be announced and tickets released at the end of September.