Sofia Jannok and Sámi Solidarity

I’m honored to publish this guest post by my cousin Linsey, whose big heart shines through her writing. We met earlier this year through a DNA match, and I was able to share the suppressed history of our immigrant forebears in Swedish Lapland, whose suffering and resiliency gave rise to our own lives. I hope you’ll read to the end, and leave a comment. — Julie

Guest post written by Linsey Schad with photos by Jeff Schad Imagery

Earlier this summer I had the most amazing pleasure of seeing Sámi artist and musician Sofia Jannok speak and perform while she was here in Minnesota. To say that it was an incredible experience cuts it short. To say that it was eye-opening and emotionally charged is getting a little bit closer. To say that it was a crazy-intense-spiritual reawakening? Well, that hits the nail square on the head! It was absolutely inspiring to see a woman today so fully living her essence and purpose in the stewardship of her people, her land, its resources, and herself. She is a protector of our Mother Earth. We need more people like her.

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I went into the three days with Sofia wanting to connect more to my own Sámi roots and ancestry. The first event I attended was a panel discussion on Indigenous issues at Gustavus Adolphus College, where she was this year’s Artist in Residence. Going in, I was familiar with how the Sámi people have been treated throughout history, but as I listened and learned, I found myself increasingly aware of just how much injustice is actually taking place TODAY, and what the Sámi people are dealing with right now, as we speak, where our ancestors came from. My heart still hurts remembering Sofia say in tears that she just wants to live and to know her people will remain, not to have to raise her fist to fight, or even to have to take part in panels, but to just be allowed to live free the way she and her people know is right for them. She spoke not about the past but about vandalism, mistreatment, and many suicides that are occurring RIGHT NOW.

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Photo credit: Jeff Schad Imagery

 

“Everything is told as if we were not here. My mission, my purpose, my message as an artist is not to cry over lost times, lost land, and lost rights but getting everyone to get it: we are still here!” Sofia Jannok

The next two nights were absolutely magical seeing Sofia perform, first at Gustavus and then at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Words cannot describe the pure energy and emotion that comes through her music. It was more than music; it was a meditation, a prayer, and a healing balm for my soul. I can only hope that it was this powerful for others. Hearing it live was like hearing the Earth herself sing! Regardless of language, the feelings and energy that comes through are universal. I was also struck by the integrity Sofia displayed in choosing to share the concert at Gustavus with Lyz Jaakola, an Ojibwe-Anishinaabe musician, expressing the importance for the local Indigenous voice to be heard too. This was such an exemplary, selfless action, and all too rare in a world where no one wants to share the spotlight. She fully embodies what a role model today should be. How we all should be.

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After the magnitude of these events settled in and I began to write this blog post, I felt that just relaying my own experience was not enough. The seriousness of the Sámi peoples current issues hit me hard and I began researching. I reached out to Sofia with some questions and she kindly responded. The main question: how can those of us here who find out we have Sámi ancestry, actively give help to the Sámi people living today? Here is what I learned (naturally these are my personal reactions to information received from Sofia).

  • There is a HUGE lack of knowledge about the Sámi. The children are not taught about them, the universities don’t speak of them, and most of the population know very little about them. The dominant powers there have singled them out to be exploitatively erased because of a need for their resources and their land and because of this their story is seldom told. When there is no open knowledge about a culture it breeds racism. I have been shocked to see this blatant racism portrayed in contemporary fiction from the region and I can only imagine this representation is close to the truth. It’s sad to find such a dark side to Sweden, considering it’s supposed to be the most democratic nation in the world.
  • The Sámi people are not being honored respectfully and equally. Racism and systematic oppression set the stage for objectification and exoticification. As this happens a detrimental loop of exploitation begins and the sacred pieces of Sámi culture, their clothing, jewelry, music, buildings, and traditions have been hijacked and turned into commodities. They have been stolen for tourism or novelty and are used rather than revered. For centuries the Sámi have been made to be “tourist attractions” and Sofia explained that this is still very much reality today. True honoring of a culture comes not from a place of ego or economy but from genuine humanistic compassion. Instead of using their clothing or customs, we can learn their real story, who they are and ask them in what ways they’d like to be honored.
  • The politics and mining are destroying the land forever. Due to the rich resources Sápmi contains and the large amounts of money they translates into, the mining industry is allowed to continue expanding and destroying the beautiful native grazing lands forever. I was amazed to learn that the entire town of Kiruna is moving in order to accommodate the mines expansion there. This is an area the Sámi have all ready been forced to move away from for generations and the same company has two more mines planned in the near area. Another is planned for Laver and the Sámi community there is asking for help. Recently a wind power park opened up making the grazing land there inaccessible. Across the entire region these things are happening and this is all done despite protesting and without their permission. The dominant powers are methodically destroying their land for money and disallowing this ancient culture from continuing it’s way of life. In my reality, that constitutes a crime against humanity and a rape of our beautiful planet. This is everyone’s problem.
  • The Sámi people need to be able to share their point of view. Just like here in the US, the media is skewed in Sweden and fails to give appropriate voice to the region’s indigenous population. Sofia expressed that social media and music are ways for her to get the untold story out, completely uncensored. She shared some websites that are also working to operate from a true Sámi perspective:

www.samer.se
www.sr.se/sameradion
www.saminuorra.org
 www.sametinget.se

We can follow and support Sofia Jannok and her Árvas Foundation: www.sofiajannok.com facebook.com/sofiajannok
www.youtube.com/user/sofiajannok
www.instagram.com/sofiajannok
www.arvasfoundation.com

And follow amazing photography and stories from:
www.instagram.com/cjutsi
www.instagram.com/annamariafjellstrom

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So, how does this translate for us North Americans with Sàmi heritage ? I’m not exactly sure yet but there are many ways we can act, both collectively as a community and individually. Armed with knowledge, we can effectively shape how we honor, relate to, and relay the story of our ancestors while finding ways to lend support in protecting the land, way of life and culture. Maybe we can assist those who are finding ways to bring Sámi art and music here. Maybe we can search for new methods to get their stories out and told in a true way so they are no longer the only ones to carry it. We can follow and support Sámi people online and positively connect through direct interactions. We can work to help our planet Earth, the environment, the endangered Arctic region, and climate change in general. We can learn about and help our local Indigenous communities, remembering just how we came to occupy this land. We can teach our children to actively listen to others and with empathy.

If we REALLY put ourselves in another’s shoes, trying to understand them not from our own perspective but from THEIRS, only compassion and love can remain. All of these things will help.

What do you think?

— Linsey

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.

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