Last November, I traveled to Standing Rock with my son and a friend, bringing a letter of solidarity from Sámi-Americans and a station wagon stuffed with donated cold weather supplies. We planned to stay a week, make supply runs to Bismark, and help serve Thanksgiving Dinner in the camp, which had grown to 2,000 people (it would swell to 10,000 in December). My son and I would also make a side trip to East Rainy Butte, where my Swedish-Sàmi grandfather once ran a cattle ranch. The drive from Seattle to Cannonball was 19 hours through some of the most beautiful country on earth.
Letter of Solidarity (pdf)
At the entrance to Oceti Sakowin, two solemn young men serving as sentries asked if we were visiting or staying. When we explained our mission, they smiled and said warmly, “welcome home.” A stately parade of flags snapped in the wind we entered camp, described as the largest gathering of Indigenous tribes ever recorded. Tears sprang to my eyes at the thought, and for the duration of our visit, would never be far away.
“Do you know the professor?” asked the sentry at the media tent, where anyone who wished to take photos had to apply for a pass. “He’s Sàmi.” To my surprise, not once did I need to explain the Sàmi at camp, thanks to Sara Gaup, Sofia Jannok and many others who had visited earlier. (Sámi advocacy would prove instrumental in persuading Norwegian and Swedish banks to divest from the pipeline.)
“Perhaps,” I said, wondering who the professor might be.
Inside the tent, in beautiful gakti and fur hat, was a man who smiled as he scanned our solidarity letter, recognizing some of the names. He introduced himself as Øyvind Ravna, a visiting law professor from Trømso. We saw each other again at the sacred fire a few times, but it was via Facebook that I learned Øyvind spent the awful night of November 20 on the bridge, documenting the abuse of peaceful water protectors via water cannons, teargas, and explosives — while I was holed up with my group at the nearby casino hotel, offering refuge, showers, and snacks to the injured.
One of the injured was a medic from Seattle named Victory, who consented to an interview by iPhone.
I encourage you to read Øyvind’s excellent first-hand account and legal analysis.
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.
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.
“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.
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:
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?
When released, my ancestor changed his Sàmi surname to a Swedish one, helping to mitigate any negative effects on his future children and their offspring. It worked so well that countless descendants have never heard of him or his previous name, and have no idea of their Sàmi roots.
The Varberg fortress is now a museum and bed and breakfast.
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