Bunad and gákti


Jeffrey Clark and Amanda Clark, in Seattle’s 2017 Syttende Mai Parade, photo by author

If you’ve spent any time in Seattle’s Nordic community, you will recognize many people (and horses) in this lovely video. Although gávttiid (plural form of gákti, North Sámi for traditional Sámi clothing) are not bunads or costumes, and differ significantly in origin and purpose, it’s great that Christine included them and noted their location. Most gávtiid in the video are worn by Sámi visitors; some worn by locals may need a pass akin to the “Ballard bunad,” which I’m told is the concession given by bunad police to nonconforming ensembles.

Bunads were inspired by 19th century Romanticism and Nationalism. Wearing beautifully crafted folk dress demonstrated pride in Norway’s independence, in one’s own region, and in the common citizen as a “nation builder.” Paradoxically these same urges stigmatized the gákti, which was associated with work not leisure, ethnic pride not national pride, and obstacles to nation building.

The proto-gákti — tunic, pants, shoes, and shoebands — originated centuries before as workwear, made of fur and leather. Increased trade brought wool, silk, silver, etc. initiating the variations we see today.

My hunch is that the gákti was feared as powerfully pagan, like the drum and joik (Sámi vocal music tradition) which the church had already banned. Like other duodji (craft), gákti design embodies a worldview that locates people in relation to one another and the cosmos, not the nation.

Every gákti — cut, color, pattern, embellishments — speaks volumes. An informed observer, even from a distance over a snowfield, may be able to ascertain an approaching person’s home area, gender, marital status, age, family, and even where they are headed.

Unlike the drum and joik, gákti remained in continuous use in some places, although for many families it is a broken tradition and not easy to restore. Certain elements were banned as sinful, e.g.: the ládjoghpir (a tall curving headdress thought to house the Devil), the color yellow (said to represent Beaivi, the goddess), and risku (brooches encouraging excess pride).

If you’d like to learn more about gákti, be sure to follow @astudesign on Instagram. Anna Stina Svakko is a master duojár (artisan) and born teacher whose talks highlight the many joyful aspects of her craft.

Linneaus, Punk’d

Carl von Linné, 1707-1778 by Roslin Alexander

I am inclined to believe that Linneaus was made fun of . . .

It is a well known fact that informants might get tired of the anthropologist’s endless and sometimes in their eyes nonsensical, questions. They then can tell the unhappy researcher what comes to their mind to satisfy him and to amuse themselves. I am inclined to believe that Linnaeus, too, was made fun of, without him being aware of it. After having been in Tjåmotis on his way back to Luleå, he describes, among many other things, the way the Sami kill a reindeer. He then mentions all the useful slaughter products the animal supplies them with. In the end we read: “Everyone throws the testicles away. The penis serves to make a thong to draw the sledges.

Though no comment is given on this, either in the general text commentaries or in the ethnological commentary on Linnaeus’ diary published in 2003, I have my suspicions that Linnaeus here was fooled. Although he told Roberg that he had travelled by sledge, no traces of it are found in the diary. The harness for drawing sledges he saw himself and described, when he was in Lycksele, had a leather thong. Motraye, who did travel by sledge and describes both sledge and harness, never mentions such a thing, talking only about “a trace”/”un trait”. From a publication of Knud Leem from 1767 we know that this thong was made of a strap of cow skin or seal skin, well greased to make it supple.

Nellejet Zorgdrager in Linnaeus as Ethnographer of Sami Culture, TijdSchrift voor Skandinavistiek vol. 29 (2008)

Jukkasjärvi Sámi family with sledge and reindeer, photo by unknown, Almquist & Cöster postcard 1949. Swedish Heritage Board. Public Domain

Language revival (Happy Meänmaa Day!)

I heard a lot of Finnish growing up, in church and at gatherings, and whenever Grandma talked to her Finnish friends. I can still say Good Girl, Bad Boy, Poopy Pants, Milk, Bread, Oatmeal, Scarf, God’s Peace, Forgive Me, Thank You, and What? At least I thought they were Finnish words. Now I’m not so sure. Since Grandma’s people were from Övertorneaå, they are more likely Meänkieli, or Tornedalen Finnish. Some of her ancestors spoke North Sámi and there are many loan words between the languages. I suspect any person with roots in the Torne valley is similarly mixed, although it seems in Sweden one is expected to choose which ancestors to acknowledge. That’s another tragic effect of colonialism, pitting people against one another.

Meänkieli is now one of the five minority languages of Sweden, largely due to the efforts of Bengt Pohjanen, prolific author, translator, agitator, and Orthodox priest. In 2016, after corresponding by email for several years, I met Bengt and his gracious wife Monika at their home for a memorable dinner (those Tornedalen potatoes!). He gave me this wonderful Meanmäa flag, which now flies from our porch on July 15th.

If I had a hundred lifetimes, I would devote myself to learning all of my ancestral languages.

All of them are minority languages: meänkieli, julevsámigiella (Lule Sámi), davvisámigella (North Sámi), karjalaižet (Karelian), suominkieli (Finnish), and walon, or whatever French the Walloons spoke in the 18th century.

It probably bears little relationship to the French I studied in college, which is still rudimentary despite marrying a fluent speaker. I studied Italian for a few months before our honeymoon, and Swedish before my big ancestral tour, but little was retained. Most recently I took a North Sámi class, and it was more challenging than all the others combined. It will take a lot of effort and even more courage to reclaim it.

In a radio interview last year, I introduced myself in North Sámi, which I usually do when giving talks in our community. But on Sámi radio? What was I thinking? Please edit this, I begged immediately afterward. I’m going to look like an idiot. My interviewer (the very genial and professional Tobias Poggats) assured me all was fine, and I decided that my distress was, in fact, good stress. To speak the words my ancestors were punished for speaking is a triumph. They are cheering me on. Good stress. (I’ve pasted the transcript below).

Of the many good reasons to preserve languages, the individual benefits are usually emphasized (the continuity of language in minority communities has been linked, for example, to better health and fewer suicides). But there are universal benefits:

Just as ecosystems provide a wealth of services for humanity – some known, others unacknowledged or yet to be discovered – languages, too, are ripe with possibility. They contain an accumulated body of knowledge . . . geography, zoology, mathematics, navigation, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, meteorology and more. In the case of Cherokee, that language was born of thousands of years spent inhabiting the southern Appalachia Mountains. Cherokee words exist for every last berry, stem, frond, and toadstool in the region, and those names also convey what kind of properties that object might have – whether it’s edible, poisonous, or has some medicinal value. — David Harrison, When Languages Die



*****

Here is a rough translation of my interview.

Sami association in the USA is revitalizing Sámi culture
mu namma lea Julie Whitehorn ja mon lean davvi-minnesotas eret . . .  (my name is Julie Whitehorn and I am from Minnesota . . . )

That’s how Sámi cultural revitalization on the other side of the ocean can sound. The Sámi association Pacific Sámi Searvvi in the USA has about a hundred members and the head of the association Julie Whitehorn tells us who she is and that she’s learning Sámi through the internet:

. . . this is me trying to learn Sámi online via the computer. It's difficult because in Seattle we don't have any language resources, but we want to change that.

The association she leads wants to revitalize the Sámi culture for Sámi in America. 

Sámis have been traveling across borders for a long time. There are stories and pictures of Sámi who have crossed the Atlantic to America during recent centuries. Julie is a descendant of Sámi from Gällivare / Jokkmokk. When she was young she was a part of the Laestadian church in America, and she often heard about the place where Laestadius came from. As an adult she visited and wondered why her relatives left such a beautiful place.

There's a lot of healing that can happen. I have met so many people who discovered their roots as adults, who feel that they are taking back something that was stolen from them. Because it was stolen, from all of us. 

Julie Whitehorn says that some are still questioning their Sámi identity while other are wanting to live a Sámi life where they are. She says the association would like to have more contact with Sámi and create connections between Sámi in different countries.

. . . seamme mearra, eara gatti, and I apologize if that's not entirely correct, but I mean to say same sea, different shore.



Diaspora Meetup Today

The Sámi of America Facebook group has many active, thoughtful members. Niina Serene is a licensed therapist who offered, in the wake of posts about Canadian residential schools, to lead an online support group. It makes me so happy to see folks taking initiative and giving their time and skills.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love.

Join if you can!

Sámi Dreams

Photo by Randall Hyman of Ana Maria Eira and her reindeer

If you live in or near Portland, Oregon, don’t miss Randall Hyman’s “talking” photo exhibit called Sámi Dreams, September through November, 2021 at the Nordia House, 8800 SW Oleson Road.

This stunning collection of portraits and interviews includes audio by the portrait subjects. It’s as if they are in the same room with you. The photographer and curator Randall Hyman is an accomplished observer of the Arctic, with four decades covering natural history and travel topics for Smithsonian, National Geographic, Discover, American History, The Atlantic, Science, Wildlife Conservation, et al.

As a 2013 Fulbright Scholar in Norway and guest of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Hyman covered field science, resource development and climate change in the Arctic for a number of organizations and publications. In 2015, he was the distinguished Josephine Patterson Albright Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, expanding on his coverage of Arctic climate change. He continues to focus on Arctic topics and lecture on polar climate change across the United States and Europe.

The exhibit was most recently in Minneapolis. I hope our National Nordic Museum will consider hosting it next; it deserves a wide audience.

Bearaš, family

In 2019, following a wonderful reception to my “roots talk” (and singing of the Sámi Sova Lavlla) at the Leif Erickson Lodge, the Board of Directors voted unanimously to install a Sámi flag in the hall. To my knowledge this Sons of Norway Lodge is the third Nordic institution in Seattle to display our flag, after the Swedish Club, which has flown one above their portico for many years, and the National Nordic Museum, which includes several in its displays, such as the one below.

If all goes according to plan, a Sámi flag will be installed when Sandra Eira speaks at the Leif Erickson on August 4, 2021.

Display at National Nordic Museum, Seattle

If the walls could speak, I might ask them about my relative Anna Moen from Narvik, Norway. According to relatives, Anna was one of the lodge’s first female members (it opened to men in 1903 and to women in 1927). A Ballard resident, she was also a member of the Daughters of Norway and Nordlandslaget Nordlyset, whose archives are now at Pacific Lutheran University. (Perhaps a student would be interested in searching them for Sámi references.)

Below is a poem I wrote about Anna for last year’s POPO project, using an entirely optional formula of starting each new poem with the last line of one received.

Making a new home,
Anna from Narvik
never knew her áhkku’s
birthname or the kin
left behind in Sweden
Erasure being the point.
So two blood cousins
crossing Market Street
In 1947, could spy
the replica of a smile.
Become suddenly bereft.
Rootless Anna,
Orphan Clara!
Allow me to stop you
On this Duwamish deerpath
and join your tiny hands
Meet, dear foremothers
This is our birthright:
Bearaš, family.

If you like to write and receive short poems (and support the USPS) sign up for this year’s project.

Save the Date!

I’m delighted to share the news that Sandra Andersen Eira of Russenes, Finnmark will be visiting the USA this summer.

Among her events will be a presentation on

Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Leif Erickson Lodge in Seattle
Time TBA. Probably 6:30 pm.

Sandra just concluded her term as representative of the Sámi parliament on the Norwegian side. She is a sea captain, fisherwoman, world traveler, mom, and subject of an upcoming documentary about women in fishing. Watch the trailer here.

Kudos to the Leif Erickson for welcoming Indigenous Norwegians!

Mari Boine on Turtle Island

mariboinetourposter

The first time I heard her, the tears just fell. Transcendant. Intimate. Ethereal. Shamanic.

All typical reactions to Gula Gula, Goaskinviellja, and virtually any track in Mari Boine’s deep and varied catalog. Her voice is a hotline to the heart, tidal moon to the sea within, meditation magic. But for Sámi, she is that and more: sister, role model, teacher, mentor, cultural icon, advocate, activist. Those who have seen her perform can tell you the year, venue, who she was with, and what she was wearing. Anyone remotely related will tell how  (maternal 9th cousin, thanks for asking).

Norway has laureled, lauded, knighted, Spellemanned and lifetime-achievemented her. Earlier this year, she was awarded the Paul Robeson humanitarian prize for her antiracism work. She is known for being a generous mentor of young talent.

As this is her first tour of the West Coast, I wonder if she will see many Sámi Americans at her concerts, given our invisibility cloaks. And how about that other invisible minority for whom she is a lodestar: apostate Laestadians? Washington State is home to the largest outpost of the music-shunning sect that prompted Mari’s rebellion as a teen in Karasjok. Her candor in interviews gave hope to countless music and art loving misfits, myself included. 

Tear-streaked faces and solidarity fists may be tells. If she sings “this is my soul, it is a good soul,” I suspect more than a few of us will nod, close our eyes, and press hands to hearts, inhaling it as a blessing of protection against anyone (colonizer, priest, parent, self!) who says otherwise.

Mari Boine as Pathfinder shows a way back: to ancestral rhythms, to Eatni, symbiosis, reciprocity, resilience, love. Whether or not she sees us, may she feel the profound gratitude in each smile and “ollu giitu.”

You can find links to concert tickets on her website at https://www.mariboine.no

See you there!