Only connect

Kalix River (svensk: Kalix älv, meänkieli: Kainhuunväylä; davvisámigiella: Gáláseatnu), July, 2016

“We steal from out descendants because we’ve forgotten our ancestors” is increasingly heard in discussions of climate collapse and adaptation. The myth of the bootstrapping, solitary individual has been a destructive one.

Five years ago, my dream of walking in my ancestors’ footsteps came true when my cousin Jeanette and I travelled through Sápmi. This video was taken around midnight, in my grandfather’s home village of Tärendö. (“Tear-in-two,” Mom called it. What I thought was Freudian for heartbreak turned out to be close to the local Meänkieli dialect.)

Grandpa was the last of his family to leave in 1903, so we didn’t expect to find any relatives in Tärendö. All ties to America came from other villages, where the family scattered long ago, so we were surprised when our hosts, Inge and Lasse (referred by a mutual friend) not only recognized our family surnames but shared a few of them.

Inge said, Heinonen? We are related, then!

Lasse drew a chart that showed how our great-grandfathers were cousins. Both men had changed their Sámi surnames to Swedish, hoping, perhaps, to keep old traumas from our shading our futures. (If only!)

Lasse gave me some papers from the Swedish government granting him permission to herd reindeer and own his earmark. When I tried to give them back, he said no, you take them. I’ve thought a lot about those papers, and the rights by which the state assumed its authority, and Lasse’s wry smile. So much to unpack.

Lasse’s book with our ancestors’ names. July, 2016

But I want to tell you about this bridge. When it was under construction in 1938, they began by installing the arches. Before the roadway was laid down, an old lady from the village decided to cross. She was seen climbing up one of the arches, her tiny form doubled over, making progress one step after another. She clambered all the way up and over, and down the other side.

Maybe she was eager to see a friend on the other side?

“Now the kids do it for fun,” said Inge. Or maybe it was Lasse who told that story.

And maybe my leg was being pulled, in true Sámi fashion. But I prefer to think that the story is true, that the old lady was a relative — and that I inherited her pluck.

“Traveler, there is no path, but what you make by walking.”

“Only connect.”

Bridge over the Kalix, July 2016

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.