Truth & Reconciliation in Norway

Members of the Sámi community protesting against the building of wind turbines on land traditionally used to herd reindeer in Oslo, Norway, in March. Photograph: Alf Simensen/NTB/AFP/Getty Images

Friends in Norway are posting on Facebook about the final report of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission released today. The report is the culmination of five years of work by a commission of 12 professionals (I am proud to claim one as a relative, whom I met by chance in Sortland last summer). Their mandate was to document Norwegianization policies and injustices towards Sámi, Kven and other ethnic groups, and to propose measures for further reconciliation. More than 760 people provided testimonials.

Dagfinn Hoybraten, head of the commission, acknowledged that some outside observers may question the need for such a commission in a “welfare society characterised by peace and democracy”.

“The truth is that also Norway doesn’t have a history to be proud of when it comes to the treatment of our minorities.”

The live reading of the report (broadcast from the National Theatre) is no doubt evoking anger, grief, validation, and skepticism among many Norwegians.

On the positive side, there are no calls to ban the reading, to deplatform the Commission, or to enact laws that prohibit the teaching of this difficult history, lest it make majority kids feel “uncomfortable.”

But reconciliation is remote until Fosen is fixed.

In 2021, Norway’s Supreme Court ruled that the windfarms at Fosen, opposed by the Sami, were improperly permitted and constitute a violation of human rights. Earlier this year, after protests in Oslo shut down ministries and drew international solidarity, government officials apologized, admitted the violations, and promised swift action on the Fosen.

Yet those windmills keep on turnin’.

Saturday, June 3rd marks 600 days since the court ruling.

Sámi and allies are gathering now in Oslo, meeting the state’s empty words with their concrete action.

I wish them courage and endurance.

(Follow the group Natur og Ungdom on Instagram or Facebook for updates.)

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.

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!

Confusion and Inclusion on Constitution Day

IMG_8940Depending on whom you ask, Seattle’s Syttende Mai celebration is the largest or second largest in the USA, meaning thousands attend each year, which may be some consolation to newbies who did not find parking and missed out on the fun. Having applied to march, we gave ourselves plenty of lead time, found a 10-foot pole for our flag and a choice spot on Market Street, and checked in at 5:30 pm for the 6 pm march. We were directed by a friendly official with a clipboard to wait behind a marching band.

"viking" engineersNear us, engineering students with Viking horns attached to their hardhats demonstrated a remote-controlled, Frisbee-tossing robot (very cool). Drill teams in white boots stamped in place in a parking lot. At the west end of the street, gorgeous Fjord horses endured caresses and the dramatically-pinched noses of passing schoolkids. The sun shone. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy.

Shortly after 6 pm, the parade began to inch forward. The same official approached, scolded us for “being late,” and directed us to “go to the front of the cars.” Surprised, we hustled forward, closer to the front of the parade, in front of the marshals’ cars (Volkswagen bugs on loan from Carter Subaru, in true multicultural fashion).


I spied the Norwegian consul, whom I recognized from a luncheon earlier in the day.

Where should we should march, I asked.

“Behind the cars,” he said.

We retreated, stopping briefly to greet Grand Marshal Bård Berg and his wife Bennie , resplendent in their gakti.

But before we could retreat further, the consul waved us forward:

“In front of the cars!”

We laughed. The problem with being a “first” in a century-old tradition is that nobody is sure what to do with you. We weren’t in Norway, however, where bringing the Sámi flag to the parade can engender more than confusion.


We fell into step and did our best to keep the banner straight and the flag high. Friends called our names from the sidewalks. A college roommate I hadn’t seen in years appeared before me, beautiful in her bunad. What a thrill!

And what an honor for the searvi to participate this year with a Sámi grand marshal leading the parade. I was glad our fickle Seattle weather was smiling on Bård and Bennie. As we turned the corner onto Market Street, however, it began to sprinkle.

“The foxes are having a wedding!” It was a brief sunshower and afterwards, the light was theatrical, making the flags around us glow.

As we walked past the announcer’s stand, the searvi’s mission statement was announced, loud and clear over the speakers, followed by a brief definition: “the Sámi are the indigenous people of Scandinavia.”

It was a golden moment for Pacific Sámi Searvi and our mission. Next year, there will be more of us, perhaps in gakti. It may take years to get it right, but a celebration of Norwegian’s constitution isn’t complete without including the  amendment ensuring the right to inclusion for all its people.

Check out the beautiful parade photos on the Post-Intelligencer website, and others here and here.

IMG_8983 IMG_8998 IMG_9023 IMG_9033

All photos © 2012-2013 Julie Whitehorn.

No Dead Ends: Labyrinths in Sápmi & Elsewhere

IMG_6156I’m taking a fascinating free, online class through the University of Toronto called Aboriginal Worldviews and Education. One of our first assignments was to write about a “meaningful place.” It was hard to settle on one, as there are so many within shouting distance, but I decided to write about a remote stone labyrinth where (in which?) I have walked in contemplation and more recently, in grief. The labyrinth is located on an island north of Seattle, a place that I came to know through two friends who lived there, a married couple who became, over the years, like surrogate parents (he shared my Finnish and Sámi heritage, she my passion for books and lost causes). Last year they passed away within a few months of each other, and were buried in the cemetery near the labyrinth, behind a storybook white-steepled church.

When I visit, I park my bike near the church and walk through the woods to the labyrinth under a canopy of Douglas fir and maple trees.  In the distance there is the sound of the surf, and rain or shine, you can smell the salty air. It’s a beautiful place.

The tradition I learned on the island was to bring a pebble to leave in the middle of the labyrinth. For the bereaved, or at least for me, this is a helpful ritual of laying down one’s burden of grief before returning to the everyday.

Unlike a maze, the circles of a labyrinth contain only one path, with no dead ends. The way in is the way out, and the simple act of concentrating on your next step is calming. I prefer to walk alone, although walking with others requires you to synchronize your pace, so that no one is lingering or rushing, and that too is meditative.

Continue reading

Reindeer Shoes

The “oldest shoe in Norway,” presumed to be of reindeer skin, was found in 2006 preserved in a snowdrift and recently re-estimated to be 3,400 years old. Three thousand years is a long time to innovate (if you live near Toronto, visit the Shoe Museum to see some of those innovations), but in 1916, when Ernest Shackleton and his team set out for the South Pole, they relied on boots and sleeping bags of reindeer skin, custom-made in Norway. The old technology would have served them very well, had they been able to stay dry. Shackelton wrote that by the end of the trek, water had ruined their sleeping bags, leaving them bald of fur, and his men resorted to wrapping their boots with rope to add tread.

With over two million dollars and many years of planning, the Shackleton voyage was recently replicated, right down to the reindeer skin, by Australian adventurer Tim Jarvis and British mountaineer Barry Gray, who reached their destination on February 10, 2013. It will be interesting to find out if they had better luck keeping dry.

What qualities of reindeer hide make it particularly useful on ice? Emma Winka of Tärnaby, Sweden, reminisces:

“The winter shoes were made from hide that still had the hair on. That made the shoes warmer and the hair on the bottom made the shoes less slippery in the snow. That’s why winter shoes were sewn a bit differently than the summer shoes. On a winter shoe there was a seam across the bottom of the sole. The hair on the front part of the sole pointed back and the hair on the back of the sole pointed front. That way the shoes got a good grip when you walked in the snow and you didn’t slip. There was another difference between the winter shoes and the spring-summer shoes. The winter shoes had a little point at the toe that stuck up. All the winter shoes except shoes for very small children had that little point that stuck up. That point was to help hold skis to your foot if you went skiing. Skis in those days had bindings that were like loops and if you had shoes with a little point that stuck up at the toe, that loop-binding wouldn’t slip off.” (Read more here: An Interiew with Emma Winka)

Desiree Koslin writes in her paper (pdf) on gakti:

“There are dozens of terms that specify reindeer and reindeer skins in the categories of their age, sex, color, the time of year they were slaughtered, which part of the animal the skin comes from, the type of tanning and fat used for preserving the skin. Each type has specific uses in the making of clothing and footwear. The making of a pair of winter boots, gállot, require two head skins and four leg skins.”Sámi shoemakers were women, and they prepared their materials with expertise and discernment. They would have been present at the slaughter to select the best skins for good color and strength. Above all, they harvested the sinew for their sewing needs, from along the spine and the back of the legs. After cleaning, drying and softening, they were twisted and doubled. The sinew swells when wet, and maintains a leak-proof seam. Stab stitch, over casting, felled seam, and placing welts of cloth in the seams are techniques used for different parts of the garments or shoes.”

To see shoes being made, check out this video.

Below is a photo from the “8 Seasons in Sapmi” exhibit at the Nordic Heritage Museum in 2012.


Penny’s Story

Samuel Balto, 1898 in a photo by Čáliid Lágádus via Norske Polarhistorie

It has been over 30 years that I learned about the “family secret” of my Sami heritage.

In about 1978, my mother’s cousin, May, called to ask for photos, since she was making a trip to Karasjok. Married to a Japanese-American over family protests, I answered that I didn’t think they would be interested, since my mother had always said that my grandparents would have been upset over this marriage.

“There are some things you don’t know about yourself . . . “

May responded “Well, there are some things you don’t know about yourself,” and proceeded with the story of the Sámi who came to the United States in 1898, hired to teach the Alaskan Eskimos reindeer husbandry. In that group were my great-grandparents, Anders and Marit Balto, their daughter, my Aunt Mary, and great-uncle, Sam Balto, foreman of the Sámi group. Well I thought this was exciting and exotic, especially after being a “European mutt” amongst a wonderful Japanese family of Samurai heritage.

Continue reading

Suddenly Curious

Director Ellen-Astri Lundby

Last Tuesday, as part of their excellent event series in conjunction with the 8 Seasons in Sápmi exhibit, the Nordic Heritage Museum hosted a screening of Suddenly Sámi, the documentary by Ellen-Astri Lundby about her discovery of Sámi heritage. This was my second viewing, and almost as powerful as the first.

Lundby is a charming and deft storyteller. As she explores the heritage her mother kept from her, she brings us along to northern Norway, meeting with relatives and finding clues to her family’s past. With several parallels to my own experience of suppressed heritage, I found Lundby’s story profoundly moving. Her mother reminded me of my grandmother, her cousins of my uncles, the rural scenes, my former home, the Laestadian hymn, my childhood church. Even the fish boning and the carving of a carcass were familiar, having witnessed both many times as a child. But it was the unfamiliar reindeer corral scene that moved me to tears.

Pondering what it means to be Sámi, Lundby jokes that despite her people being Sea Sámi, and the fact that only 10 percent of Sámi herd reindeer, reindeer might make her feel more authentic. After a comedic scene of her wrestling with antlers, she is shown in a breathtaking longshot, standing alone in the middle of the spiraling herd in the snow. Beyond its stark beauty, the image seems symbolic of the ancestral search itself, which is not linear, but widens and narrows and circles in on itself, less like a tree than a whirlpool. Continue reading