A long overdue place of pride
Sámi Cultural Center of North America
The Sámi, called the “people of the sun” in their national lore, have inhabited the North of Scandinavia and Russia for about 3,500 years.
Once called “Laps” or “Laplanders” by the Scandinavians, that term has been considered derogatory for hundreds of years. Its etymology is debated.
Today, they know themselves as Sámi, the moniker chosen by them, which is a form of Sápmi, the word for land. The Sámi languages form a branch of Uralic and most closely related to Finnish. However, the people’s origin is still being uncovered. In fact, studies of Sámi mitochondrial DNA connect them to the Berbers of North Africa.
The numbers of Sámi still living on their land (called Sápmi) is thought to be 80,000, and approximately half live in Norway. Interestingly, in North America, about 30,000 people claim Sámi ancestry. The majority of Sámi came to North America between 1850 and 1935.
Less commonly known is that many Sámi were actually coaxed to come to North America by the U.S. federal government around the turn of the last century. The purpose was to have them train indigenous Alaskans, the Inupiaq and Yup’ik peoples, in subsistence reindeer herding and animal husbandry. The Alaskan tribes’ main source of sustenance had been marine mammals, which were being decimated by the whaling industry. The Sámi Cultural Center of North America (SCCNA) writes on its website, “These Sámi not only contributed to the Native diet, clothing needs, and economy, but also enriched the cultural lifestyle of these people, which still has an impact today” (www.samiculturalcenter.org/sami-history-and-culture/sami-history).
Long targeted as “less than” or “other” in their homeland, many carried this shame with them when they emigrated to North America. One American Sámi advocate and lecturer spoke in Brooklyn about how she was told as a child that her family was Norwegian. She didn’t find out about her family’s Sámi roots until she was an adult, because her Sámi ancestors hid that part of their identity for a long time.
This shame has now been turned into a source of pride. One positive outcome was the establishment of the SCCNA in 2011. According to their website, the SCCNA is “dedicated to education about Sámi and Sámi-North American history and culture and for the purpose of establishing a cultural center to serve the Sámi immigrant North American population and other interested people.”
The center maintains an archive and library, hosts researchers, and provides classes, especially in traditional Sámi handicrafts, known as duodji. “Duodji tools, clothing, and accessories are functional and useful and often incorporate artistic elements,” according to the website.
As they share an obvious historical connection, they work closely with the indigenous people and communities of North America. The similarities between the native peoples from both regions can even be seen in the SCCNA’s logo, which depicts a Lavvu, temporary Sámi shelter, described on their website as similar to a tipi. (It is also the shape of the Sámi Parliament in Norway.) It is designed in three of the four colors found in the Sámi flag: red for the sun, yellow for nature, and blue for the moon, evidence of their respect for and interconnectedness to the environment. The Sámi flag also includes green.
Likely due to the shame imposed on the Sámi by the dominant Scandinavian cultures, it is a great loss that it took until the 21st century to create a center dedicated to their cultural heritage and continuance. The shame was a baggage they carried with them when they came to North America. But perhaps the distance from the dominant Scandinavian cultures and exposure to the different set of challenges and possibilities in North America were catalysts for the development of SCCNA.
Whatever the reasons, to have a place where the Sámi can celebrate and take pride in their culture is a wonderful gift, not only for them, but also for those of us who do not have Sámi heritage, providing a richer understanding of Scandinavia and North America. There is much we can learn from the Sámi, and the recognition and celebration of their unique culture, history, and traditions are long overdue.
This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.