Histories and identities interwoven
Oral history project explores relationship between Nordic immigrants and native people
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
“Don’t feel afraid of your past history, celebrate it,” advises Dr. Sven Haakanson of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
Today these words of wisdom from the University of Washington anthropologist and Alutiiq tribe member seem self-evident, but as participants at “Interwoven: The Blended Heritage of Nordic and Native Peoples” learned, history has often told us another story.
The first of two symposia planned in conjunction with the Interwoven oral history project was held at Seattle’s Nordic Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood on Sept. 15, where a roomful of academics and interested members of the Nordic and local tribal communities gathered to listen and interact with four panelists, who shared their own personal experiences and involvement with the oral history project. The discussion that focused on the themes of identity, diversity, and knowledge was moderated by the Fred Poyner IV, the museum’s collections manager and Interwoven project co-lead.
The first panelist of the day, artist Susan Ringstad Emery, is no stranger to Ballard: she was born there, and recently her work was on display at the museum’s old location. Emery’s paternal heritage is Norwegian, and on her mother’s side, she stems from indigenous people from a tiny island in the Bering Strait Region. While she admittedly “does not look the part,” she has felt welcome in the tribal community, and had embraced this side of her heritage.
Identity, to a large extent, is a conscious choice. Susan proudly showed the audience drawings of her grandmother and great-grandmother, and she was given her grandmother’s name Ahnoaq (which she later to her amusement learned means “to hit with a stick”). Susan sees her life as being enriched by her mixed heritage. She enthusiastically greeted the audience in Norwegian, “God dag! Jeg heter Susan. Jeg er en person some lever i tre forskellige kulturer. Jeg bor her, og har med meg min mors kultur fra Alaska og min bestefars kultur fra Norge,” or “Hello, I’m a person who lives in three different cultures: I reside here and carried on my mother’s culture from Alaska and my grandfather’s culture from Norway.”
Alison DeRiemer is a videographer for the Interwoven project, and her position on the other side of the camera has given her another perspective on Nordic-native identity. Having witnessed many of the interviews for the project firsthand, she took note of the not only physical appearance in shaping identity, but even names. Like Susan, many subjects have taken on tribal names to honor their ancestors. She underlined that many of her subjects were not comfortable doing the interviews, that they felt they did not know enough about their heritages on either side. Often knowledge of their Scandinavian background has become obscured.
Another perspective came from historian Jennifer Ott, assistant director at HistoryLink.org, the University of Washington’s online encyclopedia of Washington state history. Ott herself has some Scandinavian background but doesn’t know anything about it. Both she and DeRiemer pointed out that lack of knowledge is part of the story, that it is of interest to learn what has been handed down or not. With historical trauma and shame, it is not unusual for traditions and knowledge to be lost. In the past, the political history of a town can overtake a story, as the white man’s history displaces the story of a tribal people. Racism is often about denying part of your history: the shame. Only with time and new consciousness are these stories being woven back together by new, more confident generations.
Tessa Campbell, senior curator at the Hibulb Cultural Center, greeted the audience in her native tribal language. She grew up on the Tulalip reservation, as “very much of a mutt.” Campbell’s surname is Scottish, but she has little interest in that side of her heritage. We learned from her that today, a very small percentage of Tulalips can be identified to be of Norwegian or Scandinavian heritage.
Yet Campbell was able to share interesting anecdotes from the tribe. She told the story of Chief William Shelton, a significant leader of the tribe from early historical days, whose son fell in love with a Minnesotan schoolteacher of Scandinavian descent. Initially, the chief strongly opposed the marriage, but love prevailed. Interracial couples always faced obstacles, and historically, tribal members faced discrimination, be it getting seated at a movie theater or joining a labor union.
Some stories brought laughter to the room. We learned of a tribal member named “Skog” (Scandinavian for “forest”), who while he knew nothing of his Nordic background, was frequently heard interjecting, “Uff da!” in his daily conversation. Sadly, there were also stories of tribal social pressure and rejection. When someone didn’t look the part, people might say, “Your skin is too light, stop acting like a Native American.” The pressure to fit in has often worked both ways, presenting challenges even today.
The first Interwoven symposium kept its audience engaged throughout, and after the discussion, many participants had personal experiences to share. Many lamented the fact that their parents and grandparents had not passed down their native languages to them, as it was another time with different needs, expectations, and social pressures. Yet all in all, there was a sense of positivity, optimism, and understanding as the symposium closed. Today, language courses as well as cultural competency and crafts, are being taught to further both native tribal and Nordic heritages (the latter right at the museum), and the oral history project itself is a testimony to the efforts to bridge understanding, as we now celebrate the past and look to a better future.
For those interested, stay posted: the next Interwoven symposium will be held at the Hibulb Center of the Tulalip Tribes in early March 2019, and the 12 Interwoven project interviews are accessible to the public online at nordicmuseum.pastperfectonline.com. For more information, contact Fred Poyner IV, Nordic Museum Collections Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the October 5, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.