Uncovering and preserving the history of Sámi silver
“Adornment is a common cultural language. It’s a common point for appreciation and understanding,” says Liz Bucheit, a 2021 recipient of the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Scandinavian Folk Arts and Cultural Traditions in the Upper Midwest Fellowship. Liz has a deep appreciation of the significance of adornment: she is the award-winning jewelry designer at Crown Trout Jewelers in Lanesboro, Minn.
The artisan has studied traditional Norwegian silversmithing techniques in Norway and has made bunad jewelry and wedding crowns. Her contemporary designs, influenced by Nordic traditions, have been shown in galleries in the United States and Norway. The fellowship is an opportunity for Liz to travel to Norway to learn the history and cultural language of Sámi silverwork, which has its own aesthetic and symbology.
Liz will be working with Marlene Wisuri, director of the Sámi Cultural Center of America in Duluth, Minn., to present programming after completing her fieldwork in Norway. Right now, though, Liz’s thoughts are on the nuts and bolts of traveling and arranging to meet with silversmiths and historians.
“When I first read the email saying I received the grant, my eyes teared up. Michael (Liz’s husband and fellow jewelry designer) was in a meeting with a client, so I couldn’t bother him. So, I was dancing around the room, not able to tell anybody. Now, I just wake up in the middle of the night terrified about how I am going to complete this,” she said.
Liz will focus her research in the towns of Karasjok and Kautokeino, Norway, centers of Sámi cultural repositories, museums, and silversmiths. Knitting designer and textile historian Laura Ricketts of Rochester, Ind., has been assisting Liz in making connections with Sámi artisans.
“Laura has been fantastic and has shared her knowledge and network with me,” says Liz. She will also attend the 2022 Sámi Easter Festival in Kautokeino, where there will be Easter celebrations, weddings, and an open-air craft market.
Liz had been studying Sámi silverwork and dress and found that there was little available documentation.
“I wanted to learn about Sámi artists and the influence their culture has made on their choice of design elements, both historic and contemporary,” she said.
While Liz found extensive resources on the history and design development of traditional Norwegian bunad silver, that wasn’t the case for Sámi designs. That is a gap that Liz wants to help fill, working to preserve history and to make this information readily accessible so knowledge isn’t lost.
“There are young Sámi silversmiths developing their art, and I want to speak with them, too,” said Liz. “The past must be preserved, but for a folk art to continue, each generation has to make the form its own.”
Sámi silversmithing is relatively new, with the first known silver piece hallmark dated to the period of 1631 to 1668. Silver objects were popular trade items among Norwegian and Sámi groups. Since the Sámi possessed no silver traditions of their own, they would commission local Norwegian silversmiths to create drinking vessels, ornaments, and spoons of Sámi design. What would have originally been made in bone or wood was translated into silver. Gradually, traditions intertwined, and silversmiths of Sámi descent began designing and making the jewelry and decorative objects.
Liz is excited not only to do field work in Norway and to learn about the traditions directly from Sámi artisans, but to relay this knowledge the Sámi Cultural Center in Minnesota.
“I want to share my research and contribute to the organization by presenting information that benefits their educational and curatorial programming.” she said.
Wisuri is pleased that Liz is doing research on Sámi artistic traditions.
“I think this programming is worthwhile,” said Wisuri.
Liz feels a certain urgency to record silverworking techniques and history.
“All it takes is for a folk art to skip a generation, and the knowledge is lost,” she said.
Now, when many craftspeople are aging out of teaching, this documentation is especially important. For those who aren’t Sámi, having the historical context deepens their appreciation of the silverwork. For Sámi craftspeople, Liz’s project will provide an easily accessed resource for their own study of design and its development.
While Liz believes that nothing replaces the person-to-person transmission of a craft, the videos, interviews, photographs, and documentation she will produce will play an important role in preserving a remarkable tradition.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.