Rediscovering and remembering
Ellen Marie Jensen gives the Sámi people in America a new voice
Living in the Arctic extremes requires adept skills at adaptation and improvisation. Besides the Inuit, there are only about a handful of Siberian and North American peoples who have done so. And, of course, there are the people found in the northernmost parts of Scandinavia and western Russia: the Sámi.
I have long been fascinated by the Sámi culture. After attending a performance by a Sámi choreographer in New York, I wanted to learn more and immersed myself at a Sámi campsite and exhibits at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. On several occasions, I enthusiastically shared Sámi mythology and art with the students I teach.
When I then heard that Ellen Marie Jensen was going to be in New York to promote her book about the Sámi, I didn’t hesitate to organize a talk on behalf of the Scandinavian East Coast Museum. This was in April 2014 at the Danish Club in Brooklyn.
One could not help but hear and see Jensen’s passion for giving a voice to the Sámi people. She is a strong advocate for her cultural heritage. Much of what she said was enlightening and has stayed with me over time. One of the most poignant and sad tales was her own story.
Jensen was raised in a Midwest town, where her own family did not identify as Sámi, but as Norwegian, due to the shame that had been imposed on them. Not even leaving the old country, crossing an ocean, building a new life on a new continent, and the passing of time through two generations could blot out the psychological effects of the degradation Jensen’s family experienced.
She had been told she was Norwegian. It was not until years later that she realized she was actually Sámi. As a result of her hidden identity and desire to reclaim her family’s Sámi identity, she wrote We Stopped Forgetting: Stories from Sámi Americans (2014). Her book focuses on Americans who, like her, had a Scandinavian identity and discovered that they also had Sámi ethnicity.
Hiding Sámi identity is not unusual. In fact, one family that had traveled from Long Island to attend Jensen’s talk had a similar lack of knowledge. The mother, like Ellen, had later discovered her Sámi roots and was interested in learning more. She traveled all that way to learn more about this fascinating, yet little known and often misrepresented culture—her culture.
And over the past six years, Jensen has not been resting on her laurels. Below is an interview in which she discusses her Sámi roots and her most recent work involving the Sámi.
Victoria Hofmo: What is the biggest misconception about the Sámi?
Ellen Marie Jensen: It’s hard to say. I think it depends on which country the Sámi live in. In Norway, I think the most damaging misconception is that we are religious fanatics and only stick to our own. There are people who believe that we are “simple” unsophisticated country bumpkins. Some people even believe that the Sámi still live in tents all year round and don’t have running water—and these are people living in Norway! They truly ought to know better than that.
VH: I believe you had told us in your talk in Brooklyn that the Sámi are a mixture of Berber and Caucasus people, is that true?
EMJ: Our closest genetic relatives are the Amazigh (Berber), Basque, and Northern Finns. We also have a connection to Asia as well, especially with Mongolia. However, we are not their relatives and cannot be said to be a mixture of them. Our connections to populations in these other modern-day places go back well over 10,000 years.
One theory is that our Ice Age ancestors had followed the big game as the ice receded. There was one group from the East and one group from the South who met on the Scandinavian Peninsula. There is speculation that the Amazigh (Berber) were a group that migrated south, and the Basque are descendants from a group that remained in the area. Linguists also point to the length of time our ancestors have been in Fenno-Scandinavia and Kola Russia. The South Sámi language, in particular, reveals that our ancestors had been isolated from other people in Europe. The ancient people that predate the Sámi are often referred to as the Komsa culture
While we are on the topic, I would like to get a point across: when it comes to Sámi identity and culture, I caution people not to rely on DNA evidence, even though there are many companies that claim to be able to provide such evidence. The most reliable and culturally relevant way of tracing roots is through genealogy. The Sámi are very connected to their extended families and local communities.
VH: How did you find out about your Sámi roots?
EMJ: My father is a Sámi from the province of Finnmark, but due to the intense assimilation policy, my grandparents did not tell their children about their Sámi heritage, although it was hard to hide. So, I grew up in Minneapolis with my American mother and Sámi immigrant father, knowing that we were a “different” kind of Norwegian. I did not have a name for what we were, other than “Laplander,” which is considered derogatory.
My father told me directly when I was 22 years old. It was during the 1994 Winter Olympics opening ceremony. There were Sámi people performing, and I could see that they were different from the Norwegians in Oslo (I lived in Oslo as a child). I asked him, “Who are these people?” And he said, “Well, they are Sámi; we are Sámi.” It was from then that I started my journey back to my roots. In 2003, I started a master’s program in Tromsø, and I knew that I just wanted to stay. It felt like home from the very beginning.
VH: I believe that you now spend a large part of the year with your family in the north of Norway. Is that true, and if so, how did you make that decision?
EMJ: I have been living and working here in the North, or in Sápmi, since 2003. So, yes, I spend a lot of time with my relatives here.
VH: When we last met, you had just completed your book, We Stopped Forgetting: Stories from Sámi Americans. What have you been doing since that time?
EMJ: Since then I finished my Ph.D.—and yes, it will be published. It is entitled “Diasporic Indigeneity and Storytelling Across Media: A Case Study of Narratives of Early Twentieth Century Sámi Immigrant Women.” There will be a documentary history book with stories of five Sámi migrant women from the early 20th century. There will also be a more academic book. I don’t have details yet—please stay tuned.
VH: Disney’s Frozen II’s main focus is on the Sámi. Do you think it is a fair representation?
EMJ: Yes, the Sámi were directly involved with Disney producers. There was even a Sámi language version made. I just saw that Sámi language version the other day. There were many moments where the culture came through in a very authentic way. That is when I got choked up. I went to see it with my cousin, and we were both tearing up at the same moments! It was amazing.
VH: What are your upcoming plans?
EMJ: I will continue working with the material I have from my dissertation. I will be submitting a proposal or two to publishers very soon. I have a short-term academic post, but I hope to get a full-time and permanent position soon. While my research has largely been about migration to North America, I plan to do some more local research in Sápmi. A particular interest of mine is how mining has affected the Sámi communities, especially from the area where my father was born and raised.
Words of wisdom
Both Norwegians and Americans should be grateful that Ellen Marie Jensen has made it her mission to advocate and give this unique people and culture a voice that we can all hear and enjoy.
Jensen was very kind to gift me several books after her talk six years ago. One small fascinating book translated Sámi adages into English. Sayings like “Never trust a Norwegian” bear witness to the long-held tensions and distrust the indigenous population of Norway has had of the dominant culture.
Others proverbs show their wisdom and humor of the Sámi as well as their connection to the natural world they inhabit. Think of “He turns creeks into lakes for one who exaggerates” or “Where there is no wound, there is no bleeding.” One of the sayings became the title of a book: “Time is a ship that never casts anchor.”
Jensen’s words and actions as well these little snippets show the richness and depth of the Sámi culture. Perhaps they will entice you to do a little research on your own, so that all of Norway’s histories and cultures become part of your Norwegian story.
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.