Sámi heritage is not a “cute” fashion statement

Photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud / norden.org Colorful gákti are undeniably cute, but wearing meaningful garb from another’s culture without permission is cultural appropriation. It cheapens these garments to wear them simply because one likes the way they look.

Photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud / norden.org
Colorful gákti are undeniably cute, but wearing meaningful garb from another’s culture without permission is cultural appropriation. It cheapens these garments to wear them simply because one likes the way they look.

Lynn Gleason
Pacific Sámi Searvi

The latest Sons of Norway magazine Viking had a very nice article about Norwegian bunads. One thing I found interesting was that it said it is fine for someone to wear a bunad from any region, even if they do not have ancestors or family tied to that particular region. I think it’s a little odd to wear a bunad from a region to which you have no connection, but if it doesn’t bother Norwegians in Norway then it certainly doesn’t bother me. However, while this might be fine for Norwegian bunads, I do not feel it’s true of all cultural clothing.

A very significant part of my identity is being Norwegian; almost all of my ancestry comes from Norway. Then in 2014 I learned I am also Sámi. Like many descendants of Sámi immigrants, I didn’t know this until I went looking for it. That is because many Sámi who came here decided to leave that identity behind. They are a colonized minority, and of all the countries that colonized the Sámi (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia), the process of Norwegianization was the harshest. Children were forced into residential schools; lands and basic rights were stripped; they were marginalized, disenfranchised, and exploited; their language and music were banned. In some Norwegian churches, joiking is still banned. The Sámi women’s hats were banned in some places by the church; in others wearing the gákti made Sámi a target for abuse. It has a very different history than the bunad and that is why I feel it needs to be treated with as much respect as the bunad, and more. Many Sámi have literally risked their lives to wear it.

The Sámi fought hard for recognition of their rights, lands, language, and culture. It is an ongoing struggle. The gákti is as much a representation of Sámi culture, faith, and region, sometimes all the way down to specific family, as a bunad is to a region of Norway. Every part of a gákti has meaning: the color of the fabric, the colors of the stripes, the ribbons and what order they go in, the shape and colors of the hats, the colors and designs of the leg bands, which are not just for decoration but have a very practical purpose; all of this has meaning. Cheap knock-offs of gákti in Finland sold to unwitting tourists are a real problem. Imposters profiting off something sacred are costing business from actual Sámi duodjar and craftsmen. Cultural appropriation is real, it is insulting, and it is harmful.

People ask me for patterns for Sámi hats because they think they’re cute or for the dresses because they like the way the skirts twirl. Even if I had those patterns to give, I would not give them. I feel it is absolutely not my place to do so. Most Americans of Sámi descent have a difficult time not only finding photos or records of specifics about their Sámi ancestors but also figuring out which gákti our ancestors wore, and for many of us it is something we feel we must know more about before we would presume to wear one. Many of us wouldn’t wear it even then because we feel it is something that must be earned. These items are sacred, and although many Sámi wear their gákti more often than Norwegians wear bunads, gákti are no less significant in meaning or in cost. The financial cost of a gákti easily matches that of a bunad. The personal cost of wearing one is often greater still.

I truly understand that those who asked for patterns or items didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but I feel the lack of trying to learn about the history or meaning of what it is they want to wear is disrespectful. I know individuals who are not Sámi but were given gákti or other meaningful items by Sámi, and that’s different. That’s wonderful. I love it when people ask me questions and are curious about the Sámi; I love sharing as much as I can. I love learning from others. I love that people like the look of the Sámi and are curious about both the Sámi in Sápmi and those like me who are learning where and who we came from. I feel there is a huge difference between someone who is coming to the culture and learning about it and someone who was raised in it and lives with both the honor and the struggle of what it means to be Sámi. It is not my place to be handing out designs, which are so personal.

The gákti and Sámi clothing are not a costume. They are an integral part of a cultural identity and should be worn only by those who understand and appreciate them.

Lynn Gleason is a PLU graduate with degrees in Political Science and Scandinavian Studies, currently living in Poulsbo. She is active with PLU Scandinavian Cultural Center Council and serves as president of the Pacific Sámi Searvi.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.