A young Sámi woman lives a dream and makes a difference

Pride, determination, self-reliance, education, knowledge

Sandra Andersen Eire

Photo: Eric Stavney
Sámi Parliament representative Sandra Andersen Eira presents the Sámi flag at Leif Erikson Lodge.

The Norwegian American

Far up north ‘neath Ursa Major,
Sápmi rising, Sápmi shining
Mountains rise in crystal ridges,
Water flowing lake to lake,
Rocky peaks between the valleys
Soaring upward to the sky,
Streams are laughing, mist is rising,
Woods are whisp’ring to the mountains,
Iron pinnacles, stormy seas.

– Sápmi hymn, translated by Julie Whitehorn, Daughters of Norway Songbook

Sandra Andersen Eira is from the north of Norway, and the landscape has shaped her life. Coming from a long line of fisherfolk, she is a sea captain on the Arctic seas. She is a feminist and a politician, who has paved the way for a new generation of women. She is a proud Norwegian and a proud Sámi.

When you first encounter Sandra, you might think you are meeting a storybook Sámi princess. Petite, soft-spoken, and enchantingly beautiful in her traditional Sámi dress, she doesn’t fit your typical image of a sea captain, yet you are soon to learn that she is a young woman of fierce determination.

Eira, who serves as representative in the Sámi Parliament, came to Seattle the first week of August on a personal journal of exploration and education. Curious and adventurous by nature, she wanted to learn about the American landscape and people. When Julie Whitehorn from the Sons of Norway Leif Erikson Lodge came into contract with through an online forum and learned  that she would like to meet up with Seattle locals, she set the wheels in motion for a special event that took place the evening of Aug. 4 at the lodge.

Whitehorn has close connections to the Seattle Sámi community, as she as strove to learn more about her roots. She is the co-founder and past president of Pacific Sámi Searvi, a group that hosts exhibits, educational displays, films, talks, and social gatherings, while advocating for the rights of Sámi and other Indigenous people. It was Whitehorn who suggested to the lodge that it install a Sámi flag, and a visit from Eira seemed to fit perfectly with the program.

The pandemic delayed Eira’s trip for a year, but the enthusiasm for the project never waned, and she arrived in Seattle for three days, which included the usual sightseeing, visits to the University of Washington’s Department of Scandinavian Studies, and the National Nordic Museum. Despite a packed schedule, she also took the time to sit down to talk to The Norwegian American to talk about her journey as a young Sámi woman and her career in the fishing industry and at the Sámi Parliament.

Eira was born and has always lived at the Russenes Fjord in the province of Finnmark in northern Norway. The name Russenes (The Russians’) refers to the history with Russian traders who came there. It is the home of a commercial fishing coastal fleet, hauling in cod, halibut, and King Crab. 

“I grew up in a small town with lots of freedom,” she said,” and I learned to be independent at an early age.” The climate of the Arctic requires self-reliance, sacrifice, and hard work. Eira identifies with the landscape and her people who have lived there for generations. 

She explained that one side of her family chose to stay by the sea to fish, while the other were reindeer herders. Her grandfather sold his reindeer to stay at the coast. Life for the coastal Sámi is different than that for the nomadic herders. As a result of the Norwegianization and suppression of the Sámi culture that began in the 1850s, the language was to a large degree lost. For generations, parents did not teach their children the Sámi language to protect them from persecution. At one time, you could not even own land if you have a Sámi name; you could not admit that you were a Sámi. 

“You had no value as human being; you were considered to be less intelligent,” said Eira. The skulls of the Sámi were even measured to “scientifically” confirm these prejudices. These Indigenous people were not allowed to be evacuated with the Norwegians during World War II, and Eira told how her mother was not allowed to board the bus with other Norwegians when she was young woman.

Sandra Andersen Eira with representatives from Leif Erikson Lodge by the Sámi flag

Photo: Eric Stavney After the flag installation ceremony and program, Sandra Andersen Eira and representatives from the local Sámi community proudly stood together for a photo.

Knowledge is power

Eira grew up speaking Norwegian as a child and first learned to speak Sámi at school.  Language reforms and education have played a key role in the preservation of the Sámi people.  Eira, like most, understands that language keeps a culture alive.

“In the Norwegian language there are five words for snow, and in the Sámi language, there are 300,” she said. “There are many words to describe the elements, the weather of the Arctic region where we live. The language is who we are.”

The Norwegian government awards funds to the Sámi Parliament to sponsor grants for art, film, music, and literary projects. By law, NRK (the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) airs news in the Sámi language. Generous stipends are available to study Sámi. Civil rights have been fully restored to the Sámi people. In Norway today, there is overall a new interest in the Sámi culture.

“Curiosity is a good thing.” said Eira. “It leads to knowledge.” Overall, she is pleased to see that there is now a strong interest in the Sámi culture but at the same time, she understands the dangers of cultural appropriation. 

“Culture should not be misused as entertainment,” she said. Many tourist attractions in Norway present inaccurate depictions of the Sámi, and traditional crafts are often cheaply mispresented in commercial ventures. Eira was pleased that Disney did its homework for Frozen II, working closely with the Sámi Parliament, and she sees the value of academic research.

Feminist fishing

“Life at sea gives me freedom,” said Eira. “It’s not only a job; it’s a way of life.” She has a great pride in her profession, but she understands that “you do not get anything for free.” In the Arctic seas, fishing has to take place during the winter storms, as the fish leave for Russia during the spring. With treacherous conditions, her job is one of the most dangerous in the world. 

“Either you love it, or you don’t,” she said.

But when Eira set to sea in the coastal fleet, she learned that women did not have the same freedom as men. Women make up only 1% of fishing fleet personnel in Norway, and up until 2018, they did not have equal rights and benefits with men. Before then, it was not even possible to have the rights to work on the boats and be a mother.

“I realized I could stay at home and be annoyed or try to do something about it,” said Eira.  It was her indignation about fishing and women’s rights that led her to get involved in politics, taking her to her position in the Sámi Parliament. They were able to get a case about Sámi coastal issues and fisheries, which led to the shift in 2018. There was a bit of media frenzy, as things began to change.  

The Sámi parliamentarian is now working with the Minister of Fisheries in Oslo to recruit more women to work on fishing boats and secure more rights for them, and she sees herself as a champion for all women in minority professions. “I am a double minority as a woman and Sámi,” she said.

Photo: Eric Stavney
Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall was honored to interview Sandra Andersen Eira and inspired by what she learned from their conversation.

Celebrating cultural exchange

Spirits were high at Leif Erikson Lodge, as the Norwegian-American community came out in full force to meet Eira and her videographer, Evsy Kovale, a Russian national, who has been involved in researching and documenting the lives of the Sámi in the Russian tundra.

The sounds of the Skandia Kapell folk musicians set the tone of the evening. Leif Erikson Lodge’s cultural director, JoAnne Rudo, and Adam McQueen, lodge vice president, made initial introductions, which included a warm welcome from the Norwegian Honorary Consul, Viggo Forde, who was unable to attend. But it was Julie Whitehorn’s greeting, delivered in both Sámi and English, that resonated most strongly from the heart. 

Whitehorn also introduced Ken Workman, a direct descendant of Chief Seattle, for whom the City of Seattle takes its name. While the circumstances of the Sámi and Native American tribes have been different, there are parallels in their exclusion from mainstream society, as in the historical experience of Indigenous people in so much of the world.

As Eira talked about her life, a clip played from the documentary film Sea Sisters, a co-production in progress featuring Eira and Italy’s only woman working on a fish­ing boat. Kovale also shared scenes from his groundbreaking documentary about the Russian Sámi, who still today live fully apart from mainstream Russian society. The filmmaker has spent four years obtaining footage to tell a story never told before. He has plans to visit all the Arctic regions of the world to document the life of the Indigenous people there.

Eira continued her story, interspersing it with a video of the joik, the traditional Sámi song that was presented to her. But, of course, the installation of the Sámi flag, which Eira carried through the hall, stood out as a high point of the evening.

It was an evening of warmth, sharing, and learning. The audience also heard about Eira and Kovale’s travels in the United States, which has taken them to Georgia in the South and the national parks of the West Coast. Eira reported that she was surprised by the level at which the Nordic heritage has been preserved in the Pacific Northwest. 

“It has been as an amazing experience that I am happy to bring back to the homeland,” she said. “You have every reason to be proud of what you have done here.”

Pride—determination—self-reliance—education—knowledge: these words will continue to resonate, as Sandra Andersen Eira continues on her journey. We all left the hall in anticipation of where this inspiring young woman will go next and look forward to her return.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.