Sunday, December 30, 2012

New Emilie Demant Hatt website

I've now launched a stand-alone website about Emilie Demant Hatt. Although it's still in progress, the site has pages about her life and art and one dedicated to With the Lapps in the High Mountains, which is in production now with the University of Wisconsin Press and will be published in May.This is my translation from Danish of Demant Hatt's remarkable and engaging book of traveling and living among the Sami of Northern Scandinavia in 1907-8.

I'm really pleased with the cover, which features a painting by Demant Hatt from 1940, "Ice Bridge," and thrilled that Hugh Beach, an American professor of anthropology who lives and works in Sweden, wrote a  foreword. Professor Beach is the author of one of my favorite books of all time, A Year in Lapland: Guest of the Reindeer Herders.

I'm also delighted with some of the book's advance blurbs including this one by an anthropologist whose work I admire greatly, Luke Eric Lassiter. He's written The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, as well as many incisive articles about the art and challenge of collaborative ethnography.

“Emilie Demant Hatt’s With the Lapps in the High Mountains is an important and significant contribution to the history of anthropology and ethnography. Weaving artful description and personal narrative, Demant Hatt recounts a story that, until now, has been largely unknown to English-speaking anthropologists and ethnographers. Many perhaps know of her collaboration with Johan Turi, but this work sheds further light on Demant Hatt’s role as an observant participant involved in the daily lives of Sami people. Thanks to Barbara Sjoholm’s careful and skillful translation, Demant Hatt’s work is fortunately now available to a much larger audience.”

                                                                                                  -- Luke Eric Lassiter

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Umeå--European Capital of Culture 2014

It’s not quite 2013 yet but the northern Swedish city of Umeå is preparing for its year in the spotlight of the Midnight Sun as the 2014 choice of the European Capital of Culture. Each calendar year the European Union chooses one city to organize events that showcase national cultural strengths and have a European dimension.

This coming year Marseille is the designated city and its offerings look fabulous. Umeå won’t be able to match Marseille’s Mediterranean warmth and food, but the north of Sweden (besides its beauty, light, and cloudberries) has something that France doesn’t—the Sami. Umeå is using this opportunity to integrate Sweden’s Sami heritage into its programming. For a start the whole year of cultural offerings is organized around the eight seasons of the traditional Sami Calendar, beginning with Deep Winter––Dálvvie in Sami. For offerings season by season, take a look here.

I love the sound of Deep Winter (in the Swedish-language version of the program they just call it Vinter, which doesn’t have the same ring). If I lived in Sweden I’d love to visit Umeå several times over the course of 2014 for the exhibits and changing round of festivals. I’ve never been to this university town 600 kilometers north of Stockholm, which, for the record, also has more young vegans than anyplace else in Sweden, and a rocking music scene. 2014 will also see Sweden’s first women’s history museum open in Umeå. Another compelling reason to start saving.
From the festival website. Mini-golf in Deep Winter?

For more information about Umeå see their visitor site.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reading Swedish

I've been reading in Swedish for the last month or two, one academic text, various articles, and for fun, two thrillers--one by Henning Mankell, Hundara i Riga (The Dogs of Riga) and En Helt Annan Historia (A Completely Different Story) by Håkan Nesser, which was absolutely fantastic.

I don't read Swedish as well as Danish and Norwegian. Often, especially after a long absence of reading any Swedish, it's quite difficult to begin.

It's as if, when I look at the page of Swedish text, all I see is a smudged glass window spattered with tiny bugs over the a’s and o’s. Through the smeary window I glimpse shapes moving––People? Cars? Bears?––but I can’t make them out. What’s the story here? What is the meaning? I try to focus on single words that I don’t know or don’t remember and look them up in the pale yellow dictionary. I calm my rising panic (None of this makes any sense) by reminding myself that I’m looking at roman characters, complete sentences with a familiar structure, and that I can and do read two other Scandinavian languages.

Norwegian and Danish are closely related to Swedish, though with distinct verb endings and grammatical peculiarities—and yes, of course, different words and often quite dissimilar spellings. It often helps to move my lips as I read a sentence. The sounds of Swedish are similar to Norwegian, but the phonetics are written with different letters. As if this sentence I’m writing reads thizz centans reeds. Sometimes when I read aloud a Swedish word I don’t recognize I find it’s just a Norwegian word, disguised. Then, sometimes if I’m lucky the meaning of the whole sentence snaps into place, the bug-speckled window begins to look less greasy and, fitfully, I see the shapes behind. No, it’s not a bear, it’s a second person. They are getting into a car and going downtown, they are having a conversation about their relationship.
If I’m making my way through an academic text, I begin to see the passive verbs, the cautious, repetitious phrasing, the multitude of qualifiers. If I’m reading a thriller, there are welcomes stretches of dialog and violent events that keep me focused. Wait, who is murdering whom? In English the slight different between he and she doesn’t trip me up; in Swedish I can mistake han (he) for hon (she). Reading thrillers helps me with my Swedish; I read faster and look up fewer words, guessing often at their meaning from the context. My brain no longer complains, I can’t read this—it’s Swedish for god’s sake.

I no longer notice the bugs and the window has only the light fog of mist, just enough to make the moving figures and the landscape on the other side a little hazy and romantic. Otherwise I see what the characters are doing, I can almost touch them, hear them. And the longer I read the more vivid and real the world on the other side of the glass will become, so at times I will be on the other side, in that room or city, on that boat, under those cliffs, dipping my toes in water that is cool and soft and real. The words, if I am lucky, will vanish altogether.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Remapping the Tourist Road"


The new issue (42) of Harvard Review is out and I’m really pleased it includes an essay of mine, “Remapping the Tourist Road.” A few years ago the American-Scandinavian Foundation gave me a travel grant that allowed me to retrace some of the old reindeer migration routes made by the Karesuando Sami over the Swedish mountains to the summer camp of Tromsdalen outside Tromsø, Norway. The Danish artist and ethnographer Emilie Demant Hatt went with them in the spring of 1908, probably one of the only Europeans to have ever made that difficult trek. She writes vividly of the difficulties of snow and ice, of crossing melting snow bridges over rushing rivers, and of carrying babies and puppies and trying to keep them safe.

Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Tromsdalen, Norway
In Tromsø I was able to meet Hans Ragnar Mathisen, a Sami activist and artist well known for his detailed maps of Sápmi in which he puts in all the Sami place names. His important work is part of my essay. I also write about our visit to the now-vanished summer encampment of Tromsdalen and to the Tourist Road, where Nordic and foreign travelers en route up and down the Norwegian coast used to come out to view the reindeer––and the Sami living their daily lives in the turf huts.

Here's Hans Ragnar in his art studio (note reindeer antlers). You can see more of his art and his full-color maps on his website:

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pacific Sami Searvi

Julie Whitehorn of Seattle is now blogging at a new site, Pacific Sámi Searvi, set up to connect, educate, and inform the Sami-Americans of the Puget Sound area. It looks to be a wonderful addition to the growing movement of those with Sami heritage here in North America. Julie gives some background on the creation of the group and also has a post about the exhibit of exquisite Sami artisan craft and photographs at the Nordic Heritage Museum.

All of us who attended the lectures by Sami speakers last week had a preview of the exhibition. As we had only twenty minutes or so before the museum closed, I can't give a detailed review, but can say it's well-worth visiting. I plan to go back soon.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Lectures on Sami Culture & Religion in Seattle Aug 29

Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle opens a new exhibit  on Friday, August 31.
Eight Seasons in Sápmi, the Land of the Sámi People. This Wednesday, August 29, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m,  two lectures on the Sami will be presented in conjunction with the exhibit: 

Duodji in the Sámi Culture
by Mari-Ann Nutti, director, Sámi Handcraft Foundation Sámi Duodji

Duodji (handcraft) is an important part of the Sámi culture. It is also a distinctive feature and an identity marker that the outside world recognizes. Duodji are the handcrafts made by the Sámi, based on Sámi traditions, design, patterns, and colors. Every Duodji article has a historic background and might be crafted with techniques dating back to the time the artifacts began to be used or might be ornamented with ancient design.

Today, Duodji is not only a refined artistic handcraft that is a joy to look at and that testifies to the skillfulness of artisans` hands, but it also radiates insightfulness and concern for the Sámi culture. The unbroken tradition extending through the generations preserves the expressions of design of a distinctive culture.

Traditional Sámi Religion
by Anna Westman Kuhmunen, curator at Ájtte, Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum

Learn about Sámi religion before colonialism and the missionary work that started around 1600 and lasted almost 300 years. The main principles of the Sámi religion, the religious connection with landscape and animals, rituals in connections with different aspects of life, and the world-view of the noaidi, the Sámi shaman, will all be covered and augmented by photos of religious artifacts from museum collections.

Reservations encourgaged; to RSVP, call 206-789 5707 x10, or email

Saturday, August 11, 2012

We Stopped Forgetting

It was a warm evening in Seattle a week ago and what was more enjoyable than to head over from Port Townsend to the Swedish Cultural Center? In the retro bar (retro because original from the 1960s) I ordered a refreshing gin and tonic and sat at a table overlooking Lake Union. In a corner of the bar was a small group and one of the women was wearing Sami dress: gákti. A short time later Ellen Marie Jensen, raised in Minneapolis, now living in Deatnu-Tana in Northern Norway/Sápmi, got up to speak in the dining room.

She was in Seattle to promote her book, We Stopped Forgetting: Stories from Sámi Americans, recently published by the academic Sami press, ČálliidLágádus - ForfatternesForlag. The story she told was both personal and general. Personal because she shared her experiences growing up the daughter of a Norwegian-Sami from the coast of Finnmark without truly understanding who the Sami were or what their history had been. General because Ellen Marie Jensen shared some of her youthful confusion with thousands of descendants of Sami who immigrated to North America and found it more convenient to erase or forget their indigenous or mixed heritage and simply call themselves Norwegians, Finns, or Swedes. In many cases, as Jensen reminds us in her book, people have no idea they have any Sami heritage at all.

Jensen, however, had still-living relatives in Norway who helped her reconnect with the family tree. She took the further step of moving to Tromsø to study in the Indigenous Studies program at the university. We Stopped Forgetting is a slender book based on her master’s thesis, with additional material from some of the five Sami-Americans she interviewed. One of the Sami-Americans lives in Poulsbo, a Scandinavian community across the Sound from Seattle. Many of the Sami and their families who originally came over from Scandinavia to herd reindeer in Alaska in the late 19th century eventually migrated down to Poulsbo and Port Angeles in Washington State. 

The photograph on the front cover is one that haunts Jensen; it currently hangs at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Elsa Laula, Sami political pioneer

About five years ago, when I first began to look for information on the Sami politician Elsa Laula (1877-1931), I couldn’t find a great deal. I knew she had published an influential pamphlet in 1904, Facing Life or Death? (Inför Lif eller Dod?), the first written work by a Sami woman that covered a large number of important issues in just 30 pages. A fiery speaker, she was fearless in standing up to power in both Sweden and Norway. Elsa Laula Renberg (her married name) was considered a “foremother” and a “pioneer,” but according to some she’d never been given full credit for her role in helping found the twentieth-century movement for Sami self-determination.

Recently, when I went searching for her again on the Web I found that she was in the news in northern Scandinavia. A new one-woman play about Elsa Laula opened in Trondheim, Norway in February as a joint production of Nord-Trøndelag Teater and Åarjelhsaemien Teatere (a Sami production company). It will be shown again in the fall of 2012 and at a string of festivals as well. A video on You Tube shows snippets of Cecilie Persson’s performance (in Swedish).

There’s also a recent short video about Elsa Laula, in Swedish and Norwegian.

Elsa Laula, Sami political pioneer
Born in 1877 in the south of Sápmi, Elsa Laula went to Stockholm to further her midwifery studies. There she came into contact with Swedish feminists, including the progressive Ellen Key and the editors of the journal Dagny, which published news of Laula’s efforts on behalf of the Sami. Laula’s political work always included Sami women and in 1910 she founded the first Sami women’s association. She saw the contributions of women as essential to changing society. But she had begun her organizing as early as 1904, when she gathered a group in Stockholm to found the first association of Sami, which had its own newspaper. In 1908 she married the reindeer herder Tomas Rehnberg and moved to Norway, where she eventually had six children. But she continued her political work, giving speeches, writing articles and letters to the authorities, never giving an inch in her pursuit of justice for the Sami. In 1917 she helped convene the first Sami National Assembly in Trondheim. Elsa Laula died in 1931, from tuberculosis.  

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"More Than Meets the Eye"-- Johan Turi's Art

Johan Turi, untitled

The Norwegian-Sámi scholar Harald Gaski has published a fascinating article, “More than Meets the Eye: The Indigeneity of Johan Turi’s Writing and Artwork,” in the most recent issue of Scandinavian Studies, a special issue devoted to Johan Turi. It’s the first time that Turi’s drawings and paintings have been given a close look. Gaski writes:

“I also hope to dispel the notion that Turi’s drawings and paintings were somehow naïve or simplistic; they are in fact, sophisticated contemplations that tread a fine line between realism and expressionism, depicting...more than would be possible to see from a single vantage point and reflecting Turi’s understandings of the world and of the activities that he sought to present in his book.”

That book is Muitalus sámiid birra, newly reissued in a Sámi version, and retranslated into English as An Account of the Sámi, by Thomas A. DuBois by Nordic Studies Press.

The illustration above is from the Sámi version and also appears in black and white in Gaski’s article.