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.

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