Sami Americans

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Sámi Americans
Sami reindeer herder Ellen Sara holding her baby sister Berit, Alaska, circa 1906 (AL+CA 57).jpg
Sami reindeer herder Ellen Sara holding her baby sister Berit. Alaska, circa 1906.
Total population
945
Regions with significant populations
Alaska · Midwest  • California
Languages
English · Sámi languages · Norwegian · Swedish · Finnish · Russian
Religion
Christianity · Shamanism

Sámi Americans are Americans of Sámi descent, who originate from Sapmi, the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The term Lapp Americans has been historically used, though lapp is considered derogatory by the Sámi. It has been estimated that there are 30,000 people of Sámi ancestry living in North America.

Many Sámi Americans' ancestors initially moved to Alaska during the late 19th century. There, they were involved in efforts funded by the United States Government to teach reindeer husbandry to Alaska Natives. In the decades that followed, many Sámi were forced to leave Alaska and seek out livelihoods elsewhere. The traditions and culture of these scattered immigrants were further repressed by pressure to assimilate within Anglo-American society. As a result, very few Americans of Sámi descent are aware of their ancestry and many traditions have not been preserved outside of small communities. In 2000, a total of 945 American residents self-reported Sámi ancestry on their census. Although the actual number of Americans of Sami descent is unknown, it is estimated that approximately 30,000 people of Sami ancestry live in North America.

Culture

The majority of Sámi immigrants to the United States were documented based on their nationality, rather than their ethnicity. Most were recorded as Norwegian, Swedish, or Finnish nationals upon arrival to the United States. Because of this, it is unknown how many came to the U.S. during the late 19th century along with other Scandinavian immigrants. The traditions of these immigrants were quickly lost to later generations. In some cases, Sámi immigrants may have actively repressed their ethnic identity in order to avoid the discrimination and prejudice they had faced in their native Sápmi.

Much of the spread of Laestadianism is attributed to Sámi-American immigrants, who formed religious communities in the Midwest.

A movement in the late 20th century which sought to revive Sámi identity in North America yielded two publications which aim to connect Sámi Americans to their past: Árran and Báiki. The Sami Siida of North America was also formed as a network connecting Sámi descendants in North America. These organizations have made efforts to reconnect with surviving Sámi populations in northern Scandinavia, and to revive traditional Sámi art forms, such as storytelling.

Immigration to Alaska

In the mid 19th century, the United States government began efforts to teach reindeer husbandry to Alaska Natives, as their traditional sources of sustenance through seal, walrus, and whale hunting had become insufficient due to overfishing. Initially Chukchi herders were brought over, but animosity between the Chukchi and the Alaskan Iñupiat made their working relationship unviable. Instead, the Sámi were encouraged to emigrate to Alaska at the invitation of the Alaskan Commissioner of Education, Sheldon Jackson. As the Commissioner of Education, Jackson also introduced policies which effectively sought to re-educate the Alaska native population and repress cultural differences. With the advent of a significant Sámi population in his jurisdiction, these repressive policies came to apply to Sámi immigrants as well.

At the time, many Sámi herders in Sápmi had lost their traditional livelihoods, as they had been gradually pushed out of lands used for nomadic pastoralism into more defined regions with inflexible borders. This likely encouraged some to make the arduous journey to Alaska. The first group of herders made the three month journey in 1894, from Finnmarksvidda, across North America, to Teller Reindeer Station. According to the New York Times, there were only sixteen in the group, and they were under a three-year contract for $27.50 per month plus boarding. By the turn of the 20th century, many of these first families returned to Sápmi after their contracts expired. Some, however, remained in Alaska and continued herding reindeer.

Sámi milking reindeer, Port Clarence, Alaska, 1900

The government was once again forced to find new forms of food in Alaska, after the discovery of gold and the Klondike Gold Rush brought more people to the region than the already strained and sparse infrastructure could sustain. Sheldon Jackson once again recruited more Sámi to immigrate to Alaska, this time in greater numbers. In February 1898, a group of 87 Sámi headers and their families embarked for Alaska. With them, they brought 537 reindeer, 4000 sacks of moss feed, and 418 reindeer pulks. By the time the arrived in Seattle, however, the U.S. government had decided that the situation in Alaska was not dire enough to warrant immediate action, and had reallocated all of its ships to fighting in the Spanish–American War. The group was forced to wait in Seattle until ships were made available for their journey north. By the time the expedition arrived in Alaska in April, reportedly only 200 of the 537 reindeer had survived the long trip. This group was contracted for a two-year period, after which 26 returned to Sápmi. Many of those who remained in North America stayed in Alaska as miners, while others resettled in Washington and the Midwest, where large Scandinavian populations existed. Samuel Balto, a Sámi explorer who had temporarily moved to Alaska during this era, sent a letter detailing his experience to Fridtjof Nansen, which read in part,

...We came to Alaska July 27, 1898. [...] We travelled seven miles upriver where we built seven houses and a big three-story farmhouse. [...] Up to the time when we started building, we received, according to our contract, "good and sufficient" food. In November the Superintendent began to sell our provisions to the Eskimos, and he put the money in his own pocket. For us [Sami] there was less and less each month. Finally there was hunger among us and many came down with scurvy. Now we are all free men, having left government service. We have travelled 200 miles westward from the station to the place where there have been many gold finds, Anvil City [Nome].

— Samuel Balto, Letter to Fridtjof Nansen (translated from Norwegian),
Anvil City, Alaska, 9 September 1899

In 1937, Sámi and all other non-Native Alaskans were banned from owning reindeer through The Reindeer Act. The act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 1 of that year. It effectively prohibited the ownership of reindeer herds in Alaska by non-Native Americans and was intended to provide for Alaskan natives and to allow them to establish a self-sustaining industry. Authority to promulgate rules regarding the ownership and maintenance of reindeer herds was delegated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs via the Secretary of the Interior, who banned most transactions to non-natives. The act was modeled in part on Norwegian and Swedish policies on the ownership of reindeer by the Sami people of Sápmi. Many Sámi had recently arrived in Alaska to manage the reindeer in the 1930s. As a result of the act, Alaskan Sámi were required to sell their herds to the government at $3 per head. Many left Alaska after doing so, in search new ways to support themselves. While many became scattered across North America and forced to integrate, a significant number settled on the Kitsap peninsula in Washington, where a community Norwegian immigrants already existed.

Notable people

See also

Further reading

  • Kuokkanen, Rauna (2000). "Towards an 'Indigenous Paradigm' From a Sami Perspective". The Canadian Journal of Native Studies. Volume 2, pp. 411–436.
  • Vorren, Ørnulv (1994). Saami, reindeer, and gold in Alaska: the emigration of Saami from Norway to Alaska. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.