Misconceptions

There are several misconceptions regarding Sami culture. The first is that all Sami are reindeer herders. This myth stems from the way Sami have been portrayed in historical records. As is discussed above, the vast majority of Sami are not–and never were–herders. Only ten percent of today's population is made up of reindeer pastoralists, and herding as a lifestyle only developed with the Scandinavian colonization of Sami lands in the 17th-19th centuries. Before that, Sami were mostly hunters and fishers. Dr. Nancy Oestreich Lurie, Curator Emerita at MPM and one of the major donors of this collection, comments that reindeer herding Sami are to westerners what Plains Indians have become to non-Indians: both groups have been understood as the entire culture, but in actuality both only represent a small and specific sector.

Also, contrary to popular belief, the Sami are not an Asiatic people. Though they are an Arctic culture, Sami are fair-haired and light-skinned. Because they are lumped in with other Asiatic groups, however, it is easy to understand how this idea might have developed. MPM's Sami exhibit, which was open during the 1970s and 1980s, was located on the Arctic floor, between the Inuit and the Ainu exhibits. Perhaps due to a lack of information, the mannequins used in MPM's diorama style exhibit had the same features as those seen in the rest of the Arctic exhibits. In other words, they were almost Asian in appearance. Dr. Lurie rallied fervently to change the mannequins in the Sami case to more accurately reflect their ethnicity and identity.

The Sami share certain plights with other indigenous populations in terms of their relationship to the mainstream cultures with which they share their land. Their history parallels that of the Ainu of northern Japan and the Sakhalin Islands, Native American groups, and smaller ethnic groups in Africa, to mention only a few. These fringe cultures, particularly when forcibly separated from their lands, can suffer poverty, marginalization, the loss of culture and language, and the subsequent problems of identity.

Sami in North America

Some 30,000 people of Sami ancestry live in North America (Báiki, 2006). Most of these are the descendants of Sami people who emigrated to the United States and Canada as Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns and some are the descendants of Sami herders and Yup'ik (a group of central Alaskan indigenous people) unions. The US government initiated this emigration in 1894 in an effort to teach the native Alaskans to herd domestic reindeer instead of continuing their indigenous seal, walrus and whale hunting practices (Vorren 1994: xi). Four years later another emigration took place; this one motivated by the government's need to use reindeer as transportation animals in Alaska (Ibid). What followed was a century of adaptation to America. Though the first generation of Sami in America spoke their indigenous language, little was passed on to the next generation in an effort to help them be more successful in the new country. Once Sami schools were developed, children learned English and American culture. In fact, these young Sami-Americans were encouraged by their older generations to relinquish past customs and to accommodate themselves to American lifestyle as quickly as possible (Vorren 1994: 146).

Despite the pressure of assimilation, a Sami fellowship developed on Kitsap Peninsula outside of Seattle. This provided an opportunity to maintain ties of shared descent, and to keep Sami customs and traditions alive. Over time, Sami from Alaska would travel down to Kitsap every winter. Those living on Kitsap Peninsula today exhibit a strong awareness of their rich heritage, and perhaps a little pride (Vorren 1994: 147). The appearance of Báiki: The International Sami Journal in 1991 inspired another reawakening of Sami consciousness among these groups and continues to spread awareness of Sami culture in the United States. Báiki is the Sami word for cultural identity and survival, "the home that lives in the heart."


Anders Baer with his wife, Merit and daughter, as they arrived in Alaska, 1898.
Displayed with permission from Waveland Press: Vorren 1994: 126