Tracing Sami roots: PLU student's passion about her heritage helps to create exhibit on Scandinavia's indigenous people

It’s the aroma that really gets you. Smoky and wild, singing of forests and campfires, the scent you breathe as you duck inside the 15-foot-tall reindeer tent in Pacific Lutheran University’s Scandinavian Center speaks directly to the story of the Sami people – a story of a traditional nomadic outdoor life and the fight to keep it.

It’s a story told by the artifacts and text in the Center’s new exhibit Us Local People: Sami Vuoinna and Resilience.” But it’s also a story that traces to modern day Tacoma, where PLU student Lynn Gleason discovered her personal connection to this political issue.

“When I came back to school in 2010, I decided to learn the language my grandparents spoke – Norwegian,” said Gleason, a PLU senior who’s graduating in political science and Scandinavian studies this May, and who helped with the exhibit. “That’s when I first saw a picture of the Sami people. I’d never heard of them.”

Many other folks have never heard of the Sami either. Indigenous inhabitants of Scandinavia and Northwest Russia, they were nomadic hunter-gatherers who coexisted peacefully enough with the Norwegians, Swedes and Finns who migrated into the region during the Middle Ages, but were gradually forced out of their traditional ways by taxes, agriculture, missionaries, language, land ownership laws, and war.

More recently, the oppression has been environmental, with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, logging and mining all taking a toll on their reindeer herds and food sources. Today, the Sami are considered leaders in the indigenous rights movement – though they’re not well-known.

“Most people, you’d be very lucky if they’ve heard of them,” says Dr. Troy Storfjell, PLU Scandinavian studies professor, and himself a registered Sami.

But as Gleason found out in her personal and college research, Sami identity is still a touchy issue in Scandinavia.

“I was naive,” said Gleason, who has connected with many of her Norwegian family through Facebook. “Americans are excited about (having that heritage). It doesn’t come with the baggage that it does in Scandinavia.”

Some of that baggage is alluded to in “Us Local People,” curated by Storfjell. Small wooden dolls from last century show grimacing, clownish faces, poking fun at Sami physical features. A wall text and video, created as part of Gleason’s capstone project, highlight the disdain for inhabitants shown by company mining of Sami land in Gallok, Sweden.

Some Norwegians look down on Sami people for the way they smell, Gleason says – part of the reindeer-herding, tent-living lifestyle. Others wear traditional Sami clothes, but don’t admit they’re part of the community for fear of discrimination.

The racism bothered Gleason enormously – enough to make her change her major.

“People see indigenous people as primitive, but they’re not,” she said. “They’re not stuck in some other time and place. They’re here and now and they need the land. It’s theirs.”

And so, for much of the past year, Gleason has raised money from house-sitting and garage sales, in addition to her full-time job and studies, to fund a Sami exhibit at the Scandinavian Center. Locals lent artifacts such as slim bone knives, embroidered leather pouches, traditional dresses, red-and-blue mittens, gorgeously thick wool tapestries in chocolate and cream, a paper-thin birch bark basket, silver spoons and bone necklaces tooled with the simple dots and curves of Sami ornamentation, and two authentic pairs of children’s reindeer hide boots, sewn with the fur going both ways on the sole for added traction in the snow.

But the centerpiece of the exhibit is the reindeer tent. With tall birch and alder poles poking through the ceiling and thick, soft reindeer hides around the mock campfire inside, it’s a genuine luvvu, made by one of the few Sami tent makers in North America – and bought by Gleason for the university. (It’s been used for ceremonies and teaching, which gives it the rich smoky scent.) She even went out on Super Bowl Sunday to cut saplings for the poles.

“I thought: This is important. This is an entire people and we should know more about them,” she said.

And then, just three weeks before the exhibit opened, a Norwegian cousin discovered that Gleason’s great-grandmother had spoken Sami – it had been a part of her heritage all along.

She’s not the only one, said the center’s director, Elisabeth Ward.

“We’ve had members come in and say they might have Sami in their family,” she said. “It’s generated a lot of questions.”

The Sami connection even goes back to PLU’s 1920-21 president J.U. Xavier, who was Sami.

“Us Local People” is one part of a campuswide, two-month inquiry into global human rights. Other events include this weekend’s Wang Symposium on the Shoah people; the seventh annual Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education on March 12-14; the annual Bjug Harstad Memorial Lecture on April 3; and a separate campus exhibit on the Danish rescue of Jews during World War II.

Storfjell hopes “Us Local People” will raise awareness of Sami culture in the wider community.

“Due to colonialism, Sami identity was often oppressed, so there are a lot of people trying to find out more about (it),” he said. “I hope the larger community will find out more about the problems facing Sami today.”

For Gleason, though, it is part of an issue she hopes to pursue into graduate school and lifelong work.

“I feel that human justice and environmental justice are the same thing,” she said.

Sami exhibit

What: “Us Local People: Sami Vuoinna and Resilience”

Where: Scandinavian Center, Anderson building, Pacific Lutheran University, 12180 Park Ave. S., Tacoma

When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 1-4 p.m. Sundays through April 1

Cost: Free

Information: 253-535-7349, plu.edu/scancenter