Skip to main content

Forest Sámis Go West

November 20, 2017

The colonial state of Sweden increased pressure on the Indigenous Sámi through legislation that led to increased poverty among Forest Sámis. Two laws in particular impacted their life: the Statutes for Allocation of “State-Owned” Forest Land to Homesteaders (1873) and the Reindeer Husbandry Law (1886). The number of mouths to be fed in the family businesses of reindeer herding and homesteading drove many members to pick up the lumber trade. Researching my family history, I discovered a relative who, during the log-driving season of 1922, was working to save money to go to British Columbia in search of a better future in the lumber industry.

I am now researching him, and other relatives before him who went to British Columba, to try to find out what happened when they came to BC. Did they bring their Sámi identity along? How did their encounters with Indigenous people unfold? This project (and the presentation this blog post is based on) is a work in progress. It is based on archival research from, among other sources, the Swedish National Archives, Ellis Island records, and the BC Archives.

Sámi modern history, and particularly the history of Sámi who migrated to North America, is a very little researched area. Scholars have studied the main flows of Scandinavians into North America extensively, but Norwegian North Sámi emigration/immigration studies, especially the intriguing move of Sámi families and reindeers to Alaska at end of nineteenth century, have largely been overlooked. Interestingly, in the migratory flows, the majority of Sámis were careful to not leave behind facts that would link them to their Sámi identity and origin. Some were quiet about their Sámi identity even in front of their families. My research aims to inspire Sámi and scholars to research their family and emigration/immigration history to be added to our common Sámi narrative. The Native/Sámi side of the emigration/immigration story has not yet been told in a comprehensive, systematic way.

From my discovery journey in Sweden, BC, and state of Washington preceding the one-day workshop on Sami history and current issues at the Center for Canadian Studies, I added facts and clues to my research. I visited places, local archives, and museums in Sweden (Sorsele, Malå, and Lycksele) and BC (Campbell River, Maple Ridge, and Vancouver). I met with local historians, distant relatives, and Sámi friends in Sweden, Indigenous people in BC and Washington, museum and archive specialists in Sweden and BC, and Sámis in Seattle.

I did not receive clear answers to my research questions, just general indicative responses: Yes, my folks must have met with Indigenous people in Maple Ridge, BC, while Indigenous peoples sold basketware and handicrafts, or yes, they were employed in the forestry industry in BC. A Sámi informant in Seattle reported that one of his relatives had a more-than-average curiosity about and a friendly approach to local Indigenous people, but that relative was as quiet about her Sámi identity, as are the majority of Sámi emigrants.

As the Sámi identity was recorded sparsely at immigration entry registration (Sámi ethnicity was not considered an approved item to register as a record; rather, Scandinavian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, or Russian were registered as ethnicity) it falls to individual families to discover this history in family records or at the Fennoscandinavian National Archives. Even the records in the national archives may not be complete because Sámi also hid their identity in Fennoscandinavia. Only experienced (Sámi) genealogists may decide what records are likely to be of Sámi origin, given the history of hiding and misreporting.

How does one know if one’s Sámi relatives held an active Sámi identity, professed it, and had encounters with North American tribal societies? We can look to the local tribes’ narratives about strange and remarkable encounters with Fennoscandinavian people who behaved unlike the individuals of the overarching national identity. Maybe a Sámi Swede sang gutturally toned songs in ways similar to the American Indian ways in their encounters, for example.

To gain entrance to the tribes for such research purposes, it is essential to follow Indigenous research protocol and tread lightly. Vancouver Island University, for example, has a system of scientific research liaisons with the tribes on the island. Such contacts could be useful for assessing research purposes and negotiating contacts with tribe members who hold important historical knowledge.

All in all, I would concur with Indian Country magazine editors’ suggestion that “In an ever-more diverse country, it is more critical than ever for future generations to learn and appreciate their cultures’ contributions.” The Sámis need to make their stories and contributions visible. In line with Indigenous traditional knowledge development based on oral traditions, the required methodology may be phrased like this: “There is an American Indian proverb that says, ‘Tell me the facts, and I’ll learn; tell me the truth, and I’ll believe; tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.’”

by Inge Friisk, Samiland Free University