Sami people's cultural renaissance touches Poulsbo

From left, author Ellen Marie Jensen, Mimi DeLeon of Port Angeles and Norma Hanson of Poulsbo bonded over their shared Sami heritage. DeLeon and Hanson are featured in Jensen’s book, “We Stopped Forgetting.”                                       - Megan Stephenson / Herald
From left, author Ellen Marie Jensen, Mimi DeLeon of Port Angeles and Norma Hanson of Poulsbo bonded over their shared Sami heritage. DeLeon and Hanson are featured in Jensen’s book, “We Stopped Forgetting.”
— image credit: Megan Stephenson / Herald

POULSBO — Poulsbo has a unique place in Sami history. The indigenous peoples of Scandinavia were outcasts in those countries for generations, but Sami Americans — many of whom call Poulsbo home — are celebrating their heritage.

One famous name is Anders Bahr, a Sami who came to Alaska to teach Alaskan Natives to herd reindeer. He is also known as “Arctic Moses” for his five-year trek herding reindeer across the Arctic to help the Inuvialuit in western Canada, according to “The Spirit of Poulsbo,” a local history book. Bahr chose to make Poulsbo his home until his death in 1945. He is the second cousin of Poulsbo’s Norma Hanson.

Hanson is featured in a recent book about Sami descendants in the United States, “We Stopped Forgetting,” by Ellen Marie Jensen, and gave a few details at a book reading hosted by the Poulsbo Historical Society Aug. 4.

The book tells the story of five Sami Americans — stories Jensen says are finally ready to be told. In the U.S., where mixed ethnic backgrounds are common, third- and fourth-generation Sami descendants are reconnecting with their identity.

In Scandinavia, there is “an idea you have to be one thing,” Jensen said. “They don’t have a name for mixed heritage, its taboo. America has something to [teach] — a healthy identity.”

One of the stories is the author’s own. Jensen knew she was Norwegian, and lived in Oslo for a time when she was a child. She remembers her grandmother spoke with an accent different from other Norwegians. During the 1994 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Jensen saw people dressed in very different clothing — she knows now it was gakti, traditional Sami wear — and asked her father about it. He said they were Sami, and so was she.

“I began my journey that day,” Jensen said. She later saw her Norwegian relatives with new eyes.

“There were a lot of really painful stories,” she told the audience. Her uncles told her, “We didn’t tell you [of being Sami], because we didn’t want you to be burdened by our pain.”

The Sami traditionally live in the northernmost parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway, known now as Sapmi. But Sami were denied many rights in those countries and experienced a forced assimilation policy similar to the Native Americans.

In the late 1800s, when the U.S. was experiencing mass European immigration, many Sami were recorded as Norwegian, Finnish or Swedish and didn’t correct that identification.

Hanson’s grandfather was one of those immigrants who shed his Sami roots. Her grandfather was Mikkel Anderson Bahr, who moved from Norway to Minnesota in the 1880s. After meeting his wife, who was from southern Norway, the family moved to Poulsbo around 1915. Hanson grew up with Norwegian traditions, on family land off Liberty Road in West Poulsbo.

“I didn’t know I was any different growing up,” Hanson said, adding that her grandmother told her of her heritage after Mikkel died. “I wasn’t ashamed of being Sami because I didn’t know I was.”

She was bothered when she discovered how the Sami were treated.

“I guess they were kind of the Indians of Norway and … were looked down on for many, many, many years,” she said.

Hanson was interviewed for a few books throughout the 1980-90s, one of which a Norwegian relative picked up and called her out of the blue. After reconnecting, the family decided to organize a reunion — 15 Sami and Norwegian relatives came to Hanson’s house in 1998. The reunion was surprising and gratifying to both sides. Hanson said her Norwegian relatives never heard from her grandfather after he emigrated, and were excited to find her.

“It was just a part of my life that didn’t exist and all of a sudden it’s there,” she said of her Norwegian family.

The family organized another, bigger reunion in Kautokeino, a Sami village where Hanson’s family is from. More than a hundred arrived from nine family lines in 2001. Hanson saw the land her grandfather was born on, met a cousin who was elected to the first Sami parliament in 1997, and tried reindeer stew.

“That reunion was the best thing that ever happened,” Hanson said. “It brought all the family from there [Norway] and here [U.S.] … When I got over there, all these people, I even get tears when I think about it.”

Likewise, Mimi DeLeon of Port Angeles didn’t know anything of her Sami roots. DeLeon is featured in Jensen’s book and told her story to the audience that day.

“I grew up feeling different … I started wondering, why do I look different, why do I feel different,” she said. Being darker skinned, many assumed she was Native American.

She began her research in high school and found family links to the reindeer herders in Alaska, known as Alaskan Sami. She found a book, published in 1995, with her family names inside. Hanson was also mentioned in the book, and when the two met, they found out they were related.

DeLeon’s father, Terry Bahl, grew up in Alaska and is also a descendent of the Bahrs. She said her dad started telling her things from his childhood that had Sami influence. Once she started seeking answers, “doors started opening up.”

DeLeon went to Norway in 2008 to meet her relatives, an experience she calls “surreal.”

“They can show you exactly where you came from,” knowing the family tree that goes back 4,000 years, DeLeon said. “Right there on the dining room table,” Hanson added. Sami place a lot of importance on oral history and family.

DeLeon said her relatives were very welcoming, but she did experience some discomfort from Norwegians who knew she was Sami.

Sharing her story with Jensen, “I felt an overwhelming fear when I opened it … It was like opening a can of worms, but it was my story.

“It was healing on many levels … in telling my story over the years, speaking from the heart touches people. I feel so at peace now.”

The book was published by a Sami publishing company. More information can be found at ettingStoriesFromSamiAmericans.


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