POULSBO — Michele Wasson of Silverdale is proud of her Sami heritage.
Her family, the Baltos of Karajok and Kautokenio in the far north of Norway, are Sami historical figures. Balto, the Siberian Husky sled dog who delivered a desperately needed diphtheria antitoxin to Nome in 1925, was named for Wasson’s great-granduncle, Sami explorer Samuel Balto.
But for hundreds of years, the Sami were oppressed by the people and governments of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. They were denied rights and experienced a forced assimilation policy similar to that imposed on Native Americans.
Today, the Sami culture is rejuvenated and the people have their own congress. Feb. 6 marked the 20th anniversary of Sami National Day, in recognition of the resolution passed at the 15th Sami congress in Helsinki. The City of Poulsbo honored that day by raising the Sami people’s flag over City Hall.
“It’s an honor to honor those that have come before us,” Wasson said before the City Council Wednesday.
The Sami people are the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The cultural region currently occupied by them is called Sapmi, previously known as Lapland, according to Mayor Becky Erickson. Today, this region is approximately the same size as Sweden, though historically the region of the Sami covered nearly 80 percent of northern Scandinavia.
Wasson’s great-great-grandparents were among the reindeer herders who were paid by the U.S. government to teach Alaska Natives to herd reindeer in the late 1800s. A photo of her family, taken when they landed in Alaska in 1898, is in the Alaska Digital Archives: Merit Balto, Anders Balto and their daughter, Merit (Marie) Balto, about 7, who was Wasson’s great-grandmother.
Wasson said she knew her father’s side was Norwegian, but learned of her Sami heritage while researching a history project in ninth grade.
“My father and grandfather said they were made to seem ashamed [of being Sami] because they came from the north,” Wasson said. “They assimilated [in America] immediately.”
Merit Balto was widowed when Anders was killed in a mining accident. She remarried a man from Eglon and the family moved to Kitsap. The family, the Nilsens, had a grocery story that evolved into Nilsen’s Appliance Center, which is now located in Silverdale.
“What strikes me is it’s the quintessential American story — they came to a new land to create a better life for [their] family,” Wasson said. Her great-grandmother “worked so hard and had so little.”
Poulsbo is a sister city of Kautokeino, which is considered by many the cultural capital of the Sami and home to several prominent Sami educational and artistic institutions, Erickson wrote. Some Sami stayed in Alaska, some returned home to Scandinavia. And some moved to other parts of the U.S., including Poulsbo, to join other Sami who had settled here. Many of these families were early residents of the City of Poulsbo.
One of those residents was Anders Bahr, known as the “Arctic Moses” for his five-year trek moving a reindeer herd across the Arctic to help the Inuvialuit, whose caribou herds had dwindled. Bahr died here in 1945.
About Samuel Balto: Born in 1861 in Karajok, he was a reindeer herder who was recruited to participate in the first recorded crossing of the interior of Greenland. He emigrated to the United States in 1898 and became a gold miner at Nome during the Klondike Gold Rush.
According to a biography on Wikipedia, Balto is most famous for introducing reindeer husbandry to the Inupiaq and Yu’pik as a solution to their loss of subsistence resources.