I’ve always believed I got my sometimes fiery temperament from my dad’s mom, Hilja, who was known for both a silly side and a fire-breathing response when someone did something out of line. My dad said that his mom “spoke for the cranberry ladies,” and I have old photos of Hilja with other women out in the fields holding old-time wooden cranberry scoops. Hilja was bilingual so she could communicate with the landowners as well as the workers. After my dad’s death, I found her Socialist Party pin and little red book of songs.
I’ve always had a hunch that some of my ancestors were Sami, the indigenous people of the far north in Norway, Sweden and Finland. For example, I typically sleep better outdoors on the ground than inside a building. I feel safe in a tent even though I know a tent is little protection from an attacking animal. I’m not afraid of snakes, only curious about them. I have a large collection of rocks, most associated with a particular experience in nature; my Finnish cousin also has special rocks, but only commented that they “are nice rocks.” And, every once in a while people comment that I look like a Sami.
A scholarly presentation at Finn Fest by a Norwegian academic, Helen Marie Jensen, led me to a new perspective about my personality too. Jensen’s presentation covered Sami spiritual beliefs from their animist roots in prehistory through the Christianizing and assimilating processes of the nineteenth century, including the impact of Lars Levi Laestadius, who was part Sami, a botanist and mostly a missionary. Apostolic Lutheranism is the modern manifestation of the sect he founded.
According to Jensen, who was born in the U.S. with an American mother and a Sami dad, deeper Sami values included a belief that, “Everything is alive” — basically animism. You’ve probably experienced that a bit yourself. If you keep a fine old car for 15 years and it finally breaks irrevocably, do you grieve a little for that piece of equipment that shared so many experiences with you? I do.
This animism was (and perhaps still is) associated with the belief that Sami people could change the weather (read Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon” for an example of this stereotype) and shamanism. A shaman could be male or female and “worked with energy” to help people heal according to Jensen. Only one shaman’s drum remains from ancient times — used in a trial of a shaman who explained the symbols on the drum head; he was eventually convicted of being a witch and murdered while in jail. The Sami people in the Nordic countries have experienced the same oppression that has beset indigenous people in North America — children sent to boarding schools where their language, traditional dress and spiritual beliefs were prohibited.
After Dr. Jensen’s lecture I sought her out at her book table. Before I could ask her about modern Laestadians’ restraints on women’s activities (a reversal of the Sami tradition of women being equals to men and often playing critical leadership roles in the community), Ms. Jensen quickly said I definitely have the facial features of a Sami woman — high cheekbones and “slanty eyes” as my husband would say. This is the most recent instance of being identified as a Sami by another person. (Other instances are recorded in my old essay, “Sami Symptoms,” published in my essay collection.) But Ellen Jensen told me something else: “You’re extroverted. Sami women are known for speaking out and providing leadership for their communities. They’re direct.” The Norwegian Sami parliament was founded by a woman and is 50 percent female by law.
“Hmmm,” I thought. My grandmother would be called a labor organizer today. How many times have I floated to the top in leadership roles, whether as an Ilwaco City councilor, as manager of a nonprofit organization, or as president of a board of directors? According to Ms. Jensen, it comes naturally to a woman with Sami heritage.
I’ve been told by Ilwaco old-timers that I am the spitting image of my grandmother Hilja. Would Ellen Jensen also have pinned her as a Sami woman? Was her (and my) fiery temperament on social issues only a political response or was, and is it a deeper part of our personalities, an intrinsic quality, the result of epigenetics, that Hilja and I didn’t so much learn or choose but were born with?
Victoria Pitkanen Stoppiello has deep roots in Ilwaco’s fishing tradition; her essay collection “This Side of Sand Island” can be obtained by contacting her at email@example.com.