If the Sámis win enough hearts, Minnesotans will be so familiar with lavvu and gákti that they might even want to join the Sámi Siida.
The who and the what?
The Sámi, as they call themselves, are the sometimes nomadic people of the northernmost regions of Scandinavia. Most Americans are likely to know them as Lapps and their territory as Lapland, terms that offend the Sámi because they were long used to disparage their lives and culture. Likewise, their arctic homeland — which encompasses parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia — they call Sápmi.
“It’s like the Dakota who other people call Sioux, a word they consider derogatory,” said Kurt Seaberg, 58, a Minneapolis-based artist of Sámi heritage whose landscape-inspired lithographs are on view through March 3 at the American Swedish Institute (ASI).
The show also includes Sámi-inspired paintings by Seaberg’s father, Albin Seaberg, and photos, artifacts and videos about Sámi life on loan from Sweden. The latter are on view through May 26.
“We’re learning what is politically correct and that this is the appropriate way to speak of the geographical location and culture,” said Curt Pederson, the ASI curator. He oversaw installations that include a lavvu, a traditional tepee-like Sámi tent now pitched in the museum’s snowbound courtyard, and exhibits featuring the colorful gákti, or outfits worn by many Sámi on celebratory occasions.
The tent is on loan from Chris Pesklo, 53, a New York-born, Minneapolis-based Sámi who earlier this month opened the Lavvu Coffee House near Minneapolis’ Dinkytown neighborhood. There’s even a small lavvu in the coffee shop in which visitors can sip their lattes or Pesklo’s spiced Sámi coffee. He makes lavvu for Sámi who want to experience a bit of their traditional culture. Though they’re now made of canvas, the tents were traditionally made of reindeer hide and used by nomadic Sámi when herding the reindeer that provided their livelihood.
Sámi theme aside, the coffee shop welcomes all comers. “You can’t really make a living serving Sámi coffee, just as you can’t make a go of a lutefisk restaurant in the Twin Cities, even though we have a lot of Scandinavians here,” Pesklo said. “It’s just not going to work.”
A suppressed culture
Like the American Indians, the indigenous Sámi have a troubled historical relationship to the now-dominant populations of their countries. Conditions differed in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, but broadly speaking they all at some point attempted to suppress Sámi culture. Children were often sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak their native language. Sámi lands were confiscated, encroached upon and polluted by mining, timber and power companies.
Only in the past 40 years have Sámi begun to reclaim their heritage and take pride in their ethnicity, a movement that has been called the Sámi Awakening. The North American Sámi Siida (Siida means extended family or tribe) claims about 300 members, including a couple dozen in the Twin Cities.
“My grandparents were Sámi, but when they emigrated to New York they didn’t identify as Sámi or even Lapp because Lapps were considered very dirty and low,” said Pesklo. “They called themselves Norwegian Jews. My mother was convinced she was Jewish and I went to a Jewish school.”
Seaberg and his late father also reclaimed a Sámi heritage that the family had lost touch with in the early 20th century. They found relatives through church records in Sweden, although their Sámi connections are still “shrouded in all this mystery,” Seaberg said.
His father’s paintings, including festivals and a Sámi wedding, are based on books and photos, many dating to the 19th century. Expanding on that heritage, Seaberg produces an annual calendar full of drawings and information about Sámi life that has become a collectors’ item in northern Scandinavia.
His delicate, misty landscapes on view at ASI, however, are inspired by Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and Lake Superior, where he hikes, canoes and camps in all seasons. People often say they recognize the spots depicted, but he tells them otherwise.
“I mostly make up the landscapes because what I’m really most interested in is to get the spirit of the place, grab the soul of it,” he said. “I want people to think about what kind of world they want to leave to our children. It’s beautiful and haunting and that is why it’s worth being alive. If I can instill that in people, I’ll feel like I’ve been successful.”