Report from Kristine Nyborg, Master in Visual Cultural Studies, University of Tromsø
Financial support to the project: “Sami footprints in Alaska”
The Center for Sami Studies Strategy Fund supported my project tracing the impact of the Sami people on Northwestern Alaska through a generous contribution of NOK 15000. I spent four months doing fieldwork in Nome, Alaska, where I collected material for an ethnographic film and my master thesis. Both the film and thesis are scheduled to be finished by June 2010.
Alaska is the largest state of the USA. Despite this, it only has 0.22% of the country’s total population, which leaves a vast area of non-populated areas. The flora and fauna in this vast state have a tradition in keeping the local Native population with food through the hard winter months.
When the white settlers began immigrating to the state in the late 1800s, a Presbyterian minister named Dr. Sheldon Jackson lobbied for the import of reindeer to Alaska. The reindeer were to provide the local native population an alternative food source. ‘The Reindeer Project’ spanned the last ten years of the 19th century. To teach the Natives reindeer herding, Dr. Jackson sent for Sami reindeer herders of northern Norway. The Kjellman expedition left Norway in 1894 carrying 13 men and women. The Manitoba expedition left Norway in 1898 carrying 113 men, women and children (not all Sami), 539 draft reindeer, 418 sleds, some herd dogs, and lichen. After their three-year contracts with the government expired, some Sami elected to stay in Alaska. From there they scattered all over the state; some kept herding reindeer, some went into the mail transportation business and some became gold miners.
My master thesis examines the current impact of the introduction of Sami to Alaska more than a hundred years ago. The purpose of these expeditions were to teach the Alaska native population how to herd reindeer as an additional food source to the hunting and gathering they were already practicing. I am exploring how the Sami got along with the Alaska Natives, and what impact their arrival had on the culture there.
I focused on descendants of the Reindeer Project, mainly in and around the city of Nome. Some of my informants had known of their Sami ancestry their entire life, while others had found out at a later date. I tried to determine how the Alaska Natives with Sami backgrounds saw themselves and if being part Sami had negotiated their social identities.
As part of my project, I participated in three reindeer handlings. There I had a chance to speak with local elders about the impact of the animal in their culture. I have been both an active and passive participant while observing the people by using a video and still cameras, taking notes, and helping with the animals.
The funding from the Center for Sami Studies was invaluable to my project in covering expenses ranging from airfare to food. Thank you for the interest and support for my project.