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  • Preface:An Account of the Sámi
  • Steven P. Sondrup

Over the last ten to fifteen years, Sámi studies have become an ever more prominent aspect of the broader academic field of Nordic studies in North America. Arguably, in many respects they play at least as prominent a role beyond their consideration within the fields of ethnology and anthropology in curricular offerings and scholarly research in Canada and the United States as they do in the Nordic region. One of the reasons for this curious situation is that the desire—indeed the need—for the serious study of the culture, art, and literature of indigenous peoples was waged in North America during the mid-decades of the twentieth century with regard to the traditions of the Native Americans to whom the Sámi are occasionally compared. Once literature and art departments had recognized the enrichment that stems from scholarly, non-patronizing attention to the work of Native Americans, it was a small step that did not raise curricular objections to examine the work of other indigenous cultures in general and the Sámi in particular.

Scandinavian Studies has played a notable role in developing the legitimacy and breadth of the academic attention currently being accorded the Sámi. In 2003, an issue subtitled "The People of Eight Seasons: The Sámi and Their Changing Cultre" and hailed as the first issue of a scholarly journal devoted exclusively to Sámi culture was published and many copies were subsequently ordered for use in the classroom as foundational texts. Now, nearly nine years later, some of the changes heralded in the subtitle are being brought to the fore by some of the contributors to that earlier issue, as well as a new generation of scholars. The substantive changes in the discipline as well as the methodologies with which they are studied are noteworthy and merit attention. [End Page 479]

The historical and cultural link that the United States has to the European Sámi community is, moreover, rarely recognized. Few are aware, for example, that between the late nineteenth century and well into the early decades of the twentieth century Sámi families and reindeer were settled in Alaska by both private and United States federal resources to assist with the development of reindeer herding in that area and eventually the adjoining parts of Canada. The Sámi made the move with the intention of teaching the often-starving Eskimo population the most important aspects of reindeer husbandry. Their efforts were for a time very successful: at the height of reindeer cultivation more than a half million head were found in numerous different herds in various parts of Alaska. As a result of shifts in government policies and other factors, however, the extensive breeding and care of reindeer dminished significantly. It continues on a marginal basis in the twenty-first century. Descendants of the original Sámi immigrants, though, can still be found in the northwestern parts of the United States and in Canada, and they form a loosely organized social network. Some older Alaskans, it is said, still remember the original immigrant families with fondness. To these might be added the many thousands of Scandinavian Americans of the lower forty-eight states whose Sámi heritage was forgotten or denied in the process of immigrating to North America. Their rediscovery of a Sámi identity has added a lively new dimension to the makeup of Scandinavian American culture today.

As modern life becomes more technologically advanced and people ever more mobile, there is a peril in losing contact with traditional and too often marginalized cultures like the Sámi. Contemporary scientific, social, and even aesthetic investigations are demonstrating that these traditions in their own way were and remain the proprietors of insights that can still be of value in many realms of inquiry. Serious acknowledgement of their modes of living and even surival can without doubt still be richly rewarding.

In addition to the importance and general interest in the topic, the publication of this special issue of Scandinavian Studies devoted to Sámi culture is occasioned by the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Muitalus sámiid birra (An...


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