Seattle’s Sámi Connection

Currently on view at the Nordic Heritage Museum is the exhibition Eight Seasons in Sápmi, the Land of the Sámi People, which shows, through photographs, objects, and narratives, the contemporary life of the Sámi, who are the indigenous population of northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway.

Just like all of the Nordic countries, the Sámi also share a connection to the Pacific Northwest. In fact, this dates all the way back to the late 1800s when a group of Sámi herders came through Seattle on their way to Alaska and actually stayed at Woodland Park Zoo (see picture).

In the 1890s, the U.S. government established the Reindeer Project, an attempt to introduce reindeer to the Alaskan territory to feed and serve native Inuit populations and later to support the influx of miners and gold prospectors. Included in this project were Sámi reindeer herders who were to help transport the animals from Norway to Alaska and then upon arrival to mentor Alaskans in reindeer herding and husbandry.

The 1898 “Manitoba Expedition,” one part of the Reindeer Project, brought dozens of Sámi herding families and reindeer to Seattle, crossing the Atlantic by boat to New York City and then crossing the continent by train. During their stop in Seattle, the animals were taken to Woodland Park to graze and rest. Eventually the reindeer’s food supplies of lichen and moss brought from Norway began to run out, and the reindeer started to starve. The Sámi women and children were left at Fort Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, while a small group of the men continued on to Alaska, trying to save the reindeer.

Upon reaching Alaska, a number of disasters had struck; disease, dwindling food supplies for both the men (who were suffering from scurvy) and the reindeer, and inclement weather plagued the expedition and many of the men left to rejoin the rest of the group in Washington.

Some members of the expedition settled in Alaska to help care for the herds, while others stayed and settled in Seattle and Poulsbo, Washington. Many of their descendents live in the Puget Sound area today, and remain connected to their heritage. In 1998, Poulsbo celebrated the centennial anniversary of the expedition. Descendents of the Alaskan Sámi reconnected with relatives from the other side of the Atlantic, which also established the sister-city connection between Poulsbo and Kautokeino, Norway.

Learn more about the Sámi people by visiting the exhibition on view through November 4 at the Nordic Heritage Museum. See details on the Nordic Heritage Museum website.

— posted by Erin M. Schadt, from the Nordic Heritage Museum.

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