Growing up amid the hundreds of lakes and vast beech, maple, and birch tree forests of northern Wisconsin’s Vilas County, Dr. Tim Frandy, 42, always had an affinity for the outdoors. In fact, for Frandy, an assistant professor in folk studies at Western Kentucky University, activities like hunting, foraging, and ice fishing were simply a way of life; as much a part of his Midwest upbringing as his Nordic roots. Or so he thought.
Frandy’s paternal grandparents spoke both Finnish and English, so he grew up with a strong sense of Finnish identity. “Even as a kid, I thought of myself as Finnish first, and American second,” Frandy says. It wasn’t until late in college that Frandy started to realize that the way he interacted with the environment was dramatically different from many of the people around him. He began unpacking his Finnish heritage, finding that his ancestors were actually Sámi.
The Sámi are an indigenous people inhabiting the upper reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s northwest Kola Peninsula—an ice-cold swath of arctic territory known as Lapland where snow falls 200 days a year on average. Today there are approximately 30,000 descendants of Sámi ancestry living in North America, according to the Sámi Cultural Center of North America, mostly in states like Alaska, where the U.S. government funded the relocation of Sámi reindeer herders to come and teach indigenous Inupiaq and Yup’ik peoples the art of reindeer husbandry. Sámi descendants also live in Washington and along the northern tip of U.S. Midwestern states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Frandy’s own great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century, and his grandparents were born shortly after. They immersed themselves in the Finnish-language community in Upper Michigan. But like so many of the Sámi people who emigrated from Lapland of their own accord (mostly between 1850 and 1935), Frandy’s ancestors feared ethnic persecution and decided that blending in with their Nordic brethren was the safest bet for surviving in this new world.
These days, Frandy and other Sámi Americans are working to reclaim their Sámi identity. In part this means showcasing their heritage on a larger scale at the annual FinnFest gathering, held in a different U.S. location each year, organizing both formal and informal groups for Sámi descendants to meet and share stories, and in helping to bring the Sámi Cultural Center of North America to fruition. (It opened in Duluth, Minnesota, in 2014.) But more personally, a main component involves learning to be more in tune with the world around them—an important element of Sámi culture.
“In the Sámi community we spend a lot of time listening to the environment,” Frandy says. “It’s always talking to us.” Frandy has come to realize that much of his Sámi heritage is reflected in his understanding of snow and his connection to winter.
The Sámi people even have more than 200 words for snow and ice, like muohta, which is the general word for snow, åppås, a pristine snow without tracks, and skabrram, meaning snowdrift. But the language also describes a bridge of ice or snow formed over a river in a single word (cuokca), or that little spot where the snow starts to melt come spring (roahtti).
“Learning to read snow is crucial to proper reindeer migration,” says Frandy. Being able to identify and name skarta, for example, which means fallen rain has formed a hard layer of crust atop the snow, making wildlife grazing difficult, is an essential tool for herders. But reading snow can also tell you a bigger story about the season in general. “The way that snow packs, in particular, tells you a larger story about winter,” he says. “As the layers accumulate, it becomes a record of the season so far and you develop a relationship to it.”
Thomas A. DuBois is a professor of Nordic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who teaches on Sámi culture. In one of his lessons, DuBois encourages students to create photographs that capture the aesthetic and emotional aspects of snow. “It’s not just water accumulating on the ground,” DuBois says. “It’s a diverse and meaningful and tremendously variable component of winter that changes with the weather, transforms after having sat on the ground for a time, and compacts, melts, refreezes, and responds to the weight of foot or paw or ski.”
Learning to understand snow and see it as something “unique and living and fleeting,” as DuBois describes it, is beneficial in practical terms. (For example, “If it snows at 20 below, which is rare, the snow crystals are very high friction. That’s not something you can push your skis through easily,” Frandy says.) But it’s also increasingly essential to our understanding of climate change.
According to UNESCO, “Sami terminology proves to be more holistic and integrated into the local ecology in comparison to international standard snow terms. Intricacies in the language are used to note both significant and subtle changes, and its terminology also provides tools for climate change adaptation strategies that could be of great use for the international community.”
Frandy agrees. “If you’re only looking at snow as only one thing or one concept, it severely strains the ways that you investigate,” he says. “But Sámi people know that snow is really hundreds of things.” He describes this relationship as akin to walking barefoot. “Over time you know where the earth is going to be easy on your feet, prickly, hard, etc. You can have that same closeness with snow, and be as equally well-versed in reading it by paying attention to its intricacies.”
But while snow is a major component of Sámi and Sámi-American culture, it’s just one aspect. “In Sámi culture, everything you do outdoors should have a purpose,” says Frandy, whether it’s fishing for northern pike after the lakes have frozen over, or searching for black, bulbous chaga mushrooms growing on the sides of birch trees, which can be pulverized down into a high-antioxidant tea.
For those interested in Sámi and Sámi-American culture, there are plenty of ways to experience it. In Lapland, the Sámi utilize the lengthy winter season to host popular events like the Jokkmokk Winter Market, a public marketplace where visitors shop for braided leather armbands and colorfully embroidered textiles, directly from local artisans, while savoring warm slices of gahkku, or “glow cake,” baked over an open fire. Once there, you can also check out Swedish Lapland’s Nutti Sámi Siida, a Sámi eco-adventure company that introduces travelers to everything from reindeer sledding to fireside Sámi storytelling nights in conical lavvus, a traditional type of tent. Here in the U.S, the Sami Cultural Center in Duluth features workshops in Sámi duodji, or handicrafts, and introductory talks on Sámi history and culture. Even from home, it’s possible to tap into this culture: The music of Sámi singer and songwriter Sofia Jannok mixes folk and jazz with elements of yoik, a traditional form of Sámi music; while local photographer Ewa Nilsson offers a wondrous look at Swedish Lapland’s wildlife and nature through her own eyes.
Learning from Sámi traditions can have great environmental implications—and can also be a portal into a side of Lapland, and the Midwest, that too few see.
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