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Hearth and Heritage at the ASHM

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You can tie nearly everything that the American Swedish Historical Museum does to the word ‘home.’ Our founder sought to celebrate the Swedes who had made America their new home, we preserve and interpret the artifacts used within our ancestors’ homes, and we remind Swedes and Scandinavians that, among friends and family at our cultural celebrations, they should consider the Museum as another home.

And we often explore the idea of ‘home’ within our exhibitions. This past fall and winter the ASHM’s exhibitions—tied to themes of displacement, temporary shelter, and migration—examined what it means to lose one’s home and the difficulties of adapting to a new one. But the spring and summer exhibitions focus on keeping long-familiar practices and traditions at home and carrying them along to new ones.

The indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia—the Sami—offer a cultural lens for exploring these themes. The ASHM’s main spring and summer exhibition is called The Sami Reindeer People of Alaska, borrowed from the Sami Cultural Center of North America in Minnesota. With its deliberately intriguing title, this exhibition challenges notions of where people ‘come from’ and how they identify themselves as they journey to new lands. The Sami Reindeer People of Alaska takes us alongside Sami families traveling 10,000 miles to Alaska during the 1890s. As part of a U.S.-sponsored effort to introduce domesticated reindeer to Alaska, these families journeyed by boat, train, and sledge to settle themselves and their reindeer in a familiar environment but strange country.

The exhibition’s twenty historic photographs introduce us to these intrepid ‘Alaskan Sami’ families while historic artifacts and traditional dress more broadly illustrate the heritage of the Sami in their native land and those who made Alaska their new home. Visitors and their families can even explore a recreated Sami-American home as they walk into a fully-furnished and interactive lavvu tent.

Of course, it’s a huge challenge to pack up your life (and reindeer) to establish them somewhere else. But preserving your heritage and traditional livelihood in a changing world brings its own set of obstacles. Acclaimed National Geographic photographer Erika Larsen provides striking snapshots of the day-to-day lives of modern reindeer-herding families in Norway and Sweden through her photography exhibition: Sami—Walking with Reindeer. For four years, Erika worked as a beaga (housekeeper) among the reindeer-herding family of Nils Peder and Ingrid Gaup. From her intimate vantage point, Erika immersed herself in the culture, language, and land of the northern Sami. Her work gives us an intimate peek into the beautiful, bloody realities of reindeer herding.

Erika also reminds us that Sami life extends far past the reindeer. Her striking color photographs illuminate Sami connections with their past, their environment, and with each other. These tender images show quieter moments of life in the far north: a child with his dog, a Sami tent (laavu) alone before the Northern Lights, and a baby nestled in a wooden cradle. Although an outsider to their culture, Erika sees her Sami family as teachers. She notes, “Through the Sami I hope to better understand our role as stewards of the earth. It is inevitable when spending time in a more nature-based culture that one must recognize the cycles of life and death and therefore begin to evaluate man’s role within this circle.”

Explore hearth and heritage at the American Swedish Historical Museum through the story of the Sami journeying to North America 100 years ago and those living in Scandinavia today. We hope that you can join us for the opening of The Sami Reindeer People of Alaska and Sami—Walking with Reindeer on April 14, with a lecture and musical performance by staff of the Sami Cultural Center of North America. This exhibition will be on view through August 26th.