Sami in America's Employ, a book by Nils Evald Biti

Samer i amerikansk tjeneste (Sami in America's Employ) by Nils Evald Biti. Self published.

Nils is a local historian in Deatnu/Tana. Now retired, he was a seaman for 20 years and a custodian in a local college. He is also a talented photographer and has on several occasions written for Árran. It was reported in Ságat that 85% of this material has never appeared in Norwegian before.

From the forward: Much of the source material was sent by our second cousin Elaine Hepner from Redmond Oregon: innumerable old photographs, books, diaries, postcards, and copies of letters sent from Alaska by Samuel Balto to Dr. Fridtjof Nansen (the arctic explorer who invited him on his expedition). Elaine Hepner is the oldest living descendant of the Balto-Biti clan in America who still remembers grandmother Marth Persen Biti-Balto. Elaine has been a frequent contributor of historical articles to the Sami-American publication Árran.

From the introduction: Until the summer of 1998 our family was completely unaware that Marith Persen Biti’s family had become numerous, mostly in Washington and the West Coast. In 1998, 20 years after the first attempt by descendants to find their roots in Finnmark, Ellen Balto Stenberg’s daughter, Elaine Hepner, and her husband Ed, were invited to the little town of Sirma in Deatnu by Berit Øyfrid Hansen. The invitation was made during the 100th anniversary celebration of the Sami “emigration” to the US, when many Sami families were reunited. When they visited in 1999 it became apparent that Elaine had many exciting and unpublished stories. All her stories could be forgotten and lost forever. This gave me the idea for a book. A few days later I mentioned my plans for a book to Elaine and Ed over dinner, she immediately jumped in and said “Nels - go ahead!”

From the text: The Sami, in their colorful gákti, naturally attracted a great deal of attention wherever they went. The gákti could vary from wool, tanned reindeer skin, and untanned peaskas. The brightly colored trim, together with the long knives, added to the effect, especially for the younger ones.

...During their stay in Saint Paul, Minnesota the Sami went sightseeing by themselves. For hours they walked about the town admiring all the new sights. Eventually they lost their bearings. Near a large building which turned out to be city hall, they asked for directions. Someone quickly determined that they were Norwegian speaking, and went to find governor Knute Nelson. Nelson was friendliness personified, and had them at once well taken care of.

Upon their departure a few days later, governor Nelson came to the Great Northern Railway station to wish them a good journey. While leaving the train he shook hands with one of the Sami, leading a boy with the expedition to exclaim “Do you know the king of Minnesota too?” The Sami had been traveling for a month and were overwhelmed with all their new impressions. There had been little sleep, and more than enough to take in.

...When they got off the train in Kalispell, Montana they saw Indians riding out of town. A little later the Indians returned, increased in numbers. They were armed, walking on foot, and surrounding the train station. Among them was a chief on horseback wearing his war regalia. Everyone was quiet and serious. The Indians were clearly intrigued, seeing the Sami in their colorful outfits. The long Sami knives also caught their interest, hanging from their large impressive belts. Finally the chief asks the Sami which tribe they belong to.
The Sami for their part just looked back
curiously and with equanimity. They too wondered which tribe the Indians belonged to. After observing the Sami carefully for a few minutes, the Indians turned and left the station, no doubt neither the wiser.

The Inuits were eager and quick learners. Their ingrained hunting and trapping instincts were not immediately translatable into the reindeer project’s plans. During an instruction out with the herd, a Sami expressed what it is like to be a reindeer owner: “You are not there for the reindeer, the reindeer is there for you. Your job is to follow the animal, not try to make the animal follow you. The reindeer is more important than you. It is not dependent on you. It you shot down all of them with those modern rifles, what would you live on over the winter without reindeer?” The Inuits responded every situation with a big smile.

Window shopping on Water Street, Port Townsend, WA 1898

...Preparing leather for clothing and sewing clothes were skills where the Inuit were just as good at as the Sami, if not better.

...Cooperation between Sami and Inuit quickly developed into mutual friendship. It wasn’t long before the smiling Inuit gave the Sami an unusual nickname. The Sami were called “playing card people,” because the four winds hat and the boots with turned up toes closely resembled that of the joker.

Usually they were able to keep the wolves at a distance. Wolf attacks stressed the reindeer, and made them uncooperative, and difficult to lead. The scent of predators made them uneasy, and little progress was made whatever they tried. At nightfall Anders Bær would yoik by the big campfire, and that seemed to keep the wolves at some tolerable distance.

Christmas drew near and they needed new provisions which were mostly gone and they wondered if there was anything to buy. They themselves were underway with reindeer bulls to help with the food crisis in the Klondike area. They would at least try to get something since they had long ago run out of both sugar, tea and other things.

One of the men, (probably Redmyer, since was the best at speaking English) traveled to Dawson City with three bulls and two sleds, to see what he could find. On the way back to the camp, the animals pulled the meager provisions in an easy tempo. The monotonous sound from the sled as it glided over the frost covered snow, and the sound from the animals hooves led to the driver to doze off.

The lead reindeer immediately noticed the free reins, and turned suddenly towards the forest. Driver awakened suddenly when the sled overturned, and he found himself lying halfway down in the path. The bulls set for towards the woods with the sleds in tow. With sleepy eyes he could barely make out which direction they took. He spent the rest of the day on foot before arriving at camp where he humbly recounted what happened.

When dawn came, they went to look for the escapees. They found two of the animals with the provisions intact. Then suddenly they saw a pack of wolves who were hunting the third animal which was pulling the empty sled. The panic stricken snorting reindeer heard the bells of his mates from the camp and abruptly turned in their direction with the wolves following.

The herders in the camp saw what was about to happen and started shooting at the wolves. They were out of range for shotguns but the noise from the shots were enough to scare them away before they could attack. The frightened reindeer was captured and calmed down. The reindeer was standing with shaking legs and head hanging down. From its mouth poured gasps of warm breath which condensed in the frost, and surrounded the reindeer in a cloud of white and chilly steam.

After resting a few days, they proceeded to Dawson City. There there were received and celebrated as heroes by the Scandinavian colony. The Sami and their substantial reindeer bulls of course objects of much attention and wonder. Many gold miners came from far away to see the unusual Sami who had come all the way from Scandinavia with
their reindeer.


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