Lake Lillian Sami Pioneers

by Mona Nelson
from #18 Spring 2000

Árran is a joy to read. It always makes me smile! By the way, it would be nice to hear more from “The Sage” again—that homespun wisdom, spirituality or whatever, that many of us heard from the old folks years ago, but weren’t attentive enough to recognize and appreciate at the time. Perhaps it was that same sage—I don't recall and it doesn't really matter—who once told me that being Sami is “in your heart” as much or more than in the mind.

Many of us from the Northern Norwegian-American community at Lake Lillian carried this “Saminess” in our hearts, without realizing it and despite our grandparents or parents who tried their darndest to make sure we would not. It is sad to think of the Sami-Kven heritage so carefully hidden, or downright rejected, by the immigrants and their children, but so exciting now for those of us who are rediscovering, recognizing, and remembering.

Ole and Maria Solomonson, Lake Lillian

This couple, Ole and Maria Solomonson, also emigrated from the Ullsfjord area of Troms. They were “Finner, forstaar Norsk,” Sami people who spoke Norwegian, according to the 1865 census of their parish in Norway. Like Ole and Kristine Pedersen, this childless couple opened their home to needy children, and even adults. Youngsters from the community, now seniors, say they remember Ellen Maria “making a fuss” over them when they visited. Their house still stands on the north shore of Lake Lillian, now occupied now by descendants of one of their adopted daughters.

The northern Minnesota community, called “Lake Lillian” in this story, is a rural area, actually comprised of parts of several townships. It should not be confused with the village of Lake Lillian, which did not exist until 1923. The village and most of the township of Lake Lillian were as much, or more, Swedish-American, and not part of the northern Norwegian community. In fact, my uncle once told me that County Road 8, an unofficial boundary between the Norwegian and Swedish settlers, was referred to as the “Mason-Dixon Line.” The earliest settlers of the Lake Lillian area were fisher-farmers from around Balsfjord in Troms, Norway, not far from the city of Tromsø on the coast. Their homeland had previously been “settled” by ethnic Finns (ed. referred to as Kven in Norway, whereas Finn refers to Sami) and southern Norwegians, who added farming to the fishing and reindeer-herding economy of the indigenous Sami. The first group came to America by sailing ship, and after a short stay at St. Peter, Minnesota, found their way to Lake Lillian in 1864. Most of them were dissenters from the state church of Norway.

They settled in the townships of East Lake Lillian, Fahlun, and Lake Elizabeth, in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota. Letters and remittances were sent, and a small but steady stream of Kven-Norwegian-Sami immigrants came to the area, from the 1860s into the early 1900s. They came from Balsfjord, Sørfjord, and other communities, and for the same reasons as most other immigrants: economic opportunity, religious freedom, and social equality. The latter must have been especially important to the Kvens and Sami, oppressed and “Norwegianized” in Troms, and in America they shed their Old Country ethnic identities and made claims to being, not only Americans, but “100% Norwegian” Americans. To be called a Finn or a Lapp, at Lake Lillian, was definitely an insult!

There was always a recognition of our northern Norwegian heritage at Lake Lillian. We ate northern Norwegian lefse, with primost and brown sugar, never potato lefse like the southern Norwegians and Swedes. We heard about “fish hunger.” Some of us saw our elders dig into a boiled carp with relish (head and all!), and you could get “salt herring,” rather than just the pickled stuff, at the Lake Lillian store. We children heard strange tales about some of the old-timers who could put a hex on people. Living close to nature was like a religion to many of our old friends and relatives.

But we were always told, of course, that we were “100% Norwegian” and our slanted eyes and dark skin just came from being northern Norwegian, maybe something like Eskimos, but never anything like Finns or Lapps. It was only much later that I heard that northern Norwegian lefse was also called Lappland lefse, that a hex was a gand, (ed. Haugen’s Norwegian English dictionary defines gand as “Lapp magic, sorcery, and gandfinn as “Lappish shaman”) and that one of the local Norwegian Lutheran churches, named Tromso Lutheran after the old country community, was called the “Finn Church” (Sami church).

Church at Lake Lillian, Minnesota

Tromso Lutheran Free Church was formed in 1885, and construction of the church was started the same year. This photo, taken at the church in Lake Lillian Township, dates from the late 1890s. Many of the first members of this congregation were Sami. Ole and Ellen Maria Solomonson were the first to sign the original charter.

Most of the first Lake Lillian pioneers were dissenters from the state church in Norway. They also formed Norwegian Baptist and Methodist congregations, but research has not revealed Laestadianism in the community. The first immigrants to arrive, in the 1860s, were led by a lay minister, the Rev. Johan A. Bomsta, a follower of Gustav Lammers and the Apostolic Free Church in Norway.

Listening more carefully, and asking more, I heard that Grandpa Peterson, long dead now, had said he came from some ”wild Indians” in Norway. During his childhood, he had to attend a boarding school. The bits and pieces were all coming together, and a fascinating ”new” heritage was unveiled.

It is exciting and fulfilling to learn about and share this Saminess, like coming home again. An old family photo now tells a whole new story, lots more interesting than the older story. These aren’t just my relatives; their images and lives are reflections of an ethnic heritage rejected but now reclaimed.

Mona Nelson became aware of the Siida years ago when she was asked to help confirm a story about “six families” who spoke lappisk (Nor: Sami language) at Lake Lillian. After writing this, she also completed a thesis using Lake Lillian as a case study, about Sami and Kven immigrant history. A native of Big Kandiyohi Lake in Fahlun Township, Nelson, now deceased, was the director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society at Willmar, Minnesota.



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