Sami Siida of North America

Leon Keranen

Leon at early Sami American meeting at the Finn Creek Museum, New York Mills, Minnesota

Leon Keranen 1939 - 1993

Born in Wadena, served in the United States Air Force.  From his obituary in the New York Mills Herald, "Leon enjoyed hunting, playing golf and researching his Finnish Heritage.  He was active in community service through his membership in Lions, Civic and Commerce, Salolampi board, American-Sami group and Trinity Lutheran Church, where he served as an elder."  His legacy includes children and grandchildren.

Leon proudly shared his knowledge of his Sami background.  He was a direct descendant of Roju-Elli and treasured the lineage and stories.  He set an example for all in the invaluable pleasure of learning more of our own family histories. 

A story about Roju-Elli, from Arctic Twilight, Old Finnish Tales, by Samuli Paulaharju, Lapin Muistelaksia, 1922
Roju-Elli is said to have descended from the Poka family.  She is said to have been the last true living Sami in Inari. 
Roju-Elli moved with her large herd of reindeer to Inari when she married Lasse.  Lasse's Kota yard was filled to overflowing with her herd.
Roju-Elli herded her reindeer on the rocky lichen fields around Inari.  In the winter she traveled to the markets in Tornio, Matarengi, and all the way to Alta.  She received the name "Roju"-Elli because of her wanderings throughout Lapland.
One could tell when Roju-Elli was approaching by the clamor of reindeer bells and her loud voice commanding the herd and her husband Lasse.  Lasse traveled in the shadow of his proud wife and continued to do so until his death.  Roju-Elli continued to ramble.
Lasse and Roju-Elli went bear hunting.  Lasse missed his shot at the bear.  The bear attacked him.  Lasse told Elli to jingle the keys on her belt so the bear would be distracted.  Bears do not like loud unusual noise.  Elli did as told but then the bear took off after Elli.  Lasse hollered to Elli to grab the axe from the snow.  Elli wanted to know which end to strike with.  Lasse told her, the sharp end.  She did as told and felled the bear with one blow.  The bear dropped at her feet. 
Roju-Elli had three daughters who married Finnish men.  From these marriages there are living descendants in the USA.
Roju-Elli's beauty is remembered when when a person has black hair and dark eyes.  When a person hollers, they are said to holler like Roju-Elli.

Carl Nilsen

Carl Nilsen 1917-1999

Carl was one of the cornerstones of the Poulsbo area Sami community. He was featured in the Sami/ Norwegian documentary Sami Over There and one of the hosts of the 100 year Sami reunion in Poulsbo. He is descended from Marit Persdatter Biti and Anders Johannesen Balto who came to Alaska with the reindeer in 1898. After Anders died in a mining accident in Nome, Marit remarried in 1907 to Kaspar Hauan from Troms who had also been a miner in Alaska. In 1910 they moved to Eglon, near Poulsbo. The eldest of three daughters, Mary, was born in Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino, and married Oscar Nilsen, a mining foreman in Nome. Mary and Oscar moved to Eglon, then Kingston, also near Poulsbo, where Oscar did fishing. Carl was one of six children. Elaine Hepner, his first cousin, who often writes for Árran, credits Carl for getting her interested in their Sami background. She says, "Carl and Irene were Mr. and Mrs. Hospitality. They cheerfully opened their spacious home to company. Every bed was filled during the 1999 Sami Reunion. Any time the relatives from Samiland visited, they were always welcome, and so were we. Carl and Irene CELEBRATED Carl's Sami heritage.  It was so evident in their home decorating, as well as in conversation.  Carl encouraged me by example.  Our  heritage was something to be excited about, so I got excited too."

His legacy includes children and grandchildren.

Alyce, right, with Anja Kitti at the New York Mills, Minnesota, Siidastallan, 1995

Alyce Mattila Ruikka 1929-1999

Alyce actively sought establishment of a Sami organization in North America.  She hosted Sami visitors, Sami events and contributed regularly to Árran.  Her obituary in the New York Mills Herald read in part:  "She was very creative and enjoyed Sami history."   Her legacy includes children and grandchildren.



Pete, center, at the Manitoba 100 Year Reunion, Poulsbo, Washington

Pete Nilluka 1926-2000

Peter Clement Nilluka, born March 13th, 1926 in Poulsbo to Mathis (Mike) Klemetsen from Ohcejohka/Vuovdaguoika (Utsjoki/Outakoski) and Berit Persdatter (Siri) Nilluka from Kárášjohka.  Mathis was second in command with Andy Bahr on the five year journey to bring 3,000 reindeer from Alaska to Canada.  He was raised and educated in North Kitsap.  Peter served in the Merchant Marine during WWII.  On November 19th, 1962 he married Beatrice Raub.  He worked for the Washington State Ferry System for more than 20 years as a lead shore-maintenance man until his retirement.  Passed away January 8th, 2000.  He was featured in the film Sami Over There, about Sami from the Northwest.  His legacy includes children and grandchildren.


Sandra Nilluka

Sandra Nilluka 1948-2000

Sandra passed away on September 7th, 2000. Árran readers will remember her writing about the Sami Heritage Day at Pacific Lutheran University in issue 17, and describing the surprise of her late father by showing up in a Kárášjohka gákti and greeting in issue 18.

Sandra was planning another article about her heritage, and we will miss her enthusiasm for all things Sami. Her father, Peter Clement Nilluka was a full blooded Sami whose parents, Mathis Klemsten and Berit Siri Nilluka, were part of the Manitoba expedition bringing reindeer to Alaska in 1898 and in the 30's, years after moving to Poulsbo, Washington, accompanied by Anders Bær on "the great trek" bringing 3,000 of those deer to the Northwest Territory over a period of five years. Her contributions will be sorely missed.

Marvin Salo

Marvin Salo 1927-2003

An active participant in Sami-American affairs, he was a proud Navy veteran of WWII.  His obituary in the New York Mills Herald reads in  part "Marvin enjoyed visiting, cooking, fishing, art, writing, making knives and loved and was very proud of his Finnish heritage." His legacy includes children and grandchildren.

Albin Seaberg

Albin Seaberg 1916-2005

Albin was active in the Siida and deeply involved with Sami culture.  His parents emigrated from Malmberget, Sápmi on the Swedish side in 1913.  Albin often traveled to Sápmi, and was  co-creator of the Sami Spirit Spirit Calendar, along with his son, Kurt.

View Sami Spirit Calendar

Gladys Koski Holmes - self portrait

Self Portrait

Gladys Koski Holmes 1932-2005

An accomplished artist, with an MA and many awards and exhibits to her credit, Gladys treasured her Sami heritage and was an active participant in the Siida.  Gladys' poetry also won awards and she published a children's book.  Gladys was our ambassador when she accompanied a Siida art show at the nana festival in Tromsø.

Rudolph Johnson 1916-2007

Rudy Johnson

Rudy was born in Kirkenes, Norway, a few miles from the Russian border.  His father Ivar was from Porsanger, and his father’s father was a reindeer owner from Kárášjohka with forebears from the Porsanger, Siri, Turi and Joks clans and with roots in Guovdageaidnu.  His father’s mother was descended from several Porsanger clans, the most well-known being another reindeer owner from Kárášjohka who was the basis for the film The Pathfinder.  His mother Albertine Svendsen was a coastal Sami from Árdni/Arnøy in North Troms.  

    In 1921 Rudy lost his father Ivar to a swimming accident in Lake Superior.  At Hamline University he was a student activist, and with a $5 grant from the student association hitchhiked to a student conference in Chicago and New York.  During the Depression years he rode the rails across the country, working as a migrant worker and cowboy.

    During World War II Rudy served in India.   He attended Columbia University in New York City, earning his Masters Degree in history.  After teaching high school in St. Peter, Minnesota, he attended the American Summer School at the University of Oslo, where he met and married Solveig Arneng, also of Kirkenes, who was then studying at the Royal Art Academy.  The couple stayed in Oslo one more year while Solveig completed her studies and Rudy attended the University, then relocated to Minnesota in 1949.

    Rudy and Solveig have three children and four grandchildren.  Rudy was Library Director at the University of Minnesota, Duluth where he worked until retirement in 1981.  In 1992 he published his and Sovleig’s family history Lapland Ancestry, which is now also online also in Norwegian.

     Rudy was a lifelong Sami activist and wrote numerous editorials and articles to create awareness of Sami identity. More about Rudy.

Mel Olsen

Mel in 1975

Mel Olsen 1938-2007

The Sami Siida of North America has lost a leader with the death of Mel Olsen in Superior, Wisconsin, on October 23, 2007, after a long struggle with cancer. The Siida has been one of Mel’s “cultural families” and we share in grieving with his family members who include two sisters, a brother, eight nephews, two nieces, and several grand nieces and nephews.  Over the past sixteen years and more, Mel has done research on his own family history and on topics of Sami history and culture.  He wrote many articles for the international Sami journal Báiki, was an organizer of the Sami Siida, and the founding editor of the journal Árran for which he wrote and did graphic design.  He was also the editor of Nord Norge and a founder of Lappmarklag.  He helped organize and participated in many summer and winter Siidastallans in places such as Finland, MN; Marquette, MI; New York Mills, MN; Grand Marais, MN; Hancock, MI; at the Minnesota Zoo, the American Swedish Institute, Ironworld in Chisholm, and at Spirit Mountain in Duluth.  His weavings were hung in the first ever Sami-American art exhibitions in Superior, Ironworld, and Grand Marais. 

    Mel’s art work reflected his interest in the natural world and his heritage.  His woodcuts were large pieces that used organic motifs and earthen colors and he did a memorable series of brightly wrapped driftwood pieces which used pure, clear colors—combining found natural objects with traditional techniques in an entirely personal way.  His last works were large woven textile hangings that built on earlier color schemes and reflected his growing understanding of his Sami heritage.

    Mel’s love of animals was deep and long lasting.  He maintained flocks of many kinds of birds and always had dogs.  He had great joy the last few years racing his deerhounds, often with the assistance of his sister Margaret and nephew Steven. 

    On a personal level, I knew Mel as the instructor of the first class I took while a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Superior.  Later, we were colleagues teaching in the art department at UWS for many years.  Mel taught at UWS for over 38 years, serving for a number of years as head of the University’s Visual Arts Department.  I think we both had our first experience with publishing when we worked together on the booklet, Beginning Again, which documented immigrant architecture in the Head of the Lakes area.  We trekked through many a field and climbed around in old barns and log houses for a number of months while working on the project.

    We of the Siida will miss Mel at our get-togethers, his insightful writing and research, his dry wit and more than occasional sarcasm, and his colorful art work.  His contribution to our collective knowledge and his role in the education of our own Sami community, the visitors to our events, and readers of the journals are a valuable and treasured legacy.  A memorial service was held on Saturday, November 17 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Spooner, Wisconsin.  Members of the Siida who attended the service include Solveig Johnson, Cari Mayo, Anja Kitti Walhelm, Chris Pesklo, and Marlene Wisuri.  Mel will be remembered as an artist, historian, writer, teacher, and friend.
    Marlene Wisuri, November 29, 2007