By Catherine Revland
Some members of my family have traced my genealogy back to 17th century Norway. But ever since the Human Genome Project published its findings—that everyone alive today can trace their lineage back to a founding member who lived in Africa—curiosity about my ancestry has gone much deeper than a mere 400 years ago. Now the burning question became, “How did my ancestors end up in the northernmost habitable land on the planet?” It was time to swab the inside of my cheeks and get some answers.
The results of my DNA test were pretty amazing. My genetic profile matches that of Haplogroup U, a founding population of Western Europe that left Africa some 47,000 years ago. Like all hunter-gatherer populations, these ancestors didn’t stay in one place. The extreme fluctuations in the Ice Age climate kept them on the roam, traveling vast distances to follow their food supply. A small subgroup, called U5b1b, eventually ended up in Scandinavia around 35,000 years ago. This rare subgroup is so prevalent in the DNA of the Sami (also called Lapps, a misnomer) that geneticists call it the “Sami motif.” It is the founding population of Scandinavia and the only indigenous group in all of Europe that still practices its culture.
For thousands of years, the Sami intermarried with other Nordic tribes, so there is scarcely a Norwegian alive today who doesn’t share their ancestry. They were people of value. They had special skills, like reindeer husbandry, that made some of them wealthy. Sami hunters, artists, and traders supplied the elite with luxury goods. They invented skiing—“women and children sail[ed] like the wind”—and troubled people sought them out for their spiritual and healing powers. But that era of high regard ended with the advent of Christianity.
The rest of Sami history parallels that of all indigenous people who refuse to relinquish their ancient ways. For centuries, they took their culture underground to keep it alive. However, since the 1970s, when the laws against them were finally changed, the Sami have been going through an astonishing revival of their language and culture. Last September, they sent a delegation to Standing Rock. Last month, they led a grass-roots effort and Norway became the first country to ban deforestation. They have become environmental activists on a global scale.
When a number of Sami families emigrated from Norway to my hometown, they kept their ancestry a secret, even to this day, but some of their descendants no longer want to hide their Sami connection. We want to share that knowledge. We want to celebrate it. Which brings me to the most meaningful thing I have learned about my DNA results: No matter where our ancestors finally landed on this planet, go back far enough and we are all indigenous. We just got disconnected.
Catherine Revland is taking a short sabbatical from WestView to complete a historical novel, The Standing Rock, but she remains an avid reader and supporter of the best community newspaper in New York City.