Sámi girls at the 2017 Jokkmokk Winter Market

Sámi girls at the 2017 Jokkmokk Winter Market share their love of reindeer with Italian tourists. 

COURTESY OF THOMAS DuBOIS

Culture is about relationships, within and between communities.

I am a folklorist with specializations in Nordic and American cultures. In my research and teaching, I help people recognize similarities human beings share from culture to culture.

But I also explore the unique elements of culture that communities develop in response to their environments and situations.

In my course on Celts and Vikings during the Middle Ages, students learn about the distrust and animosity between the Irish and the “Norse,” people with roots in Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

Despite that distrust, people learned from each other, shared innovations and even intermarried. As a result, Irish and Scandinavian cultures became transformed.

In my work on Sámi (known as Lapp) people, I look at the unique strategies Sámi developed for living in an arctic environment.

Using Siftr, open-source software developed at UW-Madison, my students take Sámi words for snow and apply them to the snow and ice they observe around them in Madison. They also learn how Sámi today choose what elements of their traditional culture to maintain, modify or update.

I also work with the Ojibwe people in Wisconsin, examining the ways people can choose to maintain a cultural identity.

When my students observe Ojibwe school children playing and learning about traditional Ojibwe winter games or harvesting wild rice, they come to understand how much value arises from a community working together to maintain or reclaim its traditions.

Working to understand culture and tradition helps researchers like myself engage with communities and contribute to the cultural life of society.

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