Professor Tom DuBois is the Halls-Bascom Professor of Scandinavian Studies here at UW-Madison. He researches and teaches broadly in the areas of folklore and belief (modern and medieval, pre-Christian and Christian), particularly in connection with Finnish, Sámi and Scandinavian cultures.
Tell us what your induction into the Finnish Academy of Sciences & Letters means to you.
This is an incredible honor. The Finnish Academy is a highly selective and esteemed organization. In 2016 only 12 foreign scholars were invited to join, and I was one of only two from the United States. (The other is at Harvard Medical School.) So I am both surprised and humbled by the gesture.
What are your most interesting discoveries about the Sami culture?
Sámi people are the indigenous population of Northern Europe. For a long time, anthropologists studied them, but scholars of Scandinavian studies ignored them. I have worked to help our field explore the striking (and sometimes distressing) parallels between the colonial experience that Sámi have endured and what Native Americans have faced, and continue to face, in North America.
What I am working on currently is the ways in which Sámi artists and activists use the Internet and other modern media to help create identity within the Sámi community and to exert pressure on Nordic governments and wider societies for a more just approach to Sámi issues. One important artist in this area is Sofia Jannok. We brought her to the Lac du Flambeau reservation here in Wisconsin this past spring, where she interacted with Ojibwe school kids, and we are hoping to bring her to Madison sometime in the near future.This idea of Sámi culture as both rooted in an Indigenous relationship to a particular place and set of traditions and as an identity that can be shared through cutting-edge modern technology like the Internet is both interesting and exciting.
You have written on Nordic storytelling — how might we recognize its influence in our lives today?
Traditional stories — folktales and legends — often resonate with people because they touch on enduring human issues. Everyone can identify with the underdog, or the forgotten and unloved child; everyone roots for the clever trickster who is able to turn the tables on the rich and powerful. And we enjoy them, whether we experience them in the way of past farmers (listening to them in the gloom of a Scandinavian farm during a long winter night) or by reading them in a book, or by watching an adaptation of them in film or video. They are just as much alive today, and as relevant, as they were when folklorists began collecting them in earnest in the early 1800s. Sometimes, of course, stories also reflect very negative aspects of society — e.g., a distrust of foreigners, or dislike for people who differ from the norm in one way or another. In folklore research, we study what stories tell us about these negative attitudes as well and we look at the ways in which changes in attitude become reflected in changes within the stories we tell or remember.
Nordic religious beliefs were powerful, weren’t they?
Christianity came to southern and central Europe with much violence and drama. The religion came to the North of Europe much more gradually. Old pre-Christian traditions lived on alongside the newly introduced Christian ones and often ideas merged in interesting ways. Nordic pre-Christian traditions of honoring the dead or celebrating the mid-winter solstice received a Christian veneer but continued unabated. Age-old customs that had their roots in the ancient past survived as valued traditions. And old pre-Christian ideas about staying on good terms with unseen spirit beings that could control luck or destiny have remained active in rural Nordic communities down to the present.
Tell us about your courses on Scandinavian children’s literature.
It is said that one can judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Put briefly and maybe too simplistically, in the Nordic countries, children are young citizens. In the United States, prior to age 18, they are considered the property of their parents. These differences become clear when you look at Nordic children's books, and characters like Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking or Tove Jansson's Moomin. And that exploration helps students think about what they regard as the nature of childhood and how they might like to parent in the future.
What about Wisconsin’s Finnish population?
Some 300,000 Finns migrated from Finland to America in the 1800s and early 1900s. The great majority of them settled in the Upper Midwest, in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They brought their language, their love of sauna, their food traditions, their sense of humor, and their music. It is wonderful when I teach a topic about Finnish culture and one of my students says, eyes wide, “Oh so that's why we did that! I remember a student who found out that the word his grandpa used for him all through his childhood — paskahousut — was actually an insult (it means “poop in the pants”). Currently I am finishing a book with some of my students that takes the songs composed and sung by Finnish immigrants and provides “singable” translations for them in English. The goal is to let Finnish Americans reconnect with a musical heritage that has often become unfamiliar to them. That is something I can do better here in the Upper Midwest than virtually anywhere else in the country. I am lucky to have been able to work alongside my now-emeritus colleague Jim Leary, who is a world authority on this topic, and to work with many amazing Finnish American students in the 15 years I've worked at Madison.