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Kirsten Nilsdatter Bals emigrated to the United States on 15 May 1907. When Sherman photographed her at Ellis Island, she was 28, unmarried, and as an ethnic Sámi, had thus far spent her life living in a community that consisted mainly of semi-nomadic reindeer herders in and around Kautokeino, a plateau in the Finnmark Province of Norway.1
From New York, Nilsdatter Bals would be traveling with her four-year old son to family in Unalakleet, Alaska. Her father, stepmother, a brother, and a sister had already been in the U.S. since 1898. Besides being a part of an ethnic group that typically didn't travel anywhere by ocean liner, they weren't by any means typical immigrants to the United States. Her family was part of a group more or less recruited to emigrate by the U.S. government, initially under contract.
As the scheme that brought Sámi to the U.S. in the late 1890s was over by the time of Kirsten Nilsdatter Bals' emigration in 1907, she must have had other motives for emigrating to the U.S. However, it's crucial to understand the environment Nilsdatter Bals was entering into in order to make sense of what she faced. Were it not for the emigration of her family, she probably never would have left Sámpi (i.e. ancestral Sámi lands).
Sámi and the Reindeer Project
Starting in the 1890s, at the behest of the U.S. War Department, select groups of Sámi were chosen to leave their homes and teach reindeer husbandry and herding to the Iñupiat and Inuit (Alaska Native tribal entities) in Northwestern Alaska. Over 100 men, women, and children would end up making this unusual transnational migration, most leaving in 1898 like Nilsdatter Bals' family. Participants came from different parts of traditional Sámi lands in Norway, Sweden and Finland and signed 2-3 year contracts that would ensure their transport, accommodation and wages. For an expanding period of time, the recruits would live and work among the Iñupiat and Inuit in Northwestern Alaska—under a government supported program that would come to be known as the Reindeer Project. 2
After the U.S. "purchased" Alaska from Russia in 1867, the ensuing years of unregulated commercial fishing and hunting decimated populations of wild game all across Alaska. This in turn severely disrupted the once plentiful food supplies Alaska Native tribal entities depended upon. Many native peoples struggled terribly and endured decades of existence at near starvation levels, as they fought new diseases and the encroachment of miners, settlers and missionaries. By the 1890s, the state of their collective existence was nearing utter catastrophe. The Reindeer Project was initially started to help native peoples out of their food crisis and possibly give them a new livelihood that wouldn't conflict with expanded non-native commercial practices. Ironically, the crisis was the direct result of the disruption U.S. industry had caused, and now the U.S. government was interceding. It was to this environment that the Sámi and their herds of reindeer would enter, on the government's behalf.
Reindeer were not native to North America and so any specific techniques of herding and husbandry were unknown to the indigenous peoples of Alaska. Because of this, over 500 reindeer were imported from Sámpi to boost a seed population started years earlier.
In February 1898, the 137 Sámi recruits and 538 reindeer were transported across the Atlantic on a U.S. Army Transport ship. After a lengthy journey by rail from New York to Seattle, they traveled by ship to Haines, Alaska. From Haines, a small group of Sámi herders drove the reindeer manually over 1500 kilometers across the Chilkoot Trail before reaching the Yukon valley; the main group of Sámi would travel by ship. After overcoming a number of logistical complications and setbacks, both groups reached their destination in July 1898, albeit with a much depleted reindeer population.
Nearly five months had passed since the Sámi recruits had left Norway. It was already an extraordinary undertaking but the story was just beginning. By 1910 the herd of a few hundred reindeer had grown to 27,000; by 1920 there were an estimated 600,000.3
By the time Nilsdatter Bals emigrated to Alaska, a number of the original Sámi migrants had gone back home, but many more stayed and were slowly making their way to a more settled lifestyle, and U.S. citizenship.
Though Nilsdatter Bals indicated to immigrant inspectors at Ellis Island that she was heading to Yukon, Alaska, by 1907 her family was actually living near Unalakleet. It's unclear how she and her young son made the next part of their long journey—or if she knew her family was in Unalakleet—but it's likely they followed the same route as the 1898 group: first from New York to Seattle by rail along the Canadian border, then onto Alaska by ship. Up to the point of her emigration, Nilsdatter Bals had already experienced great struggle and strife. Her mother died when she was barely 13 and her father, brother, sister and stepmother would leave Sámpi for Alaska just a few years later. From then on she lived with different relatives, while working among the Sámi community in and around Kautokeino. At age 24, Nilsdatter Bals gave birth to twin boys after an out of wedlock encounter with a man...who ended up marrying someone else shortly after she emigrated to the U.S. One of the boys died in infancy, and the other had just turned four when he and his mother set out, alone, across the Atlantic from Bossekop, Norway. It had been almost ten years since Kirsten had seen her family and together they had most likely months of difficult travel ahead.
Standing 4′10″, with an occupation first recorded as "girl", then "housewife" on the ship's manifest, Nilsdatter Bals must have been determined and adaptable in ways hard to fathom. Though she spoke no English and had no easily marketable skills when she entered the U.S, she did have sizable amount of money with her, probably in gold; whatever currency she carried was valued at $290 (over $8,500 in 2021 dollars). Perhaps the money was part of a remittance sent back from her father in America or the result of a liquidation of existing family assets before leaving. But as an unmarried woman with a young son, and most likely the only Sámi among the 1500+ passengers onboard the S.S. Hellig Olav, she would have stood out both during the voyage and upon arrival at Ellis Island. Traveling alone with an illegitimate child, with thousands of miles still to go before reaching her final destination, and no one meeting her in New York, was risky business; given the inspection protocols in place, the likelihood of her being detained or even deported would have been very high. The ship's manifest indicates some irregularities were dismissed: lines 13-15 (which included Nilsdatter Bals and her son) were singled out at the bottom of the manifest, then crossed out. Moreover, for these same lines under the column titled "Deformed or crippled", the word "yes" is penciled over a "no" for both Nilsdatter Bals and her son, but no indication of anything more specific is recorded. Were these just errors?
Somehow Nilsdatter Bals managed to avoid detention/deportation but was still pulled aside by Sherman for a photo portrait before being discharged. Unless the ship's manifest left out crucial details, which is unlikely, it is actually astounding that she managed to avoid further scrutiny from immigration inspectors as she took her first steps on American soil. In any case, given the circumstance it's unlikely that she (or her father's family) intended on returning to Sápmi. And as the years passed, none appear to have left North America after emigrating. By the time of the 1910 Census, the family was still living near Unalakleet among indigenous Kaviagmiut (Iñupiat), but no longer on government-administered land. They owned the house they lived in and the father (Nils Person Bals) had filed a declaration of intention, meaning he was in the process of naturalizing as U.S. citizen. Kirsten Nilsdatter Bals' son, Nils Nilsen, was living with his grandfather's family in Unalakleet at the time but without his own mother. In fact, according to the 1910 Census return, Nils Person Bals had already formally adopted his grandson; seven-year old Nils Nilsen is listed as his adopted son. But no sign of Kirsten.
After her arrival at Ellis Island, Kirsten Nilsdatter Bals disappears from the paper trail, so until new records or clues become available it is impossible to say what became of her. Relatives of Nilsdatter Bals have indicated, perhaps apocryphally, that she absconded with an itinerant gold miner shortly after arriving in the Yukon valley. She definitely was gone from her family in Unalakleet, barely three years after her arrival at Ellis Island. Kirsten's father died in 1919 and her son, Nils Nilsen, worked as a reindeer herder, laborer and eventually as an employee with the U.S. Weather Bureau during the 1930s and 1940s. He went on to serve in World War II and died in 1947 at the age of 43 in Unalakleet, Alaska. He left no descendants.
The one surviving photo of Kirsten Nilsdatter Bals, however, has had a remarkable afterlife as an artifact in the public domain. Besides being available for download from several digital platforms, it can now be seen re-imagined in color and as an oil painting, or re-purposed as a postcard. In 2017-2018, the artist/activist Ai Weiwei mounted a New York citywide "multi-site, multi-media exhibition" which included huge, CNC-cut vinyl banners that reworked dozens of Sherman's portraits. Weiwei's Lamppost banner 25 incorporated Sherman's portrait of Nilsdatter Bals and was displayed at 37th Rd between 74th and 75th Streets in Jackson Heights, where it would have been seen by thousands of New Yorkers. Her reworked portrait can be seen to this day as part of an enormous public mural on a school building simply titled "Ellis"—the largest public mural in New York.
Nilsdatter Bals probably never saw the photo, never could claim her identity or tell the story of her moment with Sherman at Ellis Island, but her image has never really gone away from the moment it was taken.
First reproduced in the Annual report of the Superintendent of Immigration to the Secretary of the Treasury for the fiscal year ended 1906/07, published just 7-8 months after her arrival but likely not widely seen, the portrait would receive wide viewership in the February 1917 issue of National Geographic. However, the photo subsequently disappeared from public view and only resurfaced during the 1970s, gaining phenomenal traction in the digital age. Since the 2010s, contentious debates about the "refuge crisis" and immigration that have dominated the news cycle the world over, have in part prompted the reanimation of Sherman's Ellis Island portraits. Rarely is Nilsdatter Bals, or any of Sherman's subjects, identified.
Sherman's 1907 photograph of Nilsdatter Bals is unquestionably evocative and succeeds in conveying an Old Europe that was little known or understood at the time—and certainly exotic at an early 20th century Immigration Station in New York.4 It remains unclear what Sherman saw in a subject like Nilsdatter Bals. Was it simply another anonymous, visual contribution to the 'othering' of immigrants? Blithe fascination at the presence of a rare human specimen? Compared to Sherman's other work, which is primarily split between images of physical exoticism and images of old world dress & traditions about to succumb to Americanization, Laplander is a bit of both. It's quite possible that Sherman really didn't know what to make of her.
However, the othering inherent in the image should be reflected upon in a careful way, and treated not with idle curiosity but rather with both empathy and realism. That's easily missed or misinterpreted without identity and context.5
The story behind the image, however incomplete and fragmentary, is as equally captivating as the image itself and helps to contextualize Nilsdatter Bals' suspended moment in front of the camera eye at Ellis Island.
1 My winding path to identifying the subject of Sherman's Laplander photograph eventually led me to the work of others, who in part had captured some of the basic facts several years before. But any explicit connection between the name and the photograph remains quite hidden. Moreover, there were important elements of Nilsdatter Bals' story that were ignored or left unexplored, and that's in part why I chose to investigate her life a bit more. I found three separate sources that corroborate her emigration in 1907, putting her in the cross hairs of Sherman's camera:
- Ruthanne Ceci's "Arctic Ties, Finnmark to Alaska: Brief biographies of the U.S. Reindeer Project expedition members" which gives a comprehensive accounting of "Reindeer Project" participants, including entries for Kirsten Nilsdatter Bals and her family.
- A 2012 television news piece from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation that includes an interview with a relative of Nilsdatter Bals, and the researcher that seems to have first made the connection between Sherman's photograph and the subject.
- Family pages on public genealogy websites created by relatives of Nilsdatter Bals.
2 Also known as the Lapland-Yukon Relief Expedition and Manitoba Expedition. Initially, the 1898 group (and their reindeer) was to be used for an emergency transport of supplies to a large group of stranded gold miners who were thought to be near starvation and were unreachable by normal means. In the end, the situation was resolved before the Sámi left Seattle so they were no longer needed for that part of the plan.
3 In the 1920s, the seemingly improbable but fleetingly successful commodification of reindeer meat for the U.S. market—driven by the Lomen Reindeer Co.—was largely responsible for the massive boost to reindeer populations in Alaska. The success proved to be short-lived and the reindeer market collapsed in 1929, like many other enterprises during that year, and would have disastrous repercussions for the livelihood of indigenous and Sámi herders. But not before inspiring the North American Christmas tradition of Santa Claus on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Macy's Department Store and the Lomen Reindeer Co. partnered on national marketing campaigns in the mid 1920s, i.e. with parades and massive display windows, that forever wedded Santa with reindeers. It's hard to imagine this taking place without the Sámi coming to Alaska.
4 See Sophus Tromholt's haunting images of Sámi made in the early 1880s in and around Kautokeino: Billeder fra Lappernes Land . A number of Nilsdatter Bals' relatives are there, as are glimpses of Sámi livelihood and culture.
5 For a concise examination of the Sámi in Alaska, see Faith Fjeld's "The Alaskan Sámi: a Reindeer Story" in Vesterheim. Vol. 8, No. 1 : p. 18-24 and "The Sami Reindeer People of Alaska", an exhibit catalog produced by Báiki and the Sami Cultural Center.