Jun 10, 2014 - Stories

Genetic Nomad

There are few places as far removed from Manhattan than vast tundra and cold forests that make up the land of the Sami, but for Laura, a full-fledged New Yorker, there was no place she felt more connected.Laura G.

After venturing into the vast region that covers the artic north of four Scandinavian countries to form the cultural region also known as Sami or Lappland, Laura was hooked.

“The draw to this part of the world became irresistible,” said the writer and media consultant.

A Connection with Scandanavia

And it wasn’t just the otherworldly beauty of the place that pulled at her. Laura felt another bond she couldn’t quite explain. That deeper connection became clear only after testing with 23andMe. It’s what ultimately triggered a life-changing decision that also altered how Laura thought of herself.

“Everybody has a tribe and we’re all connected to other people and that’s an unassailable fact of science,” Laura said. “But to have a sense that you belong and are connected is an amazing and profound thing.”

For ten years Laura was a successful media consultant in the media capital of the world, New York City. She lived in Chelsea and was comfortable in the bustle of a city of eight million people. Austere and cold northern European landscapes were not on her radar.

“But I was sent to Sweden on a work trip and I felt this weird connection,” she said.

A Fascination with the Place

She remembered visiting a park there that had a reindeer enclosure. She kept coming back, sometimes in the evening just to look at the animals. She didn’t know what it was that fascinated her or why she fell completely in love with the place.

“It was strange,” she said.

At this part of her story, Laura takes a moment to explain that for much of her life she felt she was missing something. Her biological mother had died when Laura was three, and that experience was always with her. Although her dad remarried a caring woman who adopted and raised Laura – the only mother she’s known – Laura always felt a need to know more about her biological mother and where she came from.

“As with many children that lose a parent early, I developed an insatiable appetite for anything related to history, and background,” she said.

Looking Deeper

In essence, she wanted to look backward to find out more about her mother and in doing that learn more about herself. Although she went on to become first a journalist and then a writer and media consultant, Laura was always drawn to history. And growing up as the child of a doctor, she was also drawn to science. Then about three years ago she learned about 23andMe and using DNA to explore her own ancestry. For her, it was a perfect mix of cutting-edge science that also gave you insight into your family’s genetic history.

So she got tested.

“That was probably the most important thing that has ever happened to me,” Laura said. “When I took the test I was shocked to discover that I shared DNA with the Sami people of the northern Arctic.”

The Sami

That strange connection when she felt, suddenly made sense. Laura started to make more regular visits to the region so she could learn more about the culture and the people.

The Sami are the oldest indigenous culture in Northern Europe. Their people live across stretches of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. A reindeer herding culture, the Sami have had a cultural rebirth establishing a Sami University College, to teach the language and maintain the traditions of the people.

Laura made several visits to the region and with each one her affinity with the Sami grew, she said.

“It was shocking to see people who looked like me,” said Laura, who is blond but with almond-shaped eyes, common among the Sami.

Taking a Leap

Her visits became more focused on an area in northern Norway around Kautokeino. Then last summer she took an even bigger step, she packed up everything she owned, put her two cats in pet carriers, and moved to the Norwegian Arctic and the heart of Sami reindeer herding country. There she enrolled in Sami University to study the language.

Her visits had been an effort to understand the genetic connection she had with the place, even cataloging her exploration in a blog called “Genetic Nomad.” She wanted to learn as much as she could about the Sami.

“I came to the tundra for a visit, and another visit, and another, and fell in love with the people and culture,” she said.

Even after a harsh winter, the draw of the place hasn’t changed, she said. Her connection to the place and the people has only grown stronger, she said. Laura said she marvels that a simple DNA test could have had such an impact on her life, and she believes it could do the same for others.

“I found my tribe,” Laura said. “I don’t think I could ever properly express my gratitude or how powerful I believe the ancestry portion of this test can be for humanity or for people who felt they had no history.”

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