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Family reunion: Fiddle blends Alaska Native and Norwegian culture: Metlakatla teacher receives custom fiddle as gift from long lost brother
Bud Larsen demonstrates how to play a traditional wedding march on a handcrafted Hardanger fiddle he made and gave his sister, Lori Christiansen. The Hardanger fiddle is the national instrument of Norway and is traditionally carved with motifs that are representative of the owner’s cultural background. Staff photo by Raegan Miller

Daily News Staff Writer

Lori Christiansen, a teacher for the Annette Island School District, recently visited Ketchikan to receive a gift of cultural and familial importance: a traditional Norwegian Hardanger fiddle carved by her brother, Bud Larsen.

Larsen, who resides in Minnesota, and Christiansen, a Metlakatla teacher, did not meet until the 1990's, when both were in their 50's.

This is because while the siblings share the same father, they have different mothers and were raised without knowledge of each other – Christiansen in villages and towns all over Alaska, and Larsen in a Norwegian community in North Dakota.

Christiansen and Larsen's father, Herman Larsen, was a Norwegian teacher for Alaska Native Service in the 1940's.

Before Christiansen was born, Larsen and his wife Harriet “Mae” Larsen had one daughter, Etola, who died at the age of 12. Shortly after Etola's death, another daughter, Yvonne, was born.

Not long after the birth of Larsen's second daughter, Christiansen was born to a different woman.

Christiansen's mother was an Athabascan woman named Matilda Woodford, who died when Christiansen was young. Woodford had given birth to 14 children, including Christiansen, but only three daughters lived into adulthood. Christiansen's mother also had given birth to a set of twins, with Larsen as the suspected father.  One of the twins did not survive infancy, while the other was sent away from the village to Juneau.

After her mother's death, Christiansen spent time in a Catholic orphanage in Holy Cross, until she was adopted by a Tsimshian family and raised in the village of Shageluk. She went on to attend boarding school in Sitka and Anchorage, ultimately earning a degree in education from the University of Alaska.

After Christiansen, Herman and Mae Larsen had two more children, Bud and Elaine. The Larsen family then moved back to a homestead in North Dakota that had been established by Herman's parents, who immigrated from Norway in the 19th century.

Fifty years later, Yvonne returned to Alaska and met Christiansen.

“I've always known I had my Norwegian family, but they'd never, ever heard of me,” Christiansen said in an interview with the Ketchikan Daily News. “I was so surprised because I thought I'd never meet them.”

Christiansen said that her siblings in North Dakota had been told not to come back to Alaska because revisiting the place of Etola's death would be too painful for the family. Because of this warning, it wasn't until the 90's that the siblings were united.

Eventually, Christiansen also met her sister Elaine Gunderson, and the sisters pieced the family history together.

It was Gunderson's idea to co-write a book with Christiansen about their experiences. “The Village Schoolmaster; Two Daughters, Two Cultures” was published in 2010 and details their shared family history and culturally distinct upbringings.

Fiddles are important to both Christiansen and Larsen, as their father had been a collector of the instrument, and a music teacher.

“Norwegian fiddling has been a big part of our family,” Larsen said.

 At age 12, Bud Larsen began learning how to build and restore violins. He taught courses in building instruments in Mexico, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Then, in 1991, he began building and restoring Hardanger fiddles – the national instrument of Norway.   

“For me, the most significant difference (between a fiddle and a Hardanger fiddle) is that rather than following a classical Italian design, it reflects the folk music of Norway, but continues to adapt to the musical and design tastes of new generations,” Larsen wrote about the fiddle in information for the Ketchikan Daily News. “Each (fiddle) we build is decorated with flowers, birds, animals, trees – all motifs that are culturally meaningful to the owner.”

The average Hardanger fiddle that Larsen builds or restores takes about 200 hours of work. Larsen sells the fiddles he carves for around $3,500, although he said that it is a low price for the instrument, which is highly revered and can sell for as much as $10,000.

Larsen had built Hardanger fiddles for two of his sisters, but Christiansen had never received the gift. He decided he would begin working on a fiddle for Christiansen, and that they would meet in Ketchikan, where Larsen would present the gift to his sister.

Larsen flew into Ketchikan from his Minnesota home on Thursday to meet Christiansen, who had arrived from Metlakatla the same day. Later that day, he presented the gift to his sister at The Landing Hotel.

Christiansen's fiddle was carved with motifs and symbolic designs from Norwegian, Athabascan and Tsimshian cultures.

The head of the fiddle featured a bear – Christiansen's spirit animal – which Larsen explained was not supposed to be scary, but rather looking down at Christiansen as she played. The instrument's tuning pegs were carved and painted to resemble owls, and abalone shell designs decorated the edges of the fiddle. The front of the instrument was carved with traditional Norwegian motifs, and the back featured carvings of Tsimshian eagles, which symbolized the clan that Christiansen was raised with.

“It's half Native Alaskan and half Norwegian, because that's what she is,” Larsen said about the fiddle.

After receiving the gift, Christiansen said that Larsen was the “most talented person” she knew.

Christiansen and Larsen traveled back to Metlakatla on Friday, where he would meet her children and family for the first time at a potluck.

“If I ever had to choose a family, I couldn't have done a better job,” Christiansen said.