Phebe Fjellström was a professor of ethnology at Umeå university who established the field of Swedish ethnology with regard to northern Sweden, including Sápmi culture.
Phebe Fjellström was born in 1924, in the heart of the ‘northerly space’ which would become the focus of her research, that is, in Porjus. Her parents, Helmer and Valborg Lindgren set up and ran a manufacturing and confectionary enterprise. Phebe Fjellström’s childhood was marked by hard work, deeply Christian values, a desire for learning, and a firm belief in the importance of education and personal development. She suffered from scarlet fever as a child, causing major hearing loss and this remained a life-long problem for her.
Phebe Fjellström’s route to higher education started when she gained her school-leaving certificate at Luleå högre almänna läroverk (advanced general school) in 1943. She then went on to read art history, archaeology, and Nordic and comparative folklore research at Uppsala university. Her parents believed that a career as a librarian could be a suitable profession for their eager-to-learn daughter, and so they helped her to get a practical placement at the city library in Luleå. However, this proved to be far too uneventful for Phebe Fjellström. She was instead attracted by a career in museums, and she was able to work in this sphere for a couple of summers at Norrbotten museum in Luleå and at the Länsmuseum Gävleborg in Gävle. She retained her interest in museum work and, as a university teacher would often emphasise the responsibility ethnologists had toward the museum workers of the future.
Phebe Fjellström met her husband to be, Karl-Erik Fjellström, in Uppsala. At the time he was the chief organiser of the Norrland student body at the university. The couple were both actively engaged in the student body, in which some of Phebe Fjellström’s roles included being a society hostess, acting in plays, and arranging fashion shows. She completed her Uppsala studies by gaining a Bachelor’s degree in 1948, the same year that she and Karl-Erik got married. Phebe Fjellström’s husband’s work as a doctor took them to Boden, where she spent a few years being a housewife with young children. In 1956 the family returned to Uppsala. There Phebe Fjellström was able to seriously work on her research. This led to her writing her doctoral thesis, entitled Lapskt silver. Studier över en föremålsgrupp och dess ställning inom lapskt kulturliv, which she defended in 1962. She had been inspired to take an interest in Sápmi culture by one of her ethnology teachers, Åke Campbell. By studying the material culture which was so important to Sápmi culture Phebe Fjellström displayed her scientific focus. Through an inter-disciplinary approach she was able to reveal the Sápmi connections with their Scandinavian neighbours, and Europe, from the early middle-ages onwards and possibly even earlier. She sought to differentiate between cultural connections, cultural borders, and cultural spaces. Her study can thus be seen as an enquiry into the meeting of cultures, in which she showed how Sápmi silverware was not representative of ‘pure’ Sápmi culture but was, in itself, a result of cultural influences from various sources, albeit in a form which contained specific and recognizable elements. Phebe Fjellström was inspired by the Lund university ethnologist Sigfrid Svensson, in particular, whose research into Scanian folklore silver revealed that there was a strong physical connection between Scanian and Sápmi silver. Phebe Fjellström’s doctorate was her first step into a research area which would become her primary field, that of the Sápmi, their lives and society with material culture as its focus. Almost twenty years later she summarised her extensive knowledge of Sápmi culture in her publication Samernas samhälle i tradition och nutid, which came out of a research project she had run during the 1970s at Umeå university.
Phebe Fjellström set out on a new research track towards the end of the 1960s. Her husband had been awarded a fellowship at La Jolla, California from 1966-1967, and whilst she and the family lived there she actively sought a new research project. In Chicago she found archival sources for a Swedish community in California. The result became her book Swedish-American colonization in the San Joaquin Valley in California. A study of acculturation and assimilation of an immigrant group. This work was imbued with a cultural-ecological perspective, whilst also being inspired by American anthropology. Phebe Fjellström herself, at one point, described this as being perhaps the most important work she had ever written.
Once the family returned to Uppsala Phebe Fjellström became heavily involved in establishing ethnology as a stand-alone subject. She was inspired by contemporary anthropology in her teachings on acculturation, communications, and innovation, but never abandoned her roots in ethnology. In 1972 a professorship was inaugurated at the ethnology department at Uppsala, a post which she keenly wanted but did not get, and this was a deep disappointment for her.
Nevertheless, new opportunities arose. Phebe Fjellström was offered the position of what was known as the Lamberg professorship at Gothenburg university, which she held for a year. This was followed by new challenges at Umeå university where, from 1981, she – as the new professor of ethnology, particularly of northern Europe – was able to create an ethnology department from scratch. She had now returned both in terms of her research and her physical location to the ‘northern space’ and devoted herself to developing a fully-functioning department with both core studies and a research branch. She became involved in many multidisciplinary networks and other scientifically related approaches to northern Scandinavian culture. During this time she focused on research into the northern Scandinavian cultural area, beyond just the Sápmi, and she continued to do so even after her retirement.
Phebe Fjellström’s research profile was not specifically feminist but she was very interested in women’s history. This was made apparent in her book Kvinnoliv och måltidsglädje. Kosthåll och resurser i det nordliga rummet, which was published five years before she died. Her last research project remained incomplete. Right up to the end of her life she was working on Jonas Nensén’s, a nineteenth-century priest, manuscripts on Sápmi culture. Although she published a series of articles she did not manage to complete this major project.
Phebe Fjellström died in Uppsala on 1 February 2007. She is buried at the Hammarby cemetery in that city.