Wanting to Be Norway : Celebrating Scandinavian Communities in North Dakota

By Helleve, Eirik | The World and I, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Wanting to Be Norway : Celebrating Scandinavian Communities in North Dakota


Helleve, Eirik, The World and I


It's a bit like home, I must admit. The numerous Norwegian flags, the signs with Norwegian words, and the folks demonstrating traditional crafts all evoke a Norwegian setting. But something doesn't quite fit. Everybody around me speaks English. All prices are listed in dollars. Outside the hall, not a fjord is to be seen; no mountains loom in the distance; no polar bears amble the streets. A model of a Norwegian fjord horse, a small, sturdy breed native to Norway, stands near the main entrance, but closer examination reveals that it's been temporarily imported from Canada.

Being surrounded by objects that remind me of home is like walking through "Norway Lite," a Norwegian atmosphere reduced and simplified so that everyone can identify with it. I think it cannot take long for anyone to feel like he belongs here.

I'm in Minot, North Dakota. The fieldwork for my master's thesis has brought me halfway around the world, far from the safety of my Oslo university surroundings. I'm here to study the Norwegian-American sides of Norsk H[inverted question mark]stfest, an annual Scandinavian-American festival. Norsk H[inverted question mark]stfest means "Norwegian fall-fest," but the festival includes artists and craftsmen from all five Nordic countries.

The festival area is packed. Visitors, most of whom seem able to remember Pearl Harbor, stroll around the displays. Many buy Norwegian sweaters and eat Norwegian delicacies like lefse (a flat potato cake, normally served with butter) or lutefisk (dried codfish soaked in lye and boiled). Some admire the wood carvings and rosemaling and listen to Norwegian music. Others simply sit around discussing all things Norwegian. The atmosphere is congenial. Festival organizers describe the crowd as "sixty thousand friends you haven't met yet," and it's hard to disagree.

Quite a few of the people I speak to also mention this warmth. Rhonda, who walks with me through the area, says, "It's very friendly. You can be in a hallway jammed with people, and you just start talking with anybody." Glenda, who has yet to miss a H[inverted question mark]stfest day, says that "you meet people; that's what's so much fun about the H[inverted question mark]stfest. There are no grouches here."

Colin has the same impression. He suggests that the H[inverted question mark]stfest is a sanctuary from the hectic life of the modern world: "America is a big market. Sometimes it gets too fast, too consumed by its own consumerism. So you need a refuge, you need to pull back and say 'Who am I?' and 'Where have I come from?' That's the value of these festivals, these ethnic rest stops. Go charge your batteries, say, 'Oh yes, I am Norwegian American, this is a big part of me.' "

The last rally

Immigration from Norway started in 1825. Since then, close to a million Norwegians have left their homeland to try their luck in the United States. They settled all over the country, but the heaviest Norwegian settlements were located in the Midwest. Towns were frequently given Norwegian names. Children could grow up in all-Norwegian communities where one never heard a non-Norwegian word. "It was norsk alt samma," says Debbie, who, at 79, can still remember some of the words her parents taught her.

Traveling through these regions today, one frequently encounters references to Norway. Some towns, like Decorah, Iowa, are dominated by the display of Norwegian roots. Decorah houses both Luther College, founded in 1861 by Norwegian Americans, and Vesterheim, the Norwegian- American museum.

Early in this century, the stream of Norwegian immigrants was reduced to a trickle, and the future of the Norwegian-American community grew unclear. Should they assimilate into the mainstream society or attempt to stay Norwegian? World War I partly solved this question. The war called for undivided loyalty, and both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt heavily criticized the unassimilated "hyphen-Americans. …

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