Ethnicity on Parade: Inventing the Norwegian American through Celebration

By April R. Schultz | Go to book overview

Prologue
The "Pageant of the Northmen"

On a cold, windy Minnesota evening in June 1925, approximately fifteen thousand spectators gathered at the state fairgrounds in St. Paul. This audience watched from the grandstand bleachers as fifteen hundred Norwegian Americans performed in a grand spectacle that was part history lesson and part fairy tale. 1 The Pageant of the Northmen was a stirring, melodramatic account of Hans Christian Heg, a Norwegian immigrant and Civil War martyr. Lavish scenes of immigrant settlement, suspenseful contact with Native Americans, triumph over innumerable crises--particularly the Civil War--and community celebrations and growth would have been recognized by an audience familiar with early twentieth-century civic pageantry in America. 2 As in Anglo-American progressive pageants, the history of brave, industrious, and virtuous pioneers would reawaken similar values in the audience, who would carry them off into a revitalized future.

The Pageant of the Northmen, however, began not with pioneer settlement, but sometime in the 1830s with a little boy in Norway listening at his mother's knee to heroic and romantic tales of the Norwegian past. 3 The grandstand grounds were transformed into a stage area marked on three sides by a screen of shrubbery. The entertainment started with a scene of the Heg family inn situated to the left of the stage area and surrounded by the cast of fifteen hundred figures spanning a thousand years of Norwegian history and folklore. As these Vikings, trolls, folk dancers, politicians, ministers, soldiers, inventors, and pioneers marched to the Pageant overture and disappeared behind the shrubbery, ten-year-old Hans Heg carried firewood up to his family home. His mother, sitting at her spinning wheel on the stone walk, grabbed Hans to her and stroked his hair. According to the pageant manuscript, she "looked into his blue eyes [and]

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