A child’s Christmas story
(The dates are accurate; the story is original fiction)
Santa Barbara, Calif.
A fifth-grade schoolgirl in Decorah won an essay contest on “Proudful Heritage” sponsored by the Vesterheim, the national Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa. Her reward was a Christmas basket with five prizes—a gift box of Norwegian Christmas cookies, a large bar of Freia chocolate, a $25 gift card, a family membership to the museum and a personal tour of the museum by the curator to preview a new heritage exhibit from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
Her essay was a local school assignment, in cooperation with the Vesterheim’s Youth Folk Art program, to write about cultural pride that emphasizes or integrates four themes: Norwegian Heritage, Immigrant History, Luther College, and Decorah History. She chose the title “The Four Walls of My Heritage” to complement a special historical photo exhibit at the museum during the holiday season.
At the preview event, the curator greeted the 11-year old student who was wearing jeans and carrying a backpack. She had blond hair, blue eyes, and was active in school activities and the youngest singer in her church choir.
They entered an exhibit room. The four walls displayed the four themes of the essay contest, one on each wall with mounted photos telling the story of that particular wall and a central showcase in the middle of the room that displayed the timeline of history in Winneshiek County.
The first wall reviewed the preservation of Norwegian heritage since 1877 by Vesterheim (“Western Home”). The girl examined each photo on this wall and commented, “We have one of those old drinking bowls with two handles at home” (1769). Pointing to another photo, she said, “and a painted chest like that one that belonged to my grandmother when she came to the United States” (1958).
The curator smiled, “You’re proud of your heritage, aren’t you?” The girl nodded her head up and down as she moved to the next exhibit.
“This wall is Immigrant History,” the curator pointed out. The girl scanned the wall. “My great-great-great-grandfather—I think I got that right—built those wagons,” she said. The curator added, “We know that from your essay about your ancestor Andrew Hanson of the Hanson Wagon Works and his Prairie Schooners that homesteaders used going westward” (1865-1907). She smiled proudly as they moved to the next exhibit.
This wall had a looming photo of the campus of Luther College (incorporated in 1857, established 1861), almost filling the wall. “I know about the college,” she said. “All my grandparents and most of my relatives went there. Lars Moe, my great-great-grandfather moved with his wife and four children to Decorah (1906) so his sons could go to Luther. It’s been a tradition ever since. I expect I’ll go there, too.” In the showcase, she spotted a copy of College Chips, the student newspaper. “Two of my family were editors, my great-grandfather and my grandfather” (1914 & 1952).
The curator responded, “Your essay described how proud you were that some of your relatives who were connected with the college, some of them on the faculty.”
“Sure, I like homecoming, concerts, and football. Sometimes the weekend is a reunion at my house … but Christmas is my favorite time, ’cause I like singing; it’s the music that’s special, like I wrote in the essay.”
At the Decorah History exhibit that is divided by the door that enters the room, the girl is intrigued by the “Early History” photos that were displayed on the left side of the doorframe. Modern Decorah was displayed at the right side of the door.
At first, her attention was focused on an antique photo of Glory of the Morning (b. 1730s, d. 1832), the first female chief of the Winnebago tribe that once inhabited Northeast Iowa. The girl moved closer to the wall to look closely at a photo of a small, worn, hand mirror among some historical documents and photos.
“Do you know the story of how Decorah (1857) got its name?” the curator asked. The girl shook her head no, but was obviously curious and attentive.
“Glory of the Morning was a tribal member of a long line of Winnebago chiefs who were progressively pushed westward by the government and settlements of homesteaders. She was the grandmother of Chief Waukon Decorah, for which this town is named. That hand mirror that you were looking at in the photo was given to Glory of the Morning when she was 100 years old, as she wanted to see a reflection of her face” (1832).
The girl’s eyes brightened as she stared at the mirror, moving even closer to read the caption that described the story of the Native chieftan.
“She gave the mirror to Chief Decorah before she died … to remember her,” the curator continued. “He was her favorite grandson. He cared for it during years of turmoil. Those photos on the wall and those framed documents tell the story of signing an eight-year treaty in Washington to relocate across the big river from Wisconsin to Iowa but the tribe was driven out by the military, claiming the treaty was for eight months” (1837).
“There’s more on that wall. We don’t know much about the 30 years before Chief Decorah died (1868). It’s told that he was buried on the courthouse lawn and later when the courthouse was expanded, he was reburied, I believe, in Minnesota. The artifacts that were originally buried with him went missing and were never recovered.”
The girl seemed engrossed in the Early History exhibit, staring at the photo of Glory of the Morning and the half-faded photo of the hand mirror in the exhibit. She questioned, “Just think of it; I wonder how many images once reflected from this mirror.” The girl softly uttered to herself, “Wow, this is amazing.”
On the right side of the door, the girl looked over the Modern History exhibit of Decorah. She kept pointing to photos on the wall, “Some kids in my class have that last name.”
The girl, about to leave the Museum, was asked by the curator, “Your essay in the contest said how proud you were of your heritage. What do you think now?”
“Today was really special,” she answered. “Like I said in my essay, I’m proud of my Norwegian heritage.” She continued, speaking thoughtfully, “but seeing the immigrant ship here in the museum, the historical photo exhibit of Native American, the hardship of the pioneers, my family history—all these things that I am seeing now I wanted to say in my essay.”
“It’s in the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” the curator said with a smile, “when these stories get retold and remembered. Our purpose is to preserve them.” The curator paused, then added, “We’ll put a copy of your essay on pride in our library as part of the Youth Folk Art program.” The child beamed.
As the two walked toward the exit, the curator asked, “What was your favorite part of the visit?” The girl thought for a minute, “Learning about Glory of the Morning was special,” she said, “but learning more about how much of my heritage is a part of the town that I live in is something that I haven’t thought so much about before. I’m going to talk about it in my class.”
She shook the curator’s hand as she was leaving, seemingly older than when she arrived.
On Christmas Eve, she received a small package from Vesterheim that had been dropped off at the door. She opened it with her family as others were opening gifts. It was a small hand-held mirror, resembling the vintage one in the museum photo, but somewhat larger and modern-looking with the note: “Thanks for your essay and visit. Here’s your family membership card and a special memento of your heritage. Keep it at your bedside table or carry it in your backpack. When you look into this hand mirror, remember the wisdom of your culture and those who have gone before.”
This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.