The meaning of connecting to our cultural heritage
From whence we came
TERJE MIKAEL HASLE JORANGER, PH.D.
Director, Norwegian Emigrant Museum
Have you tasted lutefisk, lefse, or rosetter, or have you heard the Hardanger fiddle and seen men and women in bunad (Norwegian folk costume)? Do you own an artifact covered by rosemaling (rose painting) or an embroidery piece in the Hardanger technique that was made by a close family member? These are examples of Norwegian folk traditions that may be found in your own home or with family members. In other words, they are representations of cultural traits that link your present to the past.
Folk traditions may be defined in the following manner: “The common beliefs, practices, customs and other cultural elements of an ethnic or social group that are rooted in the past, but are persisting into the present due to means such as arts and crafts, songs and music, dance, foods, drama, storytelling and certain forms of oral communication” (source: “Folk tradition,” The European Environment Information and Observation Network, General Multilingual Environmental Thesaurus, Sept. 1, 2020, www.eionet.europa.eu/
Folk traditions are significant in modern, fluid societies as a symbolic anchor for certain groups to retain common ties to a perceived past. This is especially significant for migrant populations and their descendants in their identity formation process in new surroundings.
The population of the United States is, to a large extent, descendants from the large number of immigrants who set their foot on American soil. Norway accounted for a portion of these immigrants. The number of Norwegian immigrants is relatively limited compared to the number of immigrants from other countries in northern and western Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, Norway had a high number of emigrants in proportion to its population in Europe during this time period, surpassed only by Ireland.
Between 1825 and 1990, more than 900,000 Norwegians emigrated to America. The era of mass emigration took place in three distinct waves between 1866 and the first decade of the 20th century. Today, about 4.5 million Americans claim Norwegian ancestry. This means that these 4.5 million individuals may have multiple ethnicities, but they choose Norwegian as their first ethnicity.
According to the 2000 U.S. federal census, the reference to ethnic background is based on subjective identification. These are minimum numbers, as many individuals may be part Norwegian but favor another ethnicity. In June 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau issued a report on the number of people who marked their ethnic origin as “Norwegian” on the census survey in 1990 and/or 2000. According to the report, North Dakota ranked highest in terms of percentage of Norwegians in relation to the total population in the state, with 193,302 persons. This number made up 30.1% of the population of the state. The state with the highest population claiming Norwegian ethnicity was, not surprisingly, Minnesota, with 851,070 persons, 17.3% of the population.
Other states with a high number of Norwegians are: Wisconsin (455,912 persons, 8.5% of the population), Washington (365,436 persons, 6.2%); Iowa (166,800 persons, 5.7%); South Dakota (115,491 persons, 15.3%); and Montana (95,633 persons, 10.6%).
A natural trait among immigrant groups is to get together with old friends and neighbors from their country of origin to mitigate uncertainties in new surroundings. Two characteristic traits among Norwegian immigrants are that they were more rural than any other ethnic group and that they settled in clusters. Norwegian immigrants often settled according to their regional background in Norway to re-create a perceived collective image of their area of origin in Norway. Pioneer immigrants or a majority population hailing from one region in Norway named a number of Lutheran churches after their place of origin in Norway. Examples are Skiptvet, Vang, Holden, Hegre, Lyster, Lier, and Hamar.
A continuous immigration from Norway to the United States resulted in the establishment of various institutions aimed at conserving material and immaterial Norwegian culture. In 1877, the Norwegian-American Historic Museum was established as part of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. This museum formed the basis of what later developed into Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. In 1925, Norwegian immigrants organized the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA). Its main office is located on the Saint Olaf campus in Northfield, Minn. Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum & Cultural Center, which today forms the oldest ethnic museum focusing on one immigrant group on the one hand, and NAHA on the other, today stand as examples of Norwegian-American culture.
The two organizations have several areas of focus in common. Firstly, both are conservers of material and immaterial culture among Norwegian Americans, respectively. Secondly, both were rooted in institutions of higher learning organized by Norwegian immigrants, which foresaw the need for preserving their heritage. Thirdly, both retain an interest in presenting their Norwegian-American cultural heritage to new generations and new audiences. For example, Vesterheim organizes various activities and celebrations for several generations, Norwegians and non-Norwegians alike, and also offers study tours to Norway to connect American citizens with Norwegian artists and institutions. NAHA produces publications to encourage and support scholarship in Norwegian American history, culture, and life. The ties to Norway are also evident in the organization Sons of Norway, which was established by Norwegian immigrants in North Minneapolis in 1895. Their purpose was to protect members of the organization and their families from the financial hardships experienced during times of sickness or death in the family. This organization, based on fraternal principles, combines financial principles connected to life insurance and the preservation of Norwegian heritage and culture as its main goals.
Densely populated Norwegian settlement areas in rural areas and cities made it easier for their inhabitants to retain traditions based on Old World origins. However, they also reformulated these traditions in a new context in a constant dialogue with American society. This dialogue is an ongoing process, involving various generations. This, in turn, resulted in the development of traditions that are Norwegian-American, not Norwegian, but that still were meaningful for those who defined themselves as Norwegian Americans. These reformulated traditions were significant in the process of adaptation from immigrant to becoming a Norwegian American, an “ethnic” in other words. People retained folk traditions through religious and secular organizations but also individually. For example, Norwegian-American immigrant churches were both religious and social arenas and were valuable meeting grounds for their parishioners. Here the older generations could converse in Norwegian, and after their gradual turn to the English language several churches still hold lutefisk and meatball suppers to this day. These suppers are very popular and have visitors from afar.
The organization of bygdelags, organizations based on regional—often rural —origins in Norway, from about 1900 and onward is one example of the strong interest to settle together with kin and friends from the old country. The bygdelags varied according to their affiliation with the clergy and secular activities, but the organizers had the willingness to create social organizations by regional background in common. Folk traditions thrived in these organizations, and today more than 30 bygdelags are in existence in the United States. Members in bygdelags socialize with others who are interested in the history, crafts, music, and food of a specific region. With an increasingly older membership, genealogy has become a significant activity in bygdelag organizations. Here members combine storytelling and oral histories with genealogical information about their forebears. This activity thus retains elements of folk traditions.
The significance of folk traditions cannot be overstated. Globalization and varied migration streams are traits in our modern world. Retaining traditions in a changing world is significant in identity formation processes. Therefore, folk traditions rooted in Norway are still relevant in an American context today.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.