Exploring Norwegian roots in the Northwest

New book by Henning K. Sehmsdorf dives into tradition


Photo courtesy of Henning K. Sehmsdorf
Henning K. Sehmsdorf has spent his academic career researching Norwegian folklore and traditions.


Henning K. Sehmsdorf, a retired professor of the University of Washington’s Department of Scandinavian Studies, continues to think and research like the professor he was, even while running the organic farm he and his wife, Elizabeth, established on Lopez Island, Wash., in the 1970s.

Sehmsdorf has published articles and books on Scandinavian tradition, including Scandinavian Folk Belief & Legend (1988); Nordic Folklore: Recent Studies (1989); All the World’s Reward, (1999); Continuity of Norwegian Tradition in the Pacific Northwest (2020); and Myth & Tradition in Norwegian Literature & Folklife (coming in 2021). His article “Nisse in Norway: From farm sprite to bringer of Christmas presents” was printed in the Julehefte of The Norwegian American, Dec. 17, 2020.

Sparked by an invitation to a reunion party for Leikarringen, a folk dance group from our local Sons of Norway lodge (Leif Erikson) in Seattle, Sehmsdorf realized that most of the people he would want to speak with about Nordic traditions in the Pacific Northwest would be there. Armed with questionnaires, Sehmsdorf met old friends and former students and was able to get a most excellent start on answering the question: how have the traditions and beliefs of Norwegian immigrants persisted (or changed) in the generations that followed?

This was a question he had asked in the 1980-90s, while he was chair of the then Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle, and that research resulted in a number of articles published in folklore journals in the United States, Norway, and Germany. 

SehmsdorfThe new book, Continuity of Norwegian Tradition in the Pacific Northwest, contains 123 pages chock-full of interesting photos, ideas and information about activities, outlook and traditions passed down from our Norwegian forebears in the Puget Sound area. Many of us have treasures, recipes, and traditions inherited from our Norwegian antecedents. How rich these have made our lives!

The author describes the ways Norwegian Americans in the Pacific Northwest continue to celebrate their heritage by membership in ethnic organizations, such as the Sons of Norway and the Daughters of Norway and various choirs, and by participation in seasonal celebrations, musical events, dances, dinners, cross-country skiing, language classes, crafts, and cuisine. 

Sehmsdorf looks at the stories Norwegian Americans tell, the time-honored values and beliefs they hold, and the skills they practice, from making and playing traditional instruments to dancing, weaving, knitting, and costume sewing, silversmithing, boat building, and more. 

The book explores where these traditions come from and at what time period in the sociocultural history of Norway, and how the country from which Norwegians emigrated between 1825 and the 1930s has changed since the discovery of oil in the North Sea in 1971.

The book is based on fieldwork, personal interviews, and tradition questionnaires. It contains photographs of 19th-century Norway and of contemporary tradition practices among Norwegian Americans in the Pacific Northwest today.

This book is fascinating. Sehmsdorf brings his deep knowledge and experience of Norway and folklore to bear to clarify complex ideas and worldviews with elegance.

If you or your Sons of Norway lodge or other cultural organization are interested, there is a limited edition of the book available at the National Nordic Museum gift shop in Seattle:

National Nordic Museum
2655 NW Market St.
Seattle, WA 98107
Tel. (206) 789-5707

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Beth Kollé

Beth Kollé is a harper specializing in Nordic music. She lives in Seattle and is involved in the vibrant Scandinavian community.