The future of our past

The Norwegian-American Historical Assoc. celebrates 90 years by looking ahead

Photo courtesy of NAHA A keynote panel discussed the future of ethnic archives. From left: Philip J. Anderson, Gary De Krey, and Lee Pao Xiong represented Swedish-, Norwegian-, and Hmong-American organizations, respectively. The discussion was led by historian, author, and commentator Annette Atkins.

Photo courtesy of NAHA
A keynote panel discussed the future of ethnic archives. From left: Philip J. Anderson, Gary De Krey, and Lee Pao Xiong represented Swedish-, Norwegian-, and Hmong-American organizations, respectively. The discussion was led by historian, author, and commentator Annette Atkins.

Amy Boxrud
Norwegian-American Historical Association

What lies ahead for the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA)? What needs do ethnic archives meet in our society? These and other questions were the topic of conversation as NAHA celebrated its 90th anniversary on Saturday, October 10, at St. Paul’s Minnesota History Center, when 75 members and friends of the association gathered to enjoy a meal, honor the association’s past, and consider its future.

The event commemorated the organization of NAHA on Oct. 6, 1925, by a group of Norwegian Americans who sought to establish a national center for the collection and preservation of historical material. Since its founding, the association has published more than 100 books; promoted historical research and literary work; and developed North America’s largest archives of Norwegian-American historical material. Located on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., the organization today enjoys the support of nearly 1,000 members from the United States, Canada, Norway, and countries around the world.

Guests arrived at the History Center and were welcomed by NAHA President Karen A. Humphrey and Director Amy Boxrud. Vice President Dennis Gimmestad read a greeting from Nils Olav Østrem, president of NAHA-Norge, the association’s sister organization in Norway.

After the group enjoyed a salmon luncheon, NAHA editor Todd Nichol, King Olav V professor of Scandinavian-American studies, spoke briefly about the association’s publishing program.

The keynote event was a panel discussion with the theme “The Future of Our Past,” led by Annette Atkins, professor emerita of history at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict located respectively in Collegeville and St. Joseph, Minnesota. Rather than focusing solely on the future of NAHA, the panel addressed the role of ethnic identity in general, and the value archives and other cultural organizations can provide in supporting it.

“Anniversaries are occasions to celebrate,” says Humphrey, “and they are opportunities to look forward with questions like, How is our organization still relevant in our world today? How can the organization meet expectations for future researchers? Who are the future members, and why is a long-established ethnic archive still worthy of new support?”

Three speakers representing Swedish-, Hmong-, and Norwegian-American organizations addressed the topic: Philip J. Anderson, professor emeritus of history and president of the Swedish-American Historical Society in Chicago; Lee Pao Xiong, professor of American government/political science and director of the Center for Hmong Studies and at Concordia University in Saint Paul; and Gary De Krey, professor of history and archivist for NAHA and St. Olaf College.

By including speakers from multiple ethnic communities, the panel highlighted the common mission, goals, and challenges shared by the organizations. “Ethnic identity is significant to one’s identity,” says Atkins. “Ethnic organizations can help us explore and question what that means. They can also help us deepen our understanding and build bridges across and among ethnic identities.”

After the presentations, Atkins opened the discussion to the whole group. “As a general rule I invite my audiences to participate,” she said. “And in this case it seemed especially important to ask the members in attendance what they see as the future and the value of their organization.”

Many members responded, with several comments reinforcing the idea that understanding one’s own history and ethnicity plays a key role in understanding and appreciating other cultures.

“NAHA provides a community and a context for examining our Norwegian and Norwegian-American past,” says Atkins. “By focusing on our own ethnicity, we establish a foundation from which to connect to people of other ethnicities to find common ground and to relish and celebrate differences.”

Karen Humphrey concurs. “There seemed to be a palpable energy in the room about the future for ethnic archives like NAHA—and the importance of understanding our place in the American story, so that we can also understand and help new immigrants with their own remarkable stories,” she says.

For more information about NAHA, visit www.naha.stolaf.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 6, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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