Relevant then, relevant now

New Emigrants film filled with insights for today

Photo: SF Studios
Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s film The Emigrants saw its Norwegian pre-premiere screening at the Norwegian Emigration Museum in Ottestad, Aug. 24.

Vocational and Research Director
Norwegian Emigrant Museum

On Sept. 2, the film UtvandrerneThe Emigrants—directed by Erik Poppe, premiered in Norway. The film is based on the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg’s masterful social and cultural history novel series Utvandrarna (The Emigrants), Invandrarna (Unto a Good Land), Nybyggarna (The Settlers), and Sista brevet till Sverige (The Last Letter Home).

The film depicts the life of the main characters, Karl Oskar and Kristina from the farm Korpamoen in Ljuder’s parish in Småland. They emigrated to Chisago Lake in the Minnesota Territory in 1850. Minnesota was established as a so-called “territory” in 1849 and became its own state in 1858.

The narrative follows them on their journey and also deals with their adaptation to the new surroundings.

Over 800,000 Norwegians emigrated to the United States

Emigration to America characterized Swedish and Norwegian society in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1820 and 1924, about 1.2 million people from Sweden emigrated, most of them to the United States. Then in the period from 1825 to the decades after the Second World War, between 800,000 and 900,000 people left Norway to settle in the United States.

By comparison, the Norwegian population in 1801 was 883,000, so the number of Norwegian emigrants was very high. Only Ireland had greater emigration than Norway in relation to the population in the period 1820–1920.

Emigration to the United States is currently absent from the public debate. At the same time, both Norway and Sweden are characterized by migration flows even today, but then as countries of immigration. Since 1967, Norway has had almost continuous net immigration. This means that there are more people moving to Norway than the number of people moving out of the country.

The film is therefore highly relevant for understanding how people react to moving and migrating over longer distances. How do they cope with the transition from their previous surroundings to their new everyday life in another country and preferably another culture?

Settled in agricultural areas

Karl Oskar and Kristina followed the large flow of emigration. Over 50 million Europeans emigrated from Europe to the United States and Canada in the period from 1815 to 1915. Among Norwegian immigrants, we find two distinctive features.

First, they were more connected to the land than any other ethnic group, according to the federal censuses in 1900 and 1910. A larger proportion of Norwegian immigrants chose to settle in the agricultural areas and small towns to a greater extent than other immigrant groups and Americans.

Like Kristina and Karl Oskar, most Norwegian immigrants chose to settle in the upper Midwest, particularly in the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota. There they established settler colonies.

Another characteristic is that Norwegian immigrants established a dense ethnic settlement pattern in the United States. They largely settled near other Norwegian immigrants from the same region, often from the same parish, village, or rural settlement. Many churches in these areas are named after the home place (parish or village) in Norway where the founder of the settler community or the majority of the settlers came from.

Kristina and Karl Oskar also followed this pattern. They also traveled with several acquaintances from the same parish, and they settled close to each other in Minnesota.

In studying Norwegian-American emigration, historians have largely concentrated on Norwegians and their adaptation to American society as a group. There are many good, interesting studies on this topic.

White people given certain privileges

There has, nevertheless, been less focus on the fact that Norwegian immigrants traveled from relatively homogeneous ethnic communities in Norway. They had to adapt to multicultural societies in the United States, as well as American laws and practices. White people had special privileges in American society.

This was emphasized by the Naturalization Act of 1790. There it was established that “all white free persons” who had been residents in the United States for at least two years could become American citizens.

This is the first law that defined how one could become an American citizen. It came to be decisive for whites, especially immigrants from western and northern Europe, receiving certain privileges in American society.

Immigrants from the Scandinavian countries were largely identified as white and were at the top of a hierarchy based on ethnicity and race. The Anglo-Americans stood at the top of the ladder as immigrants from England and other parts of Great Britain. They constituted an elite and laid the foundation for the formation of the federal republic of the United States.

Further down the ladder were immigrants from other parts of Europe. At the bottom of the ladder were people of color: African Americans, Asians, and the Indigenous population.

Considered “good” immigrants

As Swedish immigrants, Kristina and Karl Oskar belonged to a group that was placed high up in the American ethnic hierarchy, as a result of their Nordic background. They were also white and Protestant. A majority of Anglo-Americans belonged to Protestantism, and the religion had acceptable values for the elite.

These characteristics gave these immigrant groups a set of privileges that we can refer to under the collective term “whiteness.” It gave Norwegian and Swedish immigrants a recognition among the Anglo-American elite and other immigrant groups to be considered “good” immigrants.

It allowed them to buy land and participate in American public life with greater acceptance and goodwill than, for example, the Catholic Irish and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, immigrants from the Scandinavian countries were met with prejudice among the Anglo-Saxons. It took time before they were accepted as equal groups.

Immigrants undergo a “negotiation”

The American historian Alan M. Kraut believes that immigrants in the United States undergo a negotiation of their identity as part of the process of assimilation into American society. According to Kraut, assimilation is linked to “an adjustment between native and newcomer, characterized by a continuous negotiation that each newcomer conducts over the price of opportunities in the United States.”

If we accept Kraut’s claim, we can claim that the privileges associated with whiteness are part of the immigrants’ adaptation process in immigrant societies. Sweden and Norway were largely ethnically homogeneous societies, where forms of inequality were based on economic and social conditions.

In the face of the multicultural American society, immigrants from Sweden and Norway were characterized as “white” only when they set foot on American soil. In this way, Swedish, Norwegian, and other immigrants from Northern Europe came to the United States as wanted immigrants.

Already in the 1750s, the statesman and physicist Benjamin Franklin had gone even further in defining which white groups should be allowed access to the American colonies. Here he characterized Swedes, French, and other Europeans as “insufficiently white” and expressed growing skepticism about the large-scale immigration of Germans.

He considered Anglo Saxons, on the other hand, especially the English, to be the largest group of whites on the face of the Earth. He wished that their numbers would increase.

New film highlights relevant themes

The theme of whiteness and privilege is relevant in terms of hierarchies that arise in societies characterized by immigration from cultures that are different from the majority population.

Therefore, I believe the problem is transferable to today’s Norwegian society, which has had an immigration surplus since the end of the 1960s. How do the privileges of the white majority society affect immigrant groups and refugees from non-Western countries and their desire for a better future in Norway?

How are their “negotiations” with the host society progressing compared to other groups? Through the knowledge we have about Norwegian emigration, we should better understand the processes that characterize today’s immigration to Norway.

The Norwegian Emigrant Museum has taken the initiative to mark the 200th anniversary of Norwegian emigration to the United States in 2025. In this way, Norwegian emigration to America will be brought forward again. At the same time, the marking will focus on similarities between Norwegian emigration to the United States in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and today’s immigration to Norway.

The film The Emigrants is particularly interesting in view of the 200-year commemoration. The film highlights interesting themes that are highly relevant in today’s Norwegian and Swedish societies.

Also see A new perspective on Vilhelm Moberg’s masterpiece in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.