Scandinavian Cultural Center a place for everyone

Keeping a cultural legacy alive at Pacific Lutheran University

PLU ship

A replica of a Viking ship welcomes students and visitors to the Scandinavian Cultural Center at Pacific Lutheran University.

Lori Ann Reinhall
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

From the outset when the Scandinavian Cultural Center (SCC) at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma, Wash., first opened its doors in 1989, it was intended to be a gathering place for all people, not just those of Nordic descent. Its goal is to make people of all ethnic backgrounds feel at home in the campus environment so strongly tied to the Scandinavian immigrant experience in the Pacific Northwest.

As the SCC webpage states: “The mission of the Scandinavian Cultural Center at Pacific Lutheran University is to enrich understanding of Nordic and Nordic-American cultures in support of PLU’s educational mission and in recognition of PLU’s Nordic heritage.”

When PLU was founded by Norwegian immigrants in 1890, all instruction was in the Norwegian language. But these days, Norwegian instruction seems to be gone for good, along with other courses in Scandinavian studies. What remains to fill the gap is the SCC.

If you walk across the PLU campus, you will encounter many buildings with Scandinavian names, and the center is a way to put today’s campus into its historical context. PLU is home to a multi-ethnic student body in which most have no connection to the Nordic countries outside the physical campus.

The SCC space, which encompasses about 6,700 square feet in the lower level of the Loren & MaryAnn Anderson University Center, functions as a library, art gallery, lecture hall, banquet room, performance arena, a museum, a classroom, and a recital hall. Outside the building’s main entrance, a 25-foot-high carved Viking ship prow welcomes students and guests to come in and explore.

PLU

Sámi National Day is always an important event each February. The effort has been led by Professor Troy Storfjell (pictured center).

Popular events and activities have included the annual Nordic Heritage Festival, Julemarked, Sámi National Day, and Norwegian Constitution Day, all held annually and well attended by students and the greater community alike. There are also popular classes to teach Scandinavian cooking and arts and crafts, including rosemaling.

In addition to traditional activities, there are events with a more contemporary focus, often in conjunction with the broader Nordic community in the area. For many years, it has been the home of the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize banquet, and it often hosts events and lectures with the Tacoma-Ålesund Sister City Association and the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association. The center also works closely with local chapters of the Daughters of Norway.

“Our center is here to serve the student body and the greater community,” says SCC council member Janet Ruud, who is also a leading figure in many of the above-mentioned groups. “Campus demographics may have changed, but our mission remains the same as stated in our bylaws: to highlight traditional and contemporary Nordic and Nordic American heritage, with understanding toward other cultures.”

But these days, there are those who question the relevancy of the center. The university’s administration has reported to the Scandinavian Cultural Center’s council that some students from other ethnic backgrounds don’t feel welcome there, short of providing any specific examples. Implied is a questioning of the center’s relevancy in PLU’s campus environment today.

PLU

Melanie Denise Cunningham, Greater Tacoma Peace Prize laureate for 2018, hosted a special forum on violence for campus students.

“We’ve always wanted to share our story, the story of the immigration from the Nordic countries,” says Lisa Ottoson, who has been an active member of the SCC council for many years. “It also parallels with the experience of immigrants today. It’s an important story to tell, relating the past to the present.”

One important part of the SCC mission is to archive and display a collection of over 2,500 artifacts donated by the community over the years. The collection represents cultural treasures that date from the 17th century up to the present. Items range from bunads, wooden emigrant chests, traditional artwork, ceramics, textiles, Hardanger fiddles, and tools. These treasures are stored and cared for at the SCC and brought out for special exhibits and educational events.

Part of the artifact collection is even accessible online at plu.edu/scancenter/artifact-collectionThe goal is to eventually make the entire collection available for virtual viewing.

At one time, the SCC even had a painting by the famous Norwegian painter, Nikolai Astrup. The painting was sold for over $450,000 to build up the SCC endowment. The Svare-Toven Endowment Fund funded half of Professor Troy Storfjell’s salary when he served as the director of the SCC for the academic years 2020–2021 and 2021–2022. Storfjell is an expert in Sámi history, culture, and literature and incorporates this knowledge into his courses, which encompass a broader sociocultural context.

Christmas has always been a special time at the Scandinavian Cultural Center, which each year hosts a Christmas market with handmade items.

But these days, there is no director at the SCC, with funding for the position cut by the university. With the budget reductions, there is no funding for even a part-time administrative position. However, PLU President Allan Belton recently appointed Katie Hoover, executive director of donor engagement, division of university relations, to be the university’s liaison to the SCC council.

The SCC’s open hours during the academic year are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., and Sundays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The university continues to pay for the upkeep of the center, including heating and cooling costs. PLU is able to generate income from the space, often hosting conferences and meetings for outside groups with no connection to the center. Keeping the SCC going has become a difficult balancing act.

“This is our history and heritage, and we want to keep it alive, but it will take support from all sides: the university, the community, and the students. We would hate to lose this valuable legacy that has helped make PLU what is today,” says Ruud. “We welcome everyone to join us in learning about the past and present with a vision toward the future.”

To learn more about the Scandinavian Cultural Center at Pacific Lutheran University, visit plu.edu/scancenter.

Photos courtesy of the Scandinavian Cultural Center, Pacific Lutheran University

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.