The archaeologist and the journalist
Norwegian connections, work ethic, and shared interests link two Montana researchers
Jerry Brekke, who worked for The Livingston Enterprise, was in a tough situation. Busier than usual and on deadline for his local history page for the daily Montana newspaper, the journalist was short on content. But then Brekke had an idea.
He recalled that local archaeologist Dr. Larry Lahren had recently given a public presentation on a Native American tribe who had inhabited what is now Yellowstone Park.
The journalist was acquainted with the scientist as both had grown up in the Livingston area. Dr. Lahren had been a classmate of Brekke’s twin siblings.
Both men are also descendants of Norwegian immigrants to the American West.
Brekke’s grandfather Morten (Gina Marie) Brekke had 12 siblings. All the males immigrated to Central Montana from Sauda, Norway. The eldest, Andrew, returned to take over the family farm, which is still owned by his direct lineage.
Lahren’s great grandfather Gilbert Larsen left Christiania (Oslo), Norway, and moved to Ft. Ransom, North Dakota, in the late 1800s. His father, S.L. “Bus” Lahren, left the family farm there during Dust Bowl days and moved, seeking work, to Livingston, a railroad town then flush with opportunity.
On behalf of the newspaper, Brekke contacted Lahren, who had a better idea: “Instead of being driven by a deadline, let’s start at the beginning and go to the end.”
This collaboration led to a series of seven newspaper features, which formed the basis for a book. Thus is the origin of a successful working relationship and as Humphrey Bogart quips in the Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“I guess you could call it mystical; we seem to think alike,” says Brekke about how he and Lahren work together, e.g. sending each other emails with the same idea.
“It’s not that we always agree; we don’t argue,” adds Lahren.
For more than a decade, Lahren and Brekke have collaborated on a multitude of archaeological and other research-based projects. Among other work, the two men are currently developing interpretive historical panels for Park County, Montana.
Lahren recalls that a “youthful interest in nature and also in the Native American people” inspired his career choice. He received his PhD in North American Archaeology at the University of Calgary, Alberta, in 1976. He founded Anthro Research, Inc., the first private archaeological consulting firm, which was then profiled in the Wall Street Journal.
Today, Dr. Lahren is considered the primary authority in his field, with a reputation for not only being thorough in methodology and documentation but also shooting straight from the hip (as we say in the West) in reporting information.
Brekke’s interest in the past arose from “suspicion and curiosity.” He attended nearby Montana State University Bozeman studying English Literature, then came home and worked in sales for various businesses, and eventually ran a photography business. Following Brekke’s newspaper stint and during his work with Lahren, his career evolved to Historical Consultant and he is now the official historian for Park County Montana.
Brekke, who also has a reputation for his research, has branched out from his work with Lahren to providing testimony for litigation in legal matters including those involving fences, roads, and property disputes.
In 2006, the two men published Homeland, an archaeologist’s view of Yellowstone Country, a beautiful coffee table book chronicling more than 400 generations of history in the world-famous Yellowstone Park region.
Homeland not only provides information significant in a local prehistoric and historical context but also sheds light on human origins and behavior. Dr. Lahren has been the primary researcher and a long-time protector of Montana’s Anzick Clovis burial site, which recently genetically linked the first peoples of North America to Native American populations of today.
For years, Brekke kept in touch with relatives of his father’s generation, and he met them during a visit to the U.S. His son, Todd, maintains Facebook contact with Norwegian relatives of his own generation.
“My grandfather came from Sauda at a time when Norway’s population was rapidly outpacing the resources able to support it,” Brekke relates.
According to Brekke, his family’s homestead ranch near where Montana’s Shields and Musselshell rivers divide provided familiar terrain to the immigrants—a relatively small-acreage home site enhanced by an available seasonal lease of mountain pasture.
Brekke’s grandparents and their property are described and discussed in the late Ivan Doig’s classic memoir, This House of Sky (pages 137-138):
“Up the slope from our house, the other regular chimes in our Ringling life spoke weightier accents, graver outlooks. Mr. and Mrs. Brekke both had been born in Norway, and both come young to the new life in America: they met and married, found a small ranch beyond Ringling where they endured through to prosperity, and now, their family long grown, the pair of them lived at the top of the tiny town like gentlefolk quite surprised at their own new position of courtliness.”
“In a phrase, you can’t do the second thing until you do the first thing,” is what Brekke claims is “Norwegian” about his personality.
Similarly, “I have to get something done or accomplished every day,” Lahren notes.
He said he’d heard stories growing up and also has done some general reading on the homesteading times in which his relatives lived. According to Lahren, his surname was a deliberate variation of Larsen, a choice made by his great grandfather as “there were too many Larsens” in America already.
Brekke makes a case for the continuation of community in the choice some Norwegian families made when relocating to the U.S. “The Brekkes, Swandals, and Arthuns all lived within ten miles of each other in Montana just as they did since at least the early 1700s in Sauda, Norway,” he observed.
The concepts of landscape and community are explored in Lahren and Brekke’s book, on a much larger scale. (Incidentally or not, the two men lived within five miles of each other in the Absaroka Mountains outside Livingston for years prior to working together.)
“It is no accident where we chose to live,” said Lahren.
“I think this is the land we belong to,” said Brekke about his Montana home.
For more information contact Larry Lahren, Ph.D. at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jerry Brekke at email@example.com. Or visit www.anthroresearch.com.
Lynette Zwerneman and her mother Gunda live on a small farm near Livingston, Mont., where the corral fences Grandfather Ole Vodall built still hold their small sheep flock.
This article originally appeared in the July 1, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.