The legacy of LEIF

A Twin Cities tradition celebrates Nordic heritage and cultural diversity

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Leif Erikson statue by John K. Daniels (1948 – 49) stands proudly outside the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul.

The Norwegian American

For many, the historical figure of Leif Eriksson has taken on a near-mythic quality. Most of us know him as the Norse explorer who happened on the North American continent 500 years before Christopher Columbus; for Nordic peoples, he is seen as the father of the immigration to the New World; and for others, he is the ultimate symbol of the Viking spirit.

It is perhaps no wonder then that the Norwegian-American community in Minneapolis would be inspired to explore and celebrate their history under the namesake Leif Eriksson. In 1987, Paster John Mauritzen and members of the congregation at Mindekirken, The Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church, came together with other Nordic groups in the city to establish the Leif Eriksson International Festival (LEIF). Their goal was to celebrate Nordic cultural roots in the United States by bringing top talent to the area and to share their heritage with the greater community.


Photo Norway House
Mindekirken in Minneapolis is a community meeting place for the Norwegian community.

Inspire and unify

At the time of the festival’s inception, there was a need to re-energize the congregation at Mindekirken, and music and the arts seemed to be the perfect vehicles to inspire and activate church members and the greater community. Over the years, the mix of people gathering there had changed, as many Norwegians and Norwegian Americans had married outside their own ethnic group. The need to reach out to a more diverse audience was recognized, while the spiritual and cultural purpose of Minderkirken—to inspire and unify—remained intact.

“We needed to add to the lutefisk and rømmegrøt dinners, as well-loved as they are,” said Jim Reilly, one of this year’s LEIF committee members. The last wave of Norwegian immigrants had come in the years after World War II, and several decades later, a new generation of Norwegian Americans had a broader base of interests. It was time for more of them to get involved. It became LEIF’s mission is “to build a cultural bridge between modern Nordic countries and the United States.”

Fortunately, there has never been a shortage of talent or enthusiasm at Mindekirken to jumpstart what has been a festival that brings in top-ranked Nordic talent from near and far.  Recently, I talked to Reilly, who served as music director and choir director there for several years, about the plans for this year’s program.

Initially, Reilly was quick to point out to me that he has no Norwegian or Nordic roots. His own ethnic background is Italian, Irish, and German, but he doesn’t feel that this plays any bearing on his role as a festival organizer.

“My participation in LEIF is, of course, motivated mostly by my life as a musician,” he said. “I think the key word is curiosity—curiosity about my own culture(s) and the cultures of others, and how they fit together (or don’t), and are similar or different—and what I can learn from those juxtapositions.”

Reilly pointed to a quote by the contemporary Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who has worked in a great variety of cultural contexts and styles: “I believe in multiple identities and think that without curiosity, any musical style or culture atrophies and risks becoming a museum: Art has always thrived when there has been cross-fertilization.”

This year, the idea of cross-fertilization between different cultures is of particular significance for LEIF, with a new emphasis on Indigenous peoples, including both the Sámi of the Nordic countries, as well as the local Native Americans of the surrounding community.

“There is a feeling of gratitude to our Native American neighbors for protecting Mindekirken and the surrounding community during the riots,” said Reilly. Most fittingly, the festival overlaps with Indigenous Peoples Day on Nov. 11, the U.S. federal holiday that celebrates and honors Native American peoples and commemorates their histories and cultures.

In this vein, this year’s program will explore the relationship between Christianity and shamanism in Nordic culture with a presentation by Norwegian pastor Rolf Steffensen, an interview of a Sámi spokesperson, conducted by the church’s incoming pastor, Gunnar Kristiansen, and Sámi music will figure prominently. Parallels between the situations of the Indigenous peoples of the United States and the Nordic countries are meant to be underlined.

norway house

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Norway House in Minneapolis is the National Norwegian Center in America.

Tradition and renewal

The event kicks off on Oct. 5 with an open house at Mindekirken, with welcome speeches by the organizers, and an invitation to view a display of traditional Norwegian sølje jewelry from the Voss company Sylvsmidja at Norway House, located adjacent to the church.

Sølje jewelry is strongly rooted in tradition and is worn with traditional bunad costumes. Sylvsmidja is also looking for new ways to incorporate the designs with contemporary clothing, both in Norway and the United States, a renewal of tradition in today’s world.

Leif Eriksson Day on Oct. 9 will be celebrated with a short virtual appearance by the beloved Norwegian singer and actor Hannah Krogh, who will be coming to Minneapolis for the festival in 2022. Krogh is one of Norway’s most celebrated stars.

Other highly anticipated virtual events are a tour of Norwegian Emigration Museum in Hamar, Norway, and a concert with mother-son duo Elizabeth and Trygve Misvær, with Sámi songs, stories, and joik, a unique form of musical expression for the Sámi people. 

“Last year, some events were better attended because they were online,” said Reilly, 

“and with the current infection situation, the LEIF 2021 committee realized that it was in everyone’s interest to offer a hybrid virtual/in-person program this year.” 

Two live worship services scheduled on the two consecutive Sundays of LEIF 2021 are highlights for the congregation and community. 

The first service on Oct. 10, with its traditional LEIF flag processional, will be led by a Swedish guest pastor, and Finnish music will be performed by Eeva Savolainen and Sarah Pajunen. Following the service, vinerterta, an Icelandic celebration cake, and coffee will be served. In the afternoon, a concert will feature Mindekirken’s choral director, John De Haan, a tenor with an international career, accompanied by the church’s organist, Jordan Buchholtz, on the piano.

The festival will close with a worship service on Oct. 17, and a folkemesse, or “people’s mass,” coordinated by the Rev. Jorunn Raddum, featuring the Mindekirken choir. The Rev. Gunnar Kristiansen will preside over the service, with participation from the Danish and Swedish consuls in Minneapolis, and there will be a special greeting from musical friends in Bodø, Norway.

For over three decades, LEIF has brought the Minneapolis community together to share the richness of the cultures of the Nordic countries. The purpose of the festival has become even more meaningful in light of the social unrest of 2020, as everyone comes together to rebuild and heal, in the Twin Cities and around the world.

The coordination of the events spanning 12 days takes months of planning. The core committee with representatives from all the Nordic countries in the community works on a volunteer basis, supported by all major Nordic organizations around the Twin Cities and the Mindekirken staff. A limited amount of grants and generous private donations make it all possible.

If you would like to learn more, contribute, or participate in LEIF virtually, visit Everyone is welcome.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17, 2021, 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.