For a political party that celebrates diversity, it is certainly an odd choice.  The Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party of Minnesota, like the Democrats nationwide, has celebrated its role in promoting multiculturalism and massive immigration.  Yet the ticket the DFL has nominated to run for governor and lieutenant governor this fall—State Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and Julie Sabo, daughter of Congressman Martin Olav Sabo—is the most Scandinavian in the state’s history.  Political wags are dubbing it the “Leftist Lefsie” ticket, for the Norwegian dish that Moe and Sabo have no doubt digested.

Minnesota is changing rapidly, thanks to tremendous immigration from the Third World, the explosive growth of the suburbs, and the decline of the rural countryside.  While the latest census data show that many Minnesotans still identify themselves as Scandinavian (of Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, or Icelandic decent), they no longer form a majority of the state’s residents.  Thus, this may be the last time we ever see such a ticket.  

Scandinavians in Minnesota retain many institutions that may provide anchorage through this period of cultural turmoil.  These include private colleges, many of which were founded along ethnic and religious lines.  St. Olaf’s in Northfield and Augsburg in Minneapolis were founded by Norwegians belonging to more liberal Lutheran synods, while more orthodox Norwegian Lutherans founded Concordia in Moorhead.  In St. Peter, Swedish Lutherans created Gustavus Adolphus. 

While such institutions do good work in preserving, studying, and promoting Scandinavian culture—the real culture, beyond Ole and Lena jokes and Garrison Keillor’s mumblings about “Norwegian bachelor farmers”—their future is unclear.  The same cultural pressures that have affected the ethnic groups of the Upper Midwest have affected their institutions as well.  

Ole Rølvaag was not among the Norwegian bankers, merchants, and farmers who were the original founders of St. Olaf’s back in 1874; he immigrated to America two decades later.  But as a professor there and the first secretary of the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) in 1925, he did much to shape St. Olaf’s image through his teaching and the fame he gained as the author of such works as Giants of the Earth and Peder Victorious, which chronicled the Norwegian immigrant experience.

In addition, “Rølvaag was a very vigorous collector,” Kim Holland, assistant director at NAHA, told me.  “He went from farm to farm all across the Midwest collecting letters, poems, writings of any kind, stories, that are found in our archives.  Luther College [a Norwegian-founded school in Decorah, Iowa] may have the Norwegian-American museum and collect all the artifacts and may be more glamorous, but what we have is more powerful: the records, writings, and manuscripts that, with the college’s own archives, provide the complete portrait of the Norwegian community here in the Midwest.  And people still bring such writings to us to decipher after looking through the attics and basement boxes in Grandma and Grampa’s house.”

As far back as 1907, Rølvaag spoke of the loss of a connection between the Norwegian world that he and his fellow immigrants knew and the American world their children were experiencing.  That connection is even more tenuous now.  The NAHA’s official ties with St. Olaf’s were cut in 1969, though the group maintains its offices on campus.  Back then, St. Olaf’s, wanting to be known as more than just a school for Norwegians, tried to emphasize the liberal arts, much like its nearby rival Carelton.  Instead, it wound up having an identity crisis that lasted until the mid-1980’s.

“I think the school does a better job of identifying itself as a center of Norwegian culture and has developed a comfortable niche around it,” Holland (who is Norwegian on her mother’s side) said.  “It’s much more emphasized than it was when I graduated from here in 1980, when it tried to be everything to everybody.  They try to attract that kind of student and define what being a Norwegian-American means.  And they do a lot of their recruiting towards the West, in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington.  It has a very pioneer character.”

Besides NAHA’s collection and the school’s own archives, St. Olaf’s promotes its Norwegian heritage in other ways.  It still has Syttende Mai celebrations and exchange programs with colleges and universities in Norway; it schedules tours through Norway, receives visits from Norwegian dignitaries, and is one of the few schools in the country to have a Norwegian major.  Norwegian scholars come to Northfield to study the history of their compatriots in America.

Then there is Gustavus Adolphus.  Founded in the city of Red Wing in 1862 by Swedish Evangelical Lutheran ministers, who also established Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, Gustavus Adolphus moved three times before settling, like St. Olaf’s, on the top of a hill, this one overlooking the picturesque Minnesota River Valley.  As at St. Olaf’s, the trappings of the past remain.  Most of the buildings have Scandinavian names (Nobel Science Building, Linnaeus Arboretum); there are busts and portraits of the great Swedish king; and the Swedish flag flies from time to time on its flagpoles.  There are classes in Swedish language and culture, study-abroad programs and student exchanges, and a Swedish immersion house on campus; and many retired faculty members take part in the local Swedish Club.  The school, however, seems to be going through the “everything to everyone” phase that St. Olaf’s did.

“I’ve been here since 1974, and their emphasis as a Swedish school pretty much peaked in 1985,” said Byron Nordstrom, a professor of Scandinavian history.  “Now, it’s part of the multiple faces they want for themselves.  They emphasize their Swedish background, depending upon the audience.  But they also want to emphasize [the school] as a liberal-arts college, as a modern, diverse place, as more than just a regional private school.”

At both schools, the audience that is truly interested in the history, language, and culture of Scandinavia and its reflection in America is limited.  The number of students taking courses in Scandinavian history and the Swedish language, or who choose Scandinavian majors, is not large.  While a sizeable group of students takes Norwegian at St. Olaf’s (recently, they had to turn some students down because enrollment had reached capacity), this may be more because of the school’s foreign-language requirement, something Gustavus lacks.  While half of the students at both schools have Scandinavian backgrounds, they are being replaced by the kind of young people who descend upon Gustavus in the summer for sport or music camps—kids who probably don’t know and don’t care who Gustavus Adolphus was and have no interest in the Swedish identity of the school.

“When you’re 25 or around that age, your identity and ethnicity is probably the furthest thing from your mind,” Nordstrom said, pointing to the tennis campers who were breaking for lunch in the school’s dining hall.  “What are you thinking about at that age?  Graduating from school, getting a job, finding a mate, starting a family.  People don’t really focus on their identities until they are middle aged and they’re settled down and those mid-life crisis questions ‘Who am I, what am I here for?’ start popping up.”

The best of both worlds, old and new: That was what the Swedish immigrants in America wanted from their schools, Nordstrom told me.  “Sure, they wanted their children to know Swedish and Swedish customs and Swedish beliefs, but they also wanted their children to know English, know about George Washington, know about American writers and literature just as much as they did about Swedish ones.  Gustavus Adolphus wasn’t set up to be separatist school.  They wanted their kids to be American as well as Swedish.”

There was a time when people living in an immigrant community in this country could have their old culture and their new one.  They could speak their ancestral language in their home, read it in a newspaper, hear it at church and among neighbors and friends, all the while still participating in and honoring the overarching ways of American life, civic or commercial.

“My grandmother never had to speak English because the people that were important to her in her community—the pastor, her friends and family—didn’t speak English either,” Holland said.  “That community just isn’t there now.  Minnesota and Northfield are unique spots to trace that community so far back, but some of that is slipping away.  Are we going to be a suburban world?  The in-between place with the past on one side and the remnants of what we’ve left behind on the other?  That question still needs an answer, and, at least from St. Olaf’s point of view, they recognize the importance and strengths of keeping those ties to the past and living out that heritage today.”

Just like the wars of the past century, September 11 and the War on Terrorism will no doubt bring on another round of “Americanization” of immigrants, new and old.  What should be the response of those who see such rational homogenization efforts as something that empires engage in?  The America we are supposed to conform to is not the one our Founding Fathers created but a fraud influenced by the worst kinds of gods, philosophies, and creeds, organized en masse and reduced to the banal.  A true “Americanization” would acknowledge that the Western Christian cultures that formed the basis of the Old Republic deserve preservation and promotion.