FREE SPEECH ZONE | On Being Norwegian-American


The following commentary was originally published by the Eden Prairie Sun Current and the Eden Prairie News in May 2004.  It sits on the shelf on my personal website, but I’m posting it here and now on May 18th because it may have resonance with a broader population of readers.

Here’s what I learn about America in Eden Prairie during my Saturday rounds; here¹s what I¹ve seen in my village as our nation hemorrhages in the news, in Washington and the mideast.  On my way to the PDQ, I exchange waves with a neighbor mowing his lawn; his family barely escaped the genocidal, Killing Fields of Cambodia in the 1970’s. One of his sons became an Eagle Scout and is now an outstanding student in college.

The family down the street is South African of European descent; they¹re kibitzing with a friend who worships in a synagogue. She¹s running a garage sale; a neighbor around the corner speaks Arabic, he’s from Egypt.

A bit further on, I pass Somali women boarding a van; they could be going to a local Catholic church which has made room for them to worship. I also see a couple from the former Soviet Union strolling by a wetland and a Native American I met during his 2002 campaign for the Minnesota Legislature. He¹s hauling stuff in his pick up. Teams of mostly blond-haired boys dot a baseball diamond in Edenvale Park while moms and dads watch. A girl with a Japanese kite is trying to find a breeze just beyond the outfield.

At the convenience store I buy a local newspaper from an African American guy. The weekly has a column by a fellow who told me that he’s got Romanian blood pumping through his heart and word processor. While sipping a caffinated, Italianized designer drink in my parked car, I read his piece; clearly he¹s travelled with gypsies.

While in the produce section of Cub Foods, I overhear what I take to be a shopping list squabble in Mexican Spanish and later in the checkout line I intercept the colorful, in-your-face, repartee I know from New Jersey. I¹ve lived in the Trenton area and instantly long for the brio of the Ocean City boardwalk.

At the Community Center, I exchange small talk with a fellow I know from our son’s Cub Scout Pack. He¹s a telecommunications executive who came here from Peru via Europe.

I drive past a strip mall restaurant where you can get lamb curry and a great Indian drink made from yogurt and mangos. Nearby is a Chinese eatery that has 20 kinds of entrees based on chicken. I stop, however, at Gina Maria’s for a large pizza. I¹ve heard that the place is run by a family named Olson. Thankfully, the Olsons do not offer pickled herring as a topping as an homage to their apparent Scandinavian roots.

Most of my ancestors came from Norway. Some died taming the prairie with a plow; some built small towns or formed urban neighborhoods. They told and became the brunt of crude “Ole & Lena” jokes and made the crime blotter for their saloon fights with the Swedes and Irish. Some began building colleges and businesses and, having become confident as third generation Americans, merely winked at becoming fodder for gentle NPR satire.

Lake Wobegon and NFL/Viking  fantasies may be as high up pop-culture’s ladder as we’ll climb. Norskiness is fading into the cultural equivalent of wall paper in a Baker’s Square restroom. We’ve mated with the pastel, myopic warp of Super Target. By golly, you can hardly tell us apart from the Poles or the Germans these days.

And long gone are the decades when Norwegians found Minnesota an appealing place to migrate. With their wealth of scenery, oil and socialism,  they’re staying put in Bergen. A few years back in a speech, Hennepin County Board Chair Randy Johnson (who knows his lutefisk) noted that only one Norwegian had migrated to Minnesota in 1999.

For years I’ve celebrated Syttende Mai, a holiday that marks Norway¹s independence from four centuries of Danish and Swedish control. May 17th provides my people with an excuse to listen to fiddles, joke about lefse bread and get moist-eyed remembering fjord cruises. I use to attended Syttende Mai picnics and parades, but recently have only displayed Norway¹s flag near our garage door. Last week I totally forgot the day — no flag, no Grieg Cds — until my ten-year old son cheerfully told me about this cool holiday for Norwegians that he had heard about at school. “Hey Dad,” he said, “It’s a holiday for us! Can we have some ice cream?”

I was not alone. WCCO News anchor Don Shelby had, for the first time in memory, overlooked Settenda Mai on his May 17th newscast. Mr. Shelby, who’s Norwegian on Syttende Mai – you betchya (and Irish on St. Patrick¹s Day) – told my voice mail that he¹d take care of business. Indeed, the following night, Mr. Shelby¹s 10 o¹clock news show turned into a plug-fest for Settende Mai, getting nearly as much play as the weather and Timber Wolves.

And earlier on the same day-after, as my son ran from the school bus, he saw the flag of Norway hanging near the garage door; he saw a striking red field with a blue cross edged in white. It was a small, brief moment, but his delight reminded me of my Saturday rounds in Eden Prairie when the ordinary and mundane of our village can point to the building blocks, mortar and resilience of a nation’s soul.


Free Speech Zone
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