Parties that celebrate Minnesota progress

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Minnesota summer festivals usually bring to mind brats, covered dishes and malted beverages. But New York Mills offers a much heftier main course. It’s hosting the 21st annual Great American Think-Off, June 8, which asks a timely political question.

“Which is more ethical: sticking to your principles or being willing to compromise?”

About 400 entry papers have been filed with the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center from people in about half the U.S. states seeking selection to this year’s “Thoughtful Four,” as some call the debate. It’s thought provoking, and won’t be any easier than last year’s philosophical challenge, said Jamie Robertson, executive director of the culture center. A Syracuse University graduate student, appropriately named Adam Bright, took a negative view in winning last year’s debate on, “The nature of humankind: inherently good or inherently evil?”

Aside from the Think-Off, Minnesota towns will host dozens of cultural events that celebrate our state’s rich history and traditions, and force us to contemplate moving Minnesota forward, even when standing still.

That is, if you’re gathering in southeastern Minnesota’s Bluff Country for the 16th annual Stand Still Parade. Floats and other units fill the one-block-long Main Street at Whalan, population 63, so the parade stands still; visitors walk past to admire the sights.

Most of these events are ethnically inspired reflecting early settlers or groups that influenced area development. Explore Minnesota cites several history-oriented events like the Civil War History Camp in St. Paul and the 7-Lag Stevne gathering in St. Cloud, celebrating Norwegian-Americans in the Civil War. Both are in July.

Early in the summer season, the Minnesota Explorer’s trip planner notes that a Dakota Drum and Dance festival is planned for southeastern Minnesota’s Preston on June 1. A Midwest Viking and Scandinavian Hjemkomst Festival is planned at Moorhead on June 28-29.

An especially important event this year, because it is staged about once every three years, is the Vintage Band Festival scheduled the first week of August in Northfield. It is an international event deeply rooted with immigrants who settled northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Community bands from around the state, nation and Northern Europe are planning to participate. St. Olaf College Associate Professor of Music Paul Niemisto organizes the ever-so-often festival.

It is primarily a Northfield area supported event, with administrative help from St. Olaf and housing and other support from cross town colleagues at Carleton College. It’s not held annually because such events have proven to “crash and burn” if tried every year, Niemisto said, “and would be an administrative nightmare to plan annually.”

While the bands coming to Northfield started out with deep ethnic origins, people with looser ties to the original ethnicities kept them alive because community bands served as a cohesive regional anchor.

A scholar of Finnish and Scandinavia community bands in the Northlands, Niemisto is currently turning his 2004 doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota about Finish-American bands into a book for publication later this year, title yet undetermined, which shows communities banding around their town bands.

He notes that Clayton H. Tiede, who wrote The Development of Minnesota Community Bands During the Nineteenth Century (University of Minnesota Press), records that the Meire Grove (between St. Cloud and Alexandria) and Carlisle (near Fergus Falls) bands are the oldest community bands in Minnesota dating back to the early 1880s. One was of German immigrant origin, the other Norwegian. But they continue today by people with community ties regardless of ethnic backgrounds.

“Music and dance become cultural (ingredients) that make community, allowing them to build cohesion, collaboration and appreciation,” Niemisto said. “They break down cultural barriers within the community, and they build community at the same time.”

Understanding music, food, or dress as a form of shared culture can serve Minnesota policymakers well as the state welcomes new citizens in the 21st century. This helps us move beyond just viewing immigration and ethnicities as drivers for tourism and hospitality industries. As Minnesota 2020 explored in the last two Made in Minnesota reports, there are great economic benefits derived from incorporating immigrants’ traditions and culture into daily commerce. This comes in addition to greater, though less easy to measure, sociological benefits.