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“The Pride of the Race Had Been Touched”: The 1925 Norse-American Immigration Centennial and Ethnic Identity*
    by April Schultz (Volume 33: Page 267)

* Reprinted with permission from The Journal of American History, March, 1991, 1265-1295.

On June 8, 1925, President Calvin Coolidge spoke to an audience of over 80,000 Norwegian Americans at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. He praised their contributions to American society and even acknowledged their claim that a Norwegian explorer actually discovered America long before Christopher Columbus. A local journalist reported the crowd’s response: “The great roar that rose from Nordic throats to Thor and Odin above the lowering gray clouds told that the pride of the race had been touched.” Coolidge’s speech was a peak event of the four-day Norse-American Immigration Centennial Celebration, which drew nearly 200,000 Norwegian Americans from the United States and Canada. This celebration commemorating the landing of the first immigrant ship from Norway in 1825 took place in the context of “Americanization” - an intense effort by political, civic, and cultural leaders to deal with what Theodore Roosevelt called “those evil enemies of America, the hyphenated Americans.” {1} The drive to Americanize the immigrants did not simply lead to a clash between the Americanizers and the ethnic community but also brought into bold relief a debate among Norwegians in the United States over the very identity of that community. Beginning in the 1870s, families, workers, farmers, politicians, business leaders, church leaders, and members of ethnic organizations engaged in both private and public dialogues over language, politics, education, and Americanization. Artists, intellectuals, and journalists addressed these audiences in their novels, essays, and articles, giving voice to the debates while offering their own positions and solutions. In the context of an exacerbated and often hysterical nativism during World War I and its attendant Red Scare, these debates became more heated and more infused with a powerful immediacy than before.

Most historians of the Norwegian-American experience argue that World War I created a crisis in the community, which the larger public perceived as antiwar and which therefore suffered nativist attacks. According to these historians, the crisis ended in the 1920s with an ethnic “counter-reaction” that was merely a “final mustering” of nostalgic forces before an inevitable merging with American society. For many of those historians, the centennial, with its invocations to patriotic Americanism, was the “counter-reaction’s” paradigmatic event. World War I Americanization had “worked” - it merely accelerated an inevitable progression from Norwegian to American. {2} The evidence, however, points to a contrary conclusion. Out of the great tensions, conflicts, and negotiations over what it meant to be a Norwegian American amidst the politics of Americanization and nativism, the centennial celebration, through a complex use of rituals and symbols, was part of a continuous process of ethnic creativity. The complexity of this debate reveals not only that Norwegian Americans were anything but monolithic but also that historical discussions of Americanization require a fuller analysis of such often-overlooked debates, that the historical evidence that seems to embrace Americanization can sustain alternative interpretations.

Ethnicity is not inherent, but constructed as a dialogue between immigrants and the dominant society. It is not something to be preserved or lost, but a process of identification at a particular moment to cope with historical realities. Hence the decline of an “ethnic” community reveals not so much that the immigrants have assimilated as that they have found other strategies to cope with changing historical conditions. The larger lesson to be gained from the centennial and the surrounding debates in the Norwegian-American community is that assimilation and Americanization were hotly contested. They were not - and are not - monologues of the groups in power, but multilayered and ongoing dialogues that are part of the larger creation and re-creation of cultural identities. {3} The Norse-American Immigration Centennial offers a strategic site for studying such creativity. The contradictions and tensions revealed in it prove that ethnicity is not static, but changes as people strive to negotiate those contradictions and tensions. Such an interpretation not only tells us something about Norwegian Americans in 1925 but refutes some basic assumptions about the inevitability and ease of assimilation.

In a publicity letter to newspapers, Gisle Bothne, president of the Centennial Committee, asserted that the celebration would do for the Norwegian immigrants what a recent celebration at Plymouth Rock had done for the descendants of those who arrived on the Mayflower. In this “never to be forgotten event,” he predicted, the “past will be clarified, the present will be intensified, and the future will be magnified.” By the end of the four days, “tens of thousands of the present generation will have visualized the life of the early Norse pioneers, how they labored and sacrificed that we might gain wisdom and happiness and material comfort, and that we might lead such a life that Norway should not be ashamed of us, and America should not regret that she had invited us to her shores.” Bothne likened the event to the powerful image in a Norwegian folktale: “The Norse-American celebration will be like a river of living water, like Mimer’s fountain of Norse mythology. Those who drank of this fountain received knowledge and wisdom. Odin himself, king of the Gods of Norse mythology, came and begged a draught of this water, which he received, but he had to leave one of his eyes in pawn for it.” Bothne continued by inviting everyone to “come and drink of this fountain of entertainment, education, and inspiration. We feel sure that all who come will go away refreshed and happy, convinced that in the household of God the Norsemen are a peculiar people, vowing to be true to their highest ideals.” He ended by assuring his audience that “instead of weakening their allegiance to America, the Centennial is certain to make all citizens of Norse blood or birth better Americans than ever before.” {4}

Bothne’s reference to the recent celebration for the Mayflower descendants not only proclaimed a similar significance for later immigrant landings but also placed the Norwegian celebration squarely within an American festive tradition. His shift of focus to Norwegian mythology not only signified the important cultural roots of the celebration; it also intimated the loss and pain involved in immigration in the comparison to Odin’s loss of an eye in return for wisdom. Bothne ended with the claim that the Norwegians were a “peculiar” people whose very “peculiarity” would make them “better Americans than ever before.” This rhetorical strategy challenged the popular notion of the United States as a homogenizing “melting pot” by undergirding invocations to patriotism with a claim to peculiarity or difference. Bothne’s statement outlines the overt purpose of cultural legitimation from the perspective of the centennial’s middle-class organizers and also powerfully typifies the process of cultural creativity at the very center of the centennial celebration. While the strategy of “re-writing” American history to include immigrant cultural heritages may be common among ethnic groups, it is a strategy grounded in historical moments particular to each group. Amidst the politics of Americanization and drawing on their social experience as ethnic Americans, Norwegian Americans arbitrated a complex cultural identity.

In Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, Elizabeth Ewen argues that until recently immigration historians have tended to “chart the journey from miserable beginnings to great success,” the end product of which was, either implicitly or explicitly, complete assimilation into American life. {5} Influenced by the work of sociologists (earlier Robert Park and later Milton Gordon) and beginning with the seminal work of the historian Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted, immigration historians sought to find the key to unity in diversity. How did immigrants overcome the pain of being uprooted and torn from the culture of the Old World to become Americans? Both historians and sociologists assumed that this was a natural and inevitable process. In the work of mobility historians, it became a commonplace that as immigrants and their children moved up and out of the working class, they would meld into American culture with only vague, though cherished, memories of an ethnic past. The story told by historians of the Norwegian-American experience reflects this larger narrative of immigration history and has been little influenced by more recent works in the field.

A newer generation of social historians has focused on the resourcefulness of ethnic groups. The best of their works avoid the static dichotomies of the older scholarship, such as that between a static Old World culture and an equally static American culture. John Bodnar’s major synthesis of immigration history is perhaps the best example of such a work. Bodnar argues that immigrants met the American capitalist system pragmatically, utilizing their traditions to “creatively construct their own cultural world,” a world that helped them to confront their present situations. {6} Influenced by and building on the work of anthropologists, Bodnar and other historians have demonstrated that the immigrants’ world was not a replication of the culture they left behind, but a complex creation responding to the circumstances of their settlement.

As Olivier Zunz has put it, from these findings “we are beginning to understand assimilation as a complex interactive process in which immigrants are not merely unwitting beneficiaries of a growing set of opportunities.” Zunz and John Higham, reacting against such works (in slightly different ways), have argued for the important similarities that unite diverse ethnic experiences. Zunz claimed that the new advances “make it difficult to return to the assimilationist view inherent in the majority of mobility studies, but there are also limitations inherent in the view stressed more recently of a pluralistic America fragmented into an endless number of autonomous communities.” Zunz’s answer is to look at “those large-scale factors,” in particular, class and social structure, “that cut across ethnic, economic, or political loyalty to influence people’s lives.” Higham offered “pluralistic integration,” a “nexus . . . between individual rights and group solidarity, between universalistic principles and particularistic needs.” ‘While, as Higham pointed out, pluralistic integration depends on “a general acceptance of complexity and ambiguity,” at bottom it is an effort, in Higham’s own words, “to revitalize a common faith amid multiplying claims for status and power.” While these are important and often convincing endeavors to deal with the problems of particularistic studies, again, they revive the scholarly endeavor to find the key to American unity. They imply a common faith that is transcendent, rather than continually debated and contested. {7}

The works of social historians who study immigrant ethnic communities offer significant and persuasive correctives to such efforts to return to a unified view of American culture. However, they are still in many ways embedded within an assimilation narrative. They still assume that as an ethnic community takes on bourgeois patterns of material wealth and leisure, ethnicity wanes dramatically. Though Bodnar’s immigrants utilize their traditions to “create” a new culture, that culture is implicitly transitory, for they “ultimately would acquiesce in the new order of urban capitalism.” {8} Furthermore, the very definition of ethnicity remains relatively unchanged in these works. For the “ethnic” portion of the immigrants’ lives is based on a seemingly primordial and therefore natural set of values and beliefs. When the so-called primordial values are no longer in evidence, ethnicity is no longer operative. Too often, immigration historians assume what they should be proving. They accept assimilation and its closures as the truth without seeing the rhetoric and practices of assimilation as a historical strategy masking unstable and inconclusive ethnic identities.

Historians of the Norwegian-American experience are prone to generalizations embedded in such assumptions about the nature of ethnicity and assimilation. Minnesota historian Carl Chrislock, for example, contrasts the 1925 centennial with the 1914 Eidsvoll celebration in the Twin Cities, which commemorated the hundredth anniversary of Norwegian independence from Denmark. The activities of the two celebrations were similar, but for Chrislock the 1914 festival was symbolic of ethnic revivalism and an openness to difference in the large culture, at least for white ethnics. The Eidsvoll festival not only focused on a Norwegian national celebration but also emphasized “ethnic maintenance” among the immigrants, and the Norwegian language was predominant. The “mood generated by the observance” intensified the drive to expand instruction in the Norwegian language, and ethnic fraternal societies increased their recruitment campaigns. At the time of the Eidsvoll festival, asserts Chrislock, “very few observers were predicting that assimilation would shortly obliterate the Norwegian-American community.” It was World War I that helped slow ethnic activism, and after the outbreak of the war, “festival rhetoric became considerably more prone to acknowledge the claims of American patriotism.” For Chrislock the 1925 centennial was merely “a last hurrah”- the end of Norwegian-American history. {9}

Chrislock’s evidence for this death knell is the predominance of the English language and assimilationist rhetoric - or exhortations to patriotic Americanism - at the centennial. Likewise, Odd Sverre Lovoll refers to the centennial as “the last rally - an ethnic counter-reaction.” In his view, the event provided a “grand rallying point” for Norwegian-American organizations struggling to regain lost momentum. However, the centennial did not succeed in reestablishing with full force the preservationist concerns of such groups. Rather, “the festival was a nostalgic retrospective view. Many spoke warmly of what Norwegian Americans had achieved, but the prospects for a flourishing Norwegian-American culture were dim. The 1920s, therefore, represent a final mustering of strong Norwegian ethnic forces.” According to Lovoll, because those forces did not lead to an increase or revitalization of ethnic institutions, the centennial was essentially assimilationist. {10}

The interpretations of Chrislock and Lovoll are not idiosyncratic. From the earliest historical works to recent monographs, historians of the Norwegian-American experience have placed it within a larger narrative of assimilation. {11} In general, those historians view the Norwegian-American community from the late nineteenth century up to 1924 as the bearer of a specifically “Norwegian-American” culture, that is, as a transitional “bridge” between the Norwegian culture being left behind and the American to come. In a sweeping history of the Norwegian people in America published in 1940, Theodore Blegen argued that the immigrant struggle was the struggle to achieve a “unified cultural personality,” a struggle within which Norwegian-American culture “played a mediating role.” The Norwegian American, living in both the Old World and the New, was according to Blegen “on the bridge of transition. . . . He adjusted himself to American ways, not by some instantaneous or magical transformation, but idea by idea.” Forty-four years later, in another sweeping history of Norwegians in America, Lovoll argued, “Norwegian Americans - in the manner of other ethnic groups in America - were pulled between two cultures, the one they had left behind and the one they had to gain a foothold in. They tried to embrace both while moving inexorably toward integration with American society.” With striking consistency, historians of the Norwegian-American experience chronicle a process of assimilation, moving from ethnic strength and solidarity before 1914, when World War I created a crisis in the immigrant community, and ending most often in the 1920s with a nostalgic ethnic “counter reaction” {12}

While anthropologists and cultural critics require the empirical rigor and contextual depth offered by historical accounts, social historians need anthropology and cultural studies to see how vibrant and contradictory seemingly static evidence can be. Building on the anthropologist Fredrick Barth’s notion of the primary significance of the creation and maintenance of ethnic boundaries as well as the permeability of those boundaries, anthropologists have challenged earlier assumptions of the self-contained nature of ethnic groups and the inevitability of assimilation. According to these scholars, what is important is not the level of “traditional” cultural values and behaviors, but how a group subscribes to those values at different times and for different reasons. Patricia C. Albers and William R. James, for example, argue that “what is generalizable about ethnicity . . . is the stereotypic process by which people differentiate and label themselves in relation to others. It is also the concrete circumstances and dynamics of social relationships between groups that inform the underlying process of ethnic differentiation.” The historian Orlando Patterson argues that ethnicity has “use value” - that ethnicity is “used” by groups in competition with each other for scarce resources. But there are larger issues at stake than a conscious manipulation of ethnic referents for political gain. E. L. Cerroni-Long argues that the use of ethnicity is always ideological and not always conscious. Not only is it part of ethnic boundary formation and maintenance, but it should be analyzed as part of larger historical movements in the context of “the social, economic, political and administrative reality of the national setting in which [it] emerges.” Ethnicity, then, is a dynamic process of self-definition that must be studied in the specific historical context in which that self-definition takes place. {13}

The literary critic Werner Sollors has made a provocative attempt to analyze ethnicity in American culture as an invention. Sollors proposed that “the interpretation of previously ‘essentialist’ categories (childhood, generations, romantic love, mental health, gender, region, history, biography, and so on) as ‘invented’ has resulted in the recognition of the general cultural constructedness of the modern world.” To discuss ethnicity as “invention” is to place it among “widely shared, though intensely debated, collective fictions that are continually reinvented.” While Sollors’s interpretation of ethnicity is a significant corrective to essentialist examinations of “authentic” cultures, his view abstracts ethnicity from historical circumstances, posing an egalitarian, pluralistic vision of an American democracy in which everyone has equal access to any narrative. He makes no attempt to analyze how, under what historical circumstances, and why ethnicity is invented in the first place. {14}

Both the anthropologists’ ideas of the “use” of ethnicity and Sollors’s concept of invention imply self-conscious, pragmatic - and painless - manipulation. But the “use” of ethnicity arises out of struggle and loss. As the anthropologist Michael Fischer compellingly argues, “Ethnicity is not something that is simply passed on from generation to generation, taught and learned; it is something dynamic . . . it can be potent even when not consciously taught . . . something that emerges in full - often liberating - flower only through struggle.” Out of this struggle, which can be both individual and communal, psychological and political, continues Fischer, comes the “discovery of a vision, both ethical and future-oriented.” Such visions “can be both culturally specific (e.g., the biblical strains of black victories over oppression) and dialectically formed as critiques of hegemonic idealogies (e.g., as alternatives to the melting pot rhetoric of assimilation).” {15} Thus the cultural content of ethnicity and its use are not only grounded and significant but also subject to change. This view of ethnicity allows, instead of assimilation, a dynamic model of both accommodation and resistance.

The Norse-American Immigration Centennial Celebration offers a rich case study for the kind of creativity Fischer suggests. The centennial was part, not of an inevitable progression from static Norwegian culture to a full embrace of Americanism, but of a complex dialogue at a historical moment of struggle within the Norwegian-American community. Those who struggled did not want to assimilate completely, nor to preserve intact a Norwegian world view. Rather - as in Bodnar’s view of immigrants’ acculturation - the struggle was in many ways an effort to redefine the parameters of ethnic identification. Out of the tensions between Norwegian and American cultural structures, the centennial posed an inversion of the dominant story about the inevitability of progress and the necessity for complete Americanization, an inversion that challenged the prevailing assimilationist idealogy. If ethnicity is seen as a continuous hegemonic struggle between a dominant society and the social experience of marginal and subordinate groups, the centennial may be interpreted as an act of resistance and negotiation. {16}

The centennial was embedded in a long and complex historical context. World War I was a moment of profound crisis in the Norwegian-American community. The high-profile ethnic activity among the Norwegians and their well-known opposition to the war made them particularly vulnerable to nativistic attacks, both from the larger Americanization movement and from assimilationists in their own community. The national drive to Americanize the immigrants fanned the fires of a long-standing debate within the Norwegian-American community itself over the extent of loyalty an ethnic should show his or her adopted country. Though wartime nativism gave it a new immediacy, the dialogue and debate had been going on long before 1914. Some in the community claimed that Norwegians would inevitably merge with other groups, creating a unique American culture; they could therefore never hope to create an independent culture, although they might maintain a reverence for their Norwegian and Norwegian-American pasts. Others argued that assimilation was too high a price to pay, both for the Norwegians who would suffer a profound “spiritualessness” and for the Americans who could benefit from a flourishing Norwegian-American subculture. The debate intensified during and after World War I, augmented by concrete arguments over the use of the Norwegian language in the churches, schools, and the press.

Characteristic of the debate in the community was the argument published in the April, 1905, edition of the Norwegian-language journal Kvartalskrift about the purpose of the new Norwegian Society of America, a group devoted to Norwegian literature, language, and immigration history. In “Our Cultural State,” Johs. Wist, coeditor of a Norwegian cultural journal, argued that the purpose of the society was to act as a link to Norwegian culture, easing any intellectual deprivation in the inevitable shift from one culture to another. The Norwegians in America would need to foster their heritage until their “descendants in the second, third, or fourth generation have become assimilated, and, as an integral part of the nation, can more exclusively nurture themselves on its cultural fruits.” In “Our Cultural Possibilities,” Waldemar Ager, a journalist and writer, denied that the society’s main purpose was to nurture a Norwegian heritage. Its purpose was to help create a new culture from Norwegian-American experience by preserving what was precious and valued from Norwegian culture. “If we admit that we now are in transition from one nation to another, then our saga will only be written in a way to indicate that we have left independent cultural traces which mirror our own lives, our own struggles. We know full well that ethnic groups in this country have become completely assimilated without leaving their cultural traces, but we also acknowledge that this is sad indeed and of little honor to their nationality.” Ager’s goal was to forestall this event by fostering a strong and vital Norwegian-American language and literature. {17}

The continuing discourse on ethnicity and assimilation in the Norwegian-American community before World War I grew more strident and immediate as the United States entered the war and nativism grew to a hysterical pitch. As John Higham has pointed out, World War I saw the “Most strenuous nationalism and the most pervasive nativism that the United States had ever known.” Germans were the first obvious target of war nativism, particularly when they openly rallied for United States neutrality. German Americans formed the largest group of foreign-born in America, and they had also been one of the most respected. The anti-German nativism was, according to Higham, a “spectacular reversal of judgment.” Out of specific anti-German feeling grew a vaguer anti-hyphenism. The war years gave rise to a new expression - one-hundred-percent Americanism, which “belligerently demanded universal conformity organized through total national loyalty.” In this climate, passive assent was not enough. Americanism had to “be grasped and carried forward with evangelical fervor.” Dual identification with another nation was considered blasphemy, and the loyalty of any “hyphenated” American was immediately called into question. {18}

Norwegian Americans were not immune to the new anti-hyphenism for many reasons, notably their attitude toward the war as that attitude was generally perceived. A 1916 editorial in the New York Times attacked a war-related congressional vote by Minnesota politicians: “The Minnesota delegation in Congress consists of eleven Kaiserists and one American, and a mighty fine one, Senator Knute Nelson, born in Norway. . . . Knute Nelson is the only man, the sole American, Minnesota has in Congress.” In 1917 only four of the ten “Norwegian” votes were cast in support of the declaration of war requested by Woodrow Wilson. Norwegian-American attitudes toward the war - particularly the negative attitudes - were well known and created an “image” problem for the whole community. {19}

Norwegian Americans were attacked by anti-hyphenists both for their stance against the war and for their continued use of the Norwegian language, their strong immigrant press, and their thriving ethnic organizations. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson launched attacks on such activities at least two years before war was declared. Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s statements called not only for political loyalty but, if taken literally, for cultural loyalty as well. Such a demand made all ethnic activity suspect. Wilson’s address in particular sparked a long and heated discussion of hyphenism in the Norwegian-American community. In addition to this direct threat from national political figures, Norwegians could point to local attacks on their ethnicity. In 1915 the Minneapolis Journal published an editorial titled “The Hyphen Must Go!” The editorial contended that the melting pot was not doing its job in the Upper Midwest. Immigrant communities were retaining too much of their Old World cultures, and too many “hyphenated” newspapers, schools, and societies were still using the immigrant languages. {20}

Such attacks led to a larger deliberation on anti-hyphenism in general. Were “hyphenated” Americans disloyal, ignoring the reasonable call for one-hundred-percent Americanism? Or did the cultivation of ethnic values enhance and enrich American culture? Such were the parameters of the abstract debate that, after United States entry into the war, became a discussion about curtailing specific ethnic activities during wartime. The debate often centered on whether ethnic festivals constituted a breach of political loyalty. In 1917 three Norwegian-language newspapers printed an anonymous proposal from a “prominent” Norwegian American. The author suggested that Norwegian Americans curtail May 17 festivals celebrating the signing of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814. The three editors who printed the letter agreed. Several smaller papers, however, responded vehemently. For example, Normanden printed the following: “If our departed fathers, who bequeathed us a worthy heritage, could hear the nonsense now being disseminated in the name of loyalty, they undoubtedly would turn over in their graves. If the distinguished editors, who in this instance give the impression of speaking for thousands of human beings, already have lost their senses, what will happen when the nation confronts a really serious crisis? Presumably, they will then admonish Norwegian Americans to refrain from speaking Norwegian even in the intimate setting of an evening by the fireside.” {21} Perhaps the editors at Normanden were beginning to sense what Ager had known all along - that a call to cultural conformity was submerged under the seemingly legitimate call to political loyalty. May 17 festivities went on as scheduled throughout the war, though with a new theme of American patriotism. However, the anxiety and tension implicit in the discussion speaks more to the large political climate than to the specific argument over ethnic festivals.

The anxiety in the Norwegian-American community expressed in these debates was heightened by the nativist sociopolitical activity that led the Norwegian-American novelist Ole Rølvaag to term this period “The Day of the Great Beast.” {22} A Minnesota alien-registration bill made explicit the perceived connection between “hyphenates” and radicalism, foreign-language newspapers were censored by the national government, and in some states, use of foreign languages in public places, including over the telephone, was restricted. Such edicts and demands became magnets for all the anxieties and conflicts over anti-hyphenism and wartime hysteria. The end of the war seemed to matter little - both for the national nativist movement, which continued well into the 1920s, and for the ongoing controversies and debates within the Norwegian-American community. The community responded to wartime nativism and the growing postwar restrictionist movement with a resurgence of ethnic activity, including the enormous success of a Norwegian-American literature that confronted issues of ethnicity, Americanization, and nativism, and the revitalization and creation of ethnic organizations and historical societies. The 1925 immigration centennial was a direct outgrowth of that activity, embodying all the tensions in the community over Americanization.

The centennial effort began in 1920, when a council conference of the bygdelag societies, groups based on county or district of origin in Norway - resolved to organize an immigration celebration. In addition to voting on the centennial resolution, the 1920 meeting reaffirmed a 1919 committee formed to “guard against” legislative attempts to forbid the use of the Norwegian language in public forums. According to bygdelag historian Odd Lovoll, World War I Americanism had surprised those who spoke strongly for the preservation of Norwegian culture. By the 1920 meeting, “They were ready to launch a counter-offensive in order to retain precious features of their national tradition.” Though the bygdelag connotes “folk” origins, by 1924 the centennial organizing committee was made up largely of members of the professional and business class. Before the committee was incorporated in 1925, great care was given to choosing executive officers. For example, state Representative N. T. Moen wrote to S. H. Holstad concerning the choice of an executive secretary: He should be a man “able to talk and write in both languages; he should have quite a recognized standing among our people, the Norse element, and be looked upon with special recognition by our ‘Lag’ and ‘Church People.’ “In the end, the officers included an impressive list of the community’s elite. Gisle Bothne, the president, chaired the Scandinavian Department at the University of Minnesota; S. H. Holstad, the managing director, owned S. H. Holstad Coffee Company; Knut Gjerset, the chairman of the committee on exhibits, was curator of the Norwegian pioneer museum in Decorah, Iowa; Caroline Storlie, the secretary of the women’s auxiliary of the executive committee, was a member of several Scandinavian organizations and of the state central committee of the Democratic party in 1922 and an active member of the National Woman’s Party; and E. G. Quamme, the chairman of the finance committee, was president of the Federal Land Bank in St. Paul. Eventually, the Executive Committee included as honorary members governors from states with large Norwegian populations, prominent businessmen, a few prominent women (usually teachers), senators, congressmen, and college presidents of Norwegian descent, and officials from the Norwegian consulates. {23}

The Centennial committee, headquartered in Minneapolis, oversaw a massive national organization of committees with over four thousand members. Ticket sales were crucial to the success of the celebration. Sales were initially aimed specifically at Norwegians, whether they could attend the centennial or not, “for this is their only opportunity and the only means by which they can contribute to this tremendous enterprise.” According to Quamme, the “objective in every community should be to sell every adult Norwegian a coupon book, and their work should not be considered finished until the local committee has, through some of its members, interviewed every Norwegian within their given territory.” Quamme predicted that this system would not only underwrite the finances of the centennial, it would also “make every Norwegian in the U.S. and Canada thoroughly acquainted with the object and purpose of the Centennial and arouse his highest and personal interest in it.” Quamme argued that the centennial would “then become a national people’s movement, the banding together of a great number of people to a dominant purpose. . . . The real success of the Centennial will be the national interest, support and participation by the millions of Norwegians on the American continent. Let us make it a great movement of the people themselves, in which they participate personally, even though in a small way. It must be a democratic people’s movement on a large scale.” Following Quamme’s suggestion, the national slogan became “One Season Ticket to Every Man, Woman, and Child of Norse Descent.” {24}

To accomplish the task set by Quamme, a male and a female chair were appointed in each state. From the scanty correspondence carried on by the male chairs, it appears that their primary duty was to contact prominent members of the Norwegian community in their states and receive progress reports from the female chairs, whose first job was to report on the number of Norwegians residing in the states (which in some cases was negligible). Following this original census, organizations were set up in forty-two states. Once she established the number of Norwegians in her state, the female chair appointed county and township chairs - also women - who would oversee ticket sales, collect exhibit materials, and promote the celebration through educational programs.

To aid in ticket sales and collection of materials and to promote a general interest in the celebration, women worked through existing organizations. They encouraged and helped clubs and lodges to give special programs on Norwegian literature and life; they convinced public libraries and bookstores to place books on Norwegian life on conspicuous shelves; and they placed in general stores displays of relics and curios loaned by local Norse people. This effort led to a rich collection of exhibit materials. One woman wrote to the exhibit committee, offering a linen tablecloth made in Norway in the 1860s. “The flax was raised on my father’s farm, and all the work of making the finished article was done on the homeplace.” Someone wrote on behalf of a Norwegian dryland farmer in Montana, who wondered if his stonework art might be exhibited at the centennial. And Ragna Tangjerd-Grimsby, also from Montana, wondered if the committee would be interested in a pin presented to her in 1915 by a representative of a society in Norway in recognition of her bravery in saving a little boy from drowning. The pin was the first of its kind presented to an American, according to Tangjerd-Grimsby. Benefiting from the interest generated in the centennial and in things evoking Norwegian culture, the committee collected memorabilia, art, tools, clothing, and furniture from Norwegians across the United States. {25}

Though ticket sales and propaganda were directed to Norwegian Americans, as the centennial drew closer ticket sellers were encouraged to sell also to non-Norwegians. One of the committee’s periodic bulletins to local representatives outlined a “dual purpose” for the centennial. Not only was it to revitalize a heroic Norwegian past to the present Norwegian population, it was to demonstrate “the contribution our race has made to American history, ideals, art, music” to “non-Norse” as well. “It is evident that unless large numbers of non-Norse people attend the celebration and view the wonderful exhibits, the event will fall short of attaining one of its two principal purposes.” While such rhetoric was in part a sales tactic to boost attendance, it was taken seriously by Norwegians and was not uncontroversial. In a letter to Holstad, Minnesota congressman O. J. Kvale expressed his concern over whether the whole “Minnesota Delegation” in Congress would go together to invite the secretary of state to the festivities, “irrespective of national origin, Norse, Irish, and whatnot.” He asked Holstad, “Are we perhaps just a little too generous in inviting our brethren of other blood strain on this occasion? Please give me your candid opinion. I am not overly anxious to share with anyone who may not appreciate it the honor of belonging to the Viking race. On the other hand, we want to do everything possible to make our celebration a tremendous success.” {26}

These rhetorical strategies were mirrored by a massive publicity campaign in both Norwegian-language and English-language newspapers around the country. Articles stressed the need for Norwegians to unite in a renewed confidence in their past and present accomplishments and for Americans to appreciate Norwegian contributions to their culture. A March 3, 1925, Minneapolis Journal editorial asserted, “It is already manifest that the affair is to have the happy effect of bringing together in unwonted union the people of this widely gathered strain of blood. Difference of politics, religion, social distinction, business, what-not - all are forgotten in the impulse for a reunion of Norsemen everywhere.” And a New York Times article of February emphasized the contributions of Norwegian immigrants, who “have proved themselves to be hard-working, diligent people, earnest in their desire to become absorbed into American life, and at the same time contributing to it the fine qualities which they had brought with them from their seagirt homes.” {27}

The large organization and publicity drive resulted in an event that rivaled the most successful Minnesota state fair to date in attendance. Prior ticket sales numbered 124,140, so large a number that in early spring the committee had to squelch rumors that there were no rooms left for visitors in the Twin Cities. Actual attendance eventually totaled 163, 532. {28} Events included religious services in both Norwegian and English, sessions in both languages devoted to introducing dignitaries from Norway and the United States, music, and exhibits of Norwegian and Norwegian-American history, art, cooking, crafts, heirlooms, and industrial inventions. The celebration ended with a one thousand-member cast performing a historical pageant at night. Throughout the celebration, organizers interspersed orations, religious services, parades, exhibits, music, and pageantry to create a massive historical display.

According to David Glassberg, the purpose of many American festivals in the Progressive Era, even ones that incorporated elements of ethic “folk” activities, was to assimilate immigrants into the dominant American traditions. This became even more pronounced in the nativistic climate of World War I; the focus then was on strictly American traditions. Historical imagery was used in civic celebrations to “forge a public historical consciousness from a multiplicity of available traditions and images.” Civic officials elicited public participation by constructing a history that was “shaped by popular expectations as well as civic officials’ political agenda and power.” Glassberg found that “from the perspective of the organizers,” what unified the celebration and “by extension” the participants was a “central historical theme,” which was carried through the orations, the decorations, the music, the processions, and the pageants. “Set like a sermon amid a religious program of invocations, hymns, and benedictions, the historical oration narrated the lessons of local and national history in a civil-religious format that suggested sacred as well as worldly significance.” Speakers used a jeremiad format, connecting past and future into a glorious transcendence of present troubles, linking “national moral ideals and the concrete details of local material progress.” Eric Hobsbawm has found that in times of rapid change traditions are often invented that make ritualized connections to the past and that attempt to inculcate values and behaviors promoting group identity and solidarity. {29}

In very similar ways, the organizers of the Norse-American Immigration Centennial presented a grand historical narrative whose purpose was to unite Norwegian Americans to a heroic past the better to meet the demands of a culture that sought to obliterate difference. Organizers were conscious of the similarity between their celebration and American festivities in the same period. They made repeated references to the Mayflower celebration of 1920, and Oscar Olson, a member of the Centennial Committee established by Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, urged organizers to make a “careful survey” of all expositions and celebrations that had been held in the United States in recent years. Such a “worthy” celebration would allow Norwegian Americans to “secure a better understanding of their heritage, a better appreciation of their pioneer fathers, a more just recognition by their American neighbors, and thus become better able to face the future.” {30} Not only did Olson make an explicit connection to other celebrations, but in his fears about the loss of a heritage, he invoked the jeremiad form that Glassberg found prevalent in American celebrations.

These rhetorical strategies point to the often conservative nature of the centennial celebration. Implicit in Olson’s statement and in the celebration’s tacit narrative is the belief that Norwegian Americans must overcome threats from both without and within - from nativists who wanted to dissolve any differences between Americans and from a younger generation of Norwegian Americans who no longer appreciated their “heritage.” In organizing the celebration, middle-class professionals and businessmen presented a very particular and controlled vision of Norwegian-American ethnicity that, one could argue, served very narrow class interests. The 1920s did indeed see a waning of interest in Norwegian ethnicity, particularly among young people. These ethnic leaders were certainly seeking to maintain their positions in an ethnic community by attempting to conserve their traditions. The organizers’ effort to conserve tradition may also be viewed as an effort to present Norwegians to the larger culture as “safe” ethics. They presented a harmonious world where good business could coexist with ethic values, particularly when those values mirrored basic “American” values. Nowhere is this clearer than in photographs of Norwegian and American flags draped across Dayton’s Department Store in downtown Minneapolis along the centennial parade route, viewed by the “business” president, Calvin Coolidge. The organizers were not seeking to maintain the community’s marginality, but through ritual celebration they were seeking to construct an ethnic identity that would place them at the very center of American culture.

The collective articulation of Norwegian identity embodied in the centennial seems to conform to Victor Greene’s assertion that ethic leaders resolved contradictions in ethnic identity among immigrants by stressing “the compatibility of their ancestral heritage with the principles of their adopted country.” Yet Greene’s important insights into the rhetoric of immigrant ethic leaders are undermined by his assumption that such rhetoric can be taken at face value. As one scholar of popular culture has argued, the invocation of the past to legitimate the present is “a precarious undertaking. . . . Tradition used to legitimate untraditional behavior may instead call attention to the disparity between the past and the present.” While the narrative presented by the centennial organizers is a controlled text, its openness in key places speaks to the enduring unresolved tensions between Norwegian and American identities among the children and grandchildren of immigrants, tensions that would have been resolved neatly by the 1880s if they concerned only the immigrants. {31}

To avoid a transparent reading of the rhetoric and to understand more fully its creation and its relationship to ethnic identity, it is necessary to analyze the symbolic universe of the celebration in its specific historical context. The insights of cultural anthropology about ritual and celebration, though at times ahistorical and static, allow for deeper, multilayered readings of rituals and texts that a straight historical reading often ignores. The very fact that the Norwegian-American community chose to celebrate its immigrant heritage at this historical moment is significant in light of the anthropologist Victor Turner’s notion that when a social group celebrates an event, it also “celebrates itself.” In such events, the group “attempts to manifest, in symbolic form, what it conceives to be its essential life.” Or, as the anthropologist Roger D. Abrahams argued, celebrations are “a time for giving and receiving the most vital emblems of culture in an unashamed display of produce, of the plenitude the community may boast.” These emblems, or “symbol-vehicles,” are dense with meaning, “for they are invested with the accumulated energies and experiences of past practice.” Though Abrahams referred specifically to agricultural celebrations, Norwegians certainly had a display of “produce” at the centennial - Norwegian and immigrant crafts, heirlooms, art objects, and inventions; souvenir medals, stamps, and postcards depicting the Norwegian and American pasts; a display of Norwegian spirituality, as expressed in numerous sermons and exhibits of pioneer church work; a parade of “notable” Norwegian Americans; ethnic music programs; and a large and extensive historical pageant. Yet the objects and practices signified more than the “produce” of the community; they exemplified the encoding of social life and ethic identity in symbolic form. {32}

Anthropologists have taught us that symbols are not transparent “windows” onto a culture but are “operators” in social processes. Some symbols actually produce social transformations, moving “actors” from one status to another. Rites of passage are the most obvious example. At other times, particularly in civil festivals, symbols serve less to transform social arrangements than to confirm, state, or construct identities. Within such a social process, symbols and ritual activity can be didactic, that is, they can be so displayed that they evoke a very specific message. At the same time, symbols are by their nature ambiguous, polyvalent, and therefore excellent vehicles for articulating contesting ideas. {33} As the Norwegian Americans at the centennial utilized dominant American patterns of ritual and celebration to “celebrate” their own community at a time of struggle over ethic identity, they inverted the dominant historical narrative. On the one hand, the didactic display of symbolic objects and civic rituals suspended internal conflict among the participants in favor of a particular construction of ethic identity. On the other hand, the ambiguity of those very symbols and rituals spoke to a more complex and contested construction of Norwegian-American ethnicity.

The overt, didactic meaning of the festival was clear in nearly all aspects of the celebration. From the inception of the centennial, through the organizational efforts of the Centennial Committee and into the celebration itself, organizers and participants created a massive historical display. The outward symbolic significance of the festival was the Norwegian immigrant’s important place within American history. As in the American celebrations described by Glassberg, the organizers of the centennial created a “civil-religious” format that presented local immigrant experience within a larger historical narrative - a narrative that nevertheless challenged the dominant assimilationist interpretation of American history. In an essay printed in the souvenir program, O. M. Norlie asserted that those groups who have the most “inspiring” histories and are proud of those histories have the “brightest future.” “American history is mainly New England and accordingly New England has influenced America more than any other section or people. Norwegians could be more influential if their history were better known and if they themselves stood up more stoutly for their ideals. The Norwegian Centennial should make it plain that they have a proud history, and it should inspire them to still nobler ideals. As Norwegian Americans we should be able to face the future with a new pride, faith, and prayer.” The ideals on which the Norwegians should pride themselves were many, from being “foremost” in farming, literacy, lawfulness, and religious spirituality to the number of their cultural “brothers” who had made a name for Norwegians in American politics, literature, and education. Norlie asserted, “In times past much has been said of what America has done for the immigrant. America has done much for the immigrant. But there is also another side to this question. The immigrant has also done much for America.” {34} It was that history the centennial organizers hoped to illuminate. From daily correspondence between festival organizers and massive publicity campaigns to the centennial’s religious services, civic orations, and historical pageant, leaders articulated the Norwegian cultural heritage and its role in America’s greatness. The rhetoric of the centennial, from its public performances to its souvenir program, resonated with the tensions of arbitrating a complex ethnic identity.

That one day of the festival was devoted almost entirely to worship is testament to the organizers’ belief in a powerful religious heritage among the Norwegians and their need to reinforce that belief within the larger festival narrative. In an article on the contributions of Norwegians for the program, Martin W. Odland wrote, “The contributions made by the Norse element of our population to the spiritual and cultural life of America are of greatest importance and show a rare spirit of sacrifice and devotion. The Norwegian pioneers were a serious-minded people of strong religious convictions.” The clergy, among the most active and vocal leaders in the immigrant community, took a role in the celebration from its inception. Carl O. Pedersen, a Norwegian-born Lutheran clergyman who helped organize the religious aspects of the centennial, noted in his memoirs that two of the six original members of the bygdelag centennial committee were ministers. Pedersen noted that “here, as always, the Norse clergy have taken a noble share in promoting matters of interest to our people and race.” In 1922 the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (NLCA) took a central role in organizing the festivities. {35}

The religious services, conducted in both Norwegian and English, were attended by crowds “exceeding the average State Fair day.” The June 8, 1925, edition of the Minneapolis Journal reported, “Despite a beating sun that drove the mercury upward and turned the entire Fair grounds into a sweltering arena . . . every seat, every box was filled . . . scores stood in the aisles so no one could move. At every entrance, others stood, all through the two hour service.” At the service, the Reverend Johan Lunde, Bishop of Oslo, visiting from Norway, read telegrams from several Norwegian congregations that were conducting services that day in honor of the centennial. But Dr. H. G. Stub, the seventy-six-year-old head of the NLCA, “sounded the keynote of the day”: “Our love remains strong for that land where life was an endless fight against a strong soil and a stormy sea. A land poor in gold, but where almost every child can read or write. But stronger than these ties are the bonds of faith and hope and Christian charity - that Christianity given us by our people. Norsemen came to America 50 or 100 years ago hoping for an easier and a better living, but found the heaviest kind of work. They fought Indians and grasshoppers, they answered the call of President Lincoln for men. And now this people is holding its place in its adopted country with honor. Our prayers go upward that all that is done may be for the good of our country, America.” The journalist quoting Stub’s speech concluded: “Like the murmur of the sea came the sound of thousands of voices a minute later repeating in Norwegian the words of the Lord’s Prayer.” {36} The religious services added a sacred dimension to the centennial’s historical narrative. The purported religious heritage of the Norwegian people was intimately connected to the sacrifices they made as pioneers and as contributors to American society. The Norwegian- and English-language services spoke to the historical tension surrounding language use within the church and within the larger community. At the centennial the two languages coexisted in dynamic tension within the organizers’ larger historical message.

The numerous orations by civic, political, and intellectual ethnic leaders and the centennial exhibition echoed the historical imagery offered in the religious services. Both the Norwegian and English sessions were given over to discussions of the Norwegian cultural heritage and its role in the greatness of the United States. For example, Hannah Astrup Larsen, editor of the American-Scandinavian Review, argued that the Norwegian-American community was “built on the most democratic foundations this country has ever seen,” a democracy owing to the “traditions of [the Norwegian] race.” Furthermore, according to Larsen, the “revolution” in the positions of Norwegian-American women, who numbered among themselves teachers, writers, and executives, was due in great measure to Norwegian traditions of comradeship between men and women. Such women could therefore contribute greatly to the cause of democracy and equality for all American women. The Norse-American Exhibition Program, organized by Gjerset, curator of the Norwegian museum in Iowa, and with contributions from Norwegian Americans from all over the country, created a historical narrative that further reinforced the thematic structure of the celebration. Accompanied by historical texts, the exhibit moved from pioneer life through the role of churches and schools in immigrant culture to agriculture, the immigrant press, literature, politics, and art. The exhibit then recounted how charity and mutual aid societies, ethnic organizations, and women maintained cultural traditions. The exhibition ended with displays of Norwegian contributions to modern American life in engineering, architecture, trade and commerce, industry, and war. A journalist for the Minneapolis Journal described the exhibition: “Past the relics of early days, the things that made homes for the early Norwegian pioneers, pushed all day long a never-ending stream of the pioneers’ descendants. They stopped to talk, in Norwegian or English, over the needlework, the patchwork quilts. . . . In one little exhibit is typified the whole display. On one stand is a model of ‘Per Viking’s Farm, 1886’ - three log cabins, a few cows, a wooden fence; on another, a model of ‘Ole Viking’s Farm, 1925’ - an automobile in the driveway, electric lights and telephone in the house, modern immaculate barns, blooded stock. That is the keynote of it all.” There were models of Norwegian homes of 1825, of both the peasant and merchant class. Also displayed was a contemporary Norwegian home, to demonstrate, according to Gjerset, that “homes in Norway are not crude or primitive as is generally believed by people here.” Gjerset was eager to offset the connotation of “peasant” displays, “which may have a dramatic effect but the American people will get the idea that we are a crude and primitive people without real culture.” In these ways, the exhibition promoted a progressive historical narrative within the context of a Norwegian cultural heritage. {37}

The “Pageant of the Northmen,” the culminating event of the festival, combined all of this discourse into a massive historical text. As Glassberg points out, the pageant was one of the most popular means of celebrating civic anniversaries during the Progressive Era. Pageants were an aestheticization of politics that took all the methods of theater and spectacle emerging in the late nineteenth century and turned them into a participatory ritual. The pageant became the “characteristic way civic officials sought to give public definition to a collective historical consciousness.” By incorporating “concrete details of local social and economic development within an overarching civil-religious structure,” civic leaders proffered a historical narrative that “furnished principles of social evolution and morality that pointed the way to future reform.” Like the orations, pageants emphasized continuity over conflict and resolved “any lingering tension over the direction local life had taken in recent years.” Organizers of the Norwegian-American centennial were well aware of this tradition, hiring a non-Norwegian who had already written and directed a pageant about Abraham Lincoln. With suggestions from Norwegian Americans, Willard Dillman produced a massive pageant with over a thousand cast members. The Norwegian community used an American pageant form to uncover and disseminate its own past, politicizing and separating that past from the dominant political narrative of the time. {38}

As the program stated, “the theme of the pageant is to suggest for the present generation some hint of the story of the fathers, those hardy descendants of the Vikings, who laid the foundation of the splendid achievements of their race in the new world.” The story centered on the historical figure Hans Christian Heg, “a type of all that is best and noblest in a citizen,” following him from the knee of his Norwegian grandmother, who told him stories of Norse mythology and Norwegian heroics, through his emigration to America and the hardships of pioneer life to his career as an antislavery politician and Civil War hero. In the pageant manuscript, Dillman writes that Colonel Heg’s spirit “inspired the immigrants and their descendants in all that they did during the long years of peace that followed” the Civil War. A parade of church people, college graduates, artists, writers, inventors, businessmen, veterans, and Red Cross workers demonstrated this inspiration. In the grand finale, a statue of Colonel Heg was unveiled. “As the people gathered for this occasion they were reminded of all the strange characters that had had an influence upon the Colonel’s life. In the mind’s eye they could be seen taking their places around the pedestal. As in a dream, the ancient kings and Vikings appeared and took their positions. They were followed by the sturdy immigrants with whom the boy had come to America, and the slaves, and the soldiers, and the spirits of the wood, and the spirits of war.” The pageant created a narrative of continuity between past and present that necessarily included Norwegian culture in combination with American experience. {39}

In one telling scene, Norwegian immigrants, “American” pioneers, and American Indians shared a meal. This was their only contact with Indians, for the natives were already “about to leave these woods, opening the way peacefully for the Norwegians’ plan to plough the ground, cut down the trees and build houses.” Dillman continues, “After supper a large camp fire was built and the people of the three nationalities gathered around it. The woods rang with the songs of each of the nations. The last song they sang was ‘Home, Sweet Home.’ Each of the singers used his native language, but the air was the familiar old tune that everyone knew.” This scene speaks to a pluralistic vision in which each culture could contribute its “native language” to a unified society. But the unification is not accomplished without pain. After the Indians had left, a “lone” native remained in the woods watching the activity. He explained to the immigrants that though his people were all gone, “he hesitated to break away from the land where his forefathers were buried. Then, he, too, walked sadly in the track of his people and passed out of the picture.” This small scene, immediately following the arrival of Hans Heg and his family from Norway, speaks to the pain of leaving one’s homeland. In the larger narrative of the pageant and the celebration, however, pain is translated into a willful insistence on the impact of Norwegian culture on American life. Indeed, by its chronology the pageant suggested that Heg’s martyrdom was due, not to an inevitable awakening to so-called American ideals, but to a natural progression from the ideals taught him through Norwegian folklore and mythology before his emigration. {40}

While the rhetoric of the celebration’s orations and instructions in history did not urge the maintenance of Old World values in a permanent Norwegian subculture, it was not a language of assimilation. In true celebratory form, there was much recombination of old and new cultural patterns, rendering more complex meanings to the celebratory objects and events. In festive activity, symbols are often arrayed in antithetical pairs, or binary oppositions. Those relationships may have significant implications for the meaning they possess. In the centennial, a reading of the “symbol relationships” is crucial because of the constant binary play between ethnic and American celebratory objects or events. The binary opposition permeated the centennial celebration, from its incessant display of Norwegian and American flags, the Norwegian and English languages, and Norwegian and American dignitaries to the very themes of its speeches and pageant.

The souvenirs sold at and produced for the celebration are particularly rich examples of the pairing of opposities. For instance, the United States government produced a commemorative medal and two commemorative stamps for the occasion. Congressman Kvale proposed the souvenirs, wanting to contribute to the “growth of the Norwegian heritage by having it ‘preserved in metal’ as well as ‘paper time capsules.’

The medal was struck instead of a coin because of congressional sensitivity to the prevailing anti-hypheism and specifically to the agitation in 1924 over a half dollar commemorating the tercentenary of Huguenot-Walloon immigration to North America. The half dollar was labeled a vehicle for religious propaganda and therefore “un-American” and “unsuitable” for United States coinage. In his speech inviting Congress to attend the centennial, Kvale negotiated carefully to avoid any taint of anti-Americanism. He assured his fellow congressmen, “I am well aware that to some of you gentlemen the prefix ‘Norse,’ or any prefix, may seem to indicate something not purely and truly American. If the prefix in this case implied anything even faintly suggesting such a possibility, I would be the first to repudiate it in the most emphatic and unqualified terms.” {41}

In light of the patriotic rhetoric, it is significant that the medal does not depict Norwegian arrival to an already-formed American culture; rather, it represents a Viking chieftain landing on the American continent. On either side of the figure appear the dates 1825 and 1925. On the reverse is shown a Viking ship and the date A. D. 1000, the year of Leif Erikson’s purported discovery of America. One stamp depicts the immigrant ship of 1825 under sail, the other a Viking ship. Though outwardly, these souvenirs were to symbolize the Norwegian immigrant heritage that began in 1825, they actually invert the dominant narrative by using an American form to proclaim that Norwegians were the first Europeans to land on American soil.

This concept was a covert theme throughout the centennial and provided a crucial counterweight to the patriotic American rhetoric. Not only were Norwegians hailed as the first to discover America, but as one Norse American suggested to the planning committee, “I believe that the keynote of the pageant should be that men of Norse blood have those qualities that make for desirable American citizenship and that the earlier Norse immigrants not only conformed to American standards and ideals but were among the very people who created them.” {42}

That this theme was a keynote of the centennial is clearly evident in the organization of the souvenir program around both American and Norwegian elements. On the title page is a pencil drawing of the 1825 immigrant ship and a poem about Norway, the middle stanza of which reads:

      I am longing to roam in that beautiful land-
      Dear land where my fathers have dwelt!
And feel the inspiring breezes blow
      From cloud-like cliffs of eternal snow,
            My mother in childhood felt.

On the next page, juxtaposed to President Bothne’s foreword, is a photograph of Abraham Lincoln titled “The Typical American.” Following it are photographs of the committees, President and Mrs. Coolidge, the governor general of Canada and his wife, the Norwegian royal family, and a Bible brought over on the ship in 1825. These photographs are followed by essays, articles on Norwegian politicians, a retelling of the migration story, a list of Norwegian Americans in public service, a chronology of events, and a series of advertisements by local businesses, each praising the Norwegians for their good citizenship. Like other aspects of the centennial, the program effectively inverts the dominant Americanization narrative. We have no way of knowing how centennial participants viewed these texts, but we can see preferred readings inscribed in them. To begin with a poem of longing for Norway and a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, resonating powerfully with two separate histories, is testimony to the pain of marginality and the struggle over the inversion in the centennial itself. Furthermore, the photographs of dignitaries from the United States, Canada, and Norway indicate not only the pluralistic view of the centennial but perhaps divided loyalties as well. The written texts contain elements of assimilationist rhetoric as well as of rhetoric that attempts to rewrite the dominant discourse. For example, an article on Norwegian-American achievements and contributions ends by stating that, although Norwegians have not lost their identity in America, they nevertheless “have become thoroughly imbued with American ideals and the American spirit.” In contrast, Norlie argued that the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of the Americans of the dominant culture were closely related to Norwegians. In fact, he argued, the English, Irish, and French countries that supplied the most immigrants to America were once ruled by Norwegians - “the Pilgrim Fathers themselves were mainly of Norwegian descent.” Therefore, it was not necessary for Norwegians to assimilate into American culture, for they possessed the so-called American ideals even more deeply than New Englanders. This idea was prevalent throughout the centennial, even in the daily correspondence of committee members. For example, responding to Lt. Col. Edgar Erskine Hume in the office of the surgeon general about a government presentation to visiting Norwegian dignitaries, Bothne ended: “It was indeed a pleasure to me to learn of your personal interest in our celebration and the fact that you have Norse blood in your veins. In Scotland, England, and Ireland, there are many traces of Norse influences and in a review of the Norse achievements in history, such as the contemplated celebration should be, this ought not to be forgotten.” These examples reveal the Norwegians’ intense struggle to delineate their own place as ethnics within American culture. {43}

Perhaps the most revealing pieces in the program are the prizewinning essays in the contest “Why We Celebrate.” Nine essays were submitted to the contest, and all judges agreed that the essay written by journalist Waldemar Ager deserved first prize. There was, however, disagreement over the second-place entry by O. M. Norlie. One judge, the president of Augsburg Seminary in Minneapolis, charged that Norlie’s essay “makes some bad errors, e.g., that no Norse men have served on the Board of Education for the city of Minneapolis, and charges that the community is prejudiced against the ‘foreigners.’ This is an unpardonable error, which excludes the essays from consideration.” The seminary president also noted that “there is a certain animus, too, which I think is wrong and which will do us more harm than good.” In a letter to Bothne, Norlie rejected the criticism of his essay. He pointed out that “M. Falk Gjertsen was on the school board for a number of years and filled the schools with Norwegian janitors, not teachers. We were not good enough for teaching positions.” Nevertheless, Norlie’s essay was awarded second prize and printed in the program, though without the reference concerning the school board. Included, however, was a paragraph addressing prejudice against Norwegians by the larger culture. “The fact is,” Norlie wrote, “that in the past, and even at the present time, many of the so-called Americans, especially those of British ancestry, do not seem to know, or want to know, that the Norwegians are of their race, or that they have as good a right to be called Americans as anybody else, or that they are entitled to the same opportunities as their Anglo-Saxon brothers. The Centennial ought to secure from these good neighbors a more just recognition of what Norwegian really is.” The controversy over Norlie’s essay illuminates the tension within the community over the ease with which Norwegian-Americans were accepted by the larger culture. That tension was manifest in the centennial program. {44}

It is therefore significant that Ager’s first-prize essay was the only contribution printed in Norwegian. Ager was one of the most fervent preservationists and anti-asssimilationists in the Norwegian-American community, and he did not alter this stance in the essay. He argued that the centennial would make Norwegians feel that they shared a common history with other immigrants, a history that had been left largely unwritten. Another and more important result would be a broader picture of American history as a history built together by different people. The melting pot was not a useful concept, according to Ager, for “a standardized citizen-type can only happen by exterminating the immigrant’s strongest and best characteristics.” By demonstrating this, the centennial would contribute to “underlining the importance of preserving racial characteristics.” Without that preservation, there is no “real folk soul.” If the soul is lost, only an organism remains, for the folk soul gives life “color and intensity.” Without it, even “the richest home and the most powerful country would remain impoverished.” The centennial would prevent the loss because Americans would realize that ethnic strength is the “nation’s only safe foundation.” {45} That this was the prizewinning essay registers the community’s need to assert in some way its difference from the dominant culture.

By inverting the dominant narrative and writing into American history a crucial place for Norwegians, the community refused to conform to assimilationist rhetoric. Yet the main narrative that the organizers presented paralleled the dominant Anglo-Saxon narrative of discovery and progression. Such negotiation by the organizers themselves and the inclusion of the more tragic vision of Ager speak to the tensions and the diversity of voices in the attempt to construct a viable ethic identity. Turner argues that “celebration may be said partly to bring about a temporary reconciliation among conflicting members of a single community. Conflict is held in abeyance in the period of ritualized action.” In the centennial program, for instance, a glowing biography of assimilatiomst politician Knute Nelson and Ager’s essay coexist in dynamic tension. In his own essay, Norlie argued, “it might be said that every nation is a peculiar people, called of God to perform a peculiar service for mankind. . . . The Centennial will renew and enforce this faith in our precious heritage.” The assimilationists and the preservatioists reconciled themselves under this assertion of “peculiarity” or difference. {46}

As a sensitive critic of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival points out, celebration inserts into community and language structures “an indeterminacy, a certain semantic open-endedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality.” While the civic rituals performed at the centennial had very little of the peasant carivalesque, Bakhtin’s insights about celebration are nonetheless an important reminder of the open-endedness of public festivity. Centennial organizers and participants exploited that indeterminacy. While the dominant power structures were attempting to “fix social reality” by Americanization, centennial-goers participated in a “countervailing” process, as the anthropologist Sally Falk Moore describes it, “exploiting the indeterminacies in the situation, or . . . generating indeterminacies, or . . . reinterpreting or redefining the rules and relationships.” By manipulating the contradictions in their lives as ethnic Americans in the early twentieth century, Norwegian Americans constructed their own version of social reality, a construction grounded in their social experience and the politics of culture. The centennial, then, is not the end of Norwegian-American history, as some historians would have it, but part of a continuing debate between the ethnic group and the dominant culture and within the ethnic group itself. {47}

This is not to argue that the centennial led to a consensus among the leaders and participants about ethnic identity. But as in other civic celebrations, the organizers spoke to what they felt were concerns of the larger community. That larger community had debated language, education, and Americanization. And as letters to the Centennial Committee attested, Norwegian Americans from all areas were concerned about Norwegian culture and excited about the centennial celebration. One woman, from Montana, wrote that she “had always cherished everything that savours of the Norwegian, and miss the old old Norse ways of home. Out here very little Norse is spoken, and very little Norwegian culture and literature is known especially among the young people.” Another woman, from Minneapolis, wrote that her eighty-eight-year-old mother had emigrated from Norway in 1869 and was well known in her community. She herself had seventeen-year-old twins born on May 17, Norwegian Independence Day. She wrote, “Where do I come in on this celebration of the Centennial? I like to do my share.” Such statements, in their homeliness and sincerity, show that the centennial had complex meanings for its audience. As Michael Bristol points out in his discussion of Bakhtin, carnival is not a meaning in and of itself, “nor is it limited to any single social function, whether protest, accommodation, or cathartic release. It is primarily a language.” Viewing the centennial as an open-ended dialogue, we can use Bakhtin’s theory that “every utterance is a ‘two-sided act,’ ‘the product of the reciprocal relationship between addresser and addressee,’ “which should always be thought of in context. The often contradictory dialogue among the organizers and participants in the centennial took place in the context of the history and social experience of the Norwegian community; the dialogue informed the dense meanings of the celebratory objects and events throughout the planning and presentation of the festival. {48}

The centennial did not serve a transformative function, nor did it signify the “death knell” of Norwegian-American ethnicity. The “language” of the centennial was part of an ongoing and complex statement and construction of Norwegian-American identity. By focusing too often on an assumed linear progression from ethnic to American, immigration historians have missed such significant moments of creativity. After 1925 the usual sigifiers of ethnicity - immigrant institutions, foreign-language presses, language use - continued to wane in the Norwegian-American community. But others rose to take their place - historical associations; academic departments devoted to Norwegian-American studies; yearly festivals and celebrations; and, a new “patron saint” who has in many ways replaced Leif Erikson, the author Ole Rølvaag, whose tragic view of immigration is often at odds with the progressive vision still evident in much Norwegian-American activity. These ethnic sigifiers should not be viewed as merely nostalgic remnants of an immigrant past. For once we begin to think of ethnicity as an ongoing and dynamic process, our questions change. How do seemingly commonplace cultural practices such as festivities encode larger historical meanings? More specifically, at what times do people resort to rituals and activities that serve to negotiate ethic identity? How and by whom is that identity constructed? And, perhaps most important, why ethnicity as an identification rather than something else? For the Norwegian Americans who organized and participated in the centennial in the 1920s, ethnicity was the most important signifier of group identity. Of the many ethic groups, they were among the most “successful” in the terms of the assimilation narrative - many had joined the ranks of the middle class, and they wielded considerable political and professional power in the Midwest. Yet, rather than give in to inevitable “success,” they chose to construct their own historical narrative that brought their marginality to the center at the same time that they asserted their “difference.” The “language” of the centennial was thus both accommodatioist and oppositional; it was dynamic and complex.

In his powerful words on historical memory, Walter Benjamin argues: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool for the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” {49} The Norse-American Centennial was indicative, not of an inevitable assimilation process from a static Norwegian “folk” culture to one-hundred-percent Americanism, but of a complex dialogue at a historical “moment of danger” within the Norwegian-American community. The reinvention of dominant American history to include Norwegian ideals and virtues was an “attempt to wrest tradition” from the prevailing urge to conformism that threatened to overpower that tradition. To “read” ethnicity only in terms of static models of culture, assimilation, and hegemony is to miss the profound pain and tension in the continuous attempt to create and re-create ethnic identity.


<1> Odd S. Lovoll, The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People (Minneapolis, 1984), 195; Carl H. Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged: The Upper Midwest Norwegian-American Experience in World War I (Northfield, Minnesota, 1981), 38.

<2> Lovoll, Promise of America, 195-196.

<3> Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, England, 1985). For the application of Hobsbawm’s ideas to ethnic communities, see Rudolph Vecoli, “Primo Maggio in the U.S.: An Invented Tradition of the Italian Anarchists,” in May Day Celebration, ed. Andrea Panaccione (Venice, 1988), 55-83; and John Bodnar, “Symbols and Servants: Immigrant America and the Limits of Public History,” in Journal of American History, 73 (June, 1986), 137-151. On the ideas of creativity and cultural invention as used in cultural studies, see Michael Fischer, “Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory,” in Writing Culture, ed. James Clifford and George Marcus (Berkeley, 1985), 194-233; George Lipsitz, “Mardi Gras Indians: Carnival and Counter-Narrative in Black New Orleans,” in Cultural Critique, 10 (Fall, 1988), 99-122; and Werner Sollors, ed., The Invention of Ethnicity (New York, 1989).

<4> Gisle Bothne to county Ticket Sellers, box 3, Norse-American Centennial Papers, Archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

<5> Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925 (New York, 1985), 13.

<6> Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington, Indiana, 1985), 205.

<7> Olivier Zunz, “American History and the Changing Meaning of Assimilation,” in Journal of American Ethnic History, 4 (Spring, 1985), 55, 57, 63; John Higham, Send These to Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America (Baltimore, 1984), 242, 232.

<8> Bodnar, Transplanted, 205.

<9> Chrislock, “The First Two Centennials, 1914 and 1925,” in Norwegian American Sesquicentennial, 1825-1975 (Minneapolis, 1975), 34; Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged, 15, 48, 139.

<10> Lovoll, Promise of America, 195-196.

<11> Major works on Norwegian Americans published since 1925 include O. M. Norlie, A History of the Norwegian People in America (Minneapolis, 1925); Canton Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States (Northfield, 1938); Theodore Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition (Northfield, 1940); Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior (Bloomington, Indiana, 1969); Jon Wefald, A Voice of Protest: Norwegians in American Politics, 1890-1917 (Northfield, 1971); Arlow Andersen, The Norwegian Americans (Boston, 1975); Lovoll, A Folk Epic: The “Bygdelag” in America (Boston, 1975); Lovoll, ed., Cultural Pluralism versus Assimiliation: The Views of Waldemar Ager (Northfield, 1977); Ingrid Semmingsen, Norway to America: A History of Migration (Minneapolis, 1978); Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged: Lovoll, Promise of America; Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Balestrand Norway to the Upper Midwest (New York, 1985); Lovoll, A Century of Urban Life: The Norwegians in Chicago before 1930 (Northfield, 1988).

<12> Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America, 99, 81; Lovoll, Promise of America, ix.

<13> Fredrick Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (Boston, 1970); Patricia C. Albers and William R. James, “On the Dialectics of Ethnicity: To Be or Not to Be Santee (Sioux),” in Journal of Ethnic Studies, 14 (Spring, 1986), 10-11; Orlando Patterson, Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse (New York, 1977); E. L. Cerroni-Long, “Ideology and Ethnicity: An American-Soviet Comparison,” in Journal of Ethnic Studies, 14 (Fall, 1986), 20.

<14> Werner Sollors, “Introduction,” in Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Sollors, x, xi. See also Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York, 1986); and Renato Rosaldo, “Others of Invention: Ethnicity and Its Discontents,” in Voice Literary Supplement, 82 (February, 1990), 27. The interpretation of Sollors suffers from what Rosaldo has called the “post-modern problem of weightlessness.”

<15> Fischer, “Ethnicity and the Post-Modern Arts of Memory,” 20.

<16> On hegemony, see Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” in Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10 (Summer, 1986), 20-21; and Lipsitz, “The Struggle for Hegemony,” in Journal of American History, 75 (June, 1988), 146-151.

<17> Johs. Wist, “Our Cultural Stage,” in Cultural Pluralism versus Assimilation, 39; Waldemar Ager, “Our Cultural Possibilities,” in Cultural Pluralism versus Assimilation, 47.

<18> Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (London, 1988), 195-205.

<19> For the statement of the New York Times, see Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged, 35. Norwegian Americans who voted against the war resolution consistently referred to the war as a capitalist venture. A 1939 survey in North Dakota by the Works Progress Administration suggested that the congressmen’s attitudes were shared by many Norwegian Americans. When interviewers asked 121 first-generation Norwegian Americans whether they had supported American intervention, 105 said no, 16 yes. Those who did not support intervention often claimed that it was “a money man’s war.” See Wefald, Voice of Protest, 75.

<20> Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged, 40, 44.

<21> Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged, 42.

<22> The title of a chapter in Ole Edvart Rølvaag, Pure Gold, trans. Rølvaag and Sivert Erdahl (New York, 1930); Chrislock, Ethnicity Challenged, 56-88.

<23> Lovoll, Folk Epic, 150-15 1; N. T. Moen to S. H. Holstad, August 4, 1924, box 1, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<24> E. G. Quamme to Bothne, October 2, 1924, box 1, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<25> Mrs. A. Minger to Centennial Committee, January 25, 1925, box 1, Norse-American Centennial Papers; Ragna Tangjerd-Grimsby to Herborg Reque, April 3, 1925, Box 3, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<26> H. Holstad, Bulletin no. 7 from Centennial Committee to Local Organizers, March 28, 1925, Norse-American Centennial Papers; O. J. Kvale to Holstad, January 29, 1925, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<27> Holstad, Bulletin no. 5 from Centennial Committee to Local Organizers, March 9, 1925, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<28> Norse-American Centennial, Inc., Audit Report, July 31, 1925, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<29> David Glassberg, “Restoring a ‘Forgotten Childhood’: American Play and the Progressive Era’s Elizabethan Past,” in American Quarterly, 32 (Fall, 1980), 359-362; Glassberg, “History and the Public: Legacies of the Progressive Era,” in Journal of American History, 73 (March, 1987), especially 958, 959, 961; Hobsbawm, “Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” in Invention of Tradition, 1-14.

<30> Oscar Olson, Address to Odin Club, Decorah, Iowa, typescript, November 12, 1924, box 3, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<31> Victor Greene, American Immigrant Leaders, 1800-1910: Marginality and Identity (Baltimore, 1987), 13-16; Lipsitz, Time Passages (Minneapolis, 1989), 72.

<32> Victor Turner, “Introduction,” in Celebrations: Studies in Festivity and Ritual, ed. Victor Turner (Washington, 1982), 16; Roger D. Abrahams, “The Language of Festivals: Celebrating the Economy,” in Celebrations, 161.

<33> See Turner, “Introduction”; Edith Turner and Victor Turner, “Religious Celebrations,” in Celebrations; and Barbara Meyerhoff and Sally Falk Moore, eds., Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology (Ithaca, New York, 1975).

<34> O. M. Norlie, “Why We Celebrate,” in Norse-American Centennial, 1825-1925: Souvenir Edition (Minneapolis, 1925), 53, 55.

<35> Martin W. Odland, “Saga of the Norsemen in America,” in Norse-American Centennial, 31; Carl O. Pedersen, “The Norse-American Centennial,” typescript, (1925), 4, Carl O. Pedersen Papers, Archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<36> Pedersen, “Norse-American Centennial,” 72.

<37> Hannah Astrup Larsen, “The First Lady of ‘Restaurationen,’ “in Souvenir: Norse-American Women, 1825-1925, ed. Alma A. Gutterson and Regina Hilleboe Christensen (Minneapolis, 1926), 12-18; Pedersen, “Norse-American Centennial”; Knut Gjerset to Bothne, February 11, 1925, box 1, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<38> Glassberg, “History and the Public,” 965-970. On Willard Dillman, see Holstad, Bulletin no. 19 from Centennial Committee to Local Organizers, May 30, 1925, box 4, Norse-American Centennial papers.

<39> Norse-American Centennial, 83; “Pageant of the Northmen,” typescript, box 4, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<40> ”Pageant of the Northmen.”

<41> Anthony Swiatek, “Norse-American Centennial Medal Intriguing,” in Coin World, September 30, 1981, clipping, box 3, Norse-American Centennial Papers; U. S. Congress, House, Coinage of a Medal with Appropriate Emblems Commemorative of the Norse-American Centennial, House Report 1437, 68 Cong., 1 sess., February 10, 1925.

<42> Mrs. Gilbert Gutterson to Centennial Planning Committee, 1924, box 3, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<43> Norse-American Centennial, 1,2,4-11. On Stuart Hall’s theory of “preferred readings,” see John Fiske, “British Cultural Studies and Television,” in Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert Allen (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1987), 260-261. Odland, “Saga of the Norsemen,” 35; Norlie, “Why We Celebrate,” 55; Bothne to Edgar Erskine Hume, March 11, 1925, box 1, Norse-American Centennial Papers.

<44> Georg Sverdrup, president of Augsburg Seminary, to Bothne, November 7, 1924 (two letters), box 1, Norse-American Centennial Papers; Norlie to Bothne, December 10, 1924, Norse-American Centennial Papers; Norlie, “Why We Celebrate,” 54-55.

<45> Kristian Bogen, taped translation of Ager’s essay, October, 1987 (in April Schultz’s possession). For the Norwegian-language version, see Waldemar Ager, “Omkring Hundreaarsfesten,” in Norse-American Centennial, 12-13.

<46> Turner, “Introduction,” 21; Norlie, “Why We Celebrate,” 55-56.

<47> Michael Bristol, “Carnival and the Institution of Theatre in Elizabethan England,” in English Literary History, 50:4 (1983), 638; Sally Falk Moore, “Epilogue,” in Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology, 234.

<48> Tangjerd-Grimsby to Centennial Planning Committee, January 14, 1925, box 1, Norse-American Centennial Papers; Mrs. Moe to Centennial Planning Committee, February 4, 1925, Norse-American Centennial Papers; Bristol, “Carnival and the Institution of Theatre,” 640; Gary Saul Morson, “Who Speaks for Bakhtin? A Dialogic Introduction,” in Critical Inquiry, 10 (October/December, 1983), 228.

<49> Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York, 1978), 257.


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