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Arland Fiske column: The ‘Americanization’ of Norwegian immigrants

World War I not only broke up the German Empire, but also brought an end to the dream of a “New Norway” in the United States.

 I grew up in the aftermath of those days and remember the heated discussions that went on in the Norwegian-American communities.

The earliest immigrants from Scandinavia were eager to become Americans and readily intermarried with Yankees and other ethnic groups. But after the Civil War, the flow of immigrants became so heavy and concentrated in some areas of the Midwest that there was little reason to learn English except to pass grades in public schools and get a loan from the bankers.

Norway’s independence from the Sweden in 1905 lifted Norwegian pride to new heights. By 1914, when the centennial of the constitution was celebrated both in Norway and America, you’d have thought that the Norwegian-Americans were going to treat English as a second language forever. The Norwegian language newspapers were going strong.

The “Big Three” were Skandinaven of Chicago, the Minneapolis Tidende (Times) and the Decorah-Posten. The Chicago paper printed both daily and semi-weekly editions. The Decorah-Posten boasted a circulation of 41,000, even though the city had but a few thousand people living in it.

There were other popular papers too. The Nordisk Tidende in Brooklyn is still publishing. The Decorah-Posten sold its subscription list to the Western Viking in Seattle, which is still going. Normanden of Grand Forks was the leading North Dakota paper with 10,000 subscribers and the Fram (Forward) in Fargo was in second place. They merged in 1917.

The University of North Dakota established a Scandinavian program in the early 1890s. Teaching Norwegian as an elective in public schools began in 1913. Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Valley City were among those establishing these programs. Every May 17 the excitement for Norwegian-America reached a feverish pitch, especially in 1914, when Governor Hanna represented the state in Oslo for the unveiling of the Lincoln in Frogner Park.

My parents, however, would speak only English in my presence, fearing I’d have a speech handicap when starting school. My mother would say, “We live in America!” As long as she lived, my mother answered me in English when I spoke to her in Norwegian. I learned Norwegian from my paternal grandmother, who refused to speak English. My father, however, would sing hymns to me in Norwegian. Some of those melodies still ring in my soul. He would not converse with me in Norwegian, however.

There were six Norwegian Lutheran denominations using the mother language, all competing with each other and printing their own literature. Religious instruction in the Norwegian language was the rule in most congregations into the 1920s. My father’s confirmation certificate that hangs framed on our kitchen wall is in Norwegian. A few brave congregations used the word “English” in their names. One of these was Olivet English Lutheran Church on Fargo’s south side.

Several other denominations also had Norwegian publications, notably the Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons. There were a number of independent publications too; one of them in Minneapolis entitled Gaa Paa (Forward) that promoted Marxist socialism. Up until the beginning of World War I, ethnic pluralism was accepted as a part of the American way of life.

The war changed all that, especially for the North Europeans. Germans were the hardest hit. It was forbidden to teach and even hold worship services in the German language in many places. Scandinavians, having a long-standing relationship with Germany, were especially suspect of being pro-Kaiser in the war years because of their common bond as Lutherans. Some of our Yankee neighbors accused our family as being “Pro-Kaiser,” even though my father’s oldest brother was killed in France.

Americans are often roused to emotional prejudice, such as renaming “french fries” as “freedom fries,” though the name had nothing to do with France, but was named after a restaurateur named “French.”

Next week: The ‘Americanization’ of Norwegian immigrants – part II.


ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who lives in Moorhead, is the author of nine books on Scandinavian themes.