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Norwegians explore cultural heritage in Syttende Mai

Eric Dregni, an assistant professor of English at Concordia College in St. Paul, wrote a book, "In Cod We Trust," about his experiences in Norway as a Fulbright Scholar. He shares his views and read from his book Sunday night at the Bemidji Lodge of Sons of Norway Syttende Mai celebration dinner at Concordia Language Villages' Skogfjorden. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

SKOGFJORDEN -- Sooner or later, Norwegian-Americans want to explore their Norwegian roots.

At least three generations later.

"The first generation that comes over wants to be American -- they want to speak English," says Eric Dregni, an assistant professor of English at Concordia College in St. Paul. "The second generation just doesn't want anything to do with it. Their parents have their accents."

Dregni, a Fulbright fellow, spent a year in Norway with his wife, Katy, and young son (born while in Norway),visiting his roots as a Norwegian-American.

"It's the third generation that rediscovers it," Dregni said in an interview Sunday night. "So that was my dad. He's the one who really brought it back into the family, trying to make sense out of all of these traditions.

"He would sit us down for Norwegian dinner. Everything was white on our plate. ... It takes a while for the younger generation."

Dregni was the keynote speaker at Sunday night's Syttende Mai celebration at Skogfjorden, Concordia Language Villages' Norwegian camp northwest of Bemidji. Sponsored by the Sons of Norway Bemidji Lodge, the banquet notes Constitution Day in Norway, when on May 17, 1814, the Baltic Sea nation adopted its own constitution.

The dinner brought 125 people to the Norway language village's Gimle dining hall, where chefs served traditional Norwegian foods.

After singing the national anthems of the United States, Canada and Norway, the group said a Norwegian table prayer, or Bordbonn, "i Jesu navn gar vi til bords ..."

The prayer, translated by the lodge's cultural and heritage director, George Olson of Northome, means:

"In Jesus' name, we go to the table to eat and drink, according to His Word.

"Dear God, thanks for the things you've given us, so we eat this food in Jesus' name."

The meal began with smorbrod, or open-faced sandwiches, followed by a thick vegetable soup and a sweet fruity salad. The main course was chicken breast with geitost sauce, or brown goat cheese sauce. And dessert was rommegraut, or a thick sour cream porridge on which one puts a butter pat and sprinkles with cinnamon.

Dregni read several chapters from his book, "In Cod We Trust," which tells of his year in Norway studying at a university in Trondheim. But he also told of following his roots, traveling to the family farm and seeing the homestead of his great-grandfather, Ellef Draeni, with the Norwegian spelling smashing the "ae" together as one character.

He named his son Ellef, after his great-grandfather.

"For me, being from Minnesota and Norwegian and Swedish, it was natural," Dregni says of his quest to Norway in 2003-04. "Going over there, they'd say, 'Oh, your great-grandfather was Norwegian. Well, welcome back."

That was hard to acdept, he said, as he'd been to Italy but never Norway. "Being over there a while I realized how much Scandinavian culture has in fact influenced Minnesota."

Norway and Italy are similar, Dregni said, because they're both European countries. But Norway is much more similar to Minnesota than Norway is to Italy.

"Italy is similar to New York City," he said. "It's hustle-bustle, fashion."

As to visiting Norway, "a lot of things made sense to me," he said. "I expected it to be a lot more different, and of course the language is very different. Just how people are -- their honesty, always being on time, a lot of that we get from Norway."

Minnesota and North Dakota have the largest percentages of Norwegian-Americans, yet the Norway government last year downsized its operations in the United States, consolidating its consulate from Minneapolis to Chicago.

The move wasn't appreciated by Dregni, but he said former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe were able to maintain a pseudo-consulate in the Twin Cities.

"It seems to me they sort of worked out a good compromise," Dregni said. "It's between an honorary consulate and a real consulate. They've gotten some money from the Norwegian government to hire some staff. We'll see how it goes."

What is the point of a Norwegian consulate, Dregni asks. "It's to represent Norwegians, both abroad and at home. So it was a little shortsighted, because I think that these are people who really care about Norway.

"In a sense, the people here care more about Norway than the Norwegians do, only because they are Norwegians and they don't have to do all these things that show that they're Norwegians," he added. "They just do it. It's natural for them, whereas people here make a conscious effort."

The effort practiced Sunday night was the celebration or Syttende Mai, or Norwegian Constitution Day when, on May 17, 1814, Norway created a democratic form of government by adopting its constitution

It's celebrated in Norway as is July 4th Independence Day is in the United States.

Several Sons of Norway Lodge members said they'd received phone calls from relatives or offspring now in Norway, telling about the ongoing celebrations there.

Dregni read from his book about how he received his Fulbright scholarship, and how his newborn son was covered under Norway's "socialized" medicine system. The baby's birth was covered, and $5,000 tax credit given to boot. And, the Norwegian government pays $145 to the parents for the son or daughter's upbringing to age 18 -- doubled payment if a single parent.

Dregni said he had to write several serious letters to get the payments stopped once they returned home to the United States.

"The welfare system was paid for by high taxes, especially income tax, which didn't seem to raise the rancor that it would in the United States," he writes in his book. "Many people in Norway were proud of their welfare system, but Norwegian modesty kept them from bragging."

Paying for children's upbringing ensures good future citizens, Norwegians believe. And good future taxpayers to keep the system afloat and stable.