Results from the most recent U.S. census show that an estimated 4.3 million Americans claim Norwegian ancestry. That’s quite a number considering Norway itself has a population today of just 5.3 million.
Among the population of these so-called ‘Norwegian Americans’ are up to 10% of the population of Washington state. In the first of a new series, the editor of the Seattle-based Norwegian American newspaper talks about the city and state’s links with Norway.
The story of Norwegians in Seattle
There has been a strong Norwegian presence in Washington state since the early days of mass migration from Scandinavia to the United States. Norway’s constitution day has been celebrated in Seattle ever since 1889, when a predecessor to today’s Norwegian American newspaper was founded.
“There are still families here with roots going back to that time,” explains editor Lori Ann Reinhall. Another wave of immigration followed after World War II. “Many of these immigrants came to work in the fishing industry and settled in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Fishing still accounts for about a quarter of Washington state’s economy, and even today, the Norwegians are running the show,” says Reinhall.
Scratch a little under the surface and it’s not hard to see the Norwegian pride in the Seattle region, especially Ballard. This includes Lutheran churches, lodges of the Sons of Norway and Daughters of Norway organisations, and an important new museum.
The National Nordic Museum
Although disrupted by the pandemic over the last 12 months, the National Nordic Museum has made a big impact on the community since its upgrading and reopening in 2018.
The ‘Nordic Journeys’ exhibition chronicles the story of the Norwegian American immigrants, and those from Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Education plays a central role in the museum’s role, with a craft school and adult language lessons among the activities on offer.
Modernizing the relationship
The University of Washington has the country’s largest Scandinavian studies department, which has also helped to foster the vibrant community using modern tools such as a podcast. Reinhall says that keeping hold of the heritage is more important than ever because Norway’s present wealth means there are far fewer people migrating for work or study.
“Sadly, fewer Norwegians are coming to study at our universities. When I was at the University of Washington, there were many Norwegian students who went on to have successful careers back home in Norway,” she says.
Reinhall learned Norwegian there and believes it’s an important tool to modernise the links between the region and Norway: “The ‘lutefisk and lefse’ culture is a somewhat anachronistic representation of Norway left over from the old days, but this too is changing. Many second and third generation Norwegian Americans no longer look at Norway as the ‘old country’ but see it as a modern model for innovation, business and social programs.”
The Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association facilitates exchanges at high school and university levels. A mural at Ballard’s Bergen Place Park commemorates the friendship.
Constitution Day celebrations
May 17 is Norway’s Constitution Day, celebrated every year not just in Norway but all around the world. The Ballard event has been held since 1974, although the day has been celebrated in the Seattle area since 1889.
Reinhall says that to the local Norwegian American community, the day is much bigger than the fourth of July: “The Ballard parade is the largest outside of Norway, attracting around 20,000 people in a typical year.”
There are some notable differences from the day in Norway, however. The festivities start with a big luncheon, with the parade held in the afternoon instead of the morning. While many Americans sport the traditional Norwegian bunad, Reinhall says there is a “less strict” adherence than in Norway: “Some people even wear sneakers with them to be able to march without aching feet.”