Uff da! Twin Cities Nordic ties fade

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2013 - 2:22 PM

Census surveys find Scandinavian, German influence strong but melding.

Viveka Olai Stenberg settled into a table in the elegant new cafe of the American Swedish Institute in south Minneapolis and gazed at the faces around her. She asked herself, “Do these people really look Swedish?”

The visiting Swede peered at them one by one and decided the answer was “maybe.”

U.S. Census surveys released on Thursday yield an equally mixed response. More than a century after the great wave of European immigration, the Twin Cities area is still tremendously more Norwegian, Swedish and German than other metro areas. But the numbers are dwindling as an elderly immigrant population passes from the scene or retires to other places.

In just five years, surveys suggest, the number of Twin Cities metro residents calling themselves German-, Norwegian- or Swedish-American — the three biggest groups, by far — has dropped by nearly 100,000. Younger people increasingly are just saying “American” as generations of intermarriage dilute ethnic identity.

Still, one is nine or 10 times as likely to come across a person identifying as Nordic here than in other metro areas, according to the American Community Survey data, which trace the slow arc of demographic change across the nation.

Tom Holman, 60, of south Minneapolis is typical. He’s “half Swedish with other things mixed in.” He’s watched as Swedishness has faded in his family, from a grandmother who didn’t even speak English until age 8, to being the only one among his siblings who speaks the language, to having nieces and nephews who frankly “don’t carry it on” at all.

After more than 100 years in which the area’s Nordic flavor has profoundly marked the culture of Minnesota, groups like the Swedish Institute or the Sons of Norway can feel a fading of personal ties while hoping that the heritage still means something.

“If the measure is head count, then, yeah, there probably is an ongoing, gradual diminution,” said Bruce Karstadt, the institute’s president and CEO and the honorary consul general for Sweden.

“Does that mean interest is diminishing? I would say not.”

His counterpart at the Sons of Norway, Eivind Heiberg, detects an upsurge because of the precise demographic moment: a time when baby boomers are nearing retirement and thinking about the past.

“All of a sudden there’s a realization that, hey, their parents are in their 70s and 80s and will not be around forever, and it’s up to me to sort of carry the torch,” he said. “There’s a need they feel, and that’s where we see more and more people reaching out.”

German ancestry is the single most pronounced ethnicity in the Twin Cities area, at 32 percent. German is also the leading ethnicity across most of the northern tier of the United States.

But a strong Scandinavian band stretching through Minnesota from western Wisconsin into North Dakota has long marked us culturally as much as the French influence in Louisiana.

On a religious map, Lutherans leap out here in the same way that Mormons do in the West.

That, in turn, has influenced a powerful Minnesota involvement in refugee resettlement that is creating equally unusual distribution patterns among recent immigrants, such as Hmong and Africans. The latest census numbers show that although Twin Citians are much likelier to be native-born Americans than people in other metro areas, they are also much likelier to have been born in Africa than residents elsewhere.

Slow erosion

The wave of Nordic immigration came in the late 19th and early 20th century. In some families, the sense of identification remains.

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