Star Tribune and Associated Press file photos
Content to be cold in Star of the North
Minnesota is a mostly German state best known for its Scandinavian forebears, with a French motto and the largest concentration of Somali and Hmong residents in the United States.
These facts make discussing our culture almost as complex as debating who’s been the best Vikings’ quarterback, or if lutefisk is best served with cream sauce or butter (or, yes, irony), or whether passive-aggressiveness is about a sincere desire not to offend or just people who can’t take a joke.
Yet it’s safe to say there’s one thing that binds us: Among our fellow Americans, we are considered fearlessly frigid.
We embrace our identity as “the Star of the North,” or “L’Etoile du Nord.” Alaska notwithstanding, we have the northernmost border, thanks to the Northwest Angle that nudges into Canada just a skosh. We go “up North” year-round, honor International Falls as “the nation’s icebox,” fish through holes in the ice and regularly note how cold keeps the riff-raff out (which also neatly conveys our self-image of non-riff-raffness.)
Come on, that was a joke.
In the end, Minnesota’s culture is rooted in, challenged and inspired by a sense of reserve, by holding itself slightly apart from the rest of the country, mining pride from a slightly perverse philosophy: We’re not for everyone.
This stance burbles up when rubes on the coasts mention “flyover country.” We roll our eyes at such parochialism.
It persists in our love/hate relationship with that accent from “Fargo.” Overdone, we snort, yet we relish correcting the record.
The depth of this bond was unexpectedly glimpsed last year in the grief over Prince’s death. Minnesotans from a range of ages, tastes and backgrounds felt honest sorrow at tributes, in concerts, by festooning the fence at Paisley Park.
Who would’ve thought? Why, it was as if favorite son Bob Dylan had died.
Ahh, no, came the reply, it’s not surprising at all. You see, Prince loved being a Minnesotan. Prince never left.
A collage of cultures
Minnesota tends toward the self-satisfied, a trait that can be both sinful and sustaining.
Yet all in all, we don’t spend that much time measuring ourselves against others’ yardsticks — or at least not as much time as outsiders presume.
We look within. The immense Minnesota State Fair retains the classic trappings of a county exposition — and nobody else enshrines their dairy princesses in blocks of butter. The Guthrie Theater is a regional gem, and only the largest of many respected stages here.
The Mall of America is the biggest shopping complex in the country, attracting spenders from around the world. The stellar Minnesota Orchestra has an international reputation. We vote like it matters.
Our culture is generational, evident in the passion with which Minnesotans regard their cabins. On average, people own them for 24 years, a span among the highest in the U.S. for seasonal homes. Most say they have no intention of ever giving them up. Great-grandchildren marvel at knotty pine walls.
Likewise, our culture also is wet, for many of those cabins are “up at the lake.” (Newcomers have been known to ask, “Where is this lake that everyone goes to?”) The paths around Minneapolis’s chain of ponds attract crowds even when the temps drop below freezing. St. Paul’s Winter Carnival sometimes features a palace made of ice. Lake City is where water-skiing was invented. Lake Superior is just that.
Our culture is curious and well-read, with both Minneapolis and St. Paul in the top 10 of America’s Most Literate Cities. And sure, it’s the cities that always get counted, but people in towns and villages and acreages and cabins and farms also read a lot, too. There’s just no formal study to back that up.
We must be honest: This literate nature is born partly from our arguable isolation, partly from our manifest winters. There are a lot of long, dark hours to fill.
But there’s also a writerly tradition: Think F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ole Rolvaag, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Garrison Keillor, Louise Erdrich, Robert Bly and now a raft of fine young authors, many championed by local presses with national reputations.
Just a little different
Our culture also includes Minnesotans who have made our population far more diverse over the generations. There are Hmong who proved crucial allies to the U.S. during the Vietnam War, and Somalis, many of them refugees from civil war in their homeland.
There are the state’s original inhabitants, the Chippewa and Ojibwe, who saw French voyageurs come ashore, explorers make their way from the east, and immigrants from Europe fence the prairie and open new businesses.
Yet we are not a state of great diversity. Of the more than 5.3 million residents, more than 4.5 million are white. Those from other roots are far, far fewer. Divisions among residents ebb and flow, as do the tensions between rural and urban. Not always, but sometimes.
Still, here we are, populating a progressive state known for its myths — for Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, for Rocky and Bullwinkle, for Lake Wobegon. We are by the shores of Gitche Gumee. We are the state of hockey (and the State High School All-Hockey Hair Team.) We are the Star of the North.
We’re not for everyone.
But we like it here.