By Norwegian Ambassador Kåre R. Aas
This month, the former Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle dropped the middle third of its name and opened the doors to its spectacular new home. This landmark institution aims to serve as a cultural center with a focus not only on the past, but also on contemporary aspects of life — and the arts — in the five Nordic countries: Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden.Shared Nordic values such as equal opportunities, open societies, a climate-friendly economies and a strong belief in the merits of international cooperation seem to be attracting increasing interest throughout the world. Perhaps that’s partly due to the fact that Norway and the other Nordics seem to perform quite well in the informal rankings like the annual World Happiness Report.Financed mainly through private donations, the Nordic Museum’s new $45 million building is a testament to the resourceful Nordic American community. Norwegian and other Nordic immigrants who left their countries for a better life in America mostly did well. Through hard work, they sought to hand over an improved starting point to the next generation, thereby contributing to the American social fabric — and the economy.
When Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited President Trump at the White House in January, she gave him a golf club from a successful American manufacturer, which was founded by a Norwegian-born immigrant.Other Norwegian Americans made a name for themselves in various fields, including former vice presidents and presidential candidates Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, football star Knut Rockne, skier Stein Eriksen, Priscilla Presley and Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels.I am fortunate, as Norway’s ambassador to the United States, to have nearly 5 million culturally conscious “co-ambassadors” — Americans of Norwegian descent. Compare that to Norway’s population today of around 5.2 million! No other country except Ireland saw a larger share of its population leave in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And few ethnic groups in America seem more proud of their heritage than Norwegian Americans.For proof of this, look no further than the big celebrations that take place around the country every year on May 17, Norway’s Constitution Day. Emigration took the pressure off of Norway, a poor country with marginal conditions for agriculture. And it contributed to weaving the intricate pattern of strong personal bonds that are part of the close relations between Norway and the United States today.At the height of the exodus, 120 to 150 years ago, Norwegian immigrants settled primarily in the Upper Midwest, where good farmland was available. Many later moved on to other parts of the country, particularly California. While Minnesota is today home to the largest number of their descendants, North Dakota has the largest share, proportionally speaking: One-third of North Dakotans claim Norwegian heritage.&>Most of the immigrants were farmers. But in New York, Chicago and other booming metropolitan areas, newly arrived Norwegians were often seen on construction sites, perhaps balancing on a steel beam as new high-rises were being built. In the Pacific Northwest, they engaged in logging and fishing. Often congregating in culturally self-contained neighborhoods and communities, Norwegian immigrants sought comfort in each other’s company.
The dreams and challenges that faced the immigrants are vividly described in four novels by Norwegian author Edvard Hoem — highly recommended reading. Norwegian Americans were quick to establish institutions for higher education such as St. Olaf College and Pacific Lutheran University. They built churches and founded their own newspapers. The only publication remaining today, The Norwegian American, has been printed continuously for nearly 130 years, albeit under several different names. In Decorah, Iowa, a “Norwegian” institution, Vesterheim, the National Norwegian American Museum and Heritage Center, is the largest museum in the United States dedicated to one single group of immigrants.I sometimes wonder whether those who emigrated were different from those who remained in Norway. Was it the young and adventurous, the risk-takers, who left — leaving the more careful and conservative among their countrymen behind? If so, has this in any way impacted the culture of today’s Norwegians in Norway and “Norwegians” in the United States?Maybe the new Nordic Museum can help us find answers to questions like these. In any case, I am convinced it will offer what I hope are many visitors an opportunity to learn more about Norway and our Nordic neighbors.Kåre R. Aas has served as Norway’s ambassador to the U.S. since September 2013, prior to which he was political director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo.