Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Simpsons Strike a Chord on Syttende Mai

Did anyone happen to catch last Sunday's episode of The Simpsons? If so, you were treated to a special Syttende Mai treat as the episode had Norwegian immigrants "from Ogdenville" as the main focus of the story line. In truth, Matt Groening was making a commentary on U.S./Mexico immigration issues, but he supplanted Norwegians in the place of Mexican immigrants.

After watching the show, I got to thinking about whether Groening, the Simpsons creator, may have also been tipping his cap to the way Norwegians were treated in the early days of their mass immigration to the U.S. I mean, the fact that this episode ran on Syttende Mai couldn't have been a coincidence, right? It got me so curious, in fact, that I asked Colin, our man in the "cultural" know at Sons of Norway HQ, whether or not Norwegians had ever suffered from discrimination due to their immigrant status?

After looking into the subject a bit, here's what he found:

Not so long ago, Norwegians, Scandinavians and other Northern Europeans did indeed experience a degree of discrimination right here in the United States. In fact, the very existence of Sons of Norway is, in a sense, a product of discrimination against these new Americans. You see in the late 1800s immigrants were generally barred from buying life insurance, and so the organization was founded to provide basic financial protection to people who otherwise couldn’t get them.

Like other immigrant groups throughout history, Nordics were selected for the most difficult and dangerous jobs that other workers didn’t want. Specifically, Norwegian immigrants worked in shipping, fishing and logging; later many Finish immigrants found work in the logging camps and mines of Northern Minnesota and Michigan; and a mainly Swedish workforce in Minnesota built James J Hill’s railroad empire. In fact, Hill, a legendary tycoon, was so fond of his cheap Swedish workforce he once said of them, “Give me snuff, whiskey and Swedes and I can damn well build a railroad down to hell.” Some native-born Americans viewed the new workers from across the sea with resentment, calling them “squareheads” or “scandihoovians.”

Then, in the period around World War I America was stricken by a pandemic of anti-immigrant hysteria. Immigrants of all nationalities were ridiculed in public and the press by intolerant “nativists” who felt that America belonged only to them. Norwegian-language newspapers, for example, were targeted under the suspicion that they might be stirring up anti-war or anti-American sentiment. Many immigrants adopted American names and stopped speaking their native languages altogether.

Another particularly disturbing example of this happened in my home town, Duluth, Minnesota, in 1918. A group of vigilantes calling themselves the “Knights of Liberty” lynched a Finnish man, Olli Kinkkonen, from a tree in Duluth’s Lester Park, just blocks from where I grew up. Believing him to be an anti-war agitator the mob dragged Kinkkonen from a boarding house, tarred and feathered him, then hung him from a tree. You can read more about Olli’s story here.

At the same time Scandinavian immigrants benefited enormously from the opportunities afforded to them. Most Norwegian and Swedish immigrants arrived during the latter half of the 19th century, when America needed hardworking people to head west and settle the rapidly-expanding country. Of key importance was the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, which gave away at least 160 acres to anyone if they simply lived on the land and developed it. Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes settled especially in the Midwest and participated eagerly in American society, getting involved in local government and founding schools and churches. They also formed Sons of Norway and other organizations like it, so that they could maintain and celebrate the heritage and culture of their old country while making the transition to their new one.

I was amazed at everything that Colin found. I had no idea how prevalent discrimination against Scandinavians was here in the U.S. and I think it's a very interesting topic that a lot of folks may not know about. Now, I'm guessing The Simpsons were trying to make a little different point, about showing a little more tollerance towards newly arrived citizens, but I like to think the show was also giving a wink to the interesting history of Scandinavians in America and celebrating their successes.

1 comment:

I.M. Buffaloed said...

I agree. There was a bit of discrimination back in the early 1900s.