Of Woods And Words: Cultural Identity, Northeastern Minnesota Style

Irish Flag
Irish Flag

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Once upon a time, back in my short-lived Girl Scout days, the topic of our weekly meeting centered around cultural identity. The scout leader thought one way to demonstrate what a blend of cultures Minnesota has was to have each of 15 8-year-old girls tell about their ancestry. We moved around the table and each girl quickly offered a percentage about her ethnic identity, more often than not something like 50 percent Norwegian, 40 percent Swedish and 10 percent German. I was the last girl to speak. “Um, I’m from Minnesota?” I proclaimed uncertainly.

We’d never spoken about cultural identity in my house. Later on in life, when I delved into my genealogy, I discovered part of why we were so silent on the subject. Several ancestors came across the Atlantic just a few years after the Pilgrims. With that much time spent stateside, my family had shed any Old World ties for an all-American identity long ago.

I am one of the few un-Lutheran, un-Scandinavian residents of northern Minnesota. I am not genetically conditioned to take kindly to lutefisk and lefse, and Garrison Keillor might as well be speaking gibberish for all I know. Hotdish, what?

Turns out my ancestors came, almost solely, from the British Isles. A mixture of Cornish, English, and Irish blood runs through my American veins. And when you’re more likely to utter a “cheerio old chap,” than an “uffda,” there are a lot of traditions in northern Minnesota you find yourself excluded from. As if my non-blonde hair didn’t set me apart from my classmates enough, my long-suffering Scandinavian peers had to explain to me what rosemaling and krumkake were too. About all I knew was that St. Lucia walked around with a wreath of candles on her head on some day in December, and that just sounded like a fire hazard.

Even today, after more than 25 years of immersion in Scandinavian culture northern Minnesota style, I still look at those Swedish carved dala horses and think “huh?” All those signs on the side of buildings that read “Parking for Norwegians Only” leave me wondering where exactly I should put my car.

364 days of the year, I feel like a mild misfit around here, but the 365th, I totally get to own. On St. Patrick’s Day, I pull out my “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirt and whip up a batch of Irish soda bread. As the sweet, savory smell of the baking bread fills the cabin, I drape the Irish flag I bought in the Dublin airport over a door. I tell the story of “Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato” to anyone who’s willing to listen, while “Danny Boy” pipes mournfully in the background.

A semester abroad in Ireland during college strengthened my cultural identity more than a lifetime in northern Minnesota ever could, but at only 25 percent Irish, I don’t hold too tightly to my Irish ancestry on a day-to-day basis. Still, it feels good to deck myself out in green for a day filled with my family’s traditions. Granted, everyone’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Here’s wishing you a bit o’ Irish luck this St. Paddy’s Day, whether you hail from County Mayo, Dublintown, Oslo or Stockholm.

Airdate: March 16, 2011

Photo courtesy of Ralf Peter Reimann via Flickr.

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