Some question festival’s accuracy

by Paul Sanders

Although Minnesota has a history rich with many cultures, presenting ethnic and cultural groups for an event like the Minnesota Heritage Festival can be a difficult task.
The festival, which took place from Thursday through Sunday in Minneapolis, featured a variety of historic and ethnic entertainment events ranging from a Laotian Christian Dance Group to a Viking encampment. But some University historical and cultural authorities say the portrayal of Minnesota’s history at such a festival may not be completely accurate.
David Isham, director of the University’s American Indian Learning Resource Center, said any ethnic group’s culture is difficult to present through a festival to the general public. Cultures are often diverse within themselves, Isham said, using his own Native American culture as an example.
Although he hadn’t attended the festival, Isham said it was important that Native Americans were represented. “If you’re looking at this area and its history, it makes sense.”
But Isham also said it’s important for the festival to represent other ethnic groups of Minnesota’s diverse history. “There were American Indians; there were Scandinavians; there have always been a lot of groups in this area.”
For festivals that seek to present cultural groups in a historical context, as the heritage festival does, “accurate representation should be stressed,” Isham said. “Organizers need to do a little research. They need to go beyond the stereotypes.”
Troy Anderson, an event coordinator for the festival, said he believes the event is historically and culturally accurate.
“We consulted with a number of local museums and historical societies, like the Minnesota Historical Society, the Art Godfrey House,” Anderson said. “I think it’s accurate for each of the historical periods in the state’s history.”
But Joel Wurl, curator and assistant director of the University Immigration Research Center, said the inclusion of Viking reenactments in the festival may have been misleading to the general public.
Some scholars believe the Vikings may have reached Minnesota in their voyages 600 years ago, though the debate has never been resolved.
Wurl said, “That gets into the mythology of Scandinavian and Nordic immigration, which really took place in the mid-19th and early 20th century.
“Scandinavians themselves played a role in transforming and promoting that Viking image and Viking mythology in Minnesota,” Wurl said.
However, as the ancestors of many present-day Minnesotans, some believe their portrayal in a state heritage celebration is justified.
Anderson recognized that Vikings may have not actually visited Minnesota, but said that isn’t the point of including a Viking reenactment in the festival. “A large portion of the population here is Scandinavian and they represent that.”
Hyman Berman, a University professor of American history, said he hadn’t attended the heritage festival. But the choice of some of the publicized events presented a somewhat skewed version of Minnesota’s immigration history, he said.
Using the festival’s publicity advertising of Scottish Highlander historic reenactments as an example, Berman said, “There were hardly any Scottish highlanders that came to Minnesota.”
Highlanders numbers were quite small in comparison to other ethnic groups in Minnesota, said Berman, who co-authored a book, “They Chose Minnesota,” which tells the history of ethnic immigrant groups that came to Minnesota.
Germans were the single largest ethnic group that settled in Minnesota, Berman said. Scandinavians, if considered collectively, were larger in number. But Norwegians, Swedes and Finns each have their own distinctive culture, Berman said.
Shirley Frei from the Minneapolis suburb of Hilltop said she enjoyed the representation of the Scottish Highlanders in the festival regardless of their comparatively small numbers as Minnesota immigrants.
“I think the festival is great,” said Frei as she watched bagpipe players parade down Southeast Main Street on Sunday, “It’s nice to see things from years ago. I love the sound of bagpipes.”