Am I Norwegian-American or just American?

Posted on 21. Nov, 2008 by in Culture

There are several pockets of the United States that are heavily populated with descendants of Norwegians.  When someone asks me where my descendants are from, I say Norway (because literally all of my great-grandparents except one are from Norway and without them, my existence would be impossible).  However, I don’t say that I am Norwegian.  Years ago before I went to Norway when I would hear others say “I’m German” or “I’m Irish,” perhaps I would say “I’m Norwegian.”  Not anymore. 

Norwegians do not appreciate it when Americans or anyone else say that they are Norwegian.  I’m sure they would hate it too if an American said he/she was Irish just because of their heritage.  I think it’s hard for people who are not from the United States to understand how we, as Americans, identify ourselves.  Many recent immigrants to the United States still maintain very strong ties with their home countries and the people in their home countries still see those who emigrated as a part of their nationality.  However, I think at least for the mass emigration of Norwegians at the turn of the 20th century, the story is different.  Most Norwegians today (unless they still maintain a relationship with their American offspring) don’t necessarily care about my generation of Norwegian-Americans or even my parent’s generation of Norwegian-Americans.  They think, “Ok, so a lot of Norwegians abandoned this country 100 years ago.  Their offspring are Americans, not Norwegians.”  The United States is still such a young country and during it’s early years, it was made up of so many different nationalities (with even greater diversity today), it’s hard for some Americans to say that they are just simply Americans.  Of course, they are Americans.  However, I know that I, personally, have a hard time not associating myself with my ancestors’ country of origin because my family still has ties to Norway and we still continue some of the same traditions that Norwegians do.  It seems like most Americans feel this way. 

I think Norway’s history with Denmark and Sweden (which I briefly explained in the last post) is another reason that Norwegians feel so strongly about who is considered part of their nationality.  Norway was not a completely sovereign nation for over five centuries!  When Norwegians were finally able to say that they were their own people, governed by themselves, they became a very nationalistic people, naturally.  It kind of reminds me of teenagers who turn 18 and fully embrace their independence. 

There is quite a large immigrant population in Oslo and in most other big cities in Norway.  This is a fairly recent development and there are mixed feelings about this reality.  Several family members and friends that I spent time with in Norway are not pleased with the influx of immigrants and the effects this has on Norway.  I will save this conversation for another post, however. 

Just remember to be careful if your ancestors are from Norway; do not say that you are Norwegian!�

About kari

I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where I majored in Norwegian and History. During college, I spent almost a year living in Oslo, Norway, where I attended the University of Oslo and completed an internship at the United States Embassy. I have worked for Concordia Language Villages as a pre-K Norwegian teacher and have taught an adult Norwegian language class. Right now, I keep up by writing this Norwegian blog for Transparent Language. Please read and share your thoughts! I will be continuing this blog from my future residence in the Norwegian arctic!

35 Responses to “Am I Norwegian-American or just American?”

  1. Shanna 17 February 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    I am an American with Viking heritage. Norwegian Vikings are in my bloodline. I enjoy learning the history of Norway and I think it’s wonderful.

  2. Guri 23 March 2009 at 4:34 am #

    Haha, that is actually true.. Im norwegian. I hate it when people say that.. or.. I dont hate it, but I think its weird.. Especially when they dont speak norwegian!

  3. Shanna 23 March 2009 at 12:32 pm #

    I’m an American and wont deny that fact. But the Vikings are in my bloodline. I’m trying to learn the language (not doing so good..pronunciation), still trying to at least have an idea what they say to me. I’m going to Oslo in December as a tourist. Looking forward to it. I promise not to say that I’m Norwegian. Nope, I’m an American living in West Virginia.

  4. Norwegian girl 27 March 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    That’s a good point! When I was an exchange student in the USA during my high school years, I met a girl who said “Oh cool! You’re Norwegian! So am I!”. i was so thrilled, and said: “Er du norsk? Hvor i Norge kommer du fra :)”.She just looked at me flabbergasted and said “uhm, what language is that?” I was disappointed (finally I had the chance to speak Norwegian, but no), and couldn’t understand how she would brag about something that wasn’t even true (in Norway we prefer saying we’re not good at things even though we might be quite good at it – janteloven).

    I played the violin for many years, and played for a symphony orchestra, yet I don’t call myself a violinist – as I’m not a proffesional. In the US, people I met who had played the violin for a couple of months walked around with their heads up saying they were violinists.

    When an American told me they were Irish or Italian or Norwegian and didn’t know the language or the name of the capital of that country I considered that arrogant bragging, probably because i grew up in very different culture. I mean, my father is French and came to Norway when he was 25 and I learnt French from him, yet I wouldn’t even consider myself French (only half-French).

    I’m a Norwegian because I was born here, have citizenship, speak the language, know the culture and references. I have no problem with someone with Pakistani parents saying they’re Norwegian because they are just as Norwegian as I am (born here/came here when they were very young, speak the language, know the cultural codes etc.), but I understand why they feel Pakistani too: they speak urdu at home, are muslims, go to Pakistan every summer, have many Pakistani friends etc. They are much more involved with Pakistan and its culture than most “Irish”/”Italian”/”Norwegian” Americans I’ve met.

  5. Karoline 4 June 2009 at 3:52 am #

    Hi
    I’m Norwegian and yes it does annoy me when I meet americans who say they are Norwegian, especially when they don’t know what city the capital is or even know how the language sounds. I know lots of american still connects to their roots, but somewhere a few geneartions back, there were some scottish people in my family, but i’m Norwegian because i dont know those people who were scottish and i don’t know enough about their lives to call myself scottish. It might sound cold, but don’t think much about the family i had a 100 years ago.y family has lived in Norway so long that we are norwegians ;)

  6. Karoline 5 June 2009 at 5:09 pm #

    hehe du kan norsk godt så ;) denne siden er veldig bra, ante ikke at det var så stor interesse for Norge og det norske språket før nå! Keep it up

  7. Shanna 5 June 2009 at 7:12 pm #

    Please translate. I am an American with Norwegian bloodlines but I never professed to be a Norwegian. So please translate your last statement.

  8. Kari 6 June 2009 at 10:02 am #

    Karoline said “hehe your Norwegian is good so this page is really good, didn’t think there was so much interest in Norway and the Norwegian language before now! Keep it up.”

  9. chad 20 July 2009 at 9:29 am #

    Im sorry that you feel that way and hope you can over come it ! I understand what you are saying but maybe you should tell them not hate them . I have norwegain heritage in my family and I am very proud of my heritage .

  10. Elle 23 July 2009 at 2:38 am #

    This is a mindset shared by the English too. Not so strongly as to say you *hate* when someone calls themselves a particular nationality, when they weren’t born there and have never lived there, but it seems… odd.

    It comes down to the statement of “where you are from”.

    To a Norwegian (or English person), this would mean the place you were born. If you’ve moved, you would say “Now I live in …”, whereas it seems Americans would change to say “I am from …” (the new place), even if they only moved there yesterday.

    I think it’s simply a matter of perspective.

  11. Kari 23 July 2009 at 7:56 am #

    yes, I agree, hate is a strong word. Perhaps the Norwegians who have made such comments to me about Americans with Norwegian heritage who say “I’m Norwegian” when asked where they are from or what nationality they are, don’t really HATE it, but rather it deeply annoys them. I was simply relaying the messages I have received.

  12. Kristoffer 6 August 2009 at 7:01 pm #

    People who come from two different cultures are often considered outsiders by both their bloodlines and that is a shame. Perhaps those who are lucky enough to be born in Norway will never completely understand those of us who are so lucky as to share a heritage in two wonderful nations.

    I for one am proud to say I am a Norwegian-American. I am neither one nor the other but a combination of both. Although this has brought negative comments upon me from both sides in the past, I cannot bring myself to choose one heritage over the other. They are both a part of me.

    I was born in America and am a second generation American citizen. But I grew up in a home with four generations of Norwegian immigrants and Norwegian-Americans. I live in a town with a healthy Norwegian-American population and a profound respect for our ancestry and traditions. If a native born Norwegian thinks it’s odd that I count myself as part of the same culture, I think it odd that anyone feels they could shed a thousand years of such a rich heritage over the course of a generation or two.

    The old language might be one of the first things a family loses when it emigrates to a new land. Couple that with the fact that the American culture doesn’t always foster bilingualism and one might not be surprised to find a lot of Norwegian-Americans who don’t speak much of the Norwegian language. For those who weren’t fortunate enough to have grandparents to teach them, the old language is a maze of different dialects and conflicting spellings and pronounciations. Books and CDs that can teach the language “properly” are hard to find.

    Every person has a right to find their own identity, the other people or places that make them feel like they belong. Often the best place to look for that identity is in your own family tree. To paraphrase an old expression, “You can take someone out of Norway, but you can’t take the Norway out of them.”

    Finally, though I too was raised not to brag about my accomplishments, jeg tror at jeg snakker Norsk ikke så dårlig, takk så mye. :)

  13. Vilde 7 August 2009 at 9:55 am #

    Very good post, I am Norwegian and agree completely. I get very annoyed at Americans that call themselves Norwegian or even Norwegian-American.
    Because, really, they’re not. To call yourself Norwegian(or any other country for that matter) would require you too live there and be a part of the culture. You have to speak the language and know the social norms. Most of all; you have to care for Norway the most. Most people who say they are Norwegians that live in America doesn’t care what goes on here. They’re main concern is America.(And it should be because they are Americans. ) They don’t follow the politics or feel the pain if something happens here.
    We’re a small country with a lot of culture and history and I thinks it’s extremely presemptious to believe that you can just be a part of that without contributing to the country what so ever.. Most of so called Norwegian-Americans don’t even have enything authentic. They show off they’re “Norwegian national costumes” and alot of the times they’re cheap imitations..

    I’m sorry if that offends you; but this is one thing that really annoyes me about Americans..
    (Sorry if there are grammar mistakes; English is obviously not my first language, so I hope you’ll ignore any mistakes. ;P)

  14. Karoline 7 August 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    yes, I get what you’re saying. (it felt a little odd when you said “the old” language, since people still talk that language). The Norwegian language still has a lot of dialects and different ways to pronounce a word. So in that way Norwegian isn’t easy to understand unless you know it well. I understand other dialects but its because its all the same to me, i’ve heard it before. I didn’t get what you meant about learning the language properly, because if you live in a place with a certain dialect, you’re guarantied to speak that way. Learning it in classes you’re most likely to learn bokmål, as opposed to nynorsk, because bokmål is more “common”. (the two written forms). Hehe, what you wrote in Norwegian was very..formal :P. I don’t think we would put it like that. More something; jeg syns ikke jeg snakker så dårlig norsk! But it was correct ;)
    But don’t concern yourself about what dialect you learn, no one is more “right” than other.

  15. Kristoffer 7 August 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Vilde, I’m sincerly sorry if it annoys you that I am a Norwegian-American, but it doesn’t change who I am. It may sound presumptuous that I count myself as part Norwegian, but I find it presumptuous (and perhaps a little annoying) that you feel I’m not. Please do me the favor of understanding that I was raised by proud Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans. The love and respect for tradition that my parents and grandparents taught me far outweighs your annoyance. Your grammar is quite good, by the way. I wish I could communicate in Norsk as well as you do in English. :)

    Karoline, I guess it must seem odd if I called your day-to-day language “old”. Sorry about that. :) Of course, it is only the “old language” from my family’s perspective. The trouble I have with speaking to native Norwegians is that my family’s speech seems to have evolved in its own direction since they emigrated from Toten. Sometime’s its seems to me as if there is Bøkmal, Nynorsk, and “Utvandrersnorsk”. Guess which one I’m used to?

    I appreciate your advice on the “formality” of my speech. With all the different language sources I am exposed to (family, movies, Aftenposten) and no formal education in the language, I know I don’t always get it right. Takk for hjelpet!

    I’m glad I found this thread. It is nice to hear everyone’s opinion on this subject, even if I can’t agree with them all. A sincere “thank you” to everyone.

    -Kristoffer Larsen
    (Norwegian American)

  16. Vilde 9 August 2009 at 8:36 am #

    I was not really talking about you in particular, as you seem honestly interested in Norway.
    Are your parents Norwegian? If so, then of course you would be American-Norwegian, but if its a lot further down the family line then i don’t think thats right.. I am not denying that anyone have Norwegian blood in them, but wouldn’t it be more accurate too say that you/they have a Norwegian Heritage and not that you ARE Norwegian? Techincally you DO need a citizenship to be citzen of a country after all..

  17. Elle 9 August 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    I wonder how this whole situation operates in reverse: At what point does an immigrant *to* Norway become “Norwegian”? I think Vilde’s point about caring for a place is a good one. Someone who moves to Norway but who ignores the local news in favour of reading about the place they came from will never truly become part of that society, regardless of whether they apply for and get citizenship.

  18. Kristoffer 9 August 2009 at 8:08 pm #

    Hei igjen, Vilde.

    I don’t take your comments at all personally, please don’t worry. And if I was in your position I might feel the same way you do.

    Actually, my family has been in America for quite some time. The last of us to leave Norway came here sometime in the 1920s. Perhaps you would have to see the village where I grew up to understand why we feel the way we do here. The immigrants who settled here are some of the only people of Norwegian descent for hundreds of miles around, so we tend to stick together. For many, many years we have kept the customs from the “Old Country”, eaten traditional Norwegian food, and kept the language alive in this little town.

    As the population has grown older, things have changed. But we have tried very hard not to forget where we came from. When I was a young boy (not too many years ago) the local Lutheran church used to hold a separate service in Norwegian. For a long time that service was better attended than the one in English.

    We celebrate Syttende Mai every year and sing “Ja vi elsker dette landet” with respect when the flag is raised. Many of us still converse in Norwegian with our family members.

    We are one of the only towns for many many miles around where one can by a bottle of Norwegian akevitt.

    More importantly, I had a wonderful grandfather who loved me very much and told me so every day. He would say “du er min godt Norsk gutt”. I also had an uncle who fought in the 99th Infantry Battallion in the second World War. Few people know about this military force, but they were native Norwegians and American citizens of Norwegian descent. They were from towns like mine, and were chosen because they could fight, ski, and speak Norwegian. (Anyone who is interested in the history of this battallion can visit http://www.99thinfantrybattalion.org/index.htm ).
    I think both my morfar and my uncle would be disappointed in me if I did not proudly call myself a Norwegian American.

    I also think perhaps this whole debate is just a slight misunderstanding. I hope you will understand that when I say “I’m Norwegian” I am not trying to claim citizenship or to detract anything from native born Norwegians. In fact on the occassions when I have visited Norway, I’ve always felt slightly in awe of those whom I might consider “more Norwegian than me”. :) And when I say “I’m Norwegian” it is normally to other American citizens and is really just our American way of saying “I’m of Norwegian descent”.

    Please try to imagine what it would be like for you if conditions forced you to leave your wonderful land. Would you want your children or grandchildren forgetting their heritage or the culture they came from? Of course not! ;)

    Thanks for listening to me. Sorry if I got a bit long-winded!

    Ha det bra.

  19. Karoline 10 August 2009 at 4:16 am #

    Yeah you’re right, if i moved to America i wouldn’t want my children to forget that I’m Norwegian. But now i’m curious; what kind of Norwegian food? My favourite is kjøttkaker!!

  20. Kristoffer 10 August 2009 at 10:15 am #

    Hei Karoline,

    We eat kjøttkaker a lot and it is definitely one of my favorites. (I think my mother makes the best in town, of course). Lefse is another favorite of mine, but few people make it by hand any more. Får i kål is very common, also various kinds of lapskaus. Someone always finds some lutefisk around Syttende Mai, but I can’t say I like it very much.

    Julekveld is the best time of year for the food, in my opinion. We have lots of cookies (krummkaker, sandbakkler, fattigmansbakkler, pepperkaker) and other foods like rullpølser and fiskeboller. I think the rullpølser is my second favorite.

    And there are plenty of other everyday dishes I’m forgetting to mention.

    What kinds of foods do modern, native Norwegians eat a lot of these days?

  21. Karoline 10 August 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    I love fårikål!!!!! And lapskaus and kjøttkaker and that stuff but lutefisk is yucky! We eat spagetti, pizza, taco..a lot of different food really but my mom still makes “typical norwegian food” like what i’ve mentioned and a lot of fish..i don’t really like fish but salmon is the best, i call it pink fish :D

  22. Kristoffer 10 August 2009 at 9:20 pm #

    I sometimes wonder if anybody likes lutefisk! :)

  23. Shanna 10 August 2009 at 9:37 pm #

    What is lutefisk?

  24. Kristoffer 11 August 2009 at 9:00 am #

    Lutefisk is dried codfish that has been soaked in lye (caustic soda) then rinsed and boiled in water.

    It comes out almost clear and jelly-like. Sort of like fish Jell-O. It has a very pungent smell.

    People either love it or hate it.

  25. Kåre Ærret fra Østfold 23 October 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    YOU ARE NORWEGIAN-AMERICAN. Be proud of it.

    Judging from comments on this website, it seems like people confuse Norwegian citizenship with ethnicity.

    I was born and raised in Norway, and I have never been anything but Norwegian. But please, please know that most Norwegians deeply love the fact that millions of Americans have Norwegian ancestry/ethnicity and are proud of it. In fact, Norwegian-Americans are so popular in Norway, that they have their own popular show on Norwegian TV (it’s called “Alt for Norge”). Every year, on Norway’s “Independence Day” (17th of May), Norwegian TV-channels show Norwegian-American celebrations of the day.

    Norwegian-Americans are not Norwegian citizens, but they are definetely Norwegian by ethnicity, culture and ancestry. It is in your blood, and never ever let any bigots rob you of your heritage. It is yours to claim, even if you never have had the pleasure of visiting Norway yet, and even if you do not speak your ancestral language.

    Most Norwegians are for you, we appreciate you and we are VERY proud to recognize you as our fellow Norwegians.

  26. Summer 23 February 2012 at 7:18 am #

    I’m Norwegian-American & I love the last post on this blog. I couldn’t agree more! Just because you don’t have citizenship doesn’t mean you do not have bloodlines. Do you guys not realize that as Americans our ancestry comes from all over the world? Im motherfucking part viking!

  27. Donna 25 February 2012 at 2:52 am #

    Wow! I am an American of Norwegian (among several other scand & euro countries) descent. My Great Grandfather, Olaf Edvard Pedersen crossed the Atlantic and succeeded in obtaining the American dream. Tho, I am very proud of my ancestry I am also proud of my ancestors (Grandparents & Great Grandparents) who forged new paths so that I, yet unknown to them, could have a better life. My children will see the world and appreciate their special blend of it. So Norway, you can be the “Norwegians”.. We Americans are proud of our own Melting pot.

  28. George H 26 May 2012 at 3:10 am #

    My family came from an Island name after our last name. I am deeply proud of my Norwegian heritage. My family arrived in the US in 1635, A long time to move away from Norway. The why’s and what for’s are not clear in out genealogy book. I am an American, I am proud of the Norwegian my family has. I hope to one day return to visit the island of my family name.

  29. Patriciaq 9 August 2012 at 7:55 am #

    This is a most interesting site to land in. I understand both sides of the issue. When people ask me what “I AM” I say my grandparents came from Norway (mom’s side). Hence, the ivory skin and blue eyes and lots of sunscreen. Everyone else is going to the tanning booth! I have never been to Norway, but my grandparents were so much a part of my life. They did not speak the language to me, but every culture has its’ way of passing things on. I believe whole heartedly that a person is made up of nature and nurture. Nature/blood made me Norwegian and nurture made me a little bit more Norwegian. On the other hand…On my Father’s side I am German. In the 80′s I had classmates calling me a NAZI in school. My German grandparents fled during WW2. They had no part in that atrocity. My last name gave me away, so obviously german, so I was automatically a NAZI? I see both sides of the coin. I want to hold on to my heritage, but heritage can be very subjective, misinterpreted, and a thing of pride or persecution. In the mean time, I hold it closer than my sunscreen, because it is part of me.

  30. Blah blah 22 August 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    @ Norwegian girl

    No. The Pakistanti is not Norwegian either, because to be fully Norwegian you must BE Norwegian. That’s your bloodline!!! Emphasis on DNA!

  31. Bjørn A. Bojesen 25 August 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Hei Blah blah!

    Well, I know a lot of Pakistani Norwegians would disagree with you on this one. :-) Genes are not everything.
    Thanks for reading!

    Bjørn

  32. Raul 14 June 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    If one is an “obvious” American born, English-speaking citizen of the United States then to call one’s self “Norwegian” appears perfectly transparent and respectable, for it is implicitly understood that one is American first and foremost and that one is simply stating his or her ethnic heritage. My mother is Norwegian-American, (second generation), and she married a French-American, hence, I believe that I am “half Norwegian and half French” while quite evidently 100% American, whether in another country or in America.

  33. Tommy 24 January 2014 at 5:30 pm #

    Americans are strongly identified by the country our ancestors came from. Usually its associated with our Grandparents or as far back as Great grandparents. It is a question that literally starts getting asked of us once we are old enough to talk or go to school and intermingle. It is not meant to be disrespectful but I agree that those of us that know nothing about a country and yet claim heritage can be considered oblivious. The need to reveal our heritage is a simple a sense of pride. Not a shot across the bow nor should it diminish you in anyway. My grandfather on my mothers side was born on a reservation my great grandmother on my fathers side came from Norway. My mother is dark skinned.M father has blonde hair. I am in between the spectrum and its obvious. People ask me all the time what am I? I am an American but when pressed I am proud to proclaim at being the Big Norsk Cherokee!

  34. Sophie 16 February 2014 at 1:56 am #

    I speak Norwegian and both my parents are Norwegian and we try to follow customs and do Norwegian things but I live in California so it’s difficult to keep up with the language and I’m constantly forgetting how to say some words. My English and French are way better but I really don’t want to lose the language entirely! Anyway, how long do you think that one would have to live in Norway to be Norwegian, if they spoke the language and tried to integrate?

  35. alsk 7 May 2014 at 5:46 am #

    Sigh… I agree with the post above, indicating that being Norwegian is about ethnicity, family heritage and culture. If your ancestry is predominantly Norwegian and you identify with Norwegian culture (perhaps you eat lutefisk for Christmas and say things like huffda!), you are Norwegian by ethnicity even if you are not Norwegian by citizenship. I live in Norway and I am proud to be a Norwegian citizen, yet I am not at all Norwegian by ethnicity. I was born into a Sami family in Oslo (far away from Sami land), and have a strong Sami cultural identity. Citizenship is defined by WHERE you reside etc. Ethnicity is quite different, and is determined by CULTURE AND ANCESTRY. Norwegian-Americans are Norwegian by ethnicity, ancestry and they have auunique Norwegian-American culture, and they are American by citizenship and nationality.


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