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Minnesota, a State of Nations

In Minnesota, you might admire a birchbark canoe one day and a gigantic Viking ship the next. Two distinct cultures — Native Americans who’ve hunted, fished and farmed the state for centuries, and more recent immigrants from Norway and other Nordic countries — have inspired attractions designed to bridge cultural divides.

Grand PortageNational Monument

Grand Portage

Grand Portage National Monument is more show than tell. Set against the blue waters of Lake Superior at Minnesota’s northeastern tip, 150 miles from Duluth, it preserves a scenic spot vital to the fur trade and Ojibwe people, as well as the 8.5-mile Grand Portage, a 1700s trading route.

The topics it tackles range from 18th-century cooking and birchbark canoes to international commerce and wild rice. Interpreters are busy in season, Memorial Day through mid-October, at the Historic Depot, a detailed replica of the North West Company’s fur-trading headquarters.

With notice, the staff tailors experiences for groups, according to Pam Neil, chief of interpretation

“We are a smaller park, which allows us to be more flexible,” she said. “A group might be interested in the traditional life ways of the Ojibwe, hiking the Grand Portage or learning about birchbark canoes.”

The monument, she said, is on land gifted to the U.S. by the Ojibwe people and is surrounded by their reservation. “Part of the story told here is that this is the homeland of the Grand Portage Ojibwe. It is an amazing story of cultural persistence, and the vibrant community that exists today is a huge part of the story.”

Hands-on activities at the depot — playing a little lacrosse, weaving a cattail mat or assisting with wild-rice processing — are “the magic of the monument,” said Neil.

Although the historic site closes in the winter, its Heritage Center, where exhibits explore the tribe and the fur traders, remains open, and staff welcome the company. “We’ll talk your ear off,” Neil said. Next to a blazing fireplace are pairs of traditional Ojibwe snowshoes for those who want to test them on a nearby trail.

American Swedish Institute


For years, the American Swedish Institute (ASI) spread the word about Swedish culture from its home in the handsome, castle-like Turnblad Mansion. Then, in 2012, the Minneapolis institution’s cultural influence exploded with the opening of its Nelson Cultural Center, a modern addition outfitted with an art gallery, a restaurant, a gift shop, and event and workshop spaces.

“Visitation is 175,000 today; just five years ago, it was 35,000,” said Scott Pollock, ASI’s director of exhibitions, collections and programs.

ASI’s growth is due, in part, to exhibitions and programs that are tied to Sweden and Nordic countries, yet they appeal to a wide audience. “You don’t have to be Swedish or Nordic to be excited about ceramics, textiles or the visual arts,” Pollock said.

ASI’s restaurant, Fika, also earns accolades. It’s been named one of the best places for lunch in the city; its Swedish cuisine has been applauded as authentic without being predictable.

The restaurant is named for a Swedish tradition, what Pollock sums up as “a meeting without having a meeting.” In Sweden, “every day, twice a day, you sit down and converse with someone and have coffee and sweets,” he said.

In addition to enjoying a meal at Fika, groups can arrange their own fika during a visit. They might also sign up for one of the many classes offered, from ceramics to crafting a cutting board using traditional carving techniques.

Make no mistake, the Turnblad Mansion remains essential to ASI’s identity and is extremely popular with groups during the holidays, when every room is outfitted in the tradition of a Nordic country. And despite its growth, ASI remains a small, authentic experience, enhanced by a band of volunteers devoted to its mission of connecting people by celebrating cultural differences.

“We see ASI as a great bridge to Nordic countries,” said Pollock.

Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post


In 1918, Harry and Jeannette Ayer opened a trading post on Lake Mille Lacs in Onamia. A decade later, hoping to capitalize on tourists whizzing by in newfangled automobiles on their way to the area’s lakes, the Ayers began selling Native American art and crafts instead of cans of beans.

Today, the trading post still stocks Native American art, much of it the work of the Ojibwe, who lived along the lake long before the Ayers arrived. Just as the Ayers did, today’s trading post staff travels across the country to find Native American art and crafts to sell at the trading post.

“It is part of the mission of the trading post to stay true to the Ayers’ vision,” said Travis Zimmerman, manager for the site, which is overseen by the Minnesota Historical Society.

The trading post is open year-round, and in summer especially, a stop can be paired with the Indian Museum, whose hours are limited in the offseason. The museum’s 1,000 Ojibwe pieces “help tell the story of the tribe,” said Zimmerman.

The tribe’s mobile culture is depicted in the Four Seasons Room, a diorama that shows how the Ojibwe moved with the season: from shore to forest to field; to fish, to tap maple trees and to harvest wild rice. Tribe members were models for the lifelike figures in the diorama, created in 1960.

When groups visit, museum guides often pull out Native American games; the moccasin game and the snake game are two favorites. Easy to play and fun for a crowd, the games bring out competitiveness and camaraderie, Zimmerman said. “We are finding that adults, especially some of the tour groups, love the games as much as the kids do.”

Hjemkomst Center


Robert Asp’s dream is the centerpiece of the Hjemkomst Center in his hometown of Moorhead, across the border from Fargo, North Dakota.

In the 1970s, Asp set out to honor his Norwegian heritage by building a Viking ship, the Hjemkomst. It took a decade, but he succeeded, and Asp sailed his ship in Duluth harbor before he died. His family and friends later sailed the Hjemkomst to Norway and ultimately donated it to the city of Moorhead, which has displayed it in the Hjemkomst Center, a museum dedicated to the city’s history and its Scandinavian ties.

Visitors are always steered to the center. “The staff at our visitors center will say, ‘If you only have time for one thing, this is what you must see in our community,’” said Maureen Kelly Jonason, the center’s executive director.

The ship’s physical presence and its compelling story are both memorable. “My favorite thing is when people come around the corner and see the ship, and their jaws drop,” said Jonason. “Photos don’t do it justice. It is 76 feet to the top of the mast.”

The ship is not the only “dream” project at the center. Also on property is the Hopperstad Stave Church, a replica of the stave churches built in the 12th and 13th centuries in Norway. Constructed by a North Dakota man, the Hopperstad still smells of the local pines used to build it 20 years ago.

The ship and the church are reminders of the power of “dreaming and having dreams come to fruition,” said Jonason.

The center’s other exhibits excel at telling universal stories through Moorhead’s experience. A recent exhibit examined the local impact of World War I. “The exhibit showed how World War I played out in a small community,” said Jonason. “Our little community was a microcosm of what was recorded in history books.”

Mahkato Powwow


The most impressive part of the annual powwow in Mankato is the Grand Entry, a parade of proud Dakota tribe members who dance their way into the arena at Land of Memories Park each September.

As tribe members sing and drum, military veterans and tribe members carrying flags and symbolic staffs lead the parade. Powwow royalty and dancers dressed in Dakota regalia follow. The women don beaded and quilled buckskin dresses or wear jingle dresses, adorned with shells and trinkets that add to the music. Men wear breastplates, breechcloths and, around their ankles, bells and deer hooves. There are songs, prayers and recognitions.

“It is the most beautiful part of the powwow,” said Dave Brave Heart, chairman of the Mahkato Wacipi (powwow) and a Dakota.

Four Grand Entries are held during the Mahkato Wacipi, one each on Friday and Sunday and two on Saturday. A $7 admission for the entire weekend makes the powwow a good value for groups. This year’s event is September 20-22.

In an education tent, visitors can learn from tribal elders and Native American historical societies. Nearby, artisans sell dreamcatchers, jewelry and other arts and crafts, and vendors ply patrons with fry bread, Indian tacos and other traditional foods.

The Mankato powwow, open to all tribes and the public, dates to 1972 and is one of the largest and last outdoor traditional powwows held off the reservation. It promotes reconciliation and healing in a town where 38 Dakota were hanged in 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. A year later, the tribe was banished from its Minnesota homeland.

Today, Mankato welcomes everyone, and more than 5,000 people attend, many of them Dakota. “Minnesota was the original homeland of the Dakota people, so this is a homecoming for them,” said Brave Heart.