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Area communities ready for Syttende Mai

Fri, May 9th, 2003
Posted in Features

Alex Huntrods with his Scandinavian style “flat plane” figure carvings. Alex, 17, will be studying Norwegian at Telemark University College in Norway this fall.

In Norway, the 17th of May is a little like America’s 4th of July. Known as Syttende Mai, this is the day Norway ratified its constitution in 1814.

Syttende Mai is celebrated locally amongst Norwegian-American communities, and several area festivities are planned for this weekend.

One young man with a local connection will be a busy person on Saturday. Alex Huntrods, of Waukon, IA, who is the grandson of Char Nelson from Amherst, has been invited to participate in several Syttende Mai festivities.

Alex has been invited to walk in the Syttende Mai parade in Decorah; ride on the Viking boat in the Spring Grove Syttende Mai parade; help with the Black Hammer Cemetery Walk; and give a woodcarving demonstration at the Whalan Standstill Parade. Also on Saturday, Alex will be taking a semester exam in Norwegian at Luther College. A pretty busy schedule for a junior in high school.

What is so interesting about Norwegian heritage and culture that a seventeen-year-old boy would devote an entire weekend to celebrating Syttende Mai?

It all started several years ago when Alex started attending Concordia College’s Skogfjorden Norwegian Language Village near Bemidji.


Language Villages

"The reason I attended Skogfjorden the last five summers was to learn more about my heritage and have fun,” Alex said. “I am one-half Norwegian, and I am very proud of it, so I wanted to learn about the people, language, culture and customs of Norway.”

Alex is one of approximately 9,500 young people ages 7 to 18 from all 50 states, Canada, and over 25 countries that attend the Villages each year.

The mission of the Language Villages is “to prepare young people for responsible citizenship in our global community.”

The villagers are immersed in culture and language which includes reading, writing, and speaking. In Alex’s case it was all in Norwegian.

Alex’s interest in his Norwegian heritage was enhanced two years ago, when he went on a three-week trip to Norway with his grandmother, aunt, and mother.

The trip was a great opportunity to visit ancestral farms and practice the Norwegian Alex had learned at Skogfjorden the previous years.

He especially became interested in the Skigard (a Norwegian rustic fence of diagonal design) while touring Norway. After photographing numerous Skigard, he visited the Hallingdal Folkemuseum and was provided with instructions in Norwegian on how to build it. For his service project at Skogfjorden during the summer of 2001, Alex built a 22-foot Skigard with help from camp friends. Last summer they added another 28 feet.

"Flat-Plane" Figure Carving

Alex became interested in woodcarving after his mother gave him a small wood carving knife from Finland a few years ago.

Alex heard about a class in Scandinavian-style figure carving at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah. So far he’s taken six classes.

“The particular Scandinavian style of woodcarving I do is called ‘flat-plane’,” Alex said. “It tries to duplicate what a Norwegian farmer did with a large flat all-purpose knife. The farmer’s knives were so thick they couldn’t make smooth, rounded carvings, thus they were left with large ‘flat-plane’ surfaces.”

During the recent Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway Celebration in Lanesboro, Alex wore his bunad (official Norwegian National Costume) and demonstrated figure carving at the Sons of Norway Hall.

Norwegian at Luther College

Although Alex had completed the highest level of Norwegian Language at Skogfjorden, he still wanted to learn more. While taking woodcarving classes at Vesterheim from Harvey Refsal, Alex learned that Harley was an Associate Professor at Luther College in Decorah, where he taught Norwegian. During the past school year, Alex took Norwegian classes at Luther four days a week while keeping his regular high school class schedule in Waukon.

During one of Harley’s Norwegian I classes, they had a guest speaker, Lisa Hjelmeland, from Telemark University College in Bø, Norway. Alex knew by the end of class that he wanted to study next year in Norway.

This fall Alex will be a senior at Waukon High School, but will actually be attending Telemark University College for the first half of the year.

Finding one’s self

From Norwegian language classes, to woodcarving, and Skigard fence building, Alex’s culture and heritage has become an important part of his life.

In Alex’s words "it’s helped me to find myself in the world, show me how I fit in, and define where I’m going."

For further information about the thirteen Language Villages and scholarships contact: Concordia Language Villages, 901 8th St. South, Moorhead, MN 56562, phone 800-222-4750, www.concordialanguagevillages.org

Alex Huntrods is the son of the author.Deb Nelson Gourley, B.S., M.S., is a copy/layout editor at the Fillmore County Journal.

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