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Fewer Minnesotans line up with Nordic, German roots

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Nordic and German mix that has profoundly marked Minnesota's culture for more than a century is gradually fading as fewer residents identify with their ancestral homeland, according to a 2012 U.S. Census survey released Thursday.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Nordic and German mix that has profoundly marked Minnesota's culture for more than a century is gradually fading as fewer residents identify with their ancestral homeland, according to a 2012 U.S. Census survey released Thursday.

The American Community Survey data shows that, compared to five years ago, there were 99,000 fewer Minnesotans reporting their ancestry as Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Icelander or "Scandinavian." That's a 6 percent drop.

The number of self-identified Germans was down 121,000 or 6 percent.

An equivalent survey for North Dakota is not available, but surveys over different time periods show Nordic and German identities among state residents remain stubborn.

Demographic experts say none of the ancestries are going anywhere, noting that descendants keep multiplying, according to a report in the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

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But as families become intermingled with multiple ethnicities after generations of marriage, their cultural identity becomes vague.

Tom Holman, a 60-year-old from south Minneapolis, sees it first-hand.

He calls himself "half Swedish with other things mixed in" and has watched as Swedishness has faded in his family, the Star Tribune reported. He said his grandmother didn't even speak English until age 8, and that he's now the only one among his siblings who speaks Swedish. He said the next generation in his family doesn't seem inclined to carry the language on at all.

Just Americans

Increasingly, younger people are just saying "American" as generations of intermarriage dilute ethnic identity.

While those of American ancestry remain a minority compared to those of Nordic and German ancestry, their numbers are growing rapidly in Minnesota.

In 2012, "Americans" make up just 4 percent of the state's 5.8 million population compared to 29 percent for Nordics and 35 percent for Germans.

But self-identified Americans are growing rapidly. The survey found 77,000 more self-identified Americans compared to five years ago, a 56 percent increase.

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North Dakota

In North Dakota, the number of self-identified Americans went up 57 percent between a 2005-2007 Census survey and a 2009-2011 survey. Again, it's a rapid increase to a small group of people.

Self-identified Americans made up 3.2 percent of the state's 675,000 population in 2009-2011. Nordics made up 37.6 percent and Germans 46 percent.

The difference with Minnesota is, at least between the two surveys, there was no decrease in those identified as Nordic or German. In fact, nearly 5,000 more people identified as Nordic, a 2 percent increase, and 9,000 more people identified as German, a 3 percent increase.

Interest rising

Still, whether the numbers rise or not, those seeking to preserve ties to their ancestors take comfort in at least the growing interest in Nordic heritage.

Eivind Heiberg, the CEO of the Sons of Norway, headquartered in the Twin Cities, said he detects an upsurge because many baby boomers nearing retirement are thinking of the past.

"All of a sudden there's a realization that, hey, their parents are in their 70s and 80s and will not be around forever, and it's up to me to sort of carry the torch," he told the Star Tribune. "There's a need they feel, and that's where we see more and more people reaching out."

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At the Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, spokeswoman Laura Cederberg said, "We're seeing record participation in our youth programming."

"If the measure is head count, then, yeah, there probably is an ongoing, gradual diminution," said Bruce Karstadt, the president and CEO of the Swedish Institute. "Does that mean interest is diminishing? I would say not."

Changing ethnic landscape

While fewer people in Minnesota are identifying by their Nordic or German roots, it appears to be the opposite in North Dakota, according to the U.S. Census' American Community Survey.

Between the 2012 and 2007 survey, here's how many Minnesotans identified by their ancestral homeland (actual number in parentheses):

• Norwegians: -4.3% (-37,900).

• Swedes: -7.2% (-36,300).

• Other Nordic (Finns, Danes, Icelanders and "Scandinavians"): -9% (-25,100).

• Germans and German Russians (better known here as Germans from Russia): -6% (-121,400).

• Many Minnesotans simply wrote down "American" for ancestry. Their numbers: +55.8% (+76,500).

North Dakota numbers are only available in three-year surveys. So here's the difference between the 2005-2007 survey and the 2009-2011 survey:

• Norwegians: +1% (+1,360).

• Swedish: decrease of less than 1% (-95).

• Other Nordic: +17% (+3,600).

• Germans and German Russians: +3% (+9,100).

• "Americans": +57% (+7,800).

More On the Web: To see the ethnic numbers in the Census survey, go to factfinder2.census.gov and search for a table called "B04006." To read the Star Tribune store, bit.ly/17LZj0M.

Call Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1248; or send email to ttran@gfherald.com .

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