Strasburg, North Dakota: Ethnic Heritage and Language
Schools in America: Strasburg, North Dakota
Kloberdanz, Timothy J. "Strasburg, North Dakota: Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America: Strasburg, North Dakota." Studies in American Life 8, no. 4: 1988.
The German-Russians comprise one of the larger ethnic groups
in the Great Plains region today. Descended from German colonists
who first settled in Russia during the 1760's at the invitation
of Czarina Catherine the Great, the German-Russians are particularly
numerous in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, eastern Colorado, and
the Canadian prairie provinces.
When they settled in Russia, the German-Russians lived in closely
knit, agrarian villages that were established along religious
lines of affiliation (i.e., Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Roman
Catholic, Mennonite, or Hutterite). For more than a century in
Russia the German-Russians avoided intensive contact, not only
with their Russian and Ukrainian hosts but also with German colonists
living in neighboring villages. The major German enclaves in Russia
included those of the Volga Germans (Wolgadeutschen), established
in 1764-67, and the Black Sea Germans (Schwarzmeerdeutschen),
established in the late 1780's and early 1800's.'
The German colonists in Russia enjoyed decades of self-imposed
isolation, until the reforms and Russification measures of Czar
Alexander II took place in the 1870's. These reforms caused thousands
of German-Russian colonist families to uproot themselves and emigrate
to the New World. Having prospered as grain farmers on the treeless
Russian steppes, the German-Russian
emigrants were attracted to the plains of North America and to
the pampas of South America. The German emigration from Russia
began in the mid-1870's and continued until World War I. As in
Russia, the German-Russians who came to the New World tended to
maintain regional and religious affiliations in their settlement
patterns. Thus one primarily finds Volga German Protestants in
Nebraska, Volga German Catholics in western Kansas, and Black
Sea Germans in the Dakotas.
There is no way of determining exactly how many Americans of
German-Russian descent presently reside in the United States,
due to recent census records that rarely distinguish German-Russians
from other Americans of German ancestry. Yet, German-Russians
have become a highly visible ethnic group in the Great Plains
states, partiality due to the success of two active, ethnic organizations
that boast ever-increasing memberships: The American Historical
Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR), founded in Colorado in
1968, and the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS), established
in North Dakota in 1971.
German emigration from the Black Sea region of South Russia
coincided with the opening of United States homestead lands on
the northern Great Plains. By 1920 some seventy thousand German-Russians
of the first and second generation of immigration were living
in the state of North Dakota alone. Today North Dakota may have
twice as many citizens who are descendents of German-Russians
as any other state in the union. When one considers that the entire
state of North Dakota has a combined population of only 652,437
(1980 census), one can imagine how numerous the German-Russians
seem in such a sparsely settled area.
While North Dakota attracted representative German groups from
all of the major settlement areas in Russia, the vast majority
came from the Black Sea region near the port city of Odessa. The
first German-Russians immigrated to what was then "Dakota
Territory" as homesteaders. Although they could not establish
closed agrarian villages as they had done in Russia, German-Russians
who shared the same religion and regional dialect did establish
their homesteads in close proximity to one another. Since some
of the better farmlands along the wooded river valleys already
had been claimed by Scandinavian immigrants, the German-Russians
settled in the southern, central, and north-central portions of
the state. Their communities form what has
been called the "German-Russian Triangle." Most of the
state's German-Russians live within this triangular portion of
the state in areas homesteaded by their immigrant forebears less
than a century ago.
The town of Strasburg, North Dakota, lies seventy-five miles
southeast of Bismarck, the state capital, and about a dozen miles
north of the South Dakota line. German-Russian homesteaders established
the community in the spring of 1889. They named the struggling
pioneer settlement in honor of Strasburg, their home colony in
South Russia. With the building of a nearby railroad in 1902,
Strasburg gradually grew in size until its inhabitants numbered
700 people in 1930. Yet, as in other small towns on the northern
Great Plains, the paucity of farms and jobs prompted many of the
local youth to find employment elsewhere. The population of Strasburg,
North Dakota, is approximately 623 today (1980 census).
Located in the southern half of Emmons County, Strasburg is
in an area densely populated by people of German-Russian ancestry.
Neighboring communities, such as Hague and Linton, are well known
to North Dakotans as towns where the "German brogue"
remains a distinguishing characteristic. While the Strasburg area
is primarily German-Russian and Roman Catholic, there is a small
settlement of "Hollanders" (who belong to the Dutch
Reformed Church) southwest of Strasburg. Large numbers of Protestant
German-Russians are found only a few miles to the east, and the
Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation is located due west, across
Lake Oahe and the
As one approaches the prairie community of Strasburg by car,
one immediately notices two things: the immense size of its Catholic
church, the spire of which can be seen high above the trees and
surrounding structures, and the signs off Route 83 that proudly
call attention to the fact that Strasburg is the hometown of music
maestro Lawrence Welk. Born in a clay-brick pioneer home near
Strasburg, Welk grew up practicing an old accordion brought from
Russia by his father. Eventually, Lawrence Welk's shy, reserved
style, Emmons County "German brogue," and champagne
music became well-known trademarks in the entertainment world.
Emmons Central High
On the northwest edge of Strasburg, well within sight of Saints
Peter and Paul Catholic Church, stands Emmons Central High School.
The pale brick building is one of two high schools in the small
community which are within easy walking distance of each other.
Emmons Central is a parochial school that serves the Catholic
youth of Emmons County, while the local school district administers
Strasburg Public School. The casual observer who attempts to see
Strasburg as a homogeneous ethnic community - united by a common
religious and cultural heritage - will be hard pressed to explain
the existence of two high schools in such close proximity to one
Checking available published sources regarding the history of
the two schools, I found that the first school in Strasburg was
parochial, established in 1910 in the basement of the parish church
by Ursuline nuns from Calvarienberg, Germany. In 1918 parishioners
built St. Benedict's Catholic School, but there were no high school
graduates until 1927. Due to financial problems, the parish turned
over administration of St. Benedict's school to the Strasburg
School District in 1931. The Catholic parish did not regain control
of St. Benedict's school until 1960, the same year in which the
Strasburg Public School was established. In 1966 St. Benedict's
high school in Strasburg consolidated with St. Anthony's high
school in Linton (a neighboring town to the north) and Emmons
Central High School resulted. At the time of this consolidation
Ernmons Central High School was "subsidized by all Catholic
parishes in the county and . . . [provided] an opportunity for
Catholic education to a student population from seven different
The consolidation that occurred in 1966 has meant that Ernmons
Central High School is no longer a community-based parochial institution
but a county-based religious school. Nonetheless, ali of the students
who attend are German-Russian. By comparison, the Strasburg Public
School, while it serves many German-Russian students in the Strasburg
area, also meets the needs of non-Catholic, non-German-Russian
students. The 1982 graduating class at the Strasburg Public High
School numbered twenty-five students. Several were of Hollander
background (with family names such as Haan, Nieuwsma, and Van
Beek). The 1982 graduating class at Emmons Central High School,
on the other hand, numbered twenty-nine students, all of whom
came from Catholic, German-Russian families (with surnames like
Baumstarck, Silbernagel, and Wikenheiser). In light of the above
facts it is perhaps not surprising that Emmons Central High School
offers German-Russian Ethnic Studies as an integral part of its
History of the German-Russian Ethnic Studies Class
Although I was able to observe the German-Russian studies class
at Emmons Central High School on three separate occasions, I had
to conduct extensive interviews with the instructor to obtain
a better idea of the many topics covered. Mr. Les Kramer, principal
of the high school and instructor of the German-Russian studies
class, told me that he has been teaching the class since 1974.
Before coming to Strasburg he taught high school in the neighboring
prairie town of Hague, where he first offered the German-Russian
studies class. Although the high school in Hague was extremely
small (the 1982 graduating class numbered only seven students),
Mr. Kramer considered it an "ideal school" because of
the deep sense of community that existed
there. He pointed out that all of the German-Russian students
at the Hague High School "traced their heritage back to villages
five, six miles from each other in Europe." (ES82-TK-C4,
Side 1, 62-69)
In 1977 Mr. Kramer and several other high school teachers in
North Dakota received small stipends to develop or expand ethnic
curriculum materials at their institution. Officials at the University
of North Dakota in Grand Forks administered the awards, made possible
by special funding from the Office of Education. According to
Mr. Kramer, there has been no follow-up study or even any contact
from the granting office for the past three or four years.
Class Structure and Curriculum
The German-Russian studies class at Emmons Central High School
follows a general sociology class offered by Mr. Kramer during
the first semester. He has designed the sociology course to sensitize
students to cultural differences and human diversity. The main
text used in the class is James D. Calderwood's The Developing
World: Poverty, Growth and Rising Expectations. The book is the
subject of some controversy with other educators, says Mr. Kramer,
since "the United States does not come out of that book smelling
like roses." (ES82-TK-C3, Side 2, 331-344) In his mind the
sociology class is a prerequisite to delving into German-Russian
cultural studies. He often tells his students at the outset of
his classes to ask themselves three basic questions:
"Who am I?" "Why am I?" "What do I intend
to do about both?" Those are the questions we have to answer,
in light of what others are doing around the world. Until you
answer those three questions, I tell the kids, life is really
not worth much. (ES82-TK-C3, Side 2, 390-398)
Mr. Kramer teaches German-Russian Ethnic Studies daily every
second semester from 11:00 A.M. to 12:00 noon, under the official
title "International Relations." He justifies the broader
course title by noting that he continues to work basic sociological
and anthropological concepts
into the German-Russian material (e.g., examples of ethnocentrism,
nuclear vs. extended family patterns, etc.). While Mr. Kramer
makes use of a number of published works in the German-Russian
studies class, he focuses on three volumes in particular: Karl
Stumpp's The German-Russians: Two Centuries of Pioneering, the
main text used by the students; Karl Stumpp's The Emigration from
Germany to Russia in the Years 1763 to 1862, a large volume for
genealogical research; and Joseph S. Height's Paradise on the
Steppe, a cultural history of the Catholic Black Sea Germans in
southern Russia. He also uses sometimes a slide-sound program
entitled "At Home on the Prairies: The Germans from Russia,"
produced by the Germans from the Russia Heritage Society, depending
on its availability from the public library in the neighboring
town of Linton. In addition, Mr. Kramer distributes approximately
seventy pages of mimeographed handouts to the students, including
maps of German-Russian settlements in the Old World and the New,
illustrated essays on German-Russian material folk culture, life
histories, and booklists.
The German-Russian studies class at Emmons Central High School
has various areas of inquiry:
1. German-Russian Surnames. The course begins with an examination
of the family names of German-Russian students in the class. Mr.
Kramer attempts to show the students how their German names derived
from ancestral occupations, places of origin, physical traits,
etc. According to Mr. Kramer, "[Sioux Indian names like]
Red Bull and Chasing Hawk aren't really any different than their
names." (ES82-TK-C3, Side 2, 15-10).
2. Map-making and Study. The students study the areas in Central
Europe where their forefathers originated; the migration route
from Germany to Russia; moor German settlement areas in Russia;
German-Russian immigrant settlements in the New World; and the
location of German-Russian settlements in North Dakota, specifically
in Emmons County.
3. Study of Living Conditions of German Colonists in Russia.
About this section Mr. Kramer explained: "We really try to
bring home the living conditions . . . [by considering the question]
What was it like to be a European peasant?" (ES82-TK-C3,
Side 2, 68-73).
4. German Language and Traditional Songs. Discusses German-Russian
dialects and folksongs. Sometimes Mr. Kramer teaches the students
a German song that is later sung at a German-Russian dinner prepared
for the parents. A typical song might include the German-Russian
funeral hymn "Das Schicksal [wird keinen verschonen]"
("The Fate That Spares No One"). Mr. Kramer noted that
since fewer and fewer students speak or even understand German,
the language section is becoming increasingly difficult to teach.
5. Material Folk Culture. Studies German-Russian folk architecture
and the making of Brennmist (a fuel made from dried animal manure,
used by early German-Russian settlers in both Old Russia and the
Dakotas). In the past the students have built models of a Semelanka
(German-Russian earthen house), Backofen (bake oven), Ulmer Sckachtel
(boat used by the German emigrants who went to Russia via the
Danube), and a horse-drawn wagon.
6. Homesteading "Game". This is an exercise that Mr.
Kramer adapted from a similar one used in some schools in Nebraska.
It is basically a "farming game" set in North Dakota
between 1885 and 1887. "Students attempt to run a farm at
a profit over a three-year period." The object of the game
is "to provide the students with some insight into the problems
faced by homesteaders in the 1880's and to involve them in the
decision-making process." Students receive a scoring sheet.
They attempt to farm and invest successfully in the face of unpredictable
factors, such as droughts, severe winters, grasshopper infestations,
poor markets, and so on.
7. Discussion of Cultural and Personality Traits of the German-Russians.
In this unit Mr. Kramer asks the students to identity some of
the dominant attributes of the German-Russians. A discussion often
follows regarding the contributed responses. The traits invariably
include such descriptive characteristics as conservative, closed
off or ethnocentric, religious, stubborn, and "crazy-clean"
(an obsession with cleanliness). Mr. Kramer admits that he often
plays the devil's advocate, regardless of whether the suggested
trait is a positive or a negative one.
8. The German-Russian Dinner. Toward the end of the semester
the students prepare a German-Russian dinner for parents and other
invited guests from the surrounding communities. All the foods
are homemade, including such table items as butter and ketchup.
Students prepare most of the dishes in the home economics room
of the high school on the day of the dinner.
For the dinner that I attended students prepared and served
the following foods: Kuchen (cake), Knepflesupp (dumpling soup),
Fleischkiechla (a deep-fried dough and meat dish), Bratwurst (homemade
sausage), Sauerkraut un' Nudla (sauerkraut and noodles), and homemade
ice cream. On the day of the dinner, maps and exhibits made by
the students were placed on display in the room where the dinner
was held. In years past German-Russian singers and musicians have
provided entertainment at this event. Parents of the students
donated all of the German-Russian food brought to and prepared
at the school.
9. Field Trip to German-Russian Sites in Emmons County. After
the students have examined the German-Russian history of their
immediate area, Mr. Kramer takes them on a field trip to see some
of the sites they have read about. The emphasis of the field trip
is early German-Russian settlements in the southern half of Emmons
County: Tiraspol, Elsass, Odessa, Katzbach, Krassna, and Rosental.
At many of these locations nothing but a lonely cemetery remains.
Mr. Kramer invariably directs the students' attention to the wrought-iron
cemetery crosses made by early German-Russian blacksmiths. The
crosses are an important ethnic symbol and are readily identified
as such even by non-German-Russians who travel through south-central
North Dakota. Mr. Kramer and the students also visit the few remaining
examples of German-Russian folk architecture in the area, including
a number of clay-brick houses built by early German-Russian homesteaders.
10. Genealogy and Family History Research. Depending on the amount
of time available and student interest, Mr. Kramer encourages
the students to research their individual family backgrounds.
He recommends books and other sources that can aid in the individual's
search for German-Russian genealogical data. He also distributes
a general reading list for those students who want to continue
reading about the German-Russians at their own leisure.
The amount of time spent on these subjects depends primarily
on the enthusiasm shown by students. Mr. Kramer explained that,
since every group of students is different, each German-Russian
studies class is somewhat different in its format and emphasis.
In addition, he schedules events such as the German-Russian dinner
and the field trip bearing in mind a number of other considerations,
such as the agricultural cycle, weather, and student availability.
I was able to observe the German-Russian studies class at Emmons
Central High on three separate occasions. On April 13 I observed
the class while the students made maps and planned the menu for
the upcoming German-Russian dinner, on April 28 I participated
in the dinner, and on May 6 I accompanied Mr. Kramer and the students
on their field trip. One of the things that I found most surprising
about the class was the emphasis on active participation rather
than mere listening or note-taking. When I questioned Mr. Kramer
about this, he admitted: "I'm real big on 'doing,' if at
all possible." (ES82-TK-C3, Side 2, 28-31).
A strong, cold wind was blowing across the prairie on the day
of the field trip, sending tumbleweeds flying high above some
distant rock piles erected by the early German-Russian settlers.
While I thought such weather might force Mr. Kramer and his students
to postpone the trip, I soon found out that nothing could be further
from Mr. Kramer's line of thinking. Following the field trip,
as we talked in the welcome warmth of his office back at the high
school, Mr. Kramer explained to me that a basic purpose of the
field trip was to give the students:
a feel for the wind, and the rocks, and the psychological barrier
they [the early German-Russian pioneers] ran into when they got
here. And on a day like today . . . we can get a feel for that
. . . [when] there was nothing out there but prairie, rocks, and
wind. (ES82-TK-C32, Side 1, 228-240)
A description of German-Russian Ethnic Studies at Emmons Central
High School would be inadequate without further discussion of
the instructor, Mr. Les Kramer. A native son of Ernmons County,
Mr. Kramer is thirty-six years old. In addition to his responsibilities
as principal of the Ernmons County High School, he farms southwest
of Strasburg in the Krassna settlement area. He and his wife,
Colleen (nee Schmaltz), have two small children. The fact that
he and his family refurbished the old Strasburg train depot, transforming
it into a comfortable rural home, suggests Mr. Kramer's appreciation
for the past.
Both Mr. Kramer and his wife are former graduates of Emmons
Central High School. Their oldest child, Nathan, is in grade school
at St. Benedict's, which adjoins the Catholic high school in Strasburg.
In my interviews with Mr. Kramer I discovered that his thesis
that one can appreciate an ethnic heritage only after one "steps
away from it" reflects personal experience. Following military
service and some long periods of inner reflection in Southeast
Asia, he returned to North Dakota and attended the state university
in Fargo. By the time he enrolled in college, he admits: "I
had reassessed all my values . . . my thinking." (ES82-TK-C3,
Side 2, 273-285) Since that time he has read and studied the history
and culture of the German-Russians extensively. Despite his deep
appreciation of his ethnic heritage, he has tried to maintain
"balance" while instructing his students about their
German-Russian culture. He indicated on several occasions that
he wants his students to consider many different aspects of their
heritage - both positive and negative - and how they continue
to influence their lives today.
When we're through with this whole process, then the thinking
process hopefully takes over with [the students], and they begin
to realize that much of the tradition that we've just studied
from the past is still very much a part of them. (ES82-TK-C3,
Side 1, 388-393).
In regard to the feedback that he receives from his students
concerning the German-Russian class, Mr. Kramer noted that there
is seldom much immediate response. As one who has studied the
cultural dynamics of his own ethnic group, he realizes that compliments
among the German-Russians are rare, particularly for those of
the teaching profession.
At the high school level the rewards aren't that great . . .
there aren't as many as you would like. But with teaching that's
just the way it is. It's not like medicine; you don't get daily
feedback on what a great job you're doing. You may never hear
it for twenty years, and then only a comment in passing that you
had some influence on a person's life. (ES82-TK-C3, Side 1, 262-268).
There were ten students ranging in age from sixteen to eighteen
in Mr. Kramer's most recent German-Russian Ethnic Studies class.
They included Sam Gross, a senior from St. Michael's parish, northeast
of Linton; Gerald Holzer and Dale Horner, seniors from St. Anthony's
parish in Linton; Sheila Nagel, a senior from Strasburg; Alinette
Roehrich, a junior from Strasburg; Josephine Vetter, a senior
from St. Michael's parish; Rose Vetter a junior from St. Michael's
parish; Mark Volk, a senior from Hague; and Katherine Wikenheiser,
a junior from Strasburg.
As I mentioned previously, I was able to observe Mr. Kramer
and the students interacting on three separate occasions. The
first time was during the April 13 class session when the German-Russian
dinner menu was being discussed and planned by the students. At
one point in the class there was an interesting discussion about
faithfulness to "German-Russian tradition." Mr. Kramer
had encouraged the students to plan the German Russian menu with
authenticity in mind. Taking this as a cue, a female student asked
in a serious tone of voice if "red-eye" (a homemade
grain alcohol beverage popular among many German-Russians) could
be served at the school during the ethnic dinner. When Mr. Kramer
answered negatively, another student drew laughter when she stated,
"If we'd stick to tradition, we'd all be getting drunk."
(ES82-TK-C1, Side 2, 48-55).
On April 28, the day of the German-Russian dinner at Emmons
Central High School, I watched and photographed the students as
they prepared a four-course menu. There were no German-Russian
cookbooks present. At times the students argued among themselves
about how to prepare certain foods "the right way."
It became obvious that the real problem was not the usual recipe
variations found among German-Russian families, but some major
from the fact that a number of the students came from outlying
parishes many miles away. The preparation of Fleischkiechla, for
example, met with mixed reactions, since this particular dish
is not shared by all German-Russian families. Originally of Tatar
origin, the deep-fried Fleischkiechla are most popular among those
German-Russians who trace their ancestry to colonies in the Crimean
portion of South Russia.
On May 6, the day of the field trip, a number of the students
rode with me as we visited German-Russian sites in Emmons County.
I was amazed that a few of the students indicated they were seeing
the sites for the first time, even though they had spent their
entire lives in the county. My amazement lessened as I realized
that, for some students, the sites we were visiting were well
outside of "their" settlement area.
While I was able to interview only two students from the German-Russian
studies class, their impressions proved to be of interest. Both
students (interviewed separately) indicated they were uncertain
whether they had learned anything in the class that would be of
value to them in later life. Both felt that the more satisfying
segments of the class dealt with the study of German family names,
the map work, the "homesteading game," and the discussion
of German-Russian traits. They agreed with most of the traits
listed in class, but felt it was an exaggeration to characterize
German-Russians as being "crazy clean." One student
even commented, "I didn't believe that too much . . . . I
don't think we're cleaner than anybody else. I would think we're
dirtier, really." (ES82-TK-C5, Side 1, 118-124). For both
students the German-Russian studies class helped answer questions
about their ancestors and their past, particularly as it related
to the old country.
I knew beforehand that we [our ancestors] went to Russia, but
I didn't know we were that far south. I thought we were in northern
Russia. Then I learned that some of the climate [in south Russia]
was like California. I didn't know that - thought it was cold
[in southern Russia], just like North Dakota. (ES82-TK-C5, Side
Parents and Grandparents
I met the parents and grandparents of some of the students for
the first time on the day of the German-Russian ethnic dinner
at Emmons Central High. Following the meal and program we talked
informally about the German-Russian studies class. The parents
seemed pleased with the efforts of their sons and daughters in
hosting the dinner, although this pride was never articulated.
When I asked about the delicious foods we had just eaten, there
was only discussion among those present regarding culinary differences
among the German-Russians.
The most talkative and enthusiastic adult at the dinner proved
to be none other than Wendelin Wikenheiser, the eighty-six-year-old
grandfather of one of the students. Mr. Wikenheiser, whom I interviewed
at length a few days later, was born in southern Russia and emigrated
to North Dakota with his parents in 1903, when he was eight years
old. Today he is one of the few surviving Russian-born elders
in the Strasburg community. On the day of the German-Russian dinner
Mr. Wikenheiser studied the maps and other materials that were
on display at the high school with keen interest. Later, while
interviewing him, he spoke of the German-Russian class at the
Catholic high school as being "a pretty good idea."
He lamented, however, that the students at the high school were
not studying the German language more intensely. He confided that
he felt it unfair to have to translate everything into English
for his "educated" grandchildren. (ES82-TK-C6, Side
Talking with Mr. Wikenheiser further I found him to be somewhat
ambivalent toward formal education, an attitude shared by many
other German-Russians of his generation. Mr. Wikenheiser's pride
in the success of his old friend, Lawrence Welk, was evident and
he obviously enjoyed talking about the popular band leaders's
early days in Strasburg. As Mr. Wikenheiser was quick to point
out, Strasburg's wealthiest and most famous native son "didn't
have much education." (ES82-TK-C6, Side 1, 462-475).
Although I had done fieldwork among German-Russians prior to
my research at Emmons Central High School, never before had I
studied the actual process of conscious cultural transmission
in so clearly delineated a setting. Alter years of observing German-Russian
people interacting at informal gatherings, church services, wedding
dances, funeral dinners, and agricultural tasks, it was exciting
to actually watch a German-Russian adult instruct young members
of his group about their ethnic heritage. Many of the cultural
values, attitudes, and perceptions shared by German-Russians which
I had tried so hard and so long to pinpoint in my early observations
- were being identified, discussed, and scrutinized by the percipients
An analysis of the data I collected during my fieldwork at Emmons
Central High School is difficult since I only scratched the surface
of what I quickly discovered was a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon.
A score of related questions and lines of inquiry would emerge
with each bit of information that I uncovered. While I realize
that this is always the case in any scholarly endeavor, I did
not think studying one ethnic school would pose the kind of challenge
that it did.
In analyzing the format and the materials for German-Russian
Ethnic Studies at Emmons Central High School, I found that the
class was basically an honest, balanced attempt to convey some
of the more prominent aspects of German-Russian ethnicity to the
students. It was refreshing to see German-Russian culture being
presented in the kind of down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts fashion
many Black Sea German Americans of the Dakotas pride themselves
in exemplifying. There were no colorful posters of mist-covered
castles in Germany in the school room where the German-Russian
class was taught, no tall, Bavarian beer steins, or solemn-faced
busts of Wagner. At the German-Russian dinner prepared and served
by the students the foods were typically German-Russian and the
music playing in the background was a tape recording of a group
of local German-Russian farmers singing traditional old country
favorites, like "Zu Strasburg" and "Wir sitzen
so froehlich beisammen." Most reassuring of all was the fact
that not one dirndl or even a pair of lederhosen was anywhere
The class directs a great deal of attention toward the making
of models and artifacts that would mean little to most other Americans
of German ancestry (e.g., the German-Russian Semelanka or earthen
house, the Ulmer Schachtel-Ulm emigrant boat, and Brennmist or
manure fuel). The production of such handcrafts underscores the
fact that the instructor of the German-Russian studies class at
Emmons Central is encouraging the students to focus on specific
aspects of their Slavic-influenced heritage rather than those
of their "German" ancestry.
While Mr. Kramer and his students have chosen to focus on distinctive
aspects of their German-Russian heritage, I believe something
is gradually taking place in the class that may not be readily
apparent to the participants. At times "German-Russian culture"
is discussed and viewed as if it were a truly homogeneous phenomenon.
Since Emmons Central High School is no longer a one-parish, community
institution, it now draws German-Russian students from settlement
areas well outside of Strasburg. While many of the Strasburg students
trace their ancestry to the Kutschurgan Black Sea German colonies,
a number of other students from the outlying parishes are descendents
of emigrants who came from the Bessarabian and Crimean German-Russian
colonies. Regional differences (as manifested in dialects, foodways,
farming patterns, and so on) may lead to confusion on the part
of those German-Russian students whose community or family traditions
do not always run parallel to the material presented in the class.
At any rate, one outcome of the German-Russian studies class at
the high school may be a heightened awareness of German-Russsian
identity in its broadest sense, rather than a vague feeling for
one's traditions at the purely local level.
In regard to the articulation of cultural values, the seventh
unit covered in the class deals directly with German-Russian cultural
and personality traits. This section of the course always provides
a forum for much student discussion about German-Russian values
and attitudes. In my interviews with two students, both pointed
out that, while this subject was interesting, it posed some problems,
since the students were unable to see themselves as compared to
"outsiders." They admitted that their contacts with
people who are not German-Russian were quite limited. Nonetheless,
they agreed with most of the German-Russian values and attributes
discussed in class: Industriousness, a love of the land and of
farming, religiosity, conservatism, frugality, and stubbornness.
They disagreed with the instructor that German-Russians were "crazy
clean," feeling it to be an exaggeration. They did not list
other attributes, such as affability, generosity, and sobriety,
as characteristic of the German-Russians.
A large circular poster with illustrations of a German-Russian
earthen home, windmill, and plow graced the front of the room
on the day of the German-Russian dinner at the high school. Two
neatly lettered German expressions appeared on the poster "Arbeit
macht das Leben suess" ("Work makes life sweet")
and "In Amerika durch Gottes Gnade!" ("In America
through the Grace of God!"). A smaller poster, bearing numerous
pictures of agricultural scenes, bore the legend: "Landsleute
- Part of our German-Russian Heritage as Farmers."
Another characteristic of the German-Russians, repeatedly pointed
out by Mr. Kramer, is their ambivalence toward formal education.
He explained this attitude as stemming from the past history of
the German-Russians, since they viewed schools in Russia and later
in the United States as threats to their cultural and religious
integrity. This fear was compounded by the German-Russian belief
that education was not essential for those engaged in agricultural
pursuits. According to Mr. Kramer, such attitudes persist and
are contributing factors to the unstable financial situation of
the Catholic high school in Strasburg today. Mr. Kramer pointed
out that many German-Russians tend to be tight fisted and, consequently,
dislike making pledges; but at the same time they want to see
Emmons Central-"their school" remain open. Thus the
future of the German-Russian studies class, and indeed that of
the very high school which offers it, remains uncertain. (ES82-TK-C8,
Side 2, 73-95)
Perhaps the most important thing that I learned while studying
the German-Russian class at Emmons Central is that high school
educators can offer both a well-balanced curriculum and an ethnic
heritage component without sacrificing program quality. The students
at Emmons Central High School are free to choose whether to enroll
in the German-Russian studies course. If they decide to do so,
they are able to attend the class during regular school hours.
Furthermore, since the course includes basic anthropological and
sociological concepts, it serves the students in two important
ways: by providing a formal opportunity to explore various facets
of the German-Russian culture and by encouraging the students
to view their heritage against the larger backdrop of human experience.
I am deeply indebted to the following individuals, all of whom
helped make my ethnic heritage school research a truly enlightening
experience: Mr. Les Kramer and his German-Russian Ethnic Studies
class at Ernmons Central High School in Strasburg; Mr. Alan Hummel
of Hague; Mr. and Mrs. John Vetter of Kintyre; Mr. Wendelin Wikerheiser
from Strasburg; and the Clarence Wikenheiser family of Strasburg.
Appreciation also is due Michael M. Miller, Millie Nieuwsma-Buekea,
and Rosalinda Appelhans Kloberdanz.
On May 21, 1985, the doors of Emmons Central High School were
locked following final commencement ceremonies. This time, however,
a simple spring ritual symbolizing another school year's end had
profound and deeply troubling significance to many German-Russian
families - the doors of Emmons Central were to remain permanently
Rising education costs and declining student enrollment were
cited as two of the major reasons for the parochial school's shutdown.
Newspaper reporter Lucille Hendrickson described the emotion-charged
event in an article entitled "Goodbye, Emmons Central, Goodbye
Forever" (The Bismarck Tribune, May 26, 1985). Hendrickson
perhaps stemmed up the feelings of many people in the Strasburg,
North Dakota, area with the words "the death of a school
is a grievous thing for a small community."