Germans from Russia and Nepalese from Bhutan: More in Common Than You Might Think

Visitors Services Coordinator, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead, Minnesota.

Krueger, Markus. "Germans from Russia and Nepalese from Bhutan: More in Common Than You Might Think." Hourglass 3, no. 1: Spring 2011, 12-13.

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  No matter how much times change, current events can sure sound familiar sometimes.  Twain’s quotation came to my mind as Darci Asche of Lutheran Social Services was telling HCS staff about a newly-arrived group of people from Bhutan whose ancestors and culture came from the neighboring country of Nepal.  Not only did I hear a rhyme in their story; I was sure I had heard this tune before.  The story of the Nepalese from Bhutan, North Dakota’s newest major immigrant group, sounds an awful lot like the story of the Germans from Russia, one of North Dakota’s oldest major immigrant groups. 

The same story could be written for both the Germans from Russia and the Nepalese from Bhutan, changing only dates and names.  Both Nepali farmers and German farmers were asked to come to a neighboring country to settle an unsettled land.  Both groups were allowed to form their own colonies where their language, religion, and traditions could be preserved.  The Nepalese colonies in Bhutan and the German colonies in Russia flourished for roughly a century before their neighbors began to resent them as “foreigners.”  Their rights were stripped, their culture suppressed, and their language outlawed.  They fled their homeland by the thousands.  Finally, both the Nepalese from Bhutan and the Germans from Russia found new homes in North Dakota.     

It may seem odd that no German Russian immigrant was profiled in our exhibit about the history of immigration to Clay County.  After all, a large portion of our population is descended from these immigrants, and the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, one of America’s primary research facilities devoted to the study of this group, is just across the river at NDSU.  But by 1884, when the first German-Russian settlers started homesteading the part of Dakota Territory that would soon become the Peace Garden State, the fertile land of the Red River Valley was already taken by Yankees, Norwegians, Swedes, and Germans (that is, German Germans, not Russian Germans).  Although some German Russian families were able to find land in our area, it was often on poorer soil that had been passed over by the first settlers.  The 1900 census shows a few German Russian families in Hagen Township west of Ulen, but most had moved on by 1930.  The frontier land that the Germans from Russia settled was in central North Dakota, what is now called the German-Russian Triangle.  It was their children and grandchildren who moved off the farm to work in the city that account for the high rate of German Russian heritage in the Red River Valley.     

The story of the Germans from Russia begins with Empress Catherine the Great, the German-born ruler of Russia.  Catherine’s army had recently conquered a great deal of virgin land along the Volga River.  In 1763, Catherine sent out a call to foreign settlers to populate this land.  Her goal was to put the land under cultivation, generating wealth for the Russian Empire, while creating a buffer of colonies full of foreigners between the Russian people and their enemies, the Ottoman Turks.  The Empress offered, among other things, free land to the foreign farmers, the ability to keep their own culture and language in separate communities, self governance, religious freedom, and exemption from being drafted into the army.  To sweeten the deal, she said these freedoms would be extended to all their descendants forever.

This offer came during a hard time for the Germans.  Until 1871, Germany was divided into numerous weak states ruled by kings, princes, dukes, and archbishops.  It was often used as the battleground for the great powers of Europe to fight for dominance.  Wars brought the usual burning of fields, mercenary solders supplementing their pay by pillaging villages, and civilian death.  The recent Seven Years War - called the French and Indian War in America – had devastated many of the German states.  Thousands saw leaving their homes as the best path to a better life.  Some went to new American colonies like Pennsylvania, others went east to Russia.  In the coming decades more Germans moved east, lured by invitations to settle newly opened land in Russia, and spurred on by English, Russian, Austrian, Prussian, and French armies laying waste to the German villages and countryside during the Napoleonic Wars (Arends, Shirley Fischer.  The Central Dakota Germans: Their History, Language, and Culture.  1989).

Life was hard on the Russian frontier, but the German communities found a way to prosper in Russia.  Eventually, 3,000 German settlements were established on Russia’s southern frontier (Michael Miller, director of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, provides a great short history of the Germans from Russia on their website:  The Russian people, however, began to grow suspicious of these foreigners in their midst who stubbornly refused to be absorbed into Russian culture.  In 1871, Czar Alexander II voided all of the rights promised to the German settlers by Catherine and her successors.  In 1881, his son, Alexander III, banned the use of the German language in classrooms and business transactions.  It became government policy to make the Germans into Russians.    

They came to central North Dakota for free and cheap land on what was left of the Great American Frontier.  According to Michael Miller at the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, there were an estimated 116,000 Germans from Russia in America in 1920, over half of them living in North Dakota.  According to the 1920 Census, Russia was the country of birth for almost a quarter of the foreign-born population of North Dakota.  Only Norway ranked higher (29%).  Considering that the 2009 American Community Survey shows 47% of North Dakotans said they were of German ancestry compared to just 3.8% claiming Russian ancestry, we can be sure that the overwhelming majority of those Russian-born North Dakotans in 1920 were the Germans from Russia. 

Interestingly, North Dakota not only has the highest percentage of German ancestry of any state; it is also the most heavily Norwegian. It is also interesting to note that only 9% of immigrants in that same 1920 census were born in Germany.  From the looks of it, most of the German immigrants who made North Dakota the most heavily German state in the Union came not from Germany but from Russia.
The story of North Dakota’s newest immigrant group is remarkably similar.  About the time that the Germans were emigrating from Russia to America, farmers from Nepal were moving into the nearby country of Bhutan (pronounced boo-TAN).  Bhutan is a country at the eastern foot of the Himalaya Mountains, squished between China in the north and India in the south.  It is half the size of North Dakota but has about the same number of people.  Between 1890 and 1920, thousands of Nepali farmers were invited to settle the uncultivated, malaria-infested marshland of southern Bhutan.  The Nepali immigrants cleared the land and became successful farmers while keeping their local customs and language.  They came to be called the Lhotshampa people, or “southerners.”  The U.S. Department of State estimates that the Lhotshampapeople make up roughly 35% of the population of Bhutan.  That estimate, however, includes 85,000 Lhotshampa Bhutanese who have been living in refugee camps in Nepal for the last twenty years. 

A century after the Russian government began suppressing German culture in Ukraine, the King of Bhutan began a program of suppressing Nepali (Lhotshampa) culture under the slogan “One Nation, One People.”  Schools were forbidden to teach in the Nepali language, and all people were forced by law to wear traditional Bhutanese clothing – not Nepali clothing - or risk fines or imprisonment.  In 1988 a new census was conducted in order to record the Lhotshampa population.  Laws of citizenship were changed, naming any Lhotshampa resident an illegal alien if they could not prove their residency by providing a tax receipt from 1958.  “Some could even prove that they lived in Bhutan in 1957 and in 1959,” reported Richard Skretteberg of the Norwegian Refugee Council in a 2008 report on Bhutan, “but this was of no use if they did not have a tax receipt from 1958.”  The people took to the streets of southern Bhutan in protest.  Violence erupted from both sides but the government succeeded in quelling the unrest and began deporting its people. 

Between 1988 and 1993, thousands of Lhotshampa people fled to their ancestral homeland of Nepal.  They were granted refugee status by the United Nations.  According to State Department numbers from last January, more than one-eighth of the population of Bhutan was living in one of the seven Lhotshampa refugee camps in Nepal.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees believes that number is closer to one in six.           

The Lhotshampa people have tried to return home, but the Bhutanese government says they have forfeited their citizenship by moving to Nepal.  The country of Nepal is not economically stable enough to be able to absorb what the United Nations estimates as over 100,000 Bhutanese workers in the camps, so they have remained in the camps for the last twenty years.  Last year Nepal ordered these camps closed and all the people in them to disperse.  According to Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, the United States has agreed to take 60,000 of the Nepali from Bhutan in the next 5 years, the rest of the number being divided by Canada, Australia, and various European nations.

Lutheran Social Services is one of the organizations charged with finding new places to live for refugees across the world.  When Lutheran Social Services was deciding where best to place these Nepali from Bhutan, the organization picked Fargo-Moorhead as one of the primary resettlement communities.  Why?  Because counted among the thousands of students going to North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead, and Concordia College are a surprising number of international students from Nepal.  Enough Nepali people, LSS thought, to start a community.  The first Nepali from Bhutan immigrants came to Fargo in May of 2008.  As of January 2011, 457 Lhotshampa people were resettled in Fargo-Moorhead, with another 166 in Grand Forks.  We are now a magnet for the Lhotshampa, usually called the “Bhutanese” around here. 

While life in the Russian Empire in the 19th century is quite a bit different than life in Bhutan in the 1980s, the stories of these two peoples have quite a few similarities.  These parallels, Twain’s “rhymes,” give us a new way to look at our history and our present, letting strange things feel more familiar to us.  Although they were not called refugees in centuries past, many American families came here fleeing “the Terror” following the French Revolution, or seeking political freedom after the 1848 Revolutions failed in Germany, or seeking safety from government-organized pogroms which targeted Jewish communities in Russia.  Sadly, it is no stretch of the imagination to picture the victims of starvation and cholera during the Irish Potato Famine because similar conditions can be seen daily in the news from Haiti.  Witnessing first hand the suspicion toward Muslims in America after the September 11th attacks, I can imagine the discrimination my family faced as German immigrants during the wave of anti-German sentiment that swept America during the First World War.  I agree with Mark Twain.  “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Abraham and Agatha with their children jacob and Aggie, were rare examples of German Russian farmers in Clay County. Both children of immigrants, they began farming in Hagen Township in the spring of 1900 (Spanning the Century: The History of Ulen, Minnesota, 1886-1986)

Printed with permission of Markus Krueger.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller