Teaching Our Ethnic Heritage

Roger, Ken. "Teaching Our Ethnic Heritage." Bismarck Tribune, 2000, 33.

NDSU anthropology and sociology professor Tim Kloberdanz who has studied North Dakota's ethnic heritage for many years, says his German-Russian background inspired him to study folklore.
Timothy Kloberdanz

Age: 51

Occupation: Professor of Sociology-anthropology at North Dakota State University, Fargo.

Education: Undergraduate, Colorado State University; masters, University of Colorado; Ph.D, University of Indiana.

Family: wife, Rosalinda; sons, Michael, 21, Matthew, 19.

Specialty: Folklore, in particular, Germans from Russia traditions.

Discovering shared traditions provides the rare opportunity to realize things humans hold in common. Perhaps it is time we retrace some of the ancient stepping stones that lead us back to one another's camps, rather than seek out the stones that lead us farther apart.

- Tim Kloberdanz

Perhaps the oddest misconception North Dakotans have about themselves is that they lack diversity.

"First, understand the mosaic that is North Dakota has more than 70 distinct groups with their own languages and traditions," says Tim Kloberdanz, talking about one of the basic insights that must be unveiled for North-Dakota-born-and-raised students of folklore.

Understanding the difference among these groups, as well as what they hold in common, are the Colorado native's great work -- as well as teaching at North Dakota State University. He's been a member of the NDSU faculty since 1976, with the exception of three years working on his doctorate at the University of Indiana Folklore Institute.

Executive Director of the North Dakota Humanities Council Everett Albers says of Kloberdanz's work: "We need people like Tim Kloberdanz when all the ethnic groups began losing their languages. The people asked themselves `do we have to do all those things (traditions) at a wedding?'and people like Tim Kloberdanz come in say, `What you have here is a tradition that goes back 1,000 years."

"What you get when someone from the outside comes in like that is you get a renewed interest in roots,"Albers said.

Kloberdanz isn't really from the outside. He grew up on a farm on the plains of eastern Colorado, prairie that makes North Dakota look forested.

For people thinking Colorado Rockies, Kloberdanz calls eastern Colorado: "Colorado without trees."

"My parents were farmers," Kloberdanz said, "I came out of a strong German-Russia community ... a strong culture. I didn't realize it at the time; I thought it was normal."

The Sterling, Colo., community had its own diversity. Within the area there were small groups of Lebanese, Japanese, Bohemians, Sicilians and Anglo Saxons.

"I was taught they were different," Kloberdanz said, who also noted similarities in his mixing with the other ethnic groups at funerals, school and in sports. "I tried to make sense of it."

That trying to make sense of traditions led to his study of folklore.

"One of the things that amazed me was the commitment to keeping traditions. Each had different traditions, but were committed to keeping those traditions," he said.

In North Dakota in the late 1980s, Kloberdanz surveyed 20 cemeteries in Pierce and Emmons counties that contained about 400 "iron crosses" used to mark graves by German-Russians. That led to the inclusion of 14 cemeteries in the National Register of Historic Places.

Kloberdanz's doctoral dissertation also dealt with German-Russians. In this case, he discovered while interviewing blacksmiths, the people who made the iron cross, "that their families often included midwives, who also used the sign of the cross in their healing." He studied the differences and similarities expressed in each of these callings that are brought together with the cross.

Kloberdanz expresses pride in being one of the authors of "Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History." He and his wife co-authored "Thunder on the Steppes," which focuses on the folk life of German-Russians living in South Russia and how similar their culture still is to that of German-Russians living in North Dakota.

Much of Kloberdanz's work has to do with capturing stories and oral traditions, which aren't often documented but can be accurate. That's folklore. (History is the stuff with written documentation.)

There's value in understanding folklore. Kloberdanz cites the work of county extension agents, arriving to work in an unfamiliar community. "There are ethnic groups with long traditions where you simply don't want to tempt fate," he said. An extension agent looking at a wheat field might say, "That's going to be the best wheat crop ever." And the farmer, trying to avoid the jinx, will respond, "It's not out of the field yet."

The extension agent needs to watch it, and can avoid the snafu by knowing something of the background of the people, Kloberdanz said.

"As to my work as a folklorist," he said, "I hope it sheds some light on the diverse nature of people, yet despite our differences, shows there are similarities."

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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