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.
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
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
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
"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.