When I first came to Kodiak, my curiosity was aroused by the numerous references to Scandinavia in the names of streets and places like Anton Larson Bay, Larsen Bay, Ole Johnson Avenue, and Benny Benson Road. Searching through Kodiak’s telephone book, I was perplexed by the names listed there – Carlson, Berggren, Billstrom, Peterson, Antonson, Christensen and Grönn. Where did all these Scandinavian names come from? Digging a little deeper, I discovered a history of Kodiak that has never been told, much less documented.
In the early 1900s, hundreds of young Scandinavian men arrived on Kodiak. They settled in some of the most remote villages on the islands, married native women, and had large families – ten to twelve children were not unusual. Most of them seem to have been fairly secretive about their past and their homeland. Their children and grandchildren know very little about that side of their heritage.
One summer, I was invited to attend the Sons of Norway Club’s annual barbecue on the beach. I was looking forward to meeting some of the Scandinavian-Sugpiaq people that had captured my curiosity.
One of the first to welcome me was the president of the club, Carl Grönn, who said, “I’m a proud Norwegian, but you are welcome here, even if you are Swedish!” It was, after all, a Norwegian club. Carl smiled, and added with a twinkle in his eye, “All Scandinavians are welcome!”
Carl, who is also a fisherman, stood watch over a couple of beer kegs. “Would you like some?” he asked.
Before I could answer, he lifted the lid off of one of the kegs and pulled out a large, newly cooked Dungeness crab. Carl, or “Kalleman” as his father used to call him, soon became one of my dearest friends.
It was a wonderful barbecue. I got to know several Scandinavian-Sugpiaq, who told me about their heritage and what they knew of their forefathers.
A couple of days later, I was invited to Carl’s home for a cleansing in his “banya.” A banya is a Russian sauna, but it is different from the saunas we are used to in Scandinavia. More primitive, it has no shower facilities, only a barrel in the corner with cold water dripping from a hose. To cool off, you scoop up the cold water in a stainless steel bowl and pour it over your head. Sounds excruciating, perhaps, but it’s actually quite invigorating.
As I waited on the doorstep for someone to answer the door, I noticed a sign hanging on the wall – “The GRÖNN’S.” It occurred to me that something was not quite right. I looked at the sign again, remembering Carl’s first words to me: “I’m a proud Norwegian … ”
A Swedish Ö is an O with two dots. A Norwegian Ø is an O with a line through it. There is no way that a Norwegian would spell his name with a Swedish Ö. I turned to Carl, and asked him if that was the way his father had spelled his name. “Yup, he sure did,” Carl said proudly.
“I’m so sorry, Carl,” I said consolingly, “but I suspect that you are Swedish … ”
It took some time, but Carl has now recovered from the shock and accepted the possibility of an alternate heritage.
(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )
Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.