As Jeff and Kristi Wilcheck of Anchorage arrived in Petersburg this past weekend, they received an unexpected welcome.
“When I was getting off the plane, there were Vikings in fur costumes greeting us and Alaska Natives playing drums,” Kristi said. “It was so cool.”
Born in Anchorage during the 1960s, Kristi was one in a family of 13 living in a little log cabin on a dirt road. Petersburg’s Little Norway Festival reminded her of this time in her life because of its intimate “small town feel.”
2018 marks the 60th year for the Little Norway Festival, which honors the historic moment when the people of Norway drafted and signed their own constitution in 1814 as a testament to the Norwegian independence movement. Sara Aronson, a former Juneau resident now residing in Montana, put the festival simply: “(It’s) the Fourth of July celebration times four here.”
The 3000 or so residents of Petersburg receive at least 400 visitors who come just to attend the Little Norway Festival on the third weekend in May, said Mara Lutomski of the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. The daily sales tax income of $15,000 can double on the three main days of the festival, generating an additional $45,000 for the town.
“Overall we think ‘oh it’s fun and important to continue thinking about our heritage and Norwegian roots,’ but really it’s an anchor for our town,” Lutomski said. “There are a lot of opportunities to earn money to help keep things going in your community when you have festivals like this.”
The Little Norway Festival does supplement the income generated from the town’s bread and butter commercial fishing industry but the festival is also the community’s way of extending an invitation to folks who have always wanted to visit but were unsure of when exactly to arrive. Petersburg matriarch Roxane Lee shared that it was actually an outsider who started the event by noticing the town’s potential to draw tourists in on the grounds of heritage.
“The way (Little Norway) really, really started — and I don’t know if many people know this — but there was a fellow from Juneau by the name of Dutch Derr and he came down to one of our Chamber of Commerce meetings, and they were talking about tourism in Petersburg and Dutch said ‘you have so many things going here, you got this thriving Norwegian community and the Tlingit Indians — why don’t you do something about maybe having some sort of spring festival?’ and that got a few folks talking,” Lee said.
The first festival was hosted in 1958 and the subsequent festivals that followed had a community smörgåsbord meal as the main event. Sixty years later, attendees have to make some pretty tough decisions on which activities to enjoy because one simply cannot do them all — especially if they get kidnapped by a Viking or Valkyrie. The town’s local newspaper, the Petersburg Pilot, had a two page spread this year detailing more than 50 events that spanned from watching the “Live Norwegian Sweater Modeling and Dale of Norway Trunk Show,” eating Norwegian pastries at the Kaffe Haus, attending the unveiling of Tommy Joseph’s Storytellers Pole, watching the festival parade, tossing sil (“herring”), and enjoying a traditional meatball dinner. On Saturday night however, there were no other competing events as Ray Troll and the Ratfish Wranglers took to the stage at the Sons of Norway Hall and rocked the audience with songs like “Shake that Halibut.”
A Petersburg resident of one year, Malcolm Darden pointed out that Little Norway gives the community something, and someone else, to talk about.
“A lot of people come from all over to see the festivities, like the ambassador of Norway and legislators, and it’s good for the tourists as well as the locals — we get tired of seeing each other because we live on an island,” Darden laughed.
Although joking, Darden has a point similar to that of Dutch Derr. Little Norway is a means for locals to become tight knit in the generational traditions of Petersburg but it is only by sharing such traditions with others that the cultural awareness continues. This was a take-away from the Little Norway Festival Pageant event hosted on Saturday. The Pageant is an opportunity to witness youth dance in traditional clothing and learn more about Petersburg’s history. With a name like “Little Norway Festival,” it is easy to assume the entire event honors only Scandinavian culture, so when the Du Kusteeyi Yaki Dancers of the Juneau Auke Bay School entered the gymnasium to dance at the Pageant as well, their presence acknowledged that Alaska Native tradition and history that has presided over the land since time immemorial and thrives to this day.
Back in her living room off Mitkof Highway, Roxane Lee said the Little Norway Festival is open for all who wish to participate and the same can be said about the town of Petersburg.
“One year, but it wasn’t a part of the festival, we had a potlatch in town and Renel Beardslee asked me if I would get together with quite a few people in town to see how many different cultures were represented in Petersburg,” Lee said. “I believe we had 17 different peoples that wore their (traditional clothing) to the Assembly up at the high school gymnasium and it was amazing to see how many different countries are represented in our town that most of us didn’t know about.”
Roxane shared that at the Assembly meeting, people were dumbfounded to find out that community members they knew were from countries like Colombia and Thailand.
“People kind of said ‘oh yeah different people live here’ but they had never seen all the traditional costumes of their countries,” Lee said.
The Little Norway Festival portrayed most prominently Scandinavian culture because the event is celebrating Norwegian independence but it also gives the town a chance to honor the different groups that now comprise modern-day Petersburg. Visitors at the festival immediately noticed how incredible the cultural heritage at the event is, with an out-of-towner even noting the presence of the LGBTQ community marching in Friday’s parade. When asked what the town’s founder, Norwegian fisherman Peter Buschmann, would think of Petersburg today, Buschmann’s great-great granddaughter Ilene Belvin Garland speculated that he would be delighted to see that the town has flourished while her husband Dave threw in a little bit of humor.
“What would he say about Petersburg today? He would say ‘it’s too easy, you boys don’t know how to work, you don’t have to row, you don’t have to cut the ice,’” Dave said in an attempted Norwegian accent.
Fishing is not the only thing that has gotten easier in Petersburg as this town, founded by Norwegian immigrants, continues to welcome people not just to visit during the Little Norway Festival, but to be themselves and honor their own traditions and culture with a sense of pride. Petersburg is “the town that fish built” as well as the town that visitors built, too. The 2019 Little Norway Festival will be May 16-19. If you have never been, this is your invitation. Maybe you’ll even stay.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Dutch Derr’s name.
• Ray Friedlander is a freelance writer living in Juneau.