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Under the North Star: Cultures find similarities at the Polaris Cafe

Just “Follow the Statoil Star” from the front door of the main building of Norsk Hstfest to Tromso Hall.

There you will get to sample both northern Norwegian and Native American cuisine while taking in a performance or two showcasing the history of Norway. Or stroll through the cultural village where Native and Sami cultures converge.

“Every nation on the northern hemisphere has been following the North Star as a leading point on the sky,” Lena Paalviig Johnsen, a Norwegian from the Lofoten and Vesteraalen Islands in the far north of Norway near the 69th parallel, said of the name of the cafe. “When you see that you always know which direction is north so you can pinpoint out from that. We have it in the Norse culture, the Sami culture, we have it in the indigenous of America and so forth.”

“The common thread,” said Fern Gronvold, nee Peltier, of Dunseith and Barton, who cooks the native portion of the menu.

And that’s what the whole setup in the hall is about. Exploring the common thread of the various cultures present.

The cafe mixes northern Norwegian culture, including that of the indigenous Sami people, with the native culture of America.

“There’s such similarities between a northern Norway people and the Native American people,” said Grondvold. “Their histories are so similar with their drums, their persecution (suffered), their culture was taken from them and now they’re trying to revive it.”

“We have different menus every day and we also have a mix of Norwegian and Native American breakfast every day,” said Gunn Torild Dons, of Hamnvik, Norway. “So you can taste a bit of every culture.”

On Thursday afternoon, Dons served this reporter meatballs, the native dish, and a stew, the Norwegian dish. It was served along with bread for $10 with water or coffee being a dollar extra.

“We did boiled meatballs. We call them ‘bullets.’ It’s just a blend of beef hamburger with flour, onions and salt and pepper. Simple seasonings,” said Gronvold of her portion of the meal. “And it kind of thickens naturally on its own because of the flour base. And that’s a pretty historical dish, they (Chippewa/Metis tribes of the Turtle Mountains) usually make it around holiday times. … This is a holiday dish they serve on New Years. The bread is what we call gullet. It’s a baking powder bread, it’s a quick bread, it’s crusty and moist on the inside.”

“It’s a traditional Norwegian stew,” Dons said of her portion. “In old time it was served in weddings and it’s made of potato, carrots, rutabaga, celery, and leek. And in Norway we usually use salt lamb or salt pork in it but here I have bacon meat and sausages into it. And when you cook it together you get a very good stock. And I only used salt and pepper for seasoning.”

But they hadn’t just met at the Hstfest.

Dons is from a village named Hamnvik in northern Norway, along the 68th parallel. Her husband is the sixth generation owner of a trading port that is now changing into a bit of a renaissance village.

“It was built in 1795 and it has been in the same family since then,” she described. “In old times this was a very big place where people came to trade. They bought fish from the fishermen and kept it in these storage houses … And we are now building the old hotel from the late 1800s … and there are 14 buildings totally on this place.”

Dons is part Sami, the indigenous people of Arctic Norway that lived a nomadic lifestyle, only that heritage of hers is many generations removed. With others from the far north, she was tapped to meet with tribes of the Turtle Mountains to review similarities last week.

“A delegation of people came to the Turtle Mountains and they experienced first hand where we live and some of the things we do locally,” Gronvold said. “They took in some ceremonies, some tribal ceremonies that were like religious, like going into who you are, a person getting a name.”

“I think it’s more that we’ve identified the similarities between our tribes, or our cultures, and not so much the differences and it’s like, ‘Hey we have that same cultural experiences that native Americans have,'” she added of the experience. “They were nomadic people, the Sami, they actually cruised around the northern territories up there, they followed the herds, just like Native Americans, they followed the herds to feed themselves.”

“The bottom line is cultural similarities. You know, and that’s the message they want to get out. You know, empowering women and all people have been through the same ordeal in history.”