Angela Falk

Swedish-American Pioneer Recollections and Stories in the Smoky Valley

Stories not only move across time to reach listeners in younger generations but they also can move across languages in communities settled by immigrants. The focus of this paper is on the patterns of oral recollection and narration recorded in the Swedish-American community of Lindsborg, Kansas, which is situated in the Smoky Valley. This region, formerly a portion of the vast hunting grounds used by the Kansa Indians (Unrau 1971), became the destination of Swedish immigrants when prairie land was made accessible to white settlers through the Homestead Act of 1862. Over a period of several decades, thousands of Swedish-born persons migrated to the Smoky Valley.

In the 1960s, a century after the earliest Swedish settlement in the region, approximately 75 Swedish-speaking residents of Kansas were interviewed in an extensive project led by the Swedish dialectologist Professor Folke Hedblom (Hedblom 1982). Topics in the recorded conversations ranged widely of course, but the respondents offered recollections and told stories in heritage Swedish (and in some cases heritage Swenglish) about events that took place in and around the very first prairie homestead dwellings, which were dugouts and primitive cabins. Many of the speakers also told stories about the Swedish pioneers who came into contact with Native Americans. Two decades after the Hedblom visit to the Smoky Valley, a local historical society launched an oral history project to tap into the knowledge of long-time residents who were the descendants of the pioneers and other early settlers. Here again the topics of the interviews (mostly in English) ranged widely, but nearly half of the 64 respondents mentioned “Indians” in units of recollection and in brief narratives, generally in response to a direct question posed by the interviewers. While a few of the respondents shared multiple Indian stories, some of which contain speculation and elements of the supernatural, it is more frequently the case that the discourse that emerged in the interviews contains merely the core of a contact narrative (cf. Labov 1972; Johnstone 2008; Kolodny 2012). An interesting phenomenon in the contact narratives collected in the 1980s is that some of the quoted speech concerning Native Americans is in Swedish, even though these stories otherwise are told in English.

This paper will first provide an overview of the “grammars of recollection” and of the “narrative patterns” of the two data sets (1960s, 1980s) from the interview collections. Where possible, talk about identical topics across the time points will be compared in order to identify similarities and differences in the discourse. Finally, the paper will examine the placement, structure, and frequency of the quoted speech appearing in recollection and narrative passages. The linguistic insights gained from these comparisons may help us understand the ways that memory is transmitted by oral discourse over generations and the distribution of a heritage language and the majority language in a bilingual setting.

Selected references:

Hedblom, Folke. 1982. Svensk-Amerika berättar. Stockholm: Gidlunds.

Johnstone, Barbara. 2008. Discourse Analysis. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Kolodny, Annette. 2012. In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Unrau, William E. 1971. The Kansa Indians. A History of the Wind People, 1673–1873. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.