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Callithumpian on the Iron Range
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An interview with Mary Lou Nemanic, author of One
Day for Democracy: Independence Day and the Americanization of
Iron Range Immigrants (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press,
Courtesy of Ohio University
The rugged Mesabi, Vermilion and Cuyuna iron ranges
in northern Minnesota comprise a distinctive region, peopled by
a rich mixture of immigrants from various countries who were brought
in by mining companies, beginning in the 19th century, to work
in this challenging environment.
Mary Lou Nemanic and her husband Doug, who grew up on the Range, began their research on
the Iron Range back in 1977. By the time the first phase of their
research was completed in 1987, they had produced a large amount
of negatives, prints, slides, audio and film tapes. But the collecting
didn’t stop there. Over the years, they have been offered
family photos and albums from many people on the Range, and have
continued with their own interviews, photographing and filming.
Their collection now has more than 40,000 negatives, prints and
slides; over 30 hours of oral histories; and countless film footage.
Nemanic was struck by how complex and festive
4th of July celebrations were on the Iron Range, especially when
compared to quieter celebrations in more urban environments to
the south. She noticed that on the Range, towns used the 4th
of July as a reason to get together, to hold reunions, to sponsor
games and parades and to create elaborate floats and other public
Nemanic discovered that on the Iron Range, a unique blend of
Old World and New World festive traditions combined with regional
elements to create the traditional Iron Range 4th of July celebrations.
Through her study of the history of the United States’ earliest
celebrations of Independence Day, and her ethnographic documentation
of the Iron Range, Nemanic shows how public displays can undercut
authority, and help in differing constructions of American identities.
I recently talked with Nemanic about her research and her writing:
How did the Iron Range develop as a region?
Because the iron ore was not discovered until the late 19th century,
and these turned out to be the richest and largest ore deposits
in the world, mining companies needed to recruit unskilled European
workers, and so they did, from more than 30 different countries.
And a typical labor recruitment strategy, to undercut unionization,
would be to recruit from different countries where they didn’t
speak the same language and particularly cultures that clashed
and didn’t get along, like Serbia and Croatia. That often
times was a good way to make sure that the people didn’t
try to organize. This was common across America, this kind of
More than 30 different countries, you can imagine, with no one
real majority group, they really had to pool their different traditions
and customs, and that became kind of a sub-culture for them. So,
even though potica is a Slovak delicacy, and porketta is an
Italian spiced pork, these are typical foods that became traditional
on the 4th, Iron Range food, along with hot dogs and American-type
things. There was this blending of the Old World and the New World,
into what became the Iron Range sub-culture.
It carried across all three ranges, which I think is really interesting.
And also what I found fascinating was that these people—who
especially in the early days of the frontier, when people would
get into fights and there’d be different conflicts between
groups—they’d always put aside their differences on
Independence Day and try to celebrate the nation’s birthday
and be cordial to people that they didn’t necessarily get
along with on an everyday basis, whether it was their noisy neighbor
or some other ethnic group.
Having to work in those unsafe conditions in the mines, they
created what they called “mine English” to communicate.
They knew that in order to survive in this really harsh environment,
they had to cooperate with each other and be interdependent. But
there were still conflicts and antagonisms. And yet on the 4th,
that was the day that any of that conflict was supposed to be
put aside, people were supposed to show their unity in deference
to America, and their own sense of American nationalism.
I think about the work that Robert Lavenda has done on Minnesota
festivals, and the elements they share, such as food, the Queen
contest, the parades. As you talk about such elements and how
they developed over time, were there particular things that struck
The callithumpian parade. That is a really interesting tradition
that comes out of the Old World carnival tradition, brought over
by people from Europe. It’s a silly costumed parade. And
in America it was brought over by some of the first settlers to
America, and in the 19th century, even before the Range was settled,
callithumpian parades would be common in different towns across
America. Sometimes they would also be used to socially enforce
things, and make fun of people—for example, if politicians
became despots, or were tyrannical in any way. It was a way for
people to make fun of authority and put them in their place. But
in terms of the holidays, it was people dressing up and being
humorous, being able to use satire and parody to express things
that were on their minds, sometimes political and sometimes social.
And the callithumpian is most well-known in the town of Biwabik.
They still have quite a turn-out for their callithumpian parade.
It really is the centerpiece of their 4th of July program.
Cross-dressing and making fun of the fact that women have to
wear a certain type of clothes and men have to wear another—that
really gets into the carnival aspect, turning the rules of everyday
life upside down, inverting things and making fun of all the restrictions
of everyday life, and getting into a whole different mindset,
at least once a year or at least whenever your public celebrations
Looking at the image of Toivo’s airbus makes me wonder
if each ethnic group has such ethnic characters.
The Toivo’s Airbus group in Aurora,
(Photograph by Mary Lou Nemanic, Tamarack Iron
Courtesy of Ohio University Press.
Yes, there are people from different ethnic groups, like Italians,
on Italian floats, making fun of some of the stereotypes, the
organ grinder or something like that. If you really dug around
in people’s albums you could get all types of examples,
but the ones that I was able to get to were more of the Finnish,
because the Toivo’s people were so well-traveled across
the range and they put a lot of emphasis and time into planning.
In fact, they were one of the groups that planned way ahead of
time, and so I wanted to focus on them because they were such
a big tradition in the Biwabik callithumpian parade and also in
Aurora’s evening parade.
Do certain groups make appearances across the three ranges?
They stagger the times for the parades—and they even do
that with the marching bands. The Virginia marching band is a
really fine marching band; you’ll see it in the Aurora parade,
which is held on the 3rd, and then on the 4th, it’s in the
Virginia parade, where they sometimes have a morning parade. Then
in the late evening is the Biwabik parade. In the early days—late
19th, early 20th century—they actually had trains between
the towns, so that they could participate in the different celebrations.
And some towns even had co-sponsors, so one town would have it
in their town one year and another town another year. It really
shows that there is regional connection between the towns. Even
though the towns did have their rivalries—they would have
baseball and hockey games, all kinds of physical matches—but
at the same time they were all Iron Rangers. And if they had any
outside criticism, they’d all band together. It wasn’t
important that you were a Slovenian miner as much as that you
were a Slovenian miner from the Iron Range. In that way, the ethnicity
and the place were very tied together.
As you continued to study the 4th of July over a number of
years, were there certain themes that you saw emerging, and insights
you had? Are there certain portrayals of life that are particular
to the region, such as hard drinking?
Toivo’s Homeland Security float
for Aurora’s Centennial and Independence Day parade,
July 3, 2003 (Photograph by Mary Lou Nemanic, Tamarack Iron
Range Collection.) Courtesy of Ohio University Press.
There certainly is self-parody; they make fun of themselves and
the drinking culture. And I think you’ll find that with
most occupations involving hard work like mining, there is a tendency
toward drinking, especially in the small towns. And then of course,
drinking is associated with festive culture in Old World tradition,
in the carnival tradition. But that’s the interesting part
of this egalitarian humor, they poke fun at themselves as well
as authority figures and corporations like Northwest Airlines
and Homeland Security and so on.
And not just self-parody, but parody of other things. The Homeland
Security float is a good example. Those guys crack me up. That’s
one of the reasons I found them so interesting and I wanted to
focus on them. They had a particularly good sense of humor, and
they were able to get such a nice large group for their different
floats. They just have done stuff over the years that’s
pretty funny. And they really go to a lot of effort. You can tell
from the costuming in the Homeland Security float, they go to
a lot of work and spend a lot of time doing this.
I didn’t emphasize some of the more “ethnic pride”
kinds of things that you see on the 4th. I could have probably
done a 600-page book. So many pictures I have, so many parades
I’ve seen emphasize a sense of ethnic pride. I don’t
mean to say that all the parades and so on are totally humorous.
There are those that feel that they should just affirm their ethnicity,
and show off ethnic costuming, music, and icons from their countries
of origin. But the humor is unusual when you compare it to public
celebrations in bigger cities or places where there’s not
a mixed ethnicity like the Range. It’s more or less marching
bands, and maybe Shriners going around on their little go-carts,
but a lot of it is military units, and very dignified kinds of
presentations, and not a lot of humor and parody and satire. That’s
a big important thing, comparing parades there to the Range, but
I don’t want people to only think that it’s all silly
and there aren’t any serious kinds of presentations.
So much of this really is about being an American. Have you
had some conclusions about what you see as the individual impulse
to define what being an American is?
I think people that are native born and don’t have current
or fairly recent immigration in their families don’t have
as much of a sense of affirming and displaying their sense of
pride in being an American. I think immigrants and families of
immigrants really feel that’s an important part of showing
that they are Americans, and participating in things like the
4th of July. But I think we all have a certain need to affirm
our identity, and in terms of festive culture, that can be in
a really public situation or it could be very private, if you’re
talking about smaller gatherings. But I think that affirmation
is an important part of understanding who we are. And also, in
times of transformation, when there’s economic hardship,
like the Depression, or war, like World War II, these important
traditions of celebrating the 4th and affirming national identity
in public are important stabilizers and ways that people feel
a sense of continuity. That’s an important part of what
festive culture can do for people.
I’m sure that you saw that emerging after 2001.
In fact, if you go back to the ‘60s when it became kind
of passé to show patriotism in a solemn way, we didn’t
see a lot of overt patriotic expressions. But then, when you’re
attacked in your own homeland, that really rallies people and
it certainly isn’t in any way inappropriate to express patriotism
and show that we’re united as Americans.
The first 4th of July that we had after 9/11, Doug and I felt
that one of the important places for us to be would be in Philadelphia.
We brought our cameras, and we got press credentials, and we got
to photograph Colin Powell getting the Medal of Liberty. It was
very emotional, it was very moving to be there during that time
period. We couldn’t get back to the Range, otherwise we
would have. Philly is only 3 ½ hours from where we live.
It was really important; we felt we wanted to document that. It
was sad to see all the security, go through all the security clearances
and have our camera bags searched constantly. It was also interesting
to see people in turbans who were obviously Arab-Americans, waving
the flag, standing and walking as spectators, holding up signs
saying “We’re Americans too.”
It was a very interesting time period, when I think patriotism
was considered a very popular thing. I think it has kind of languished
now. Patriotism displays are cyclical, so that during wars and
times of transition people feel more comfortable displaying patriotism
publicly than at other times. Or they don’t even feel a
need to as much, unless there is some kind of threat or some kind
of major changes in lifestyles.
I suppose, in times of crisis, the important thing is to emphasize
patriotism and not so much to examine it, and then examination
comes later. We’re in that stage now, I think.
Obviously, with cultural change, the pendulum swings to extremes,
so you see these super patriots who say, “If you aren’t
buying the administration’s viewpoint then you’re
not patriotic.” I had somebody say to me, “Oh, you’ve
written this book, you must be patriotic. I’m going to send
you this…” and they sent me this really ultra right-wing
kind of thing that said only these people were patriots. Obviously
my book isn’t about that at all.
I think the idea that right-wing and ultra right-wing people
are the only ones who can lay claim to being patriots has moved
into the popular culture so much, we have forgotten the roots
of popular radicalism that really is the reason for this country
and the reason for the 4th of July. It’s just been purged
and disconnected from its roots that these guys that led the Revolution
were really radical dudes, and they were not what people today
would call conservative in any way, shape or form. They were throwing
off the shackles of aristocracy and the mother country, and what
they did was considered pretty radical. That term became so tainted
with 9/11—in the sense that radicals are people that are
suicide bombers or associated with al-Qaida or one of the other
groups that’s into terrorist strategies. And that’s
very sad because the term “radical” has had less politically
charged definitions, but today it’s often associated with
To think about these founding members of America, it was such
a radical thing for them to break with England, and so treasonous.
Another thing that really surprised me in studying early American
4th of Julys was how treasonous it was for them to publicly celebrate
independence. But they had to affirm the Declaration. There wasn’t
a lot of literacy, there was no mass media, so the Declaration
was actually written to be orated, and was read in town after
town after town, and then the people would spontaneously celebrate
and that was their affirmation that, yes, we accept this independence
and we want to fight for independence. To do that was a very treasonous,
dangerous activity, and yet people felt the need to do that in
order to affirm independence.
Hearing about this collection, all the footage you have,
years and years of photographs, I wonder if you have future publications,
exhibits or productions in mind?
We have had some exhibits in the past, at the Iron Range Research
Center and in different towns.
But what our big project has been all along is to do a feature-length
documentary. And for a long time it was hard to get funding. We
decided that now it’s to the point where we can fund it
ourselves, and we’re not going to spend our time fund-raising,
but we want to do the producing. We would like to do a history
of Iron Range development, but also through the perspective of
our project and how we developed that over the years, and journeys
that we went on in order to create this. So that’s really
what we’re working on. We hope to have that done in maybe
two years. That’s going to be a big centerpiece of the collection.
Eventually, we will be leaving the collection to a depository.
Obviously, we want the collection to be in Minnesota and on the
Range if possible. But right now it’s a little early and
it’s hard to know what plans depositories are going to have
for their collections and whether or not they’d be equipped
to take something as big as the collection that we’ve amassed
over the years. We’re not regularly documenting now as much
as we’re regularly organizing that collection and thinking
about the ways that we want to put this together in a feature
documentary format. It’s a great project to be working on.