Sons of Norway members atop their ship. Photo by Krystal Ramirez.

Upholding Heritage

Three cultural clubs cling to their roots in Las Vegas

We celebrate Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year and St. Patrick’s Day. We devour gyros, sushi, plantains, arepas and tacos, Italian pastas and Polish sausages, even braving gelatinous lutefisk dinners. Thousands turn out for Greek and San Gennaro festivals, and millions seek their diverse heritage on ancestry.com.

And in Las Vegas, a town with a global workforce, cultural groups abound. Populations share the diverse traditions and heritages that make up America—Ethiopian,  Korean, Honduran, Iranian, Albanian, Chinese, Greek and dozens more.

Sons of Norway: Vegas Viking Lodge

Discrimination toward Scandinavians in Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 novel Main Street almost word-for-word matches the hostility directed at minority groups today. Founded in the 19th century to offer insurance to Norwegian immigrants who were otherwise denied it (similar to Chinese immigrants), the Sons of Norway still thrives. In Las Vegas, its presence comes in lutefisk dinners, annual holiday bazaars, festivals and a Viking ship popular in local parades.

They drink aquavit spirits, make lefse (a traditional flatbread), have a scholarship fund, feature performers playing music from Norwegian composers and host meetings. The group famously brought a giant Swedish Dala horse to the Las Vegas opening of Scandinavian chain IKEA, humorously asserting that they stole it from the Swedes during a raid and are not about to give it back.

“The main reason we exist is to extol the virtue of Norway, preach the gospel,” says former Vegas Viking Lodge counselor Erik Pappa.

The Vegas Viking Lodge, celebrating 25 years, has 120 members and shares the Valley with the Henderson Sons of Norway chapter, Desert Troll Lodge. Pappa, whose mother is from Norway (and is present in full Norwegian dress at events), says half of his family still lives there.

“It’s important to know where we came from,” Pappa says. “The lodge in Minneapolis is surrounded by so many Scandinavians. We get people who are interested in the camaraderie. Some people want their kids to learn Norwegian, but we don’t have that.”

And as descendants of Vikings, it’s in their nature to infiltrate other events such as the St. Patrick’s Day Festival, where the Sons of Norway snuck in a Viking ship. They have plans to invade other parades, too. As for the Dala horse, he says, “It’s in a discreet location, hidden from the Swedes.”

Japan America Society of Nevada

When Kathleen Blakely first moved to Las Vegas from Portland, she and her husband found themselves making several weekend trips to Los Angeles. Born in Japan to an American father and living in a blended family, Blakely says she missed seeing Japanese people in Las Vegas, which had a small population compared to L.A. in the ’90s.

Now an honorary consul general of Japan, she found community in the Japan American Society of Southern Nevada. The group was incorporated in Las Vegas in 1995 to represent Japan in a global destination city connected through travel, business and the expectation of trade, as well as provide community cultural events.

“Our whole premise is to raise the profile of Japan in the Valley [and] promote the relationship with Nevada and Japan culturally and [in] business,” she says.

Classes, festivals and luncheons are part of the group’s activities. Courses for children from Japan through Las Vegas Gakuen Japanese Saturday school help ensure students don’t fall behind when returning to their home country. U.S.-born children also learn to speak and write Japanese in weekend immersion classes.

Japanese fall and spring festivals offer food, dance and music, where tea is an experience complete with bento lunches and Japanese dolls. Festivals open to the community at large include cosplay performances, folk dances, singing, drumming and martial arts.

Blakely says that without the groups there would be a void in her life: “You can’t always put your finger on it, but you miss something. Once in awhile, you just want to be Japanese, be somewhere where the sounds and smells are familiar. It’s important to feel like you belong. It adds another dimension to the quality of life.”

Polish American Social Club of Las Vegas

When Iwona Podzorski was invited to discuss Polish resistance at the Sperling Kronberg Mack Holocaust Resource Center this February, she was well versed. Established in 1968, The Polish American Social Club of Las Vegas, of which she is president, has presented exhibits on the Warsaw Uprising and given lectures on the country’s history, some of it unavailable during communist rule.

This social club, with performances, choirs, dance groups, art exhibits, lectures, parties and beginner language courses, celebrates all things Poland—from Polish Christmas carol concerts to Herody, a nativity play recorded and shared with friends back home. They support other Polish groups and raise funds for Mam Marzenie, similar to Make-A-Wish Foundation, and for a Polish child who needed medical treatment in the U.S. On April 29, it joins other groups in the Henderson Libraries’ monthlong International Festival, where they’ll present a pierogi cooking demo.

Members are from Poland or are second- or third-generation Polish-Americans, says Podzorski, who left her home country in 1991 for the Chicago area in before settling in Las Vegas. Some members want to pass their culture and customs onto their children. Retirees and others moving from elsewhere call to inquire about a club, a church, Polish stores or even information about buying a house.

“If there is a Polish community, it’s easier to connect with people. You feel welcome, but when transplanted in a different environment, you miss things,” she says. “We have the same background, grew up in the same environment under communism, went to the same movies, shared the same histories and customs.”

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