Elk Horn, Iowa's Danish-American Community: Assimilation Done Right?

By David Seminara, December 5, 2013

No matter how you feel about immigration, the comprehensive immigration reform debate can be exhausting and stressful. Supporters of legalization are outraged that there's been no legislative progress on the amnesty front and opponents are fearful that politicians will cave in to the demands of the business lobby. No one is happy. Because we're in the midst of the holiday season, I thought it might be a good time to recommend a documentary about an immigrant community that just about anyone can feel good about, no matter where they stand on the issues.

"Denmark on the Prairie" is a charming, hour-long documentary (available for free on YouTube) about Elk Horn, a small town of about 600 inhabitants in Western Iowa that is struggling to retain its Danish heritage. Elk Horn was settled by Danish immigrants in the late 19th century but today there are just a handful of fluent Danish speakers left and just one delightful old man who was born in Denmark. The film, which was broadcast on Danish TV, introduces us to a host of Danish-Americans with varying levels of interest in preserving their Danish heritage through food, dancing, hokey souvenirs, and an annual festival called Tivoli Fest.

It's an insightful look into a fascinating little ethnic enclave in the heartland, and it had me thinking about assimilation. Assimilation, to me at least, doesn't mean disassociating yourself from your roots. Immigrants shouldn't abandon their traditions, but they should also be willing to make accommodations to their adopted culture, rather than trying to recreate their old lifestyle in a new country.

The good people of Elk Horn might not know a lot about Danish history or even modern Denmark, but their heritage is clearly important to them, as it should be. I don't know how quickly the first-generation Danes who immigrated to Elk Horn and nearby Kimballton (Iowa's Danish Villages) learned English, but by virtue of their small numbers, it had to be pretty quick. How do you get by in the United States with just Danish and no English?

Immigrants from smaller countries who speak more obscure languages have a more immediate need to learn English than migrants who speak Spanish, or to a much lesser degree, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic. But most of our immigrants speak one of these four languages. According to DHS, about 31 percent of legal immigrants to the United States in 2012 were Spanish speakers, and about 75 percent of illegal immigrants in 2011 were Spanish speakers.

These days, it's remarkable how easy it can be for immigrants from a Spanish-speaking countries to move to the United States and live their lives with little or no English. Aside from the ubiquitous "press one for English, two for Spanish" prompts, in many big cities we have Spanish-language immersion schools and Spanish speakers can vote, get driver's licenses, apply for government benefits, shop, and do a host of other things in their native language. Anyone who doubts that we're heading toward the kind of bilingual arrangement Canada has (English/French) in the long term is kidding themselves.

Decades after waves of Danish immigrants settled in Elk Horn, everyone speaks English and, unfortunately, few can speak much Danish. Yet most Danish-Americans there have retained at least some connection to their culture. What will the big city American neighborhoods and towns that are now Spanish-speaking enclaves be like in the decades to come? The hopeful scenario is that nearly everyone will be bilingual; they'll hold on to their heritage, but also embrace the notion of becoming Americans as well. I don't know how realistic that scenario is, but if you want to feel hopeful, check out "Denmark on the Prairie".