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North Dakotan begins new journey as family historian in Norway

Culture | March 21st, 2024

By Maddie Robinson

maddierobi.mr@gmail.com

Johan Stenslie has always been immersed in Norwegian culture. His mother, originally from Norway, and his father, from small-town North Dakota, met at Concordia College and were strong proponents of keeping their children connected with their Norwegian heritage.

Growing up, Stenslie was only allowed to read and speak Norwegian at home. He also kept a Norwegian journal, visited Norway every other summer and performed Norwegian folk dance with his family at the Norsk Høstfest, a festival celebrating Scandinavian culture and tradition, every year in Minot until 2012.

Stenslie is incredibly grateful for his cultural upbringing because he feels many Americans don’t grow up with a strong connection to their family histories.

“One of the common criticisms that Americans receive, and sometimes give themselves, is that we have no culture, we have no identity, and there is truth to that,” Stenslie said. “I think a lot of us just feel like America, it’s just a conglomeration of different backgrounds and a lot of times we don’t grow up tied to history.”

Since then, Stenslie, who has been working as a seventh grade United States history teacher, moved to Norway to pursue a master’s in history at the University of Bergen once the program starts in August. In the meantime, he works as a full-time private-hire family historian to help people establish ties to their own heritage.

Before moving to Norway and pursuing the field full time, his passion for family history research started about four years ago when he visited his grandparents’ house in Voss, Norway. After digging through dozens of old letters and photographs, he was hooked. Now, Stenslie has three years of part-time experience as a professional genealogist.

Stenslie primarily focuses on expanding family trees, writing biographies for specific ancestors and performing other requested research that is considered “out of the ordinary.” Despite his love for uncovering people’s familial history, Stenslie finds the personal stories he discovers are the most rewarding part of his work.

“The personal stories, that’s where the most fascinating parts come because family history for me, I mean diving into it has completely changed my worldview,” Stenslie said.

A major reason why Stenslie loves researching other people’s ancestors and learning their stories is because he finds it easy to connect with family history due to how personal it is. To him, the stories that are discovered through family history research reveal humans’ connectedness to the past and how major historical events, like the American Civil War or the Great Depression, specifically affect each person and their lineage.

Family history also gives people a glimpse into the miraculousness of human existence.

“It’s interesting because family history — and history in general, I’d say — shows you two profound truths,” Stenslie said. “That first, it shows how insignificant our lives are, in a sense, in the grand scheme of the universe and the cosmos. We’re just this tiny, irrelevant thing. But at the same time, it shows you how incredible it is — the fact that you even exist.”

Stenslie will be living in Norway for the next three years to pursue his degree and research. But, despite his strong connection to the country, his end goal is to return to North Dakota and continue teaching. Not only does Stenslie feel a deep sense of home while in North Dakota, but he thinks teaching history in the state he is originally from will allow him to fulfill his dream of being the best teacher he can be.

“I feel like there’s no place I can teach history better than the place I was born in,” Stenslie said. “I understand the history of that land and I feel like I can connect the history of North Dakota to the history of the world in a very clear way, so I can make history personal to my students in almost any scenario.”

To learn more about Stenslie’s work, contact johanstenslie@gmail.com.

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