BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)
Saturday evening is sweltering with Midwestern heat, humidity an
invisible blanket over the village. Corn sheaths litter the ground like the
willow dresses of fairies. Ripened gnomes observe the workers from their treetop homes,
scouring the cardinal brick dust licking the air like flames. Paste lines the walls:
it is a humble temple to their grain god: a god of frozen fingertips, plentiful harvests,
darkened deer creeks, seasoned prairie grass, and the tune of freedom.
Bonnet-blown blondes stir golden kernels in freshwater that splashes on their periwinkle dresses.
Wrinkles move on faces like living battle scars endured an ocean away.
Hymns drip from their lips like tears over the unmarked graves of lost children,
like praise to the feather land of hawks and robins,
like the strength to move two thousand legs through untamed underbrush.
The men join in their bass tongues, creating a harmony of voices:
Gud är god. Hans kärlek varar för evigt.
Bells chime, clanging the yellow dawn of liberation and mournful piety.
They are the possessors of emancipation, of autonomy, of disimprisonment!
They hold compasses in their hands pointing to eagles floating over the Mississippi;
They are content in their utopia on the prairie.
Note from the Author
This poem details the life of the colony of Bishop Hill in the 1840s. During that time, the pietist leader Erik Jansson rose in Sweden to protest the Swedish Lutheran Church and their practices. After escaping prison and skiing over the mountains into Norway, he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City with about 1,000 followers. They travelled across the newly-formed United States to northern Illinois. Here, they formed their community with the name Bishop Hill based on the name of their parish in Sweden: Biskop Skulla.
In the next several years until the murder of Erik Jansson, they lived in a communistic society that was separated by gender into different tasks. The colonists of Bishop Hill lived an agrarian lifestyle while maintaining their Swedish traditions. Although the colony disbanded after Jansson’s death and the citizens were released from their religious servitude, the town still remains as a historical landmark in the state of Illinois and maintains Swedish traditions, such as holding harvest festivals, practicing Sankta Lucia nights, eating traditional Swedish food, placing gnomes in trees, and having dala horses placed on most doors and around town.
I wanted to write about the colonist’s lifestyle because my ancestors were part of the original group of colonists. My family came from the city of Gaevle and the region of Dalarna (where dala horses originated). Although they originally followed the Swedish patronymic/matronymic naming system, when they moved to the United States, they decided to adopt an “American-sounding” last name of Wexell. My family still lives in Bishop Hill to this day, though it has been almost two centuries.
Because of this, I’ve been able to be very involved in my culture, which isn’t common for many European Americans in the United States due to the melting pot identity of my nation. I’ve participated in all the festivals, done research about my family through the VASA lodge in the village, met traditional storytellers, and help my family to cook our traditional foods. I even have a dala horse in my room and paint dala horse ornaments for family members. For me, my Swedish culture is an important part of who I am because it signifies the importance of my family in my life.