Anne-Marije Rook

Neighborhood Gems: Kristine Leander

Keeping Nordic heritage alive

Kristine Leander wears many hats. She’s the cultural director for the Swedish Cultural Center, a board member of the Nordic Heritage Museum and the president of the Leif Erikson International Foundation. She’s also an author, a mother of three, an animal lover, and an outdoor enthusiast who has summitted Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker several times.

She has dedicated her life’s work to encourage people to find a sense of place and take pride in one’s heritage. She’s loyal to traditions and community.

“Kris is the lifeblood of the community in various ways,” said Mary Englund, a board member of the Leif Erikson International Foundation.

“Community to her is a sense of place, not just the geographic locality, but the people. The connections she makes around her forms a community. Ballard is beneficiary of her work and her connections.”

For Leander to find her sense of place and finding out who she is took years and several relocations.

Leander, granddaughter of Swedish immigrants, grew up on a dairy farm in the Mt. Vernon area in a very Swedish-American community.

“I lived in a Swedish-American neighborhood, went to a Swedish-American School, and attended a Swedish-American Church,” she said. “When I left for college I was surprised to find that it wasn’t like that elsewhere. Where were all the Johansens, Olsons, and Neilsens?”

After college Leander met a family from Norway with whom she quickly formed a bond.

“I just liked hanging out with them so much. They’re world view resonated with me,” she said.

Drawn to the culture and beauty of Norway and the world view of Norwegians, Leander moved with her three children to Norway where she attended the University of Trondheim.

Upon returning to Seattle she embraced the Norwegian community and found a sense of place in the Norwegian views of taking care of each other, the community and the land.

“Since then I’ve wanted to do everything Scandinavian,” she said.
“I like their appreciation for nature, their outdoorness and the way they look after the community as a whole. I think the people look like the ones I grew up with. They have this strength in their faces.”

One of Leander’s adopted traditions is cutting the wheat sheaves for the birds called julenek by Norwegians and Danish people.

“They’re as important as a christmas tree,” Leander said. “They’re good luck. They believe that taking care of animals in the darkest, coldest time of the year will bring good luck and a good harvest.”

For years Leander’s sheaves adorned the streets of Ballard but that tradition died. Nowadays she sells them at the Nordic Heritage Museum.

“Ballard has changed’” Leander said. “It’s not the town it used to be.”

Leander said that when immigrants originally came to the Pacific Northwest and to Ballard, they were very cohesive. But overtime fishermen got richer and moved to other places and after World War II everyone wanted to be American.

“There are new immigrants coming in from Scandinavia but they’re in the Tech world and move to places like Redmond,” she said adding that with today’s technology, there’s less of a need for a community because immigrants can stay in touch with their homeland via the internet or simply fly home.

“These are different times and some of us work really hard to keep recover the roots and keep Nordic heritage alive in Ballard,” she said.

And she is certainly among those people.

“She’s one of those people who’s been instrumental in saving the Nordic heritage in our community,” said Julie Pheasant Albright, Leander’s editor for “Norwegian Seattle”.

In 1994, ten years after attending the University of Trondheim, Leander worked to get a 10-foot replica of Seattle's Leif Erikson statue donated to the city of Trondheim to mark two 1,000-year anniversaries: the founding of the city and Leif's historic voyage to America.

To fund the project, the Leif Erikson International Foundation asked people to donate in the name of their immigrant ancestors. The names would be commemorated with the statue. With the names of ancestors came their stories.

Inspired by the stories behind the names on the statue in Trondheim, Leander and the Scandinavian Language institute assembled a book titles “Family Sagas: Stories of Scandinavian Immigrants” (Scandinavian Language Institute, 1997).

Ten years later Leander was asked to work on another book and in 2008 she published “Scandinavian Seattle” (Arcadia, 2008).

“I really saw it as a love letter to the community,” she said.

The new home of the Seattle Leif Erickson statue on the Leif Erickson plaza in Shilshole, the continuation of Luciatag, and the Swedish Cultural Centre exist in part due to Leander tireless work.

“She has made connections all over the world with people interested in Nordic History,” Englund said. “And Ballard is a beneficiary of her work and her connections. The installation in Shilshole isn’t just a memorial, it’s a tribute to the existing community of Ballard.”

Albright called Leander “the pillar of the Swedish community in Seattle and one of the driving forces of the Scandinavian community as a whole.”

For Leander it goes back to the importance of having a sense of place.

“Your roots inform you who you are. I feel sorry for those who never knew who their grandparents were and what they did,” Leander said. “In a rootless society, heritage is something people hold onto because it’s an identity. Identity is hard to find in this society in which you can be defined by the car you drive in.”

Neighborhood Gems is a feature series highlighting the unsung heroes in the community. Know anyone who should be featured? Let us know!

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.