Showtime: Montana Norwegian rancher documentary to premiere soon

Author of documentary book about Hoiland and other Norwegian ranchers shares his writing experience

“92-year-old John Hoiland runs his enormous ranch in Montana all by himself. The son of a Norwegian immigrant, he has been raised to work hard and save his dollars for a rainy day. But life on the ranch is the only life he wants, and he finds great joy in the nature that surrounds him, the freedom to work on his own land and the daily conversations with his best friend Jim.”

This is the introduction to a Frode Fimland documentary “The Last Norwegian Cowboy,” about real cowboys in the American west with Norwegian roots.

The movie premiered in Norway last year and will premiere in the United States soon, with the first showing in Duluth, Minnesota, then Montana and then back to North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. (See sidebar for more details.)

Hoiland and other Montana Norwegian ranchers inspired a book in the same genre as the documentary.

Fredrik Kalstveit, a Norwegian journalist now living in the United States, said that while Fimland was working on the movie documentary, he happened to meet a lot of other Norwegian American ranchers in the area. “He realized there are so many cowboys, so many untold stories. So he reached out to me because he had seen that I had written a couple stories about Norwegian Americans,” said Kalstveit. One of his stories had featured his great grandfather, who worked in the fishing industry.

Kalstveit interviewed Hoiland for the book he wrote about cowboys and ranchers living west of the Missouri River whose ancestors immigrated from Norway. Kalstveit also took all of the photographs for the 195-page book written in Norwegian.

The book features a rodeo cowboy, a cowboy poet, several ranchers, a rodeo queen, and more.

While the Hoiland story is the grand finale in Kalstveit’s book, the author includes features on many other American-Norwegian ranchers including the late Rodney Nelson, a rancher and cowboy poet from North Dakota and Wayne Hage Jr., a rancher well-known in public lands circles, for battling the federal government over grazing and water rights on federal lands. Wayne Jr., followed the trail blazed by the late Wayne Hage Sr., author of “Storm over the Rangelands,” who is also a celebrity to many who believe that ranchers in the west are losing their rights to the federal government.

Fimland asked Kalstveit if he was interested in writing the book about Norwegian American cowboys in the Midwest and Northwest. Kalstveit jumped on the chance, and the rest is…a gorgeous coffee-table style book.

“We’ve always heard a lot of stories about Norwegian Americans immigrating to the Midwest – many of them were traditional farmers. So part of the challenge was…let’s explore Norwegian Americans in the Western states, in ranching states, in the states where they couldn’t grow grain the same way the could east of the Missouri River,” said Kalstveit. “We wanted to know how life turned out for the Norwegian Americans who immigrated to those places during that same period of time.”

He added that Norwegians who remain in Norway are familiar with the stories of their family members immigrating to Minnesota and the Eastern Dakotas to farm.

“We learned in school that there are as many Norwegian Americans as there are Norwegians. Everyone has a relative or uncle or grandfather that immigrated to the US and in many cases came back. And everyone has a family member that didn’t come back. I certainly had it on my mother’s and father’s side,” he said.

“A typical story you’d hear would be about a Norwegian who went to Minnesota, got himself a house on the prairie, lived off the land growing corn or some kind of grain, milking a cow and taking care of some pigs,” he said.

In order to find some of those Norwegians who are more comfortable with a lariat rope than a plow, Kalstveit said he used some of Fimland’s connections, and it just “snowballed” from there.

Kalstveit met Hoiland and scouted for potential book subjects in 2019. “I went to Montana, met John, then a met a guy who is a friend, who is a famous musician –Ken Arthun of the Ringling Five.”

“I read articles, met more and more people, when I saw names pop up that looked Norwegian, I reached out to them,” he said.

In fact, Kalstveit e-mailed this this editor, explaining that the name Stadheim was “very Norwegian” and wondering if I could help connect him with Norwegian ranchers out West. At that time, he already had plenty of contacts in the Dakotas and Montana, but needed names of Norwegian ranchers in states further west.

Meanwhile, Kalsviet read books about Norweigian / American heritage to educate himself.

“I took a trip. I drove all the way from California to Mandan, North Dakota, then I drove back. It was a pretty long ride,” he remembers.

One of Kalstveit’s goals was to find a sign reading “Where the West begins” he’d read about on “Reddit” near Mandan, and was hoping to photograph for the book. But he never found the sign.

In 2020, Kalstveit spent more time in the Dakotas, logging several days with North Dakota’s Rodney Nelson who took him to rodeos, local cafes and other local Western attractions.

With the affects of Covid in full swing in California, Kalstveit recalls enjoying his approximately two months in the Dakotas and Montana where “it was like Covid never happened. It was kind of like culture shock,” he said.

Kalstveit, whose family farms in Norway, said he learned much about ranchers through his in-person research.

His expectations were based “in part on what I’ve read and in part what I’ve seen in California,” he said. He admitted that before taking on this project, “I thought most farming in the U.S. was factory farming. So I was kind of surprised how many family ranches there are,” he said.

“I obviously know that you guys are going through a lot of hardship and are being pressured out, but I was positively surprised that there are still a lot of family ranches around,” he said.

Kalstveit said gaining an understanding of the intricacies of cattle people took some time. “In Norway we think that a cowboy is a guy with a hat. I didn’t know there was such a think as a rodeo cowboy, and then a rancher which are technically not the same thing. There are so many things I hadn’t even thought about. I remember when I got back to California and people would ask, ‘well what is a real cowboy,’ and I guess my answer is, it depends on what you mean. In a traditional sense, a cowboy is someone like a herder riding a horse who works for someone else, but there are many nuances to the term,” he said.

As for the people he visited with to produce the book, Kalstveit said a more precise title for the book, “Norske Cowboyer” would have been “Norwegian Americans in the Cattle Industry,” but that doesn’t carry the same romantic ring.

A vivid memory of a societal conversation surrounding America’s iconic historical cowboy, John Wayne, helps Kalstveit describe his take on the traditional “cowboy.”

“I remember being in California in 2019 and listening to a radio segment with a debate about whether they should remove John Wayne’s name from the airport in Orange County. I remember one guy in particular said that John Wayne represented everything bad about America, like toxic masculinity and white privilege,” he said.

“John Wayne was like this caricature of everything that some people considered ‘bad’ in the U.S. It was interesting to me that this traditional hero of American pop culture was all of the sudden a villain so I wanted to understand how and why people in certain places in the U.S. were still thinking about him as an idol as a person – someone they looked up to. And I wanted to understand why there was this divide in the U.S. where some people thought of him as the worst person ever and some people still worshipped him,” he said.

“Given that you have this cultural debate that we have now, I can see why a person like John Wayne would get drug though the mud if you think of masculinity as toxic. I can understand why they would take a hit on John Wayne,” he said. “I haven’t seen enough John Wayne movies to know if he’s actually disrespectful,” said Kalstveit.

“But he’s obviously representing traits like courage, resilience and grit and I can easily understand that people would hold on to those values, especially if you live in a place like North Dakota where you have to deal with a lot of hardship. To be a rancher, you have to get up early in the morning regardless of whether it’s hailing or snowing. So I understand why people would idolize him, it makes sense to me,” he said.

Kalstveit added that he is concerned about the growing political urban/rural divide in America. “A lot of people in California have traveled less in the heartland of America than I have. They are ignorant of what goes on there. On the other hand, some people in rural America had a pretty sensationalized impression of how bad things were in California.”

“I think the less people interact, the less chance there is they will get along. When people have to interact, it expands your horizons and what you know about people,” he said.

The book, Norske Cowboyer, was inspired by and written in conjunction with the documentary "The Last Norwegian Cowboy." Courtesy image
Fredrik Kalstveit took all of the photographs in the book. He enjoyed shooting a variety of events but rodeos were one of his favorites. Fredrik Kalstveit
Courtesy photos
John Hoiland has turned down significant offers on his Montana ranch, saying he doesn't want to sell.
Fredrik attended a branding in North Dakota.
Fredrik learned quickly that the same job can be done on different ranches in different ways.
Fredrik Kalstveit (right), a Norwegian writer and photographer enjoyed meeting Brad Gjermunsdson, several time world champion saddle bronc rider from western North Dakota. Courtesy photo
Dates and locations of U.S. premieres

The documentary will be premiered:

Duluth, Minnesota, Sept. 24 at the Duluth Superior Festival

Bozeman, Montana, Sept. 26

Billings, Montana, Sept. 28

Minot, North Dakota, Sept. 29

Fargo, North Dakota, Sept. 30

Glenwood, Minnesota, Oct. 1

Minneapolis, Oct. 2

Madison Wisconsin, Oct. 3

Please check local listings for times and locations.


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