Sprinting Toward the Finn-ish (continued)

Jon Saari grew close to other Finnish Americans during his 34 years as a professor at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and added the study of how scholars have explored Finnish ethnicity to his work in Chinese history. He developed a course on Finnish immigrants in America which morphed after his retirement into a course on general immigration history. As a trustee of the Finlandia Foundation National, an institution he chronicled in his book for the Foundation, Black Ties and Miners’ Boots: Inventing Finnish-American Philanthropy (2010), he started, and now directs, a nationwide program that each year sends US-based experts on Finnish history and culture to deliver presentations to some of the 52 chapters of the Finlandia foundation.

Jon and his wife have a sauna in the basement of their house in Marquette, and another next to their woodland cabin 30 miles away. In his recent introduction to Finns in the United States: A History of Settlement, Dissent and Integration (Michigan State University Press, 2014), he wrote that though the Finnish story is little known outside Finnish-American settlement areas, it is encouragingly relevant to “the broader context of race and integration in the United States.”

“A radical political culture.” The so-called “Red Finns,” roughly a third of the Finnish immigrant community at the time, were leaders of a 1913 “Copper Country” strike, but their “broader story is one of the rare instances in American history of a radical political culture with deep grassroots support in rural America. …Built around Finn Halls and coop stores, it faded in the 1930s, but its activism, in concert with other groups, helped (in the phrase of Yale labor historian David Montgomery) to “rechannel the American political mainstream through the New Deal.”

Log architecture. Another relevant bridge from the Finnish-American story to non-Finns, Jon writes, is “the vernacular log architecture of the Upper Midwest, perhaps the richest legacy of an historic rural landscape in the country. Not just individual buildings have been preserved, but in some cases, whole farmsteads (Hanka Finnish Homestead Museum near Arnheim in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and even whole townships (Embarrass, Minnesota).

Those thousand chairs. “… The vitality among third generation Finnish Americans, expressed through the annual national FinnFests since 1983, is itself a significant bridge to non-Finns. The festivals encapsulate Finnish-American history with its intense interest in learning, whether from the Bible, Karl Marx, or the Kalevala; its Hall culture of socializing and coffee drinking; its cultural interest in the performing arts and athletics; and its interest in maintaining ties with Finland.

“As an example, consider the 14th festival, held in Marquette, Michigan in 1996. It was three years in the making; drew 6500 registrants to five days of activities that included a medical conference on health and ethnicity; a parade down main street; 140 lectures, workshops, and panels; an integrated arts program with over 100 artists at 13 sites; three plays, many musical performances and two nightly dances; the world’s largest sauna, heated by aircraft engines in a tent; athletic events; and various creative collaborations between Finns from Finland and Finnish Americans. The community was taken over for a week, invited in by over a thousand blue and white painted chairs lining the venues to the events. Who wouldn’t be interested in being a Finn for a Day?”

“A way station to other dreams.”Although Finn Fests continue to be held annually, one of them in 2009 on a cruise ship to Alaska, the vitality may fade with the passing of the third generation. But this passing should be more an occasion for reflection than mourning. …It is perhaps time to move past ethnicity towards a more inclusive identity.

“At least in America, ethnicity has been a way station to other dreams, not a final destination.

“In the Upper Peninsula,” Jon told this website, “Finnish Americans are now likely to consider themselves Yoopers (‘U.P.ers’), which has become a regional identity that includes many Finish-American traits, from sauna-taking to praise of sisu (guts or persistence).”

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