U.P. Heartland of the Finnish

Determined to discover a place where they could enjoy the same solitude and spiritual communion with nature they’d known in Finland, it is not surprising a majority of Finnish people, chose the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for their home.

Forced out of Finland following the fatal famine of the 1860’s, they came to the U.P. resolving to enrich their lives, but harboring in their hearts the mysterious minor melodies of their ancestors and their heritage of a million shining nights in the land of the midnight sun.

Finland, (Suomi), with its many thousand lakes, glistens with connecting channels, rivers, and rapids flowing through the land. Over a tenth of the country is covered by waterways. Dense surrounding forests, consisting mainly of pine, birch, and spruce, leap upward to the clouds, towering above majestic coastlines of rock and stone. Glacial ice, slowly marauding, moving, and melting, molded the land into vast and varied spectacular settings–scenes not unlike those of the U.P. Rock formations–some smooth, some jagged and rough–extend magnificently into and around the waterways of Finland, much like the stunning shoreline surrounding Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

Headstrong from a history of living in the harsh path of Arctic winds and snow, struggling with the difficulties attached to taming the land for farming, and coerced into constant battle with the Russians, the Finnish people were resistant to change. A literate, patriotic, and independent nation, they loved their land and would have preferred to stay. But, they were forced to migrate. Or starve.

Leaving their homeland and migrating to the United States, most were not schooled in the new language. The English words, difficult to master, often presented a barrier to getting good jobs. But determined to succeed, many attached themselves to the land to eke out a living. Some men, compelled to take the more menial jobs offered, worked in the mines only until they earned enough money to buy land they could call their own. All of the immigrants looked to this land for comfort for it offered a rhetoric more easily interpreted.

The U.P. provided them with the familiar, heart-warming sounds, smells, and sights Finland had given them over the centuries. While the rocky terrain, lush lakes, and wilderness presented many of the same challenges they’d know in the “old country,” the wildlife, birds, and flora sparked life in the forest and invited the Finns to come on home.

With a love of all things beautiful, the Finnish found in the U.P. a haven much like their former one in Finland where they had held the songs of the forests, lakes, and hills in their souls with love, respect and reverence. Their love of nature was akin to love of family, their primary care in life. Books, poetry, and paintings were fostered by this love of nature and its stirrings of emotion.

They came, these pioneers, with gifts, talents, and something called “sisu,” a spirited sort of grit carried deep within the soul of every Finn that can overcome most any obstacle. “sisu,” an intangible quantity, not even readily transposed from the Finnish language to any other, is many things to many people. When all else fails, but a person draws on that “certain something” from within to conquer a problem–this is “sisu.” When faced with a seemingly impossible job and a special inner strength, “kicks in,” this is “sisu.”

When Olli Wierimaa, a single man in his early twenties, traveled to America for the first time he went directly to Victoria Mine where he had heard about available jobs. Fortunate to fine an underground mining job, he worked hard, saved nearly every penny he earned, and returned to Finland to claim his bride, Amanda Angesleva. When they journeyed back across the Atlantic Ocean, they came not alone but with friends, relatives, and “sisu” to Victoria Mine.

In the wooded land, they and their comrades, like most of the Finnish immigrants, gathered together to work, live, and learn. In Victoria Mine, Olli and Amanda began raising their family, involving themselves in community activities, and getting accustomed to life in the US. In their heads they carried pride, determination, sometimes timidity, but in their hearts they carried the rich drama, emotion, and poetry of their culture.

Finnish holidays were remembered, celebrated, and enjoyed in social gatherings of the community. The Finnish immigrants found particular pleasure in planning programs for coming events. These special days kept them in touch with their heritage, gave them new achievements to strive for, and held at bay the longing they held in their hearts for the country they had been forced to leave.

Amanda and her friend Esther Sustiminen, both immigrants from Finland with common interests in reading, music, and drama, found in each other a kindred spirit. Painfully aware of the lack of literary materials available in their small community, they sent to New York for popular books, plays, and English educational materials translated into Finnish.

When weeks later, the boxes of books arrived, the two women felt an entirely new life opening up for them. Here, at last, were the literary tools they needed.

They started a drama group which met twice a week in Amanda’s and Esther’s homes, where they gathered with friends to read plays, first in Finnish, then in English. Studying this way, they not only began to learn the new language, but they were also able to hold on to their old ways and words.

Though hungry to become more enlightened about the US, they were reluctant to give up the familiar Finnish beliefs and books which allowed them the scholarly ease they had known in Finland. Pouring over the written words, reading the roles of characters in plays, and discussing the underlying meanings of the stories, they expanded their understanding of the new world and still enjoyed the old. Interspersing the two languages, their reward was a growing grasp of the new language along with a tenacious hold on their roots.

Over pulla (cardamon-flavored sweet bread), kaleivat (cookies), or Finska kakor (Finnish cake), and copious amounts of strong black coffee laced with cream and sugar, they pondered the significance of life, their new land, and the pursuit of happiness in this new land.

Drawn to the old writings, the familiar music, and the stories of their culture, Amanda often strummed her mandolin, playing the sad soulful tunes she’d leaned as a youngster. A recipient of knowledge–fortune telling and the melodious tunes of centuries old Karelian-sung tales–gathered from the traveling gypsies who Amanda’s parents, Jacob and Maria Angesleva, allowed to camp on the property near their general store in Ylivieska, Finland, she missed the sounds of home.

“There’s to be a competition of costumes at the town meeting hall,” Amanda announced to Esther as the two sat visiting one afternoon. “We must plan a program and participate.”

“We can design our own costumes and sing,” Esther agreed. The women set about preparing a program. Avid readers, singers, and seamstresses, the had found a way to employ their creativity in this new land. “We can use runos (poems) from the Kalevala.”

“And songs of the gypsies!” Amanda exclaimed. Using the Kalevala and the winsome wandering music of the gypsies, Amanda and Esther began to prepare for their performance.

The Kalevala, a collection of lyrical poems consisting of over 22,000 verses of Finnish historical folklore spun by the early Karelians and a stunning literary masterpiece captures the true emotion and poetry of a people who have strived for centuries against many odds, including over twenty-seven wars with the Russians all of which they lost. Despite these decades of again and again being forced to protect their freedom, the Finns have remained free. But their deep dark, sometimes brooding sadness–often expressed through the portrayal of tragic figures such as Kullervo, the slave,–is apparent in the verses of the Kalevala, for the stories sung through ancient times are about the everyday farmers, peasants, and fishermen, not kings and queens.

A spirit of magic is displayed in the acts of Vainamoinen, an old magician and singer who is the hero of the Kalevala and who, through incantations, commands the winds, waters, and rocks to do his bidding. He calls to the animals of the forest and they, hearing his voice, come to do his bidding. The sense of this enchantment teaches the Finns a lesson in life–by knowing and using the right words–the “magic words”–anything can be accomplished.

The character Lemminkainen who dances through his days, skipping in and out of trouble and causing mischief and laughter, expresses the wonderful sense of humor of the Finnish people. Hardly anything is so terrible that it cannot be dealt with–with humor.

The Kalevala, heart of Finland and many U.P. natives, expresses the complicated personage of a people who, while extremely literate, still strive continuously toward higher learning and achievement; who place the value of freedom above all else; who carry the sorrow of their history in their hearts but can still laugh at themselves in the worst of times. Nothing tells the tale of truth more thoroughly than the Kalevala.

“We’ll dress as gypsies.” Amanda set her mandolin aside after an hour of rehearsing.

“Where will we ever find clothing suitable for gypsies here in Victoria Mine?” Esther asked.

“Right here in front of your nose,” Amanda laughed, leaping up from her chair, striding toward the parlor windows, and grabbing hold of a length of drapery. “Here are our gypsy clothes.”

When the night of the competition arrived, the women were ready. Covering their costumes with black capes until just before they walked out onto the dimly lit stage, Esther and Amanda’s spirits soared. No time for stage fright. They had planned, sewed, and studied well. The moment had finally arrived.

As the massive maroon velvet curtain was pulled aside, a spotlight swathed the forms of the women, and a hush fell over the crowd. The twosome stepped forward in unison. Their grey gowns had been transformed from plain to brilliant by riveting red overskirts twisted with gold and black trims, vests of blue and gold embroidered flowers, and headpieces fashioned of blue velvet drapery tie-backs. When the last whisper of excitement disappeared, the colorful vagabonds began their program, taking the Finnish attendees with them on a journey to another time and land.

The stage was set with real trees which had been cut by the men and propped up with wooden stands. Evergreen branches and boughs were heaped about the stage creating a convincing display of an old wooded land. Birch logs, set in a small tipi shape–stage center–simulated a campfire ready for lighting. Amanda and Esther knelt upstage of the campfire, hummed softly, then slowly rose. They began to sway, then on tiptoes, circled lightly around the white birch logs. As they began to gather speed, they whirled in dance about the logs. From their pockets, they drew long swirling streamers of red cloth that swept up and around them as they moved faster and faster. As suddenly as they had begun the dance they stopped, released the red streamers, letting them drift down over the logs. The fire had been “lit” and the “flames” leaped in dramatic color, flickering under the changing moods of the shining spotlight.

Esther went to the wings, retrieved a black caldron, and placed it over the “fire” while Amanda took up her mandolin. The women began to sing, “Mustalainen” (The Gypsy):

“Nun kylmasti pohjos tuuli raivoo . . . Tuon myokin takana illalla; . . .”

“A gypsy I have been born to be;
Homeless, I wander now.
A soul child, why should I worry?
Without care I am free.

Why wander round and round, I’m asked.
I don’t really know myself;
Let the flying bird reply
Or a falling star reveal its plight.

Not a flower determines its destiny
Nor bird on a wing knows where it lands.
The Lord above takes care of them–
The same God watches over me.”

They sang in Finnish and they sang in English. When they had finished the crowd went wild with applause. “More,” they cried, “more.”
From the Kalevala, the singers chanted verses of the tale of Vainamoinen of the “Sun and Moon”:

“ . . .And the moon came from his dwelling,
Standing on a crooked birch-tree,
And the sun came from his castle,
Sitting on a fir-tree’s summit . . .
Set to work the sun to capture,
In her hands the moon seized likewise.
From the birch the moon she captured,
‘And the sun from fir-tree’s summit . . .
When the moon away was carried,
And the sun had been imprisoned
Deep in Pohjola’s stone mountain,
In the rocks as hard as iron,
Then she stole away the brightness,
And from Vainola the fires,
And she left the houses fireless,
And the rooms no flame illumined.
Therefore was the night unending,
And for long was utter darkness,
Night in Kalevala forever . . .”

Amanda and Esther, with their dramatic rendition of longing for home, won the hearts of Victoria Mine’s Finnish community, won first place in the costume competition, and strengthened the link of love between Finland and the America. Though they had left their home of homes, they had been fortunate to find again one so fine as they had previously known. They would never give up their old ways. Certainly they would learn, strive, and grow, but they would keep safe the secrets of their past in their new heartland, the U.P.

By Coralie Cederna Johnson and reprinted from Peninsula People Magazine.

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