As a national keystone Finnish American organization, FinnFest USA is committed to creating a broader community of all Finnish Americans, Finnish citizens living in America, and other Americans. It does this through the creation of an annual festival as well as through other relevant opportunities for community building.
The purpose of the corporation is, through the establishment, organization, operation, maintenance, and promotion of an annual festival, to provide Finnish Americans and their progeny an opportunity to meet one another and to broaden and deepen their knowledge of Finland and Finnish American history and culture. (Article II, Articles of Incorporation , 1983)
FinnFest USA originated in 1982, when Tauri Aaltio, Executive Director of Finland Society, Helsinki, Finland, hosted a meeting in Minneapolis. Representatives of 39 Finnish American organizations discussed the idea of holding an annual nationally based summer festival, a custom maintained by 1st and 2nd generation Finnish Americans up into the 1950’s. Those gatherings had been central to Finnish American cultural life. The group liked the idea of reviving the concept but doing it now as a collective effort, bringing together people representing all the various political and religious factions that had earlier divided the Finnish American diaspora. The first festival was held in Minneapolis in 1983 with approximately 1,000 people attending.
For its first 25 years, the festival traveled back and forth across the country, hosted by regions and communities with connections to Finnish American cultural history. Each of those festivals were always organized in a contractual relationship between a local site committee and the FinnFest USA board. The 1983 festival had created a basic paradigm, combining town hall meeting with continuing education opportunities that themselves then worked in tandem with Finnish food, arts and crafts, music, and networking. At the second FinnFest held in Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1984, the local organizers added something they called tori, a marketplace. Tori became not only a place to buy and sell goods, but an information center and exhibition hall where organizations could present themselves to the public.
Over the years, individual sites have added their own local touches: a parade, a play written specifically for FinnFest, a commission of a choral symphonic piece, “the largest sauna in the world,” a gigantic midsummer kokko (bonfire). Until 1996, the festival’s audience was defined as Finnish American, but the festival organizers in Marquette, Michigan decided to open their festival to the entire community.
Now, no longer defined just for the Finnish American diaspora, the festival became a way for Finland and Finnish America to create a pop-up town that connected Finland and America and made the small Finnish American cultural group visible and part of the American discourse. Today, FinnFest is a time to bring all things Finnish into a thoughtful and playful interaction with America. All Americans can find value and fun in FinnFest USA’s programming that connects them to one of small cultures of the US and Europe.
FinnFest USA has become a place where people can meet other Americans who share their interest in connecting to things Finnish. FinnFest USA enabled writers to meet, share, and encourage writing about Finnish-characters and themes. From this has emerged the Finnish American North American Literary Association (finNALA) that publishes a quarterly magazine. In a similar way, musicians of all genres find FinnFest USA to be a place with welcoming audiences, interested in hearing them to perform music with Finnish aesthetics. Through FinnFest USA festivals, American musicians have had the opportunity to explore music with Finnish musicians.
FinnFest USA has welcomed Finnish participants. Amateur choirs and dance groups, chefs and scholars, genealogists and scientists, official guests from small and large communities, have brought contemporary Finland to FinnFest USA festivals. Finland’s President, Tarja Halonen, visited FinnFest twice, the second time the official guest of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a speaker at several events during the festival. Olympic Gold Medalist Lasse Viren carried the torch to the opening ceremony in Hancock, Michigan, 1985.
In 2009, FinnFest USA itself organized its first festival built around travel to Alaska, including one day in Sitka, home of the mid-19th century Finnish community. Since 2012, after the Board of Directors began to understand the festival could no longer rely on local sites and volunteers to take on the festival organizing task, FinnFest USA created a second corporation, FinnFest USA Events, Inc., to manage the festivals. Festivals are now the responsibility of the FinnFest USA Board of Directors who look for curators across the country to take on portions of the development.
FinnFest has become the national gathering place where Americans meet other Americans who share similar histories and interests. Knowing that others share knowledge about people, places, and events has become a major reward of attending FinnFest. The annual festival offers a place to meet and share a common culture otherwise largely invisible in daily American life.
The late Robert Selvala served as the first President and Executive Secretary of FinnFest USA. He was a third generation Finnish American and a businessman who dedicated himself to creating the foundation for the FinnFest we know and enjoy today.