The History of FinnFest USA

In 1982, Tauri Aalto, the Executive Director of Suomi Seura, invited Finnish Americans to consider the concept of an annual national festival of Finnish Americans. Aalto’s invitation (given in the context of the precedent breaking Scandinavia Today, a nation-wide project that involved all five Nordic Countries working together with all five Nordic Diaspora communities) asked Finnish Americans themselves to unite nationally. Aalto asked Finnish Americans to dream boldly about Finnish America’s own future, to dream that the Finnish American diaspora could come-together across religious and political barriers.

FinnFest USA was first held, August 4-7, 1983 in Minneapolis, establishing the concept that the festival would travel from site to site, year by year, always creating an opportunity 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 of the Articles of Incorporation as adopted on August 7, 1983.) Since then, twenty-three separate American communities have hosted the festival one or more times. Three times, the festival has involved sites in Canada.

As its mission statement mandates, FinnFest USA has always chosen festival sites for their ability to expand knowledge of Finland and Finnish America. In the early years, sites were limited to communities with large contemporary Finnish American populations and easily visible components of Finnish American history. Later, when sites didn’t seem so obviously connected to the mandate, some began to question the choice, asking “what does this site have to do with Finnish America?”, for example, before Tucson in 2012 and Buffalo, NY in 2015. Finding out was part of the joy of the annual festival. An answer always existed.

These less obvious sites enabled attendees to gain new insight or deepen their knowledge about Finland and Finnish America; the sites also resurrected and make visible aspects that had been forgotten. In Tucson, FinnFest attendees learned about Alvar Wilska, the acclaimed Finnish physicist who had taught at the University of Arizona. That year’s festival’s lectures and field trip also permitted attendees to learn about the notorious 1917 “Bisbee deportation,” a black spot in US history, a time when 900+ miners, including 76 Finns, were herded into boxcars and abandoned in a New Mexican desert. 

In Buffalo, FinnFest commemorated Jean Sibelius’ 150th anniversary with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, at a festival centered in Kleinhans Music Hall, the astounding and, often ignored, Eero and Eliel Saarinen joint architect/design project. That same weekend, attendees also explored differences between the Finnish American polka band and (because of Buffalo’s reputation as a national center of the Polish polka band) the Polish American polka band. For those following FinnFest USA’s journey back and forth across the USA, the sites have always enabled attendees to continually deepen and enrich their knowledge of Finland and Finnish America.

Twice, FinnFest USA has been honored to have the President of Finland officially participate in the program. In 2008, President Tarja Halonen participated in the 25th annual festival held that year in Duluth, Minnesota. In 2017, President Sauli Niinistö participated in the Finland 100 festival. Their presence meant that the Finnish Diaspora in North America became better known in Finland as well as in the USA. (The presence of the head of a Foreign State does attract attention.)

Festival Paradigm

Over the history of FinnFest USA, many people have helped to define a paradigm. During the day, attendees have many continuing education opportunities. The evenings are filled with concerts, theatre, films, and social dances. In any year, the festival may specifically include:

Learning Experiences

Lectures, panels, “town hall” continuing education discussions on a variety of historical and contemporary subjects led by scholars who study Finland and Finnish America; Talks from artists in the audio and visual arts; Pre- and Post-festival touring opportunities with an emphasis on Finland and Finnish America; Business forums; Public forums on significant topics related to Finland and/or Finnish America.

Arts and Culture

Musical concerts (classical, pop, folk, jazz, contemporary rock); Finnish and Finnish American films; Theatre performances (in Finnish or English); Public readings and discussions with Finnish and Finnish American authors; Historical and art exhibits created by local museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces.

Engaging Activities

Opening ceremonies; Evening social dances; Sporting events (walks, races, games), Exhibition hall with informational, commercial and non-profit booths; Finnish food events and instruction; Festival worship service opportunity.

Special Guests

President Sauli Niinistö attended FinnFest USA 2017-Minneapolis, his only Finland 100 visit outside NYC and Washington DC. He and his wife, Jenni Haukio, threw out the first puck at a NHL Wild hockey game and met with Finnish players. There was extensive coverage of his visit in Finland. President Niinistö spoke three times at FinnFest, the first at the lunch hosted by the Economic Club of Minnesota, the second at the FinnFest Convocation, the third after he received the Honorary Doctor’s degree from the University of Minnesota.

1983: Minneapolis, MN – Leamington Hotel and Loring Park
1984: Fitchburg, MA – Fitchburg State University
1985: Hancock, MI – Suomi College
1986: Berkeley, CA – University of California-Berkeley
1987: Detroit, MI – Schoolcraft Community College
1988: Newark, DE – University of Delaware
1989: Seattle, WA – University of Washington
1990: Hancock, MI – Suomi College
1991: Lake Worth, FL – Bryant Park
1992: Duluth, MN – University of Minnesota-Duluth
1993: Thousand Oaks, CA – California Lutheran University
1994: DeKalb, IL – Northern Illinois University
1995: Portland, OR – Lewis and Clark College
1996: Marquette, MI – Northern Michigan University
1997: Minot, ND – Minot Fairgrounds & All Seasons Arena
1998: Portland, Maine – University of Southern Maine-Gorham
1999: Seattle, WA – University of Washington
2000: Toronto, Ontario – Mel Lastman Square
2001: Philadelphia. PA – Villanova University
2002: Minneapolis, MN – University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
2004: Lake Worth, FL – Bryant Park
2005: Marquette, MI – Northern Michigan University
2006: Astoria, OR/Naselle WA – Astoria high school/Naselle High School
2007: Ashtabula, Ohio – Kent State University, Ashtabula campus
2008: Duluth, MN – Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center
2009: Alaska coastline – Holland America Cruise ship
2010: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario – Essar Centre
2011: San Diego, CA – Town & Country Conference Center
2012: Tucson, AZ – Hilton Hotel-Reid Park Convention Center
2013: Houghton MI – Michigan Technological University & Finlandia University
2014: Minneapolis, MN – Hyatt Regency Conference Center
2015: Buffalo, NY – Kleinhans Music Center
2016: St Lawrence River – Holland America cruise ship
2017: Minneapolis MN – Orchestra Hall, Hilton Hotel, American Swedish Institute
2018: Tampere Finland – University of Tampere

Old Time Photo
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