FinnFest USA History
FINNFEST USA: A BRIEF HISTORY
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.)
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:
- Lectures, panels, “town hall” discussions on subjects, historical as well as contemporary, done in the form of continuing education involving scholars who study Finland and Finnish America. experts on topics of interest, political leadership, and artists in the audio and visual arts.
- 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
- Opening ceremonies.
- Evening social dances.
- Historical and art exhibits created by local museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces
- Exhibition hall with informational, commercial and non-profit booths
- Sporting events (walks, races, games)
- Finnish food events and instruction
- Public Receptions
- Pre and Post-festival touring opportunities: emphasis on Finland and Finnish America
- Festival worship service opportunity.
- Business forum occurring before, simultaneous to, or immediately after
- Public forums on significant topics related to Finland and/or Finnish America
A SAMPLE OF FESTIVAL EVENTS
FinnFest USA 2005 Highlights
Over 5500 people registered to attend the festival held on the campus of Northern Michigan University. Adding those who visited the festival site or bought tickets to a single event, some 13,000 people attended some or all of the FinnFest. Held in a region of the United States with one of the highest concentration of Finnish Americans in the country, this 2005 festival had especially large attendance. More attendees meant more program opportunities including the following:
2005 lectures and workshops: The FinnFestUSA experience created a Chautauqua experience. 150 separate sessions occurred over three and a half days between 9 AM and 2.30 PM. Lecturers from across the USA, Canada, and Finland spoke on subjects related to Finland and Finnish America. Politics, Geography, History, Music, Art, Literature, Geology, Anthropology, Biology, Philosophy and Religion all have been subjects featured at festivals over the years; this year was no exception.
2005 Music, Theatre, and Dances: The 2005 FinnFestUSA featured a professional symphony orchestra organized for the festival. The orchestra presented an evening concert that included a world premiere of a Concerto for Double Bass written by Finnish composer Jukka Linkola.
Other musical events included an opera for children, a jazz ensemble involving Finns and Americans, a variety show featuring rock, folk, and pop music, and choral groups from Finland, Canada, and the United States. Many ensembles and soloists performed in free venues throughout the festival.
Three separate drama productions ran in the evenings during the FinnFest. Two were plays featuring Finnish American subjects; the third, a Finnish comedy, was performed in the Finnish language. Social dances were held every evening, and many attendees ended their evenings on the dance floor.
Films: A number of full length feature films from Finland, all shown with English sub-titles, were shown. American and Canadian films with Finnish themes were also shown.
Art exhibitions: Marquette, Michigan held an art crawl through the various galleries throughout the city. Each of the galleries featured Finnish and/or Finnish American artists working in textiles, ceramics, oils, sculpture, and photography. Northern Michigan University hosted a curated invitational exhibition.
Additional Highlights: The festival broke the Guinness World Book of Records by creating the largest number of people in a single sauna at the same time, breaking a previous record held by a sauna created in Finland. A Blue and White Chair Installation, first created in 1996, was revived; individuals throughout the region found old chairs and benches in their attics and garages, repainting them in blue and white and distributing them throughout the FinnFest USA venues.
FinnFest USA 2008 Highlights
Over 5000 people registered to attend the festival held at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC) on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. Adding those who visited the festival site or bought tickets to a single event, some 10,000 people attended some or all of the FinnFest. Like Marquette, this region of the United States has one of the highest concentrations of Finnish Americans in the country, so it was assumed that this festival would achieve large attendance figures. Programming highlights included the following:
2008 lectures and workshops: The FinnFestUSA experience created four days of lectures, panels and workshops involving people from across the USA, Canada, and Finland. Two major highlights involved the President of Finland, Tarja Halonen. In the first case, President Halonen was first awarded an Honorary Doctor’s degree by the University of Minnesota-Duluth, followed by a major address by President Halonen. In the second case, President Halonen participated in a panel discussion on women’s issues. Five women discussed issues related to women and leadership in a session attended by approximately 500 interested listeners.
2008 Music, Theatre, and Dances: The Minnesota Orchestra with its conductor, Osmo Vänskä, performed an all Finnish music concert on Friday night, a concert attended by over 1,000 people.
Other musical events included a pop music concert featuring rock, folk, and pop music, and choral groups from Finland, Canada, and the United States. Kantele music was featured in both workshops and concerts.
Drama productions occurred in theatre houses in both Duluth, MN and Superior, WI. Social dances, held every evening, and many attendees ended their evenings on the dance floor.
Art exhibitions: University of Minnesota-Duluth hosted two curated shows, one textile show and one historical. Galleries throughout the community featured Finnish and/or Finnish American artists working in textiles, ceramics, oils, sculpture, and photography.
FINNFEST USA 2017 HIGHLIGHTS
What would happen if Finnfest collaborated with local institutions? The answer: a lot more people exposed to things Finnish, less cost for FinnFest, and much more main stream media attention…including “above the fold” in Friday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune. Minnesota Orchestra, with President Niinistö in attendance, had close to 2000 in the auditorium and several million more listening to the live broadcast on the radio, listening to an incredible concert of music by Finnish composers (Kalevi Aho, Jaakko Kuusisto and Jean Sibelius). The Economic Club of Minnesota hosted President Sauli Niinistö who both spoke and participated in a lively Q&A shared with over 650 in attendance, a speech recorded for listening. We discovered that Finns and friends of Finland were everywhere.
Other highlights that attracted more Finnish Americans: a Finnish film series in a “real” movie house, traditional Finnish folk artists in the Orchestra Hall lobby, a Finnish choral music workshop followed the next day by choral concerts by a local children’s choir and a professional choral group and professionally produced rock and world music concerts.
We became a Nordic voice for American Swedish Institute, Norway House, and the Danish American Center who assisted us with venue space and program administration. The festival was a truly community-wide production, enabling FinnFest USA to present a far more complex and rich festival that included a top level lecture and panel series. FinnFest USA intends to continue to create annual pop-up festivals based on the highly successful model developed for 2017.
FinnFest USA honored by President Niinistö
President Niinistö attended FinnFest USA 2017-Minneapolis, his only Finland 100 visit outside NYC and Washington DC. He and his wife, Jenni Haukio, attended a NHL Wild hockey game, throwing out the first puck and meeting with Finnish players on both teams. The photos from the game became a Finland media sensation. After hockey got Finns’ attention, they continued to track events on the next two days of the visit, the most media coverage ever in Finland (print and electronic) FinnFest has ever had in Finland.
President Sauli 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.
The University of Minnesota honored President Niinistö with an Honorary Doctor’s degree. That ceremony highlighted the connections between the University and Finland. For FinnFest USA, the ceremony created an opportunity to acknowledge the many ways in which the University of Minnesota connects to Finland and Finnish America.
Congressman Richard Nolan presented President of the Republic of Finland. Photo: Katri Makkonen/Office of the President of the Republic of Finland
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
Musicians entertaining at the FinnFest '83 banquet, Minneapolis, MN. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Craft Sales at the Tori, FinnFest '83 in Minneapolis, MN. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Learning traditional Finnish weaving at the Tori, FinnFest '92, Duluth, MN. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Finnish Olympic long distance runner Lasse Viren at FinnFest '85, Hancock, MI. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Traditional Finnish carpet weaving at FinnFest '97, Minot, ND. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Family tree and history display, FinnFest '95, Portland, OR. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Preparing traditional Finnish soup for Mid-Summer Celebrations, FinnFest '97, Minot, MD. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Enjoying the festivities. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Finnish American authors table, FinnFest '83, Minneapolis, MN. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Musicians in traditional dress at FinnFest '90 in Hancock, MI. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Shopping at the Tori, FinnFest '90, Hancock, MI. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Shopping at the Tori, FinnFest '90, Hancock, MI. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Traditional Finnish items for sale at the Tori. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Post Office at FinnFest '92 in Duluth, Minnesota. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
World's Largest Sauna at FinnFest '96, Marquette, MI. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Demonstrations at the Tori. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Hand-painted chairs decorated for FinnFest '90, Hancock, MI. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Enjoying FinnFest! Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
FinnAir mascot at FinnFest '92, Duluth, MN. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Original FinnFest USA Board Members, 1983. Front Row, L-R: David Hinsa, Sinikka Garcia, Viola Palo, E. Olaf Rankinen. Back Row, L-R: Robert W. Selvala, Andrew S.P. Mikkola, Rueben W. Perttula, Lloyd K. Hannula. Not pictured: E. Norman Westerberg. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
FinnFest '94 postcard with special canceled stamps from DeKalb Illinois. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Browsing the Tori, FinnFest '89, Seattle, WA. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota
Folk dancing at FinnFest '89, Seattle, Washington. Courtesy of the Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota