This year, Finland marks 100 years of independence from Russia, Sweden and any other European powers that at one time held its Nordic territory.
And as Jenna Ross from the Star Tribune reports, Minnesota will play a role in the Finnish celebration. An American tour of Finnish cultural performances (including a traveling sauna) will begin and end in Minneapolis.
That’s fitting. Aside from Michigan, no other American state has more Finnish heritage than Minnesota. More accurately, Finnish immigrants settled from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula through the iron ranges of Northern Minnesota in pursuit of logging and mining jobs in a land remarkably similar to Finland itself.
Though these regions saw many immigrant groups during that time period, Finns brought not only their culture, but their literacy and politics as well. Finns are credited with organizing early union activity in the region’s iron mines. From this germinated the 20th Century labor movement.
Finns were also involved in numerous civic and cultural efforts as well, including the founding of many influential social and temperance halls. They weren’t the only ones exerting this influence on the Great Lakes region, but their absence would have probably created a very different reality.
Part of the reason so many Finns came to America at that time was the unrest in Finland before and after the nation’s fragile early independence.
Finland declared its independence on Dec. 6, 1917 amid the Russian Revolution. World War I had wracked Europe, putting economic and social pressure on Finland as well. When Russian ousted and later killed their monarchs, Finns saw an opportunity to end centuries of occupation.
See, Russia had ruled Finland since taking it from Sweden more than 100 years before that. Prior to that, the Swedes had ruled Finland since the 12th Century.
The early years of the Finnish Republic were tumultuous. Within a year, Soviet-backed “Reds” would fight German-backed “Whites” for control of the country. Ultimately, an effort to start a kingdom failed, and a democratic constitutional republic formed. Initially a poor agrarian nation, Finland would eventually embrace the same social democratic policies of neighboring Scandinavian nations and enjoy prosperity.
MPR shared an original documentary about Finnish-American history today if you’d like more on the back story.
The Star Tribune story included remarkable statistics. In a nation of 5.5 million people, Finland has 20 symphony orchestras. They also have more than 2 million saunas. In other words, saunas are essentially as common as bathrooms. In fact, saunas are bathrooms.
As many here in Northern Minnesota know, saunas aren’t just good ways to relax, they’re great at keeping you clean. Meantime, the hygienic environment of a sauna meant babies could be delivered there. The sick could be treated there. Hence the traveling sauna as part of the Finland 100 program.
The many Finns here in Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan will have much to celebrate this year. Then again, Finns generally don’t need a reason to tell you how important being Finnish is.