COLUMN: Survival of the Finnish

This is my weekly column for the June 27, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired on the June 5, 2010 episode of “Between You and Me” on KAXE.

Survival of the Finnish
By Aaron J. Brown

As Independence Day approaches, thoughts turn to the survival of our republic. Survival is a general human trait, but one of the reasons I love living in northern Minnesota is that the place reminds us that we are currently, sometimes just barely, surviving. Northern Minnesota is basically uninhabitable for three months of the year. Half the year is deeply unpredictable and could lurch toward winter or summer at any time, sometimes in the course of 24 hours. The other three months are great. Just great. No problems, except that’s when the bears are hungry.

My native Iron Range of northern Minnesota is of particular note when it comes to survival. Sharing the same menacing weather as the rest of the region, the Range also exists as a sort of modern survival experiment. This area is still economically dependent on mining, for one. Mining involves digging in the earth with sharp instruments or explosives. That’ll kill some folks. In the old days it took place miles below the heavy, iron-laden earth. That’ll kill some folks. Recently, dump trucks topping 400 tons have been deployed to haul ore. You can imagine what could happen with a truck bigger than even the biggest of the dinosaurs. It doesn’t happen often, on account of the new safety regs, but when something goes wrong it could most definitely kill some folks.

It’s not just mining that demands survival on the Iron Range. Indeed, try being a teacher, a small business owner or anyone who deals with electrons instead of aging adults who need care. For that matter, try being someone who cares for aging adults in need of care. Furthermore, consider the plight of the aging adults in need of care. It’s a place where it doesn’t make much sense to try to survive, but that most folks who live here do anyway – sometimes, out of spite. It’s nice in the summer. You can wear t-shirts to a restaurant, indeed, you’re supposed to. Instead of prosperity, you get stories. Stories are better.

There’s a reason the word “survival” is paired with the word “story.” To tell a story you have to survive. You should hear the stories of all the poor bastards who got eaten by the sharks. You won’t though. It’s the meathead with a missing leg who gets to tell the story.

On the Range the story I like best is the story of the Finns. There were tons of ethnic groups that came over to the Range around the turn of the 20th century, all of them with pretty good stories. The Finns were the only ones that arrived overwhelmingly literate and determined to make things better for themselves through political organization. In essence, they were Power Nerds, and you can’t imagine how excited I am at that concept. The Finns got here, got jobs in the mines like everyone else and quickly realized the economic injustices that were commonplace in America during the latter days of the Industrial Revolution. They organized a major regional labor strike that failed miserably because, well, Power Nerds aren’t invincible, and besides, it’s part of the story.

Did the Finns go home? No, they regrouped deep in the swamps of Zim, out in the forests and hayfields of Cherry and Salo, down in Meadowlands and up the thick woods of Balsam and Lawrence, all around the Iron Range like a surrounding army. They waited. They played music and sang songs, worked long hours farming barren land and insisted on the best education possible for their children. They survived to see another failed strike, and another, and then they survived two world wars and their descendents today are considered to be fortunate. I am one of them. And even though I don’t deserve to, I get to tell the survival story.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. It wasn’t just politics that had them leave the mines; Most of the Finns were “Crofters” or landless peasants. I was privileged to have Matti Kaups as an undergrad adviser; he spoke about the similarity of the landscape (I can vouch for this and so will many others) and how any Finnish male of that age could walk into the woods with four tools and because of the similar landscape and materials, construct everything he needed to begin the combined farming lifestyle. In Finland, they were subject to both the old Swedish Aristocracy, the control of the state church, and the Russians. Here, they could actually own land, and in a landscape they were so familiar with it is eerie. Even the fish are similar species (the zander is essentially a walleye, the perch are similar and the northern pike is the same species). Or, as Elmer Koskela said; “Don’t bother going to Finland, just go to Pike River it is the pretty much the same and its cheaper.”

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