The past couple of days have been ones in which many ideas have been swirling around in my brain, and I have been considering how I feel about heritage, history, Finnishness and Finnish-Americanness and the place I have in all these pools.
Yesterday, Mikko sent us off for a weekend in the Turku area with his company minivan. A spacious and comfortable (and incredibly modern) Mercedes-Benz, it has been a fun car to drive. It is his company car, though, and so it advertises Aikamatkat, the travel agency that Mikko founded and of which he is CEO. Thus, the car is covered with decals proclaiming in English that people can follow us to the Northern Lights, and that Santa Claus approves of such travel. It is, in short, just the sort of quirkiness that I love to have. Being in such a vehicle forces people to stare, which they have done. It is funny to insert such a spectacle into people´s everyday and to see how they handle it.
We drove to Turku from Tampere for a 2 pm visit to the Finnish Institute of Migration. This is a valuable site for Finnish Americans because the institute documents many aspects of Finnish American migration history, and as such, is a useful resource for genealogists, sociologists, historians, folklorists, and others. Though the original focus of the institute has been to document those who have moved from Finland, there has been a shift in focus to that of documenting those who have moved into Finland, a rather new phenomenon that has only been going on the past few decades in earnest.
Upon arriving at the institute, we met Miika Tervonen, a senior researcher who had agreed to show us around and to explain the work done there. It was fun to see what we could of the center´s doings. I have been acquainted with the work of the institute, as well as with several individuals who have worked there, since I started graduate school in 2003, and so it was nice to finally visit. The institute is housed in a beautiful, old-fashioned building in the city center, and it houses a lot of information. I know I must return again.
During a part of the tour where Miika introduced us to Timo, a volunteer who digitizes records of Finnish migration, including passport information and ship passenger lists, we were able to see directly the transposition of old, hand-written records into easily readable records available in both Finnish and English. The topic of my own Finnish heritage came up and knowing that I had seen some records concerning my family in their databases before, I knew we would come up with a hit typing their name into search boxes on the computer. First, I tried a few members of my family from Keuruu, a family called Wiideman but whose name has been spelled over the years in several different ways. That produced no hits right then (I must admit I tried alternate spellings) and so we moved on to my dad´s side of the family, the Pennanen family from Lapinlahti in the province of Savo. This produced several hits, including Paavo Pennanen, my great-great grandfather who came to the USA around 1902.
As we looked over the record, which was in Finnish, we came across a Finnish word listed as his occupation: loinen. I had previously read a translation of this record, which had listed his occupation in English as dependent cottager. That didn´t sound like a very good job back then. As we looked over this word, Miika and another worker from the institute were thinking of their own translations of this word. Miika indicated it wasn’t a very nice word in Finnish and his colleague said, “It’s like a parasite.”
Whoa. According to my students, I was good at responding to this in the moment, but it was a pretty weird thing to hear. The institute workers then tried to explain that it wasn’t a precise way to look at the word in that particular context, but that a loinen would have had one of the most insecure positions in the class society of pre-independence Finland because they would have worked directly for food and a place to sleep. Later, when I mentioned this in a social media post, others were quick to jump in and try to console me because, even though I know already that social inequity can be appalling, I was shocked that a whole group of members of a society would have been called such a word in official documents like that. Several of my Facebook friends who are active in genealogy were especially keen on making me see some nuance in a word that no one in Finland today would use to describe another social class. At least, no one that’s not a jerk.
I am not ashamed of coming from a poor background. I have known what it is like to be a part of the extreme bottom of the working class all my life and this position has informed how I interact with the world and how I advocate for my students, many of whom also have humble roots. Part of my fascination with Finland’s modern society comes from the fact that there is a sense of common good, and my students and I see this during our time here: their support of public education, libraries, open government, and recycling are several examples we have reflected upon just this May. For me, there is, and has always been a sort of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the Finland my family left and the Finland I see today. “Why would they leave?” I used to ask myself. The Hilary that has studied Finland’s past, however, knows the reason. They, at that time, had no future here. The famines of the late 1800s and the coming Russian Revolution and subsequent Finnish Civil War made Finland a place that would have devastated some of my ancestors. It could have killed them.
Sometimes, some Finnish Americans marvel at Finland’s success in many aspects of their society and express a little regret that their ancestors couldn’t have hung on just a little longer. I used to do this a lot.
Seeing this word loinen in a different light–translated into English through modern eyes–has made me realize quite sharply that doing this is not fruitful. It has also made me appreciate in a new way the relationship I have, and continue to develop, with Finland and its people.
Today was fruitful. We woke up in the morning and drove to the home of fellow folklorist Tuomas Hovi, a colleague at the University of Turku who has shared research interests and is always graciously willing to share his time with me and my students so that we may come to understand Finland in new ways. When I was planning this year’s itinerary, I asked Tuomas if he might be willing to join me and the students on a visit to sites associated with the pilgrimage route of Bishop Henrik, the legendary patron saint of Finland. Henrik’s is a complex story that Dana, Monica, and Gina have all recounted in different ways in their most recent blogs, so I will not do so here. He is interesting to me, though, because he figures into my own dissertation research on Heikinpäivä, a Finnish American winter festival that takes place each January in Hancock since 1999. It is an invented tradition that celebrates a local, unique Finnish American identity, and it takes place around the traditional Catholic feast day–and Lutheran name day–of Henrik, or Heikki, January 19.
For me, researching the deep past of this festival was a very exciting part of my dissertation because it connected to old Finnish roots, some parts of which come from the time before Finland had a written history and thus, come to be seen in the present in little glints and glimmers here and there. Bishop Henrik pilgrimage sites are glimmers that stand out clearly on the landscape. Though there is no proof that the historical man (whose existence continues to be disputed) actually was at these places, these sites reflect the fact that many people believe that he, and his alleged murderer Lalli, did exist and did exert influence on the Finnish cultural past, and on the Finnish landscape. As a folklorist, that is enough for me.
Visiting medieval churches with my students and Tuomas was really enjoyable and relaxing. There are not any similarly old structures to be seen in Upper Michigan, though early Native Americans did leave lasting marks on the land that we can see, interpret, and appreciate. The way in which these churches were flanked by a churchyard and cemetery, the common practice of creating memorial stones for Civil War White casualties and Winter War/Continuation War military deaths is remarkable to us. The fact that Red deaths are not typically similarly memorialized was not unnoticed by us either.
Photographing such sites is something I like to do. I find it interesting to look at how people memorialize their deceased loved ones with headstones, flowers, and much more. Helping students narrate for themselves these landscapes is also exciting. They start to notice more things and to do so without prompting.
In addition to churches and cemeteries, we also visited a statue dedicated to Lalli and a small, ornate building called a saarna huone which was built to protect a wooden structure alleged to have been a chapel in which the bishop was said to have preached before his death. While that is certainly not provable, some of the logs in the structure have been proven to have come from at least the 1400s and so it illustrates, at the very least, that many people have had a relationship with this structure and their religious social life that made such an attribution important. It was very touching. It was equally touching that this particular building was accessible by fetching a key from a business down the road and going to visit by ourselves.
This was the last site we visited before returning to Turku. My students retired to their rooms for rest, writing, and a self-determined dinner adventure while I joined Tuomas and his family (wife Kristiina and daughter Anni) for dinner at their house and an evening of really fascinating conversation. My brain has been churning in good ways ever since. What Tuomas, Kristiina, and I have in common–in different ways–are interactions with the idea of heritage that bring themselves out in personal and professional contexts. We deal with senses of loss and recovery through heritage in what we each do. One common factor we each have is the recognition of the role of human movement in this milieu. Often, as many social scientists have noted, heritage becomes important in the face of rapid change. As Tuomas pointed out over dinner, Finnish American writers have suggested since at least the 1930s that Finnish ethnicity in the United States was on the road to disappearance. And yet here they still are. It’s not the same culture, though. Finnish Americans have adapted because they have had to, and in some instances, such as Heikinpäivä, because they wanted to. As Kristiina pointed out this evening, this is the same for displaced Karelians–being evacuated during the Winter War and Continuation War forced them to create new ways to be Karelian without the land, that important part of what 19th century folklorists and philosophers considered to be central to a folk’s very existence.
One other part of tonight’s goodness was the fact that, once we arrived at Tuomas’s house, the language of the evening was Finnish. If I didn’t know or couldn’t remember a word, I largely had to pantomime my way though it. I had to remember to not try to translate things into English; by keeping my brain operating in Finnish, I can not only more easily keep up with the conversation but I can also contribute to it. I know this, but sometimes it is hard to keep up at first. At one point in the conversation, a simple distraction from watching Anni brush the mane of her beloved toy horse sent my translator brain back to English and I had to admit that I had to pause for a second so my brain could rejoin the conversation.
My interactions with Finland are not on the same terms as those of my torppari and loinen ancestors. They did what they thought was best at the time, and all we can do now is assume that it was. They made me what I am today, a PhD-holding member of perhaps one of the lower rings of the middle class. They also, somehow, made me appreciate the Finland of today with which I have really wonderful interactions. They made me a professor of Finnish & Nordic Studies, in short. As Bror Träskbacka commented on my rather upset Facebook post last night, “Being poor did not prevent our ancestors to seek for a better future. That shows something, doesn’t it?”
Tuomas showed me something at dinner. While Kristiina finished preparing ice cream and apple crisp for dessert, he pulled up some US census records he found about Paavo Pennanen out of his own curiosity–and perhaps kindness–following my upset Facebook post. The census records from 1910 showed Paavo and his wife and several children living together in Adams Township, Michigan, south of where I live now. Seven or eight years had passed since his passport was issued. The census taker recorded Paavo as the “head” of the household, which was common for the father of a family to be called back then. The United States did not recognize him as a loinen, nor would anyone else recognize him as that again. He broke away from that past. Maybe that was a good start.
Engaging in the kind of work I do can be difficult at times because it gets personal. People that I have interviewed about their traditions have died. People often engage with my work because they sense a loss that sometimes can’t really be recovered. People fear that their culture really will die out soon. Coming to Finland often makes me homesick for a place that isn’t actually my home. The Finland of today, with its general positive attitude toward social equality, butts up against the Finland that my family had to leave.
It is, however, also its own reward. I have connected people with audio recordings of deceased ancestors singing. I have found photographs and writings of other such people. I have helped people to see that their Pohjanmaa and Tornionlaakso dialect words are beautiful, living bits of what their ancestors have left them. I also get invited to eat lots of cake with people. All this just illustrates that it is important to people to feel that the past is real and rich somehow–we need to know our ancestors were people and that even if only in legend, that the old stories we tell have some sort of basis in lived reality. Today and yesterday, with the connections to medieval Finland and to my great-great-grandpa from Savo, were real. And they were wonderful.
Thank you to Dana, Monica, Gina, Bror, Tuomas, Kristiina, and my cousin Electra (who is stateside but on the internets and a Pennanen victory in her own right) for the past few days. I feel new sprouts coming in my brain. This is why I do this and I am happy to be able to share this with my students.