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Cultural Tracks: Third Generation

Part 3 of Finnish Americans in Michiganís Upper Peninsula. Historically, the UP has been and still is the nationís primary settlement area for Finnish Americans, and they have left their cultural tracks on the region.

The Third Generation

Some of the Americanized grandchildren of the immigrants retain a few images of the immigrant generation through memories of grandparents. Grandmothers fired wood stoves, knitted wool mittens and socks, served them a buttermilk-like soup, a salt-cured fish, prune tarts, and a sweet bread called “nisua,” took them blueberry picking, canned berries, meats, and vegetables, and pounded rag carpets on a squeaky wooden loom. She drew black crosses over the heads of deceased people in old photographs, and slathered Mrs. Juntunen’s stinky salve on cut fingers. Grandfather bought them Orange Crush soda at the store, fired the sauna, and filled the white enamel water tubs. On his belt, he carried an enormous knife in a leather sheath and he disappeared into the woods to make sauna vihta (switches). He scorched the kids with the water he poured onto the sauna rocks, so that they squealed and climbed down close to the floor. For some reason, he talked Finnish while feeding and brushing his horses. In later years, he let his grandchildren drive the tractor during hay-making. Even on those breezeless Saharan days in July, he wore woolen long underwear. He dug worms behind the barn by the manure pile, slipped them into a Prince Albert tobacco can, and took his grandchildren brook trout fishing, often carrying them home on his shoulders. Sometimes he slipped out into the night with a flashlight and a rifle. They heard their grandparents speaking Finnish at the kitchen coffee table where grandfather inserted a sugar lump on his tongue and drank coffee from a saucer. It seemed like they were always talking at the coffee table. It was so frustrating to wait for them. Just as their talking seemed to end, they started all over again. These children also heard Finnish when their parents were telling secrets. It was almost whispered, as though the kids might understand. Later in their adult lives, some of the third generation would come to recognize these peculiar foods and customs as being a part of their vanishing cultural heritage.

Two studies the third-generation Finnish Americans, the grandchildren of immigrants, show considerable educational achievement. One study of 194 third-generation Finnish Americans, born in Pelkie, is shown in the table below.


National estimates based on the assumption (a good one) that those born between 1946-1955, reporting Finnish ancestry are members of the third generation, show that: 95 percent had graduated from high school, 67 percent had some college, and 33 percent were college graduates (Stoller and Forster 1992). Hence, the UP pattern of Finnish American educational achievement is similar to the national picture.

An estimated seven out of ten of this UP third generation have left their home community following career dreams. While their parents migrated primarily to Detroit where they could visit fellow ethnics, this third generation is now widely dispersed throughout all of metropolitan America. Many live far away, and they are not returning to live in the UP like many of their parents. They come home for Christmas, weddings, funerals, and some summer vacations; but when their parents die, these visits begin to subside. When they do return, everything seems changed: new people live in a former neighbor’s house and “No Trespassing” signs are posted on trees.

While most second-generation Finnish Americans returned to the UP upon retirement, very few of the third generation intend to do so. Whereas, four of ten of their parents had returned within ten years after migrating, only one of fourteen of the third generation had returned within a similar period (Loukinen 1994). The tendency to pursue an education and move away forever is the story of rural America, not unique to the UP.

Third-generation Finnish Americans’ occupations are spread throughout the American economic system. Based upon 1980 U.S. Census reports of Finnish ancestry, assuming that those born between 1946-1955 are members of the third generation: 20.9 percent are in administrative or management positions; 20.4 percent in the professions; 18.3 percent are elementary and secondary school teachers; 7.3 percent in the semi-professions; 4.2 percent are writers or artists; 8.4 percent are in sales; 8.9 percent are in administrative support positions; and 11.5 percent in pink/blue collar occupations (Stoller and Forster 1992).

They are just a little clannish. The in-group marriage rate for this third generation is four out of ten; whereas, for their parents it was seven out of ten; and for their grandparents it was close to nine out of ten. If a member of this rural-born but now geographically dispersed third generation married another Finnish American, about half said they had tried to pass some sense of Finnish culture onto their children; whereas, for those marrying outside their ethnic community, this proportion declined by about ten percent. Sociologists have long known that interethnic marriage has a way of erasing an ethnic identity and encouraging assimilation into the commercial mass culture of American society. Ethnic foods are replaced with McDonald’s hamburgers.

It is not generational status, that is, kinship distance from the immigrant generation, that is the sole determining factor in Finnish American assimilation, but also the cultural experience of different cohorts (individuals born within a designated time period) that is even more critical. Those members of the third generation, (grandchildren of immigrants) who were born earlier are more likely to have had sustained contact with Finnish immigrant culture because more immigrants were still living during their youth. This is reflected in their propensity to transmit the culture of their ancestors. Among those third generation Finnish Americans born in Pelkie between 1935 and 1953: 53 percent said they had tried to pass Finnish culture onto their children; for those born between 1954-1972, this had fallen to 35 percent (Loukinen 1996).

The third and fourth generation lives without strong community and institutional support for their cultural traditions. The rate of contemporary Finnish immigration is insufficient to sustain a vital immigrant culture. Virtually all recent Finnish immigrants speak English fluently, so they do not contribute to the maintenance of an ethnic language. The Finnish language is heard in monthly church services attended by fewer and fewer elders, and the Finnish Evangelic church in America has merged with other Lutheran bodies such that there is no longer Finnish symbolism in the weekly services or doctrine. The rural Finnish Co-ops have almost all closed or have been sold to private operators. Three generations of out-migration of Finnish Americans and recent in-migration of non-Finns has to a great extent depleted the presence of Finnish culture in the rural communities of the western UP. And, the third generation is now so scattered throughout America that few can interact with other Finnish Americans enough to sustain a sense of ethnic community.

Some media support for a Finnish American identity exists. Three Finnish American newspapers ethnic newspapers are being published, including the Finnish American Reporter, an English language monthly published in Duluth. Many books and videos about Finland and Finnish American history and culture are marketed to Finnish Americans. Saloampi, a language and culture educational summer camp for youth operates at capacity every summer in northwestern Minnesota. A weekly television program, “Suomi Kutsuu,” has been aired on WLUC-TV in Negaunee, Michigan for the past thirty-four years.

In 1982, Finnish Americans created an annual, geographically rotating national ethnic festival, FinnFest USA, whose purpose is to develop a sense of understanding and appreciation for the cultural heritage of Finnish Americans. There have been three FinnFests in the UP: two in Hancock at Suomi College in 1985 and 1990, and one at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan in 1996. There were 1,493 registered in 1985 and, in 1996, there were 6,221 fully registered, and another 10,000 partially registered. Compared with previous FinnFests, a larger proportion attending the 1996 FinnFest were third and fourth generation Finnish Americans because a special effort was made to attract them by encouraging scheduling of family reunions coincidental with FinnFest and offering free “Educare” services for youth (day care combined with Finnish American cultural education). About 488 children seventeen and under attended FinnFest USA ‘96. Over 130 lectures, family history and genealogy workshops, films, ethnic crafts, dance and cooking workshops, and over thirty concerts were packed into a five-day period of enjoyable cultural education. The long range cultural impact of such ethnic revitalization festivals remains to be seen.

Today, Finnish Americans are scattered throughout America, such that based upon 1980 U.S. Census Ancestry estimates: 33.4 percent live in rural areas (less than 2,500); 14.4 percent in small towns; 32 percent on the urban fringe; and 19.9 percent in central cities. About 17.1 percent live in Michigan; 19.1percent in Minnesota, North and South Dakota; 9.4 percent in California; 7.2 percent in Washington; 6.1 percent live in Wisconsin; 5.7 percent in Massachusetts; and 4 percent in Oregon. (Stoller and Karni 1992). Many Finnish Americans still live in the Upper Midwestern states. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the first place where Finnish immigrants had first planted roots in American soil, still has the highest concentration of them. What will remain of their cultural tracks across the UP landscape remains to be seen. The winds of cultural change are making them harder to find.

Acknowledgements to: Michael M. Loukinen

For rights and permissions contact: Originally Published in: A Sense of Place, Michiganís Upper Peninsula: Essays in Honor of the Career of William Vandament editors: Michael Marsden and Russell Magnaghi, Copyright Northern Michigan University Press, 1996

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