MINNESOTA DIARY

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A group of about 20 people is about to embark on a journey to Finnish history in Minnesota. Our bus leaves Minneapolis promptly in the morning for a small town named Cokato some 50 miles to the west. Most of the passengers are Finnish-American retirees. We traverse trough rolling hills, fields and small woods. Then the bus pulls in front of the Cokato Museum. Inside, there are exhibits depicting life in the olden days, when Finnish settlers arrived 150 years ago. Next door at Gust Akerlund Photo Studio there are some old photographic equipment, a backdrop for studio portraits and black and white photos in which serious looking people look straight at the camera. A four-year-old boy in a coffin is also memorialized in a photograph before his final voyage to the beyond.

Lunch at the Temperance Corner

Lunch at the Temperance Corner

Our trip continues to the Temperance Corner – no boozing here! There is an old school house, a church and a smoke sauna there. We enjoy a box lunch of pasties and (non-alcoholic) refreshments.

Old Finnish Church in Pioneer Village

Old Finnish Church in Pioneer Village

Many of the Finns who arrived 150 years ago came from the Tornio River Valley in Northern Finland and the prominent religion there was the Lestadian brand of Christianity. But Finns are Finns and notoriously we require our own little groups where ever we go. Thus there are not one but two Lestadian churches in town – The Lestadian Church and the Apostolic Lutheran Church. Both look exactly alike and I never got a clear explanation as to what dogma or feud divided the congregation into two – something vague about the role of the clergy. Then it’s off to the cemetery, where many of the headstones bear Finnish names – some misspelled.

Cokato Cemetery where many Finns are buried.

Ben Wheeler, whose mother is Finnish, tours Cokato Cemetery where many Finns are buried.

What brought Finnish immigrants here starting 1864 was the Homestead Act that gave free land to settlers who were willing to clear the forest and start a farm. The area was a remote wilderness then that had no railroad access. In that sense the past has returned, since there is no public transportation whatsoever in Cokato. So, if you don’t have a car, you are out of luck getting around.

The oldest smoke sauna in Minnesota can be found in Cokato.

The oldest smoke sauna in Minnesota can be found in Cokato.

Cokato is advertised as the oldest continuous Finnish settlement aside from Delaware that was settled by Swedes and Finns in the 1600’s. In all reality, there is no longer Finnish being spoken here and no Finns that I could see, unless you count the descendants of the early Finnish settlers 150 years ago. I call them Americans. Traditions however, are alive. There is a quaint atmosphere here. You never get a short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to any question, but a long-winded explanation. People speak the same way they do in the Coen Brothers black comedy Fargo. And they call us Finns ‘Finlanders’ here. To me the old-fashioned word evokes images of Aleksis Kivi’s novel The Seven Brothers set in 1800’s rural Finland.

Pioneer Village, where old buildings have been relocated.

Pioneer Village, where old buildings have been relocated.

Back in Minneapolis I look in on the preparations of FinnFest and attend the opening gala patronized by the Finnish Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde, her husband, Dr. Hidde Ronde and the Consul General of New York Jukka Pietikäinen.

Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde and her husband, Dr. Hidde Ronde nad Consul General of New York Jukka Pietikäinen attend the opening gala of FinnFest 2014 in Minneapolis.

Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde and her husband, Dr. Hidde Ronde and Consul General of New York Jukka Pietikäinen attend the opening gala of FinnFest 2014 in Minneapolis.

It’s a fun program of little bit of everything that was to come in the festival itself. I won’t bore you with details but just pick out one outstanding act – the Roman Hilja Grönfors Trio, which performed traditional gypsy songs.

Hilja Grönfors Trio - from the left Kiureli Sammallahti (accordion), Hilja Grönfors (soloist), Valtteri Bron (guitar)

Hilja Grönfors Trio – from the left Kiureli Sammallahti (accordion), Hilja Grönfors (soloist), Valtteri Bron (guitar)

Minneapolis on the Mississippi River has been called the Helsinki of The United States. There are similarities. Both cities are clean and progressive with excellent public transportation systems and a pedestrian friendly downtown.

The golden hour at Nicollet Mall

The golden hour at Nicollet Mall

Things missing from Minneapolis compared to Helsinki are old historical buildings and the sea. But there is a new convenient tram that takes me from downtown to my hotel in Midway in a half an hour.

Minneapolis from the Mississippi River

Minneapolis from the Mississippi River

In my brand new rental car Dodge Avenger I head up north in search of Findians – descendants of Finns and American Indians. I have managed to locate two but they have not responded to my interview requests, so I decide to pay them a visit. The first one is an Ojibwe physician Dr. Arne Vainio, who practices medicine at the Fond du Lac Reservation near Cloquet.

An Indian gas station at the Fond du Lac Reservation near Cloquet

An Indian gas station at the Fond du Lac Reservation near Cloquet

I arrive at the Indian clinic on a Friday afternoon. There are about 20 patients in the waiting room. After stating my business, Dr. Vainio’s assistant comes out. No, the doctor will not see me even to shake hands. No use waiting until his shift ends either, the assistant says. I get a hand-written email address but when I write the good doctor a note, my email comes back undeliverable! Later on I hear Dr. Vainio had delivered a lecture next day at the FinnFest. Why he refused to see me, I suppose I’ll never now.

The home of artist Carl Gawboy near Lake Superior

The home of artist Carl Gawboy near Lake Superior

Undeterred, I move on to my next victim…eh, potential interviewee. He is a Findian artist Carl Gawboy, who lives in a breathtakingly beautiful spot by Lake Superior. It’s a rural area but I manage to find it with a help of the navigator. Gawboy’s compound consists of six red cottages that are scattered on a lush green garden. I knock on every door but the only answer I get is from a tan colored cat meowing at me from behind a glass door. There are chicken and quails in the chicken house – but no Carl Gawboy. His neighbors tell me they normally see a car parked on the yard but it is absent now. I stick around for an hour, leave a note on the door and leave. I never hear back from either Dr. Arne Vainio or Carl Gawboy, but here’s a watercolor Mr. Gawboy painted. He specializes in nature and indigenous peoples scenes.

A Carl Gawboy watercolor

A Carl Gawboy watercolor

Duluth on Lake Superior is a spectacular looking town with many historical buildings on a hill. The town was the center of the timber industry and many timber barons built their mansions in town. Winters here are especially harsh because of the lake effect that generates snow storms. I take a short cruise on the lake.

On a cruise on Lake Superior

On a cruise on Lake Superior

The young guide tells us Lake Superior is the third largest lake in the world and holds 10 percent of world’s fresh water. We could use some of that in California, I think to myself. But there are also 350 ships at the bottom of the lake – victims of brutal and deadly storms. Duluthians have gathered to the shores to enjoy this beautiful summer day. Some are entertained by a blues festival on the waterfront.

Duluth from Lake Superior

Duluth from Lake Superior

As the sun is setting I head north and drive through some beautiful forests with lakes glistening with the last rays of the sun. A deer and her fawn look at me and then run away to the safety of the woods.

A deer and her fawn in a forest near Ely

A deer and her fawn in a forest near Ely

As I arrive in Ely it is already dark. Jim Bettcher is the proprietor of Shagawa Inn, my home for the next three days. He hands me the key to my cabin. The resort is by Lake Shagawa. Some late night fishermen return from their fishing trip on a boat equipped with lights.

You can rent a cabin at Shagawa Inn in Ely.

You can rent a cabin at Shagawa Inn in Ely.

The next day one of the fishermen is filleting a Walleye fish in the fish room. I have a date with David Kess, a local Finnish-American. Dave is a retired schoolteacher, who is active in a myriad of Finnish organizations.

David Kess in downtown Ely

David Kess in downtown Ely

We go to the Vermilion Community College, where Ely Winton Historical Society has a museum. It is compact and nicely organized in different sections that show how people here lived some hundred years ago. Finns came to Ely to work in iron mines. There were five of them in their heyday. All of them are closed now.

A 1920's kitchen in the Ely Winton Historical Society Museum

A 1920’s kitchen in the Ely Winton Historical Society Museum

Some people would like to start mining anew, since it was discovered that this land holds the world’s largest copper deposits. I see signs on people’s lawns that proclaim “I support mining”. I wonder if they would still support it if they saw what happened in Sudbury, Canada some 700 miles west. There mining destroyed the nature and the area suffered near total loss of vegetation, permanently charcoal black stained ground and acid rain. Ely on the other hand, is a paradise perched next to Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – a million acre (4400 square kilometers) area in Superior National Forest. So my plea to Elyans: Don’t let mining destroy your pristine wonderland!

A view of Lake Shagawa

A view of Lake Shagawa

David Kess takes me to his vacation house aptly named Camp David. His brother Paul takes us on a boat ride on beautiful Burntside Lake.

David and Paul Kess on Burntside Lake

David and Paul Kess on Burntside Lake

Later that day I meet Sally Koski Fauchald, a nursing professor based in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She commutes to Duluth 75 miles away several times a week. Sally plans to one day retire in Ely, where she and her brother own a cabin. In the winter there are days when the weather gets so bad that classes are cancelled. That’s when Sally turns her car around and returns home.

Sally Koski Fauchald teaches nursing in Duluth.

Sally Koski Fauchald teaches nursing in Duluth.

But not tonight. On this beautiful summer night Sally, Dave and I dine at a marvelous Grand Ely Lodge’s restaurant overlooking a lake. It is my best meal on the whole trip – a green salad with blue cheese dressing, chicken soup with local wild rice and prime rib with potatoes au gratin – hold the dessert! A beautiful woman in a designer gown and with an air of a socialite walks up to our table and makes our acquaintance. She had heard us talk and that I was an out-of-towner. After a little chat she glides away with her entourage. Later on Dave tells me she is the wife of a supermarket chain tycoon. Well, that’s never happened to me in LA!

A sunset in Ely

A sunset in Ely

On my last day I visit the towns of Aurora and Embarrass. The latter too has a Finnish heritage museum – this one run by the Sisu Society. On my way back to Ely I see a sign “North American Bear Center” and pull  into the parking lot. They have four live bears there. They live on a 2.5 acre spread that has a woodsy area, caves, a pond and a waterfall.

Lucky is the star of the North American Bear Center.

Lucky is the star of the North American Bear Center.

This is Lucky, a seven-year-old male bear. Lucky gave us quite a show, after which he disappeared into the woods.  That last night, as I have retired to my cabin it starts to rain. I hear loons make a commotion on the lake.

My cabin at Shagawa Inn

My cabin at Shagawa Inn

I take my last swim in the crystal clear waters of Lake Shagawa and head back to Minneapolis. As interesting as the whole trip to Minnesota was, I must say I lost my heart to Ely and its lovely people and nature. I will be back – some day.

The writer waves farewell to beautiful Minnesota.

The writer waves farewell to beautiful Minnesota.

RITVA KOUKKU-RONDE, THE 1ST FEMALE AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES

Ritva Koukku-Ronde, Ambassador of Finland to the United States

AMBASSADOR RITVA KOUKKU-RONDE – QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Reporter: Tomi Hinkkenen – Washington DC

On September 1, 2011, Ritva Koukku-Ronde assumed her post as the appointed Ambassador of Finland to the United States. Ms. Koukku-Ronde is the first female Finnish ambassador to the United States.

Q. You have had a long career at the Foreign Ministry of Finland – what are your most memorable posts and experiences?

Actually, all my posts have been extremely interesting and memorable. It is impossible to single out any of them because they were all unique and rewarding experiences in their own ways.

Q. Have you submitted you credentials to President Barack Obama yet and if you have, can you describe the event and what was Mr. Obama like?

I submitted my credentials to President Obama on September 9 during a short ceremony at the White House. He was very sympathetic and interested in Finland.

Q. Oftentimes the world of diplomacy is shrouded in secrecy and regular people do not know much about what is going on behind closed doors, but could you talk about some of the things you are working on right now to further improve trade, culture and the collaboration between Finland and the U.S.?

I will focus on advancing the relationship between Finland and the U.S. in the areas of economy, education, security, environment, high technology and culture – to mention just a few. As a member of the European Union, Finland is also keen to see the transatlantic cooperation grow stronger.

Our work at the embassy happens on many levels, from having discussions with decision makers to organizing cultural events and policy seminars to communicating with the American public. All these activities help further improve collaboration between Finland and the U.S.

Q. Finland has been trying to get to the U.N. Security Council as a non-permanent member. As a permanent member in the Security Council, the U.S. has a lot of clout in selecting non-permanent members. How are you going to convince the U.S. to give Finland a term at the Security Council?

Finland has actively contributed to the UN’s unique role as the guarantor of peace and security, promoter of sustainable development, and advocate of human rights and democracy. In the international fora Finland has earned a reputation of an active and reliable actor. We Finns wish to carry our responsibility as a member of the international community. Our candidacy for a seat in the Security Council is a reflection of this objective.

Q. The tightening of the U.S. immigration policies has all but ended immigration from Finland to the U.S. It is now more difficult than ever to immigrate in the U.S. You can see this in a concrete way for example in Florida, where the once thriving Finnish community is slowly dying, because no new immigrants are coming in. Are there any bilateral agreements in the works between Finland and the U.S., or EU and US to facilitate the immigration both to and from the U.S. to Finland / EU?

The U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) is the appropriate agency to answer all questions regarding immigration to the United States.

President Obama and Ambassador Koukku Ronde

Q. One bright spot in the otherwise sagging economy, both in Finland and the U.S., has been the high tech sector. A good example of this is the GAP (Global Access Program), the collaboration between UCLA and Tekes. In the GAP program, Finnish high tech companies team up with UCLA Anderson School of Management students, who create business plans for the Finnish companies. This enables the Finnish companies to grow and expand into the U.S. and other countries. The program has been a smashing success. However, it seems to me that there is competition between Finnish semi-governmental and official organizations to vie with the same clients (the Finnish high tech companies) and snatch them away from GAP. Do you think it is time to close ranks and for all the Finnish organizations to work in collaboration rather than competition with each other?

I can’t speak directly to the example you mentioned but, in the case of our embassy, all the different Finnish actors —the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Forces, Finnode, Finpro, Tekes and VTT Technical Research Center—operate as a “House of Finland.” This means that we work together and make the best use of the wide variety of expertise and know-how that we have under the same roof to further enhance and deepen relations between Finland and the U.S.

Q. Finland has about 30 Honorary Councils in the United States. These unpaid individuals are supposed to represent Finland in their geographical areas. However, this writer has gotten a very inconsistent image of these honorary councils. Some are very active and helpful indeed, others, not so much. For example, I recall a cross country road trip from California to Florida that I made a couple of years ago. I e-mailed honorary councils in states along the way, asking about Finnish people and activities that I could write about in the media. I never heard back from most of them. Is it time to somehow revamp the whole honorary council system?

Overall, honorary consuls serve as an important and invaluable resource for Finland, and their service is greatly appreciated. Like you mentioned, honorary consuls are indeed unpaid and serve in their positions voluntarily. They assume the duties of the honorary consul in addition to all their other professional and private responsibilities, and I believe it is understandable that some have more time to devote to their consul roles than others.

Q. President John F. Kennedy famously said in his inauguration speech: “Ask not what the country can do for you. Ask what you can do for the country.” What can we Finns who live in The United States, do to benefit Finland?

In their daily lives, Finns living in the U.S. already represent Finland in many ways. From my perspective, all Finns, Finnish Americans, and Finnish organizations in the U.S. form a so called “Team Finland” that shares the same goal of improving and deepening relations between our countries. We may have different ways of working toward that goal, but we all benefit from a strong relationship between Finland and the U.S.

Also, I would like to encourage all Finns and Finnish Americans to visit our website, finland.org, and follow us on Facebook (http://facebook.com/FinnishEmbassyWashingtonDC) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/FinnEmbassyDC) to keep up to date on news regarding Finland and Finland’s role in the U.S.

Q. What is the most important thing you would you like to accomplish during your term as the ambassador?

During my term, I would like to see the manifold relations between Finland and the U.S. grow even deeper and more far-reaching..

thisisFINLAND - things you should and shouldn't know
Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde’s Currilum Vitae:

1 September 2011 Ambassador of Finland to the United States of America

2009-2011 Under-Secretary of State, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
2005-2009 Director General, Department for Development Policy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
2003-2005 Deputy Director General, Department for European Affairs, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
1998-2003 Minister, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Finland, Bonn, Berlin
1996-1998 Director for the United Nations Development Issues, Department for International Development Cooperation, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
1995 Special Adviser to the Director General of the Political Department, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
1994-1995 Counselor, Political Department, Unit for the European Union and Western European Countries, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
1990-1994 Counselor, Deputy Head of Mission, The Hague
1987-1990 Second Secretary, First Secretary, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Finland, Nairobi; Focal Point to UNEP and UN Habitat
1987 Attaché, Department for International Development Cooperation, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
1986 Attaché, Embassy of Finland, Bonn
1985 Attaché, Press and Cultural Section, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
1982-1985 Free lance Journalist
1982 Master of Arts (history), University of Tampere

Links:

www.finland.org

www.thisisfinland.fi

twitter.com/FinnEmbassyDC

www.facebook.com/FinnishEmbassyWashingtonDC

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