Students in field

Never Forgotten: Finland’s Independence Day celebrated each year since 1917

December 6, 2017
Ralph Jalkanen

Suomi College President Ralph J. Jalkanen speaks to the first ever FinnFest crowd celebrating Finland’s bicentennial on Finlandia’s campus in 1976.

As Finland celebrates its centennial of independence today, there have been special events taking place around the country honoring this milestone, in all corners of the United States where there are Finnish-settled communities.

A century ago, there weren’t as many celebrations honoring Finland’s independence taking place in the United States – except in Hancock at Suomi College, which was founded by Finnish immigrants 21 years earlier.

In fact, Suomi (now Finlandia University) is likely the only place in the world outside of Finland that has recognized and honored Finland’s Independence Day each year since Finland became independent in 1917.

Some years, the celebration was held in conjunction with other local organizations, like the 1919 event that took place at Electric Park, where Suomi’s John Wargelin was among the keynote speakers. For the past few decades, though, the annual celebration has taken place at the Finnish American Heritage Center (FAHC) on the university’s campus, and featured an eclectic mix of artistic performances, including music, dance, theater and readings.

Even before the FAHC opened in 1990, the campus was abuzz each year in preparation for this annual celebration, and that activity drew attention from well outside the region. Take, for example, this excerpt from a Detroit Free Press article from December 1984:

Things Finnish are booming here at Suomi College. Planning is proceeding apace for the third annual national FinnFest in July, which is expected to attract visitors from the United States and abroad. And tonight, the community will celebrate the anniversary of Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917. All of that is as it should be, according to Dale Chapman, Suomi’s vice-president for administration. “This area is the Ellis Island for Finns,” he said. “This is like no place else in the United States for Finns.”

The university’s celebrations have established outreach well beyond Michigan’s state borders, too. As examples, for the 2005 celebration, Finlandia Foundation National’s then-president John Laine traveled to Hancock to deliver the keynote address, while in 2011 Anneli Halonen of the Embassy of Finland in Washington, D.C. was the featured speaker.

Finland Independence Day 2017

President Philip Johnson and his wife René Johnson at the Finnish American Heritage Center today celebrating Finland’s 100th Independence Day.

Whether it’s a scene from a Melvin Kangas-directed play, or a dance demonstration by the Kivajat Youth Folk Dancers, one thing has remained consistent throughout the 100 years of celebrating Finland’s independence at Suomi College/Finlandia University – it’s always about the community. Hancock is known for its distinct “Finnishness,” and the university is the epicenter of those expressions of culture.

This year, the staff at the Finnish American Heritage Center raised the bar, so to speak, and developed a program that is fitting for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration. On Saturday, December 2, 2017, Finns and Finnophiles from across the Copper Country gathered at the Rozsa Center in Houghton for the 100th celebration of Finland’s independence. Today students and community members again gathered, this time at the Heritage Center, to commemorate this event.

Regardless of venue, one thing remains true for each of the 100 Finnish Independence Day celebrations Suomi College and Finlandia University have conducted — The university has never forgotten where it came from, or what it took to get there.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 Donor Edition of the Bridge magazine. It has been slightly edited to match with the publication date. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be releasing digital copies of all stories from that publication. 

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