Students in field

Heritage Center to launch Finnish American folk school

January 6, 2017

“Although our region maintains a strong ethnic pride in its Finnish roots, the loss of language and traditional arts and crafts has left many among our residents very little onto which they can attach their ethnic identity.”

So says Finnish American Heritage Center Director Jim Kurtti, and he’s doing something about it. He and his staff at Finlandia University’s Finnish American Heritage Center are spearheading an effort to establish a Finnish American Folk School in the Copper Country.

Operating under the title “The Milking Stool: Cultural Sustainability, a Three-Legged Approach,” the program, which gets under way in 2017, is designed to counteract the decline in authentic ethnic activity in the region, particularly in the area of folk arts and culture. Centered on the region’s three existing Finnish-American celebrations– January’s Heikinpäivä festival, the Juhannus (Midsummer) events in June, and the recently developed Festival Ruska each fall — the folk school will connect experts in Finnish traditional folk arts, both from Finland and from the Upper Midwest, with people interested in learning and sustaining traditions, eventually becoming the next generation of tradition bearers in the region.

The most unique aspect of the first year of the folk school occurs in September, when organizers will bring an expert from Finland to teach the skills of crafting a Finnish-style wooden boat; this class will take place at Jeffers High School in Painesdale, incorporating the regular students of that district’s vocational program.

“The newly built Jeffers High School Vocational Center is known for its excellent woodshop,” said Kurtti. “They annually build small buildings, including Finnish saunas, many of which are donated to non-profit organizations for fundraising.

“More than 80 percent of the students (at Jeffers) claim Finnish ancestry, and they’re every interested in partnering with the Finnish American Folk School on projects which include woodworking.”

Along with boat making, the first year of programming is slated to include the re-introduction of an ancient Finnish musical instrument – the virsikannel (psalmodikon) to the region by enlisting the services of two members of a psalmodikon group based in Minnesota. These folks are scheduled to be part of the enrichment programming at Heikinpäivä 2017 in late January in Hancock, offering classes in both building the one-stringed instrument and playing it. The pair will also play the instruments themselves as featured performers at the Heikinpäivä Hymn Sing.

In June, the Finnish-American brass band Amerikan Poijat, professional musicians based in Minnesota, will headline a series of events taking place during Juhannus ’17, a Midsummer celebration scheduled to occur in four Copper Country communities. Along with providing performances of Finnish-American and Finnish folk tunes in the unique style of brass bands, Paul Niemistö, who is the founder and leader of the group, will provide insights into Finnish-American music traditions, a field he researched extensively during his career as a music professor.

It’s hoped that this first year of programming – which will surely include additional presenters yet to be determined – will set the tone for a folk school that will last into perpetuity.

“Our community is disposed to and interested in Finnish programming,” Kurtti said, “but we simply need to bring new presenters and more importantly, develop a respectable cadre of local ‘new’ tradition bearers. Our cultural heritage must periodically refresh and reinvigorate itself, in particular by infusing new energy from Finland.”

For further information about the Finnish American Folk School, contact Kurtti at james.kurtti@finlandia.edu. The Finnish American Folk School is made possible in part by a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation.

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