Friday, May 3, 2013

Finns in Michigan Goes to Delta County

I just came back from giving a talk about the book Finns in Michigan to folks at the Delta County Historical Society. The members of the historical society were nice enough to invite me to their annual dinner meeting, and I presented to a group of about 70 or so on the unique history of the Finns in Michigan. The people asked great questions during the presentation, the dinner was amazing, and the location was incredible. The talk was held at Gladstone's famous Terrance Bay Inn right on Lake Michigan.

I'm always amazed at the "legs" Finns in Michigan has, it just keeps going--through no work of my own, admittedly.

Delta County is a great place to talk about the Finns in Michigan, primarily for one reason--Rock or Maple Ridge Township. The Rock Hall, owned at one time by Finns associated with the Industrial Workers of the World or "Wobblies," is one of the best examples of a rural social hall, and a physical link with the incredible history of organizational activity in the Finnish immigrant population. In its heyday Rock, and the Maple Ridge area, was alive with the sound of working-class activism and politics, and the Maple Ridge Workers Hall (as it was known) and the community's co-op were seats of great community pride and ideology in action.

I also had the chance to talk about oral history work I did with Escanaba resident Vienna Laine. Vienna is a treasure in the Finnish American community, and had donated a wealth of materials on Finnish American legend Viola Turpeinen to the Finnish American Historical Archive and Museum. Vienna has an incredible mind and shared great memories of growing up in area logging camps, recalled stories she had heard about Michigan and Florida Finns, and had a number of museum pieces that added to the cultural history of Finns and their deep connection to music, specifically polka or accordion music.

It was truly a pleasure to talk with the folks of the Delta County Historical Society.

New Chapter in Finnish in the United States Book

I've been given the chance to write a chapter in the book that is being calling the definitive history of Finns in North America. The title of the book, Finns in the United States: A History of Settlement, Dissent, and Integration, is being edited by Dr. Auvo Kostiainen, who lives and works in Turku, Finland.

I'm truly honored to be a part of this publication as I've been collaborating with some of the names I've grown up reading in the study of Finnish American history. In addition to Auvo, Dr. Arnold Alanen, Dr. Jon Saari, Dr. Peter Kivisto, and a host of others are contributing to the book.

My chapter in the book was a bit of a surprise for me to write, however. When initially approached I thought I was going to be writing something about labor history or perhaps leftist history, but I was asked to write the chapter on religion. This was a unique challenge for me, and although I wrote about religious groups in Finns in Michigan, it was not a topic that I was well-versed in from an academic or scholarly viewpoint.

So, in talking with Auvo, and in thinking about what I might contribute to the scholarship on the religion of the Finns in the United States, I decided that I wanted to bring a historical materialist perspective to the writing on Finnish religion in America. This is a new perspective, and the book is about bringing new perspectives to the study of Finns in the US.

It is also a perspective that will likely be disliked by some as I approach religion not through religious doctrine or by an ecclesiastical foundation; instead I look at religion through politics, economics, and power relations. In thinking about what I could contribute to the discussion of Finns' religious life in America, I noticed that there was not much critical thought regarding this history. With the exception of Douglas Ollila's work, much of the religious history of Finns was celebratory, a who's who of Finnish pastors, or essentially linked with religious scripture.

I chose to write a secular history.

And, it is a secular history that is perhaps what has been missing from the discussion of Finns and religion in the United States. This perspective is also perhaps one with the least preference to the great number of denominations that exist in Finnish North American religious life. Without a doubt, if someone affiliated with the Suomi Synod (now the ELCA) would have wrote this history, it would have likely been biased toward that organization. The same is true for other denominations such as those affiliated the Apostolic, Laestadian, or National (Missouri Synod) churches. Having someone who is essentially a third party, me, write the book shifts bias from institutional bodies to a general look at how religion functioned on the whole for immigrants and their institutions in America.

It is not a conventional history of religion to say the least, but it is one that might supplement the other quite good histories of other groups that have undertaken the very complex chronicling of Finnish American religious life.