Diversity in California is apparent in many ways - we enjoy cuisines from Afghanistan to Thailand, and all of us, no matter where we are from, join international celebrations from Cinco de Mayo (Mexico) to Tet Festivals (Vietnam). One part of California’s diverse ethnic landscape is celebrating an important anniversary this year, and it is a group that most Californians don’t know exists – the Finnish-American community.
Finns and Finnish-Americans are very proud of their heritage, and for good reason. Finland, long a province of neighbors Sweden and Russia, declared independence towards the end of World War I. After the war, Finland, like many European countries, received a loan from the United States government to rebuild. Unlike other countries, Finland made all payments, even during the Great Depression, earning a reputation as the country that repays its debts. Later, Finland gained the respect of the world when it held the might of the Soviet Union military at bay during the Winter War of 1939. During the Cold War, Finland was the only country to border the Soviet Union yet remain a vibrant democracy.
Finland is about the same size as California, but has a population of only 5.5 million, a bit less than San Diego and Orange Counties combined. In spite of its small size, Finland is an international leader in many fields. Its musicians and composers are considered to be innovative and influence genres, from classical composer Jean Sibelius to the heavy metal cello band Apocalyptica. Finland’s educational system is consistently ranked the best in the world.
Finland serves as the 2017-19 Chair of the Arctic Council, and Finland’s government is dedicated to protecting the environment and reversing global warming. Finland has provided a neutral location for many international diplomatic negotiations. Finns don’t shy away from tough fights – Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari was a key player in bringing peace between the government of Indonesia and rebels in its Aceh province.
Finnish athletes have won international recognition from Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn” of the 1920 Olympics, to Minnesota Wild hockey player Mikael Granlund. Finnish design and quality make companies such as Marimekko, Fiskars and Suunto household names throughout the world. Know anyone who plays Angry Birds or Clash of Clans? Both games were developed by Finnish companies. Finnish petroleum company Neste Oil is one of the few overseas refiners to produce gasoline meeting California’s stringent clean air standards, and Neste is a leader in developing and supplying biodiesel and biofuels.
Finland and those of Finnish descent have had a large and positive impact on the United States and California. The colony of New Sweden, located along the Delaware River, was settled in part by people from the then-Swedish province of Finland. John Morton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was of Finnish descent, and Finnish-Americans had prominent roles in the union and labor movements of the early 1900s.
Finnish-Americans are decorated members of the armed forces and have held important government posts. U.S. Special Forces legend Larry Thorne was Finnish-American – 10th Special Forces headquarters, Thorne Hall, is named after him. Astronaut Timothy Kopra is Finnish-American, as is IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Interested in politics? Finnish-Americans run the spectrum, from Gus Hall, Chairman of the American Communist Party, to William A. Niskanen, a key economic advisor to President Ronald Reagan and chairman of the Cato Institute for 30 years. Finnish-Americans are among the leading creative voices in the country, and include Oscar winners Matt Damon and Jessica Lange, dancer Taina Elg, author Jean M. Auel, and cutting-edge architect Eero Saarinen.
No one knows when Finns first came to California, but their positive presence has been felt for decades. Esa-Pekka Salonen helped propel the Los Angeles Philharmonic to international prominence. Linus Torvalds, developer of the Linux operating system; Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo; internationally renowned cancer researcher Dr. Erkki Ruoslahti; champion skateboarder and photographer Arto Saari, Hall of Fame hockey player Teemu Selänne; award-winning actor and Oscar winner Christine Lahti, and 2014’s Funniest Man in the World, Ismo Leikola, are just a few of the innovative Finnish-American leaders who make California their home.
Throughout 2017, the Finnish-American community is celebrating Finland’s 100th birthday, with concerts, performances and festivals held across the country. A sauna (one of the few Finnish words to make it into English) is touring the country, introducing Americans to an important cultural part of Finnish life. Independence Day for Finland is December 6, and throughout the United States there will be celebrations large and small. So lift a glass of Finnish vodka, and salute the country that shares so many values with California – kippis!
Text: Kathrin S. Mautino, Honorary Consul of Finland in San Diego