There are only 312,000 people who call the Upper Peninsula of Michigan home – which is less than 5 percent of the state’s total population – but nearly one of every three of these people has some Finnish ancestry. In fact, the westernmost five counties of Upper Michigan are the only counties anywhere in the U.S. where Finns are the majority ethnic group.
Here in Hancock – a place the early Finns called, “Ameriikan Lappi” – the Honorary Consul office is located on the campus of Finlandia University in the Finnish American Heritage Center. We don’t have to put on a Finnish face for special events, because we’re among the very few in the U.S. who work full-time in Finnish American activities. Finlandia University’s connections to Finland include student exchange programs, visiting presenters, and countless guests, researchers, performers and VIPs who are drawn to the deep Finnish history of our region.
The consular customers’ needs are varied, ranging from the routine of assistance with visas, tourist information or exchange student paperwork, to requests as unique as translation assistance with a tattoo or a tombstone inscription. The best part of this position is you never know who is going to come through the door – or what.
The Honorary Consul office is located inside the Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University, formerly Suomi Opisto – the only existing school of higher learning founded by Finns. The Heritage Center is home to the Finnish American Historical Archive, and the monthly newspaper The Finnish American Reporter. Since in my day job I am director of the Heritage Center, and editor of the Reporter, my connections to Finnish-American and Finnish culture are wide ranging, especially in recent years.
Some 8,000 Finns came to the Copper Country in June 2013 when we hosted FinnFest USA, and since that time this area has truly become the “discovered country.” With the Reporter being one of only a few remaining Finnish-American newspapers, and the Heritage Center housing the only archive that’s actively collecting Finnish-American materials, it’s no wonder why folks by the hundreds flock to this area each year to get their Finnishness fix.
It’s not just casual tourists who are coming to see us, either. In recent years, we’ve hosted leaders from many Finnish businesses, organizations and governmental agencies. Every time someone from “across the pond” sees the Copper Country for the first time, the response is always the same: “It looks just like Finland.”
Geography isn’t the only thing we have in common with Finland. Our people – many of whom are the descendants of immigrants – have that same work ethic, honesty and sense of pride that their immigrant ancestors brought with them when they first came here more than 150 years ago. Slowly but steadily, leaders are noticing that this area is a prime location for businesses. For example, a Finnish furniture designer is looking to have Hancock be the site of a production facility for her chairs, a move that came about during a Copper Country visit last autumn.
Since our area celebrates its Finnishness annually with cultural festivals such as Heikinpäivä, Juhannus and Festival Ruska, we are constantly reminded of our roots and present-day connections to Finland.
Text: Honorary Consul Jim Kurtti