May's International Potluck presenters say there are more Finns around the Valley than you think!
While people of Finnish descent might not be the first Nordic culture you think of when you think of the people who settled the Red River Valley and the broader Upper Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those in the know assure us there are more Finns than we realize.
The people of Finland were the focus of May’s International Potluck event that was hosted at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota headquarters on May 22. And the attendees were treated to all things Finnish, including food, arts and music.
The evening’s program was coordinated by IP organizing committee member Sky Purdin, who coincidentally is half Finnish and spent her primary education years in Finland, and the Red River Finns, a local heritage group founded in 1985 to help preserve the Finnish culture in this region.
Purdin shared with the crowd three rugs that she has woven, thanks to skills that she learned as a youngster from her grandmother, and then more recently in adulthood through a Finnish weaving instructor who calls South Dakota home.
Purdin said that while she had some basic skills from her earlier education in weaving, she recently applied for and received a grant through the North Dakota Council on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship so that she could study rug weaving and preserve the skills for future generations.
Purdin found her mentor, master weaver Annikki Marttila, who lives in South Dakota, through the Red River Finns, whose involvement in the apprenticeship program made the match possible. She added that while grant recipients must be North Dakota residents, their teachers do not have to be. She encouraged others who are interested in preserving the cultural arts of their own heritages to seek out the program.
“Knowing (my personal) history, I wanted to make sure that since my grandmother taught me how to weave, I wanted to continue to make sure I had enough skills to teach the next generation,” Purdin said. “So that’s why I applied for this grant, and applied to be Anniki’s apprentice.”
Purdin also informed the crowd that while the Finns cannot be attributed with founding the art of rug weaving, it’s their particular designs for which they are known.
“The reason the rugs are part of Finnish culture is not that it is originally from Finland, but that in Finland we don’t necessarily have carpets, we just use the rugs. And the rugs are the easiest way, the rag rugs are the easiest way to weave something that can cover the floors to keep it warm, and you can use anything,” she said. “You can use any fabrics to make it. So a lot of them are reusing old clothes or sheets or curtains. And so the thing that’s Finnish is … the design. Usually they have a bright stripe and then some really big muted blocks of some other color.”
Purdin added that the people of Finland have a great reverence for handcrafts, and that even to this day, elementary children spend part of their school day working on such arts. So, she said, weaving is very common place there.
Marttila, Purdin’s mentor, was also born and grew up in Finland, where she was an elementary school teacher. As a young woman, she travelled to the United States with her father who came here to meet some of his many cousins. He brought her along because she could speak some English, and while she was here, she said she met her future husband.
“I started weaving when I was little,” she said. “My grandmother and my mother helped me get started.”
She reiterated Purdin’s message that handcrafts are a very important part of the Finnish culture yet today.
Also at the program that night, Ellen Liddle of the Red River Finns spoke about their cultural heritage group, and the migration patterns of Finns who ended up settling the Upper Midwest.
Liddle said her group organized in 1985 to share their heritage at the Hjemkomst Center’s annual Scandinavian festival.
“There are more people in the United States with Finnish blood than you might imagine,” Liddle said. “It has been said that there were people who were Finnish on the Mayflower And we know for sure that in 1624, there were quite a few Finns in the Swedish colony in Delaware. Finland was unders Swedish rule at that time.”
Liddle said that the Finns had an agricultural background in their home country, and many Finns came to America in the 1800s because there just wasn’t enough land back home to continue to sustain the growing families. So many headed to the United States, with many of the men ending up in the logging and mining industries across the Upper Midwest, and the women ending up working as maids.
Liddle’s own grandmother came here and ended up working as a maid at the Bismarck Hotel in Bismarck, N.D.
June’s International Potluck will be held Thursday, June 22, on World Refugee Day at the main shelter at Oak Grove Park in Fargo. The event will run from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The event will focus on the international refugee crisis, especially focusing on the recent developments in Central and South America. In addition to the food, there will be speakers, dancers and live music.