Finns have had long connection to Oregon

CRESWELL – The Finnish Track & Field team is coming to Creswell, and it is time to reflect on what I think I know of Finland.

My first knowledge came from my mother’s mother, who taught me words in Finnish (Suomi) and Swedish (Svensk), two of the three languages spoken there. Saami (Sámi) is the third. My grandmother also taught me to gather, cook, and enjoy wild greens in the traditional way. 

The Suomi language is used by about 70% of Finland’s population. It is one of the Uralic family of languages, which might be some of the oldest in the world. Spoken Soumi has a pleasing cadence; there are many streaming movies available where one can hear the language with English subtitles.

Finnish people have long had a connection to Oregon, starting about 1804 as administrators, sailors, trappers, and craftsmen with the Russian-American Company engaged in the sea otter fur trade. 

In the late 1800s many Swedish-speaking Finns settled in the Coos Bay area and Finnish speakers settled in the Astoria area. Astoria had the largest Finnish settlement west of the Mississippi River. Astoria settlers were well known for gill-net fishing from small sailboats. 

Coos Bay settlers worked forests, mills, and dairy farms. My great-grandfather brought his Finnish logging skills to the Redwoods in the 1880s. 

Since 1886 in Astoria there have been Finnish fraternal lodges – Kaleva fraternal lodge (Finn) is still active. The Order of Runeberg Lodge (Swede/Finn) functioned from 1921-81. In Coos Bay, the Order of Runeberg Lodge established in 1921 still meets. The name Runeberg is in honor of the poet, teacher, statesman Karl Ludvig Runeberg. Kaleva is a reference to the Finnish epic poem Kalevala, one of the only European creation legends to survive Christianity. 

Almost all agrarian and working-class immigrant Finns could read and write because the Lutheran Church required literacy for confirmation.

Workers with Finnish ancestry like T-Bone Slim, Santeri Nuorteva, and John Viita had a disproportionately strong influence organizing workers for safety and fair wages in the early Oregon timber industry. They were known for their fearless dedication (sisu*) to the union cause, especially within IWW. The worker’s newspaper Toveri (Daily Comrade) was published in Astoria until 1930.

Suomi (Finland), bordering the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, might have been first settled about 9,000 years ago as the glaciers melted, leaving a relatively flat swamp- and lake-covered region where boreal forests dominated the landscape.

The native Finns lived fairly isolated from Europe and Scandinavia, living from hunting, gathering, and slash/burn agriculture until the Great Northern Crusades began in about 1200 – the time when conversion to Christianity by the sword began and eventually domination by the Swedish Crown.

Swedish became the administrative language for hundreds of years although it was the first language of only about 25% of the population. As a result of the Great Northern Wars, Finland became The Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809, a part of the Russian Empire. As a result of the Russian Revolution in 1917 Finland declared independence from Russia. 

There was hope among many working-class Finns for a more democratic and egalitarian state but pushback from the employing and propertied classes – with help from Germany – resulted in a bloody civil war and preservation of the old establishment order. In 1939 Russia attacked Finland but the Finnish people – outnumbered and under-equipped – used their stoic determination and hardiness (sisu*) to fight Russia to a stalemate. In the small Nedervetil parish church where many of my ancestors are buried, there is a large cemetery section with the graves of too many lost fighting in the Winter War and Continuation War.

My father’s Norwegian cousin Axel died defending Finland from Russia not far from Nedervetil. The economy was primarily agrarian and natural resource extractive until the 1950s; since then Finland has excelled in aviation, electronics, precision machinery, design, and more.

In the world of sports, Finland has provided some of the finest winter and summer athletes in the world such as Eero Antero Mäntyranta, Paavo Nurmi, Hannes Kolehmainen and many others. We will have the opportunity to observe sisu in action and help world champions succeed this summer, so fire up the saunas, cook up the mutti* and be helpful.

* Sisu is stoic, fearless dedication and hardiness.

* Mutti is cooked barley flour served like porridge or fried in butter.

Ed Gunderson is a longtime Creswell resident. He wrote this for The Chronicle.



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