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Hancock marks Finnish Independence Day

A procession of people walks through downtown Hancock to mark Finnish Independence Day in the Copper Country on Sunday evening. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)

HANCOCK — About 30 people gathered in downtown Hancock to mark Finnish Independence Day in the Copper Country on Sunday evening.

“Well, we didn’t want to break a record,” Jim Kurtti said. “We’ve been doing it every year since 1918.”

Kurtti is the director of the Finnish American Heritage Center, and the Honorary Consul to Finland.

“In 1918, they had a celebration at Electric Park,” Kurtti told the group after the short walk from Hancock City Hall to the heritage center, past Quincy Green.

“And at that celebration the leadership was from Suomi College’s administration,” he said.

Normally, they celebrate with music and food, but 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a different approach.

University students in Finland have marked the day since 1951 with a torch cavalcade, or procession, usually to the graves of war veterans for the placing of wreaths. This year’s event in Hancock was the first of it’s kind in the Upper Peninsula, meant to emulate those events.

Kurtti explained that the Finnish observance of their independence is more of a somber affair than the American holiday, in large part because immediately following their independence from Russia, a bloody civil war broke out.

39,000 people died in the conflict, less than four months long. More than 12,000 of them died in concentration camps.

“In other words, the rhetoric got so bad, the discourse in the community, the ability to compromise at all left Finland,” Kurtti said. “And instead of having discussion, they were talking to each other with guns and swords and caused a terrible, bitter civil war.”

It was some time after the civil war before there was agreement on what date independence was won, so celebrations weren’t planned as a community.

“So, in a way, we were celebrating Finnish Independence Day, in a way, almost more here than they were there at that time,” Kurtti said.

Many Finnish immigrants came to the Copper Country during the mining boom to look for work.

“Michigan has more Finns than any other state in the union,” Kurtti said.

He said in the Copper Country, about 33% of the population claims Finnish ancestry.

“It’s just part of our daily life to kind of have these expressions of Finnish identity despite the fact we’ve been here for three, four, five generations,” Kurtti said.

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