Heritage on Display

Back in Portland after several weeks of travel in Washington, California, and Hawaii, I have had a chance to reflect more on the ways in which culture, history, and heritage are negotiated and preserved. The biannual Finnish American Folk Festival in Naselle, Washington first began in 1982 as a rather small-scale affair. A quarter century later, Jens Lund, one of Washington’s premier folklorists, described it as “one of two of the most authentic folk festivals in the state” (Kate Giesse, “Release Your Inner Finn,” Coast Weekend, July 26-30, 2008, p. 12). It is related to the  yearly FinnFest USA, also first organized in 1982, both of which have grown tremendously since their early years and which enjoy strong support from third-generation Finnish Americans eager to (re-)connect with their ethnic roots, interested locals, and academics in both Finland and the U.S. The festival in Naselle included, among other things, a kantele performance by Wilho Saari, great-great-grandson of famous 19th century kantele player Kreeta Haapasalo, fascinating photographs from the Appelo Archive Center, a genealogy workshop, a Sami Heritage Room, a large model Viking ship in the courtyard, a tori (market) selling lots of interesting merchandise from Finland and the United States, and even a small log cabin attached to the back of a pickup truck driven around the country by Frank Eld, researcher, author, and lecturer on Finnish log construction. The Finnish-American Historical Society of the West, first organized in 1962, has also turned its attention to preserving The Pioneer Finnish Home and the related emigrant craftsmanship and stories. It works closely with the Oregon Historical Society, which has compiled an emigrant archives that includes a number of Finnish publications and old photographs. Probably the most important aspect of such emigrant/ethnic heritage displays is the way in which they preserve a distinctive story while still making that story accessible and relevant to a broader audience.

What is the difference between history and heritage? Whereas history is the literary narrative of a chronology of events, of change over time, heritage is an inheritance, a legacy passed on to successive generations or, more precisely, what successive generations choose to value from the past as a marker of identity. David Lowenthal, in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge University Press, 1998), notes that heritage can often constitute and define the most positive aspects of culture, while at the same time being a body of historical text subject to various interpretations and easily twisted into myth. The recent obsession with tradition and inheritance can either lead to cultural unity and identity or serve as a reaction against perceived racial, religious, or economic oppression. While on vacation in Hawaii, I saw another example of the positive side of heritage. The story of ‘Ulalena at the Maui Theater in Lahaina is a stage production that begins with the mythical creation of the islands, encapsulates “thousands of years” of Polynesian culture, and “rolls through successive waves of voyagers who have found their way to these shores.” Through song and dance, the play focuses on the multicultural aspects of Hawaii’s history rather than on the more divisive sides of colonialism and disenfranchisement. Is this just a feel-good gesture for the tourists? Perhaps. By focusing on the most positive aspects of culture, are we naively white-washing and side-stepping very real differences and grievances? Finnish culture, too, is rife with class and political differences. How might the story of Finnish culture be performed on stage? The heritage festival in Naselle certainly demonstrated how it, or at least Finnish American culture, can be packaged and marketed for popular consumption.

Maybe an anecdotal story is the best way to conclude this post. While in Hawaii, my nephew saw a local using a boogie board like a skim board (the Hawaiians invented board surfing). He tried it and did pretty well; the Hawaiian told my brother that the kid has real talent. My brother jokingly responded, “not bad for a haole, eh?” (a native term, often pejorative, for a white person). To which the Hawaiian shook his head and said, “none of that matters, it’s all about what’s in here,” pointing to his heart. Heritage, at its best, is inclusive. It cannot replace the injustices of the past (those stories need to be told too), but it can help unite us rather than divide us. Heritage celebrations offer an exciting way to connect with like-minded people who want to prop up and celebrate a very particular story in an increasingly globalized world. It is worth studying in more detail both the cultural and economic aspects of these new transnational connections.