On the Road

Driving north from the San Francisco Bay Area through the northernmost part of California, near the city of Yreka, we see a sign announcing the “State of Jefferson” on the roof of a barn. Huh? Fortunately, the Colbert Report (where I seem to get much of my news these days) explained it for me. A venture capitalist from Silicon Valley has managed to get a proposal added to the 2016 ballot to split California into six separate states, citing improved representation, governance, and competition between industries. There have been more than 220 proposals to divide California into multiple states in the last 150+ years, including at least 27 serious proposals. The State of Jefferson would include parts of northern California and southern Oregon. The name is inspired by President Thomas Jefferson, who sent the Lewis and Clark expedition into the Pacific Northwest in 1803 in the hopes of establishing an independent nation in the western portion of North America. The name is related to a much larger and long-standing independence movement to form the nation of “Cascadia,” which would include Oregon, Washington, parts of northern California, and British Columbia. The main reasons for the movement include environmentalism, bioregionalism, increased regional integration, and a national government that seems far away and unresponsive to local needs. Also inspired by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the movement has been around since the early 19th century but seen renewed discussion in recent years. While I have yet to try Portland’s Secession Cascadian Dark Ale, a trip to Powell’s Books (one of the best bookstores in the world, hands down) has renewed my interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the distinctive regional identity that can be found in the Pacific Northwest.

Inspired by ideas of discovering local heritage, we headed out along the Columbia River towards the Pacific Ocean and the Finnish American Heritage Days Folk Festival in Naselle, Washington. Located three hours from Seattle and two and a half hours from Portland, Naselle and the nearby Grays River area have strong Finnish connections dating back to the late 19th century. Just a half hour drive north of Astoria, Oregon, the area is one of the only parts of the country outside the upper Midwest (and the only area west of the Mississippi River) that has retained such a strong Finnish identity for so long. A walk down the hallway of the high school where the festival was held showed decades of class photos right up to the present with names like Saari and Wirkkala. In contrast, the Finnish community in Berkeley, California had a great influence on the city in the middle parts of the 20th century. But it proved to be a moment in time. Whereas it was still possible in the 1940s and 1950s to frequent a number of Finnish-owned businesses and only speak Finnish, and even though the co-operative movement spearheaded by Finnish immigrants forever left its mark on the identity of the city, the presence of Finns is not so visible today other than at the Finnish Hall on Chestnut St. or the Finnish Studies Program at UC Berkeley. But then California’s story in general has been one of growing too fast, with many fledgling traditions quickly being stamped out or overwhelmed by successive groups moving in. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Diversity can be healthy, and the San Francisco Bay Area is truly a unique place (could the hippie movement have happened anywhere else?), one that people from all over the world continue to seek out. Oregon and Washington, however, seem to have retained more of a cohesive narrative stemming from Lewis and Clark, encompassing various regional independence movements, and kept alive through local heritage festivals.

When I think back on Finnfest 1986 (and getting humiliated on the track in a fun run with Lasse Viren) and Suomi Seura activities in Hämeenlinna, Finland in 1988 and in Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1990, I realize how much has changed in the way heritage and ethnic identity are exhibited and negotiated. Even as late as the early 1990s, Finland’s Los Angeles Consulate General said to a friend of mine (after an independence day celebration at the Berkeley Finnish Hall) that she hoped many of the Finnish Americans in attendance never returned to Finland because the Finland they remembered and celebrated no longer existed. Berkeley’s Finnish community was indeed a community divided throughout much of the 20th century, with members of the Finnish white hall not associating with members of the red hall. When my dad one time tried to grow a beard and it came in red, his mother would not let him into the house until he shaved his “Russian” beard. But many of the old enmities that Finns brought over from Finland dividing church Finns from socialist Finns have died out with successive generations. Better travel possibilities and especially the Internet have made it so that Finnish Americans and Finns can meet more easily and trade ideas and stories. I recently wrote an article about how the relief efforts in the years around World War II challenged the long-standing divides between different Finnish emigrant groups and facilitated acculturation efforts and another article about how travel and tourism in the 20th century kept contacts alive between Finnish Americans and Finnish Canadians and people in Finland. But in the latter case it was always privileged groups that could make such trips. The festival in Naselle reminded me just how easy it is now to form such transnational connections, with relief efforts replaced by Internet sales and package tours designed specifically for first-generation Finnish Americans and Finnish Canadians replaced by a vast array of new personal connections.