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This year’s FinnFest takes place July 24-28 at the DECC in Duluth, and you don’t have to be Finnish to attend. | FINNFEST USA
Along the Shore

FinnFest 2024: Today’s Finland, in Duluth

Did you know that Finnair operated a direct flight from Helsinki to Duluth in the 1980s? This could seem like useless trivia today, until you take into account that airplanes full of Finns are once again headed to Minnesota this July—to attend FinnFest in Duluth. So what is FinnFest?

Minnesota’s Arrowhead region has had a distinct Finnish flair since the first Finnish immigrants started streaming into the region in the 1880s, often to work in the Iron Range mines. Today, these connections are celebrated and cultivated by FinnFest USA, a non-profit organization that has hosted the annual FinnFest festival since 1982. FinnFest brings together people of all backgrounds, united by their interest in Finnish culture and Finnish America, to attend performances and presentations on modern Finnish art, music, architecture, and sport, as well as seminars on family genealogy and Finnish heritage in North America, and keynote speeches on Finland’s role as peacemaker in today’s world. This year’s FinnFest takes place July 24-28 at the DECC in Duluth, and you don’t have to be Finnish to attend.

FinnFest’s mission is “to be North America’s premier experience of Nordic culture and learning.” Ira Salmela, executive director of FinnFest 2024, sees the festival’s objective as teaching visitors about alternative ways of life. “People are really hungry to learn about today’s Finland and today’s Nordics,” says Salmela. “Their happiness, their education system, their life/work balance. Over here it’s called work/life balance, but there it’s life/work balance. People want to learn about all these things.” Salmela points out that in Finland and the Nordics, current world events are viewed differently than in the U.S. Why are Finns talking about peace when everybody else is talking about war? How is Finland going to be carbon neutral by 2035? These are some of the questions that will be answered at this summer’s FinnFest.

Salmela attended her first FinnFest in 2008 as its marketing and PR director, as well as a volunteer member of the festival’s music committee. That FinnFest was also held in Duluth, and had the highest FinnFest attendance of all time, at over 10,000 people. In other years, FinnFest has been held in places ranging from Detroit to Tucson, and Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, to Fitchburg, Mass.—all enclaves of the large Finnish immigrant diaspora (some 400,000 Finns came to live in the U.S. and Canada between 1880 and 1930).

FinnFest has now stopped roaming the continent for a while, committing instead to a five-year stay in Duluth (last year’s festival was also held at the DECC).

FinnFest’s mission is “to be North America’s premier experience of Nordic culture and learning.” | FINNFEST USA

What can people expect at this year’s FinnFest? The festival encompasses diverse themes such as foreign affairs, art and design, the environment, health and wellness, music, architecture, and sustainability. “We’re looking to have a place where people can enjoy their time through entertainment and culture, but at the same time come together to network and learn and share knowledge,” explains Salmela.

One FinnFest veteran is poet James (Jim) Johnson, who twice served as Duluth’s Poet Laureate. Born in Cloquet, Johnson grew up in a Finnish-American family, and explores the Finnish immigrant experience in much of his poetry. Johnson has attended many FinnFests, including in Delaware, Marquette and Hancock in Michigan, and in Minneapolis. His readings at the 2008 and 2023 Duluth FinnFests are among his favorites, since he called the city home for decades as an English teacher in Duluth public schools, and a professor of writing at College of St. Scholastica.

“Finland is the most literate country in the world, and is known for its national epic poem The Kalevala, which was adapted from the oral tradition,” Johnson notes. “As Finnish immigrants brought with them to America the love of reading, it is fitting for FinnFest to feature literature. It is important to promote Finnish and Finnish-American literature as an essential part of our culture,” Johnson shares.

Johnson will be teaching a session for beginning and advanced writers interested in writing about personal or family history, as well as moderating a family history seminar. He will also be reading his poetry in a group of Finnish-American writers under the theme of “Familiar Lands, Foreign Gates.” Johnson sees writing about the immigrant experience as very relevant in today’s society: “America is a nation of immigrants, and the issue of immigration is ongoing. We know we need to know our history/culture, not only to better understand ourselves, but also understand the needs of others. So much divisiveness has resulted from the lack of understanding.”

Johnson has written 11 books to date, five of which feature the Finnish/American experience, and is looking to publish a new collection of selected poems on the topic as well.

FinnFest has now stopped roaming the continent for a while, committing instead to a five-year stay in Duluth. | SUBMITTED

Many of FinnFest’s speakers will be coming from Finland itself, including festival keynote speaker Pekka Haavisto, a long-time member of the Finnish Parliament who recently served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs when Finland joined NATO in 2023. As a Green Party leader, Haavisto has also served as the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of International Development. Haavisto will speak about Finland’s role in peace negotiations around the world.

Other Finnish headliners include Jarno Limnell (Member of Parliament in Finland, Doctor of Military Science, and member of the expert network in the World Economic Forum) and Jarmo Sareva (Consul General of Finland in New York City), who will both participate in the “Finland and Russia” panel, discussing the military and cybersecurity situation today.

Salmela said that a survey from last year’s FinnFest revealed that attendees are very interested in modern-day Finland: “We looked at the comments, and people want programming about today’s Finland. They want to hear about how and why Finland stands out in the world. So we’re bringing speakers who can really speak to that. About happiness, education, and other things that Finland excels at.”

Salmela is also proud to be introducing the sport of floorball to FinnFest attendees. With the DECC offering ample arena space, Salmela is bringing the North American Floorball League’s season finale tournament to Duluth to display the sport at its highest level. “Floorball is the second-most popular sport in Finland (after soccer),” Salmela explains. She sees the sport gaining popularity in America too (particularly in Minnesota): “At FinnFest, the Minnesota Growlers team will have 14 players from Finland, where floorball is a professional sport.”

Salmela describes floorball as “unbelievably great cardio, at any age.” She notes that in Finland, businesses rent an hour of gym time each week for their employees to play floorball and build camaraderie. “Floorball is an affordable sport than anybody can play. You don’t have to skate,” adds Salmela.

Come check out floorball, the “Familiar Lands, Foreign Gates” literary discussions, or the keynote speakers. Or take a Finnish sauna on site at the Duluth harbor. Ticket options range from a five-day festival pass to one day tickets. There are reduced ticket prices for students and children. Visit for ticket information and a complete programming schedule

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