Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Dan Reed
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

The struggle of the 'Melting Pot'

Guest Columnist

 

March 29, 2018



I remember in my early school years having teachers proclaim that America is an example of a successful melting pot. They said we are a nation of immigrants, some here only a few decades, some having roots back to Colonial days. In defense of these teachers they also covered the American Natives who brought many strengths to the American experience. They spoke of folklore that the Natives saved the Pilgrims from starvation. Yet in that tale they spoke of President Polk and his proclamation that it is the American “Manifest Destiny” to conquer the new world from ocean to ocean and bring civilization finally to the continent. We as little kids soaked it up like a sponge.

Yet, my family was mostly made up of Finnish immigrants, proud of their heritage. I saw the Swedes and Poles, for example, proud of their heritage. We were all good Americans and sent our young men off to war and waved the flag.

Melting in the melting pot was not easy. There was an undercurrent of racism during this process. With a foreign language as their primary language growing up, many of these immigrants struggled with learning the English language. A thick accent and a struggle with basic English skills was met with ridicule by fluent English speaking Americans. My Grandmothers spoke of going to school during the early 1900’s which had two requirements – all students must wear store bought shoes and only English was spoken in the classroom. Their education, six years required at the time, was a struggle right from the start.

As late as the 1920’s my Mother spoke only Finnish when she entered school and needed classmate Toivo Suoja to be her interpreter while she learned English. She went on to be, I think, the first of her cousins to get a high school education. Shorthand, typing helped her get good jobs during her working career and she was active on local boards and community functions while raising six children on a Kalevala farm.

Both my parents had a Finnish accent while they spoke fluent English. Yet when there was a serious issue to discuss they would slip into Finnish to think the problem through. That was the world of my childhood. Finnish was spoken daily where ever you went in our Kalevala-Automba rural community and has forever touched my life with a Finnish brogue even yet. Pronouncing most Finnish names and phrases came easy to me. A trip to Finland for a few weeks, and I have many Finnish words and phrases bubbling out of my subconscious.

Yet, whether you were a Polish or a Finnish immigrant, English speaking Americans were not kind to the name you were given at birth. My Great-grandfather came with the name Jon Jarvenpaa (each “a” had two dots over them and had the “a” sound in the sheep’s ba-a-a and the “J” was pronounced like a “y”) when he immigrated from Lohtaja, Finland in 1886. There was no way an English speaking person was going to pronounce his name correctly. In time he adapted to fate and wrote his name Jarvapa, sometimes Javapa. His father-in-law changed his name from Erkki Jokimaki to Erik Yoki.

Some hung on to their Finnish and Polish names the best they could. But as I said earlier, foreign sounding names faced ridicule. Finnish Kalle became Charlie, Toivo (which means hope in Finn) prompted families to call children by their other Christian-given name. WWI casualty Toivo Alexander Maunula from Automba and then Kettle River became Alex. Aino (a Finnish spirit of the woods in folklore and a heroine in the “Kalevala”) became Aina or Ina. The name Aino is pronounced in Finn with “ai” as the English “I” and “o” is pronounced close to the “u” in the English word “put.”

This came front and center to me in this new documentary on the 1918 Fire. One of the interview sources, unknown to me, pronounced Aina Jokimaki’s name mistakenly Aino. The family was rightfully disappointed. For those readers who do not know, Aina Jokimaki is immortalized in the frequently published picture of a girl in shock, bandaged legs, and sitting in the rail yard of Moose Lake, smoke still thick in the air. She had lost six brothers and sisters, her Mother, and two cousins to the Fire.

I have lived in many countries with exposure to numerous languages in my life travels. English is just one language of many used in the world. I have tried to pronounce each person’s name in whatever language as they wanted it to be pronounced. I cannot tell you how many times I have been corrected with a smile or outright laughter. I can just do the best I can, enjoy the wonderful thoughts of each person I meet, and appreciate the differences in each person that I get to know. There is a magic to life and let’s not let our fears and prejudices get into the way of experiencing it.

 

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