North Star Journey: 'Finndian?' 'Swanishinaabe?' Some Native people in northern Minnesota reconnect with their Scandinavian roots

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Listen: North Star Journey - Finndians (Kraker)

On this segment of North Star Journey, MPR’s Dan Kraker profiles individuals that identify as both of Native American and Scandinavian descent. They share how they are finding connections and surprising parallels between the cultures.


2023 National Native Media Award, second place in Radio / Podcast – Best Coverage of Native America (Associate Division III) category


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SPEAKER: Across the country, there are millions of people who identify as both Native American and white. Many are people who have only recently embraced the native side of their heritage. But in Northern Minnesota, the opposite is often the case. There are lots of Native American people who have in recent years reconnected with their Scandinavian ancestry in sometimes surprising ways. Dan Kraker reports as part of our ongoing North Star Journey series,

DAN KRAKER: Melissa Walls grew up in International Falls, the daughter of an Ojibwe or Anishinaabe mom and a Swedish American dad. But she was raised largely as part of her mom's big extended family.

MELISSA WALLS: So I knew very well that I was Anishinaabe Ojibwe growing up.

DAN KRAKER: She studied American Indian mental health in grad school and bonded with other Native American students. Now she's a researcher for Johns Hopkins University based in Duluth where she's immersed herself in Ojibwe culture.

MELISSA WALLS: I was a jingle dancer as a little girl, and now I dance again to go to ceremony and to get to work with amazing elders across the region.

DAN KRAKER: But she knew little of her dad's side of the family. Then one day about five years ago, her dad's sister found an ad in the paper.

MELISSA WALLS: For a TV show called Alt for Sverige in Sweden, and she sent me in the snail mail a little clip of this little ad. And she said, "They're casting for a reality show in Sweden. You should apply and learn something about this side of the family."

DAN KRAKER: So she did.

MELISSA WALLS: And all of a sudden, I'm being flown to Sweden to be on a reality show to find out about my Swedish family. It was bizarre.


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DAN KRAKER: Wall says the experience changed her life.

MELISSA WALLS: I got to meet a Swedish family member. I got to learn about where my family came from. I got to visit and touch the house that my ancestors lived in the 1700s. And it was deeply, deeply emotional.

DAN KRAKER: Walls is one of about 4 million people who identified as Native American and white in the last census, nearly triple the number from 2010. Some of that dramatic growth is due to new Census Bureau methodology. But Carolyn Liebler, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who studies Native American and mixed race identity says it also reflects a willingness of more people to embrace their native ancestry after years of government policy that tried to erase it.

CAROLYN LIEBLER: Generations later, there's still Native people, but they're feeling less of that pain. It's more generational pain and not personal pain. And so people are willing to come back to it. It's more socially accepted now to be Native.

DAN KRAKER: For Melissa Walls, she never had an issue accepting that she's Anishinaabe, but the reality TV show helped her reconcile something she wasn't even sure was reconcilable.

MELISSA WALLS: Which is embodying both the colonized and the colonizer. Walking through the world with light skin but feeling like I'm an Anishinaabe person, how could I be both? Can I be both? What does that mean? Why did my ancestors leave? Did they come here and do harm?

DAN KRAKER: Walls says she doesn't have the answers to all those questions. She's still evolving, but she says she feels more at peace about who she is.

MELISSA WALLS: I think before the trip to Sweden, I don't know if I would use the word shame, but I would use the word not proud of being anything other than Anishinaabe. It was almost like a stain, like, oh, I can't also be that and be proud of it and be Anishinaabe because of all of the harm that has happened because of colonization. Like, how could I embrace that? How could I be OK with that?

DAN KRAKER: There's still tension there, she says, but she's also discovered surprising parallels between her Anishinaabe and Swedish sides, like how connected her Swedish ancestors were to the land and how they lived communally similar to her Ojibwe family. This summer, Walls returned to Sweden. She met more relatives who presented her with a traditional midsummer folk dress. Right away, she was startled with how similar it felt to putting on powwow regalia.

MELISSA WALLS: Then something that gave me the shivers happened.

DAN KRAKER: When they were dressing her, they told her to tuck her handkerchief behind a heart shape on the folk dress that covered her chest.

MELISSA WALLS: And I said, "Well, why?" And they said, "Well, we always lead with the heart." And those three words, lead with the heart, you will hear Anishinaabe people saying that. Those are teachings, we lead with the heart, do it the hard way. Tears popped into my eye. I thought, what is happening here?

DAN KRAKER: She was stunned to hear the same teachings she learned from Anishinaabe people in Minnesota repeated by her ancestors in Sweden. Arnie Vainio has discovered similar parallels while reconnecting with his Finnish side. Take the sauna, he says, like, the Ojibwe sweat lodge, they're spiritual just in a less structured way.

ARNIE VAINIO: It is a time to reflect on life and life changes. I always feel like I'm with my father when I'm in there and with my grandfather.

DAN KRAKER: Vainio is a well-known physician on the Fond Lac Reservation. He grew up in the woods North of the Iron Range, the son of a Finnish father and an Ojibwe mother. He says over the years, he saved the lives of several people who hated him for the color of his skin. Before going to medical school, he worked as a paramedic on the range where he recalls responding to a man having a heart attack.

ARNIE VAINIO: As soon as he got an ambulance with me he said, "No f-ing Indian is going to touch me." And I started an IV on him, and I talked with him. And by the time we got to the hospital, which was maybe half an hour, he wouldn't let go of my hand. And he wanted me to come into the ER with him.

DAN KRAKER: Vainio says the reawakening of his Finnish side began in 2008 at a finnfest celebration in Duluth where he and others spoke about what it meant to be Finndian or Finnishinnabe. Lyz Jaakola was there, too. She's a musician and teacher at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. She says growing up on the reservation, she sometimes felt like she wasn't accepted by white or native people.

LYZ JAAKOLA: You know, feeling like an outsider, you know, and feeling like an other and wherever I was.

DAN KRAKER: Jaakola wrote about that experience in her song "Red and White Blues."

[LYZ JAAKOLA, "RED AND WHITE BLUES"] Took the bus to town to try to go to school but it was too Brown got treated like food on the rails bus home and I was just too white I was cracking jokes trying to stay out of fights yes I got to teach her and man, I got a clue oh-oh, I got those red and white blues.

DAN KRAKER: But as she got older, she began to see her background as a source of strength. She looks for commonalities among people and also celebrates differences.

LYZ JAAKOLA: I think people who are aware of their multicultural background it's almost natural to do that. I think that that's I don't want to say like a product of being a mixed person, but it is a strength.

DAN KRAKER: Jaakola says she's learned to embrace the totality of who she is in a way that builds on the strengths of both cultures. Arni Vainio says, it's what's inside of you that's important. Inside of him, he says, is both Ojibwe and Finnish culture, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Dan Kraker, NPR News, Duluth.

SPEAKER: By the way, this story is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendments Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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