“Finnish? “Swanishinaabe?” Some northern Minnesota natives are reconnecting with their Scandinavian roots


Melissa Walls grew up in International Falls, Minnesota, the daughter of an Ojibwe – or Anishinaabe – mother and a Swedish-American father. But for the most part, she was raised within her mother’s large extended family, who are descended from Ojibwe bands on both sides of the Canadian border.

Many of them worked at the town’s Indian center, where she remembers playing with other indigenous children as a child. “So I knew very well that I was Anishinaabe, Ojibwe, growing up,” Walls said.

In graduate school, she studied American Indian mental health and befriended other Native American students. Now it’s a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins Universitybased in Duluth, where she immersed herself in Ojibwe culture.

Melissa Walls is a professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins University, and she has immersed herself in Ojibwe culture. But Walls said she never knew much about her father’s side of the family.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“I was a jingle dancer when I was a little girl and now I’m dancing again,” she said. “I go to the ceremony” and “I work with amazing elders in the area”.

But all the while, she never knew much about her father’s side of the family. Then one day, about five years ago, her father’s sister found an ad in the newspaper for a Swedish TV show called “Everything for Sverige.”

“And she mailed me, a little clip of this ad and she said, ‘They’re casting for a reality show in Sweden, you should apply and learn something about that side of the family. ‘”

Walls knew she was kidding. But she applied anyway. She recorded a brief video before running out to drive her son to a hockey game. To her surprise, she was accepted.

“And all of a sudden I was sent to Sweden to do a reality TV show to find out more about my Swedish family. It was weird.”

The show aired in late 2019. The experience, Walls said, was life-changing.

“I met a Swedish family member. I learned where my family was from. I was able to visit and touch the house where my ancestors lived in the 1700s,” Walls said. “It was deeply, deeply moving.”

A growing number of Native Americans

Walls, 41, is one of about four million people who identified as Native American and white in the last census, nearly triple the number in 2010.

In total, nearly 10 million people identified as Native American, an 87% jump from 2010. Of those people, about six million are multiracial.

Part of this dramatic growth is due to changes in how the Census Bureau collected and coded data, said Caroline Liebler, sociologist at the University of Minnesota who studies Native American and Mestizo identity.

But she said it also reflects the desire of more people to embrace their Indigenous ancestry, after years of government policies that have tried to erase it.

“Generations later, they’re still Indigenous, but they feel less of that pain. It’s more of a generational pain and not a personal pain. And so people are willing to come back to it. It’s more socially accepted now d ‘to be Indigenous, to be a person of color,’ she said.

For Melissa Walls, she has never had a problem accepting that she is Anishinaabe. But she struggled to understand how this essential part of her identity could coexist with her Swedish side. She hoped the reality show would help her reconcile something she wasn’t even sure was reconcilable.

“That is, embodying both the colonized and the colonizer, walking the world light-skinned, but feeling like an Anishinaabe person. How could I be both? Can I be the two? What does it mean? Why Did my ancestors come here and do harm?

Walls doesn’t have the answers to all of these questions, she admits. It is still evolving. But she feels more at peace with who she is.

“I think before the trip to Sweden. I don’t know if I would use the word shame,” she said. “But I would use the word ‘not proud’ of being anything other than Anishinaabe. It was almost like a stain. Because of all the harm that has happened because of colonization. How could I accept How could I be okay with that?

There are always tensions there, she said. But she also discovered surprising parallels between her Anishinaabe and Swedish sides. Like how his Swedish ancestors were tied to the land, water and seasons, and how they lived in community, like his Ojibwe family.

Earlier this summer, Walls was lucky enough to return to Sweden, with her new husband, a Swede she met while working on the TV show.

They met other members of her extended family, who presented her with a traditional midsummer folk dress. Right away, she was surprised at how much it looked like putting on powwow badges.

“Then something that gave me chills happened, she recalls. When they dressed him, they told him to put his handkerchief behind a heart shape on the folk dress that covered his chest.

“And I said, ‘Well, why?’ And they said, ‘Well, we always lead from the heart.’ And those words “lead with the heart,” you’ll hear the Anishinaabe people say that. I thought, “What’s going on here?

Tears welled up in his eyes. She was stunned, she remembers thinking. “They say the exact same words I learn in Minnesota from the Anishinaabe!” These are profound lessons.


Other northern Minnesota natives who reconnected with their Scandinavian roots found similar parallels. The Finns revere the sauna, for example, while the Ojibwa have the sweat lodge.

They are both spiritual, in different ways, said Arne Vainio, a well-known doctor on the Fond du Lac reserve, who takes an hour sauna every Saturday morning.

“It’s a time to reflect on life and life changes,” he said. “I always feel like I’m with my dad when I’m in there. And with my grandpa.”

Arne Vainio represents a portrait

Arne Vainio grew up north of the Iron Range, the son of a Finnish father and an Ojibwe mother who owned a bar in the small town of Sturgeon.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Vainio, 63, grew up north of the Iron Range, the son of a Finnish father and an Ojibwe mother who owned a bar in the small town of Sturgeon.

Over the years, he says, 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 remembers responding to a man having a heart attack.

“And as soon as he got in the ambulance with me, he said ‘No fucking Indians are going to touch me.’ And then I started an IV on him, and I talked to 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 to the ER with him.”

Vainio’s father committed suicide when he was only four years old. When his Finnish grandparents died, “there was no Finnish anchor and I became mostly Ojibway,” he said. This feeling deepened when he attended college at the University of Minnesota in Duluth and bonded with an Anishinaabe group.

The revival of the Finnish Vainio team began in 2008 at a FinnFest celebration in Duluth, where he and others spoke about what it meant to be a “Finnish” or “Finnishinaabe”.

According to census data analyzed by the APM Research Lab as part of its Roots Beyond Race project.

Additionally, there are approximately 1,800 people who identify as both Swedish and Indigenous, and over 5,000 who identify as Norwegian and Indigenous.

A woman stands in a recording studio.

Lyz Jaakola stands inside a recording studio at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota on July 22.

Dan Kraker | MPR News

Lyz Jaakola also spoke at FinnFest. She is a musician and professor at Fond du Lac Tribal Community College.

His father’s Finnish family and his mother’s Ojibwe family played an important role in his childhood on the Fond du Lac reserve. Both families lived nearby; his father’s family had settled on the reservation.

Still, she said she sometimes felt like she wasn’t accepted by white people or Indigenous people.

“There are challenges to being a mixed person,” she said. “You know, feeling like a stranger and feeling like, you know, an ‘other’, wherever I was. And I know that’s not just true for me. I’ve spoken with other people who have had similar experiences.

Jaakola, 53, channeled some of those emotions into a song she wrote called “Red & White Blues,” which she included on an album titled “Finnish summer.

But as she got older, she began to see her past as a source of strength. She said it taught her to look for commonalities between people and also to celebrate differences.

“I think people who are aware of their multicultural background, it’s almost natural to do that,” she said. “I think that’s, I don’t mean like a product of being a mixed person, but that’s a strength.”

She believes this perspective helped her get elected to the Cloquet Town Hall two years ago.

“They thought I was going to think about, you know, not just part of my family circle when I was asked to make decisions. So that’s kind of humiliating.”

Jaakola said she learned to embrace the totality of who she is, in a way that draws on the strengths of both cultures.

For Arne Vainio, it’s what’s inside you that’s important.

“And I have Ojibwe and Finnish culture inside of me,” he said. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Arne Vainio represents a portrait

Arne Vainio depicts a portrait Tuesday, July 26 in downtown Duluth.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News


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