Sisu: Defining the U.P.

Local News

MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) – Finnish culture is a part of the Upper Peninsula. Whether it’s the food, the festivals, or the saunas, the impact of the people who left their home country in search of something greater, can still be felt today.

One word in the Finnish language stands out more than any other. That is Sisu. You see it on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and jewelry. For a word that has no direct translation into English, it has firmly planted its flag as a part of U.P. life as well.

We have spent weeks, talking with different people from across the Upper Peninsula. All of them have Finnish heritage. We asked them to give their best description or definition of Sisu. We also talked about where it comes from and how to apply it in our lives today. They all agreed, you don’t have to be Finnish to have Sisu, but if you live in the U.P. It’s a part of who we are.

Jim Kurtti is the director of the Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University (formerly The Suomi College) in Hancock, Michigan. He is also honorary council for the Republic of Finland. That means he represents the Finnish government on a local level, whenever he is needed. Our conversation started with a historical look at where Sisu came from.

“I think what solidified the meaning of Sisu for the Finns was in World War II, the Soviets declared war on Finland and they planned to overrun the country and the Finns resisted. They resisted with no allies in the beginning. No one, even the Finnish people didn’t think they would succeed in the beginning. They just were determined to fight to the finish and not be overtaken by the Russians. The Finns succeeded. They were able to remain an independent democracy even though they had this long border with the Soviet Union and that really solidified Sisu. Everyone came together at that point. All the different political parties and factions of society came together and they just fought with everything they had,” said Kurtti.

Kurtti went on to talk about the Finnish immigrants who came to the Upper Peninsula, helped to develop the mining, forestry, and farming industries.

“When the Finns came here, they were very quick to develop cooperatives. The Finnish American community was the foremost in cooperative activities. They were very quick to build temperance halls and churches. So there was always a sense of community, even if they were distant people.” He added that among Finnish Americans today, spirituality, in particular the Lutheran traditions are very strong,” added Kurtti.

So the Finns came to the the Upper Peninsula, bringing their work ethic, determination, and sense of community. Kurtti acknowledged the lasting impact on the region.

“I think too, almost everyone who lives in the U.P. has some sense of being culturally Finnish American. So this concept of Sisu is just part of all of us. We’re a hard-scrabbled place. We’ve always been like that. People understand the concept and sort of take it on as a mantle.” Kurtti went on to say, “It’s become a symbol of the people of the Upper Peninsula. I would argue there’s a grey area between being Finnish and being Yooper.”

For those who aren’t familiar, here is a chart to help you understand Yooper:

Upper Peninsula > U.P. > Yoop > Yooper

If Finns and Yoopers are kindred spirits the vast landscape of the region seems ideally suited to the personality types.

“Many people will point out that Finns aren’t really touchy people. This idea of hugging is really something rather new. So keeping social distance doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. “Finnish men are known to enjoy being alone, being in the forest, or being alone with their work.” Kurtti later said, “Some people would like to say that Finnish people are more reserved. Sort of distant as far as emotions go. I’d like to say we’ve just been rehearsing for social distancing the past few centuries.”

We know where it comes from, who can have it, but we asked Kurtti how we apply it to our every day lives.

“I think you gotta wake up in the morning, even before you get out of bed. You’ve got to decide today I’m going to do this. I’m going to think positively and keep a routine. I’m going to maintain some sort of physical activity, or spiritual activity. I’m going to always be consciously and intentionally doing something positive, said Kurtti.

Jim Kurtti introduced us to Dorothea Kallunki. Her family came from Finland. They opened a boarding house for miners in the Copper Country.

“My parents were both hardworking people. With the depression, it was a difficult. I was a little young to know it. When I was a kid I knew things were rough. I knew that my parents were tough. My dad didn’t like the idea of going on relief,” said Kallunki.

She told us what she learned from her parents, she passed on to her nine children. She spoke highly of their accomplishments. In our conversation, Dorothea revealed a little about her own personal sense of Sisu. She owned a bike her entire life. When Dorothea retired, that’s when she bought her first mountain bike. She recanted a recent trip to a favored bike trail near the Michigan/Wisconsin border.

“I thought, what if I’m not able to go next year? I have to bike that trail. I didn’t have anyone to go with me. I thought about it and I said why can’t you go. Who cares if you’re 90 years old. Do it,” and Dorothea did. “I came back to my car and unloaded my bike and said this is a cold wind out here. So instead of putting my helmet on I put my knit cap on and my hood on my ski jacket, and put liners under my gloves. Then I went and biked 7 or 8 miles.” 

Dorothea Kallunki is set to turn 93-years-young this year and has no plans to slow down. When she’s not on her bike, she said she’s hiked every trail in the Porcupine mountains. She is an exemplary standard of a life full of Sisu.

“Think positive and tell yourself that you can do this. Whatever. Persist. Just make up your mind you’re going to do it and do it.

Dorothea Kallunki

We’ve talked with numerous people over the last several weeks. Others have helped bring their own brand of U.P. pride.

Denise Bannan started the group, Hearts of Hope – Yooper Strong. She and her friends are the reason you’ll see hearts in windows of homes in nearly every community of the U.P.

“Yoopers are strong. They are resilient. They are stubborn. It’s a whole bunch of Sisu and everything else all wrapped up into one,” said Bannan.

The Finnish influence and spirit of the U.P. extends throughout the region and continues to be passed on from generation to generation. We talked with Dr. Heidi Johnson and her mother, Shirley Kero.

“My Grandmother when she came to the United States and went to school and she couldn’t speak English. So someone said, I think her name is Ellen and that became her name. That’s the name she used for  the rest of her life,” said Johnson.

Heidi is an optometrist and owns Superior Eye Health & Vision Therapy Center. Her mother, Shirley said the Finnish people have had to face a lot of problems in their lives and they’ve developed Sisu to get through it. It is apparent she instilled that spirit in her daughter.

“My parents raised me to believe I could do anything I wanted to. So you have to start at a young age giving them experiences they can be successful with. Boosting their self-confidence and helping them the ability to go back at it if they have failures and supporting them with what changes they need to make if they are not successful the first time.”

“There’s no equivalent translation but the best that we can say is it’s courage in the face of adversity. It’s determination. When you’re down, you get back up again.” – Dr. Heidi Johnson

Shirley says she has always tried to set a good example, and looks for opportunities, even today.

“Do what you think you can do to help the situation. What you individually can do. At my age I can still help with the mask problems. So that’s something I have tried to do,” said Kero.

“Well Sisu is determination or guts is the easy way to define it. When you have a problem, instead of putting it off to someone else or saying I can’t do it, you just tackle it.” – Shirley Kero

Through Heidi and Shirley, we met Pam Kauppila. She owns Time Flies Quilt and Sew in Negaunee. Kauppila put together a step-by-step guide, showing people how to make masks, including pictures that are available on her website free to download.

“Sisu is a part of who we are in the U.P. and we’re used to overcoming the obstacles that are thrown at us. All we can do is maintain a positive attitude, take it a day at a time and be thankful for all the good that we have,” said Kauppila. 

Making masks has been an item of action for many who find themselves out of work or feeling like they want to contribute and help their community. Another way to help is through food. Many small businesses have had to close their doors, but some restaurants are able to persist, offering comfort in the way of food. We spoke with Roy Nahri, owner of Roy’s Pasties & Bakery in Houghton. They have been making deliveries of baked goods to hospitals and other front line workers. They even created coloring pages to entertain children at home.

“The Finnish people, the Finnish culture can be somewhat stoic. It’s not hard to understand and follow this social distancing. On the other hand we have a warmth towards family and getting together with family. We do miss that for sure,” said Nahri.

Roy said Sisu is not something you need to be born with but understands the importance of keeping some of its virtues in your family.

“My father worked very hard. I know my grandparents, both my grandfathers worked very hard. Either farming and working on the ore boats or working in the Copper mines on my father’s side. So you need to have that in the family growing up for sure,” Nahri added, “I tell a lot of people, my boys and friends when they are leaving the area to look for work, either out west or Alaska. My boys worked out west, but some of their friends went to Alaska to work on fishing boats and soforth. Generally speaking, when they hear you’re from the U.P., you’re hired.”

“Sisu means that you are going to do everything possible to get it done, whatever it is before you. That means you will stick to your task, stick to your principles so that’s what Sisu means to me.”

Roy Nahri

Their neighbors at Suomi restaurant also sent their thoughts on what Sisu means to the U.P.

“Sisu to us is the unknown strength and determination we have that we tap into to carry ourselves through struggles and hardships. It’s so popular to the people of the UP because so much of our population is Finnish and can relate to the meaning of Sisu. Living in the UP is so special because we feel the UP is full of the most giving and selfless people. When we’re staring down the face of adversity our UP communities rally together and pickup the pieces to help everyone get through tough times. “Sisu” is now a call to action to us. It’s a simple word everyone can get behind and use it to share their encouragement and support of our friends, neighbors, and community members. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together and our Sisu will carry our communities through this pandemic.”

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