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Dear Minnesota - Tia Salmela Keobounpheng

Tia Salemela Keobounpheng remembers her grandmother who was one of almost 1400 Finnish-American immigrants who escaped Russia during the “Great Purge” of the late 1930’s

By Tia Salmela Keobounpheng

A man, woman, and two girls dressed formally and standing in a field of grass
Photograph of the Aho family, young

My grandmother was 15 when she traveled with her parents and sister from Ishpeming, Michigan to Karelia in 1932. They were among nearly 6,000 Finnish-Americans from the Lake Superior Region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada to leave North America for Karelia to help build a utopian Finnish-speaking society that never came to fruition. As a family, we know very little about their experiences, beyond the dates of their travel and a photo of my grandma and great-aunt at a lumber camp in Karelia discovered in a book, Red Exodus.

Most historical information about this period of time emerged around 1990, when Gorbachev took power, and is compiled by individuals connected directly to it. A memoir from a couple who was able to get out, three books by the daughter of a top recruiter who was among the 1200 who were victimized and died during Stalin's Purges in 1937-38. My four family members were among the 1346 confirmed to have returned to the US. Those that returned, like my family in 1936, never spoke of their time in Karelia. Embarrassment? Shame? Fear? Those that remained in Russia were trapped there.

A group of children sitting and locking arms. Two children are highlighted in yellow.
Scan of photograph from the book "Red Exodus" showing teenage grandmother & great aunt

My public art project, UNWEAVING, is inspired, in part, by this history & suppressed stories in general. The temporary outdoor sculpture installation in Duluth's Sister Cities Park in 2020 created space to honor this family story and invited others to reflect on their own connection or disconnection from history.  How has assimilation to a system built on white supremacy disconnected us from the longer & wider tapestry of heritage and our community? How do we face the difficult things that our ancestors experienced and never spoke of? How does acknowledging mistakes threaten our understanding of current reality? How does facing our history open up a new realm of possibility?

4 adults standing and dressed in formal clothes
Photograph of the Aho family, grown
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