Discussing Estonia in Minnesota: A Symposium at the Centre for Immigration History

June 1, 2013

The Immigration History Research Center, IHRC, is an institution in Minneapolis where a large part of the archive collections from the Estonian Archives in the U.S., or more widely known as the Lakewood Archive from 2003 to 2005, were deposited.

It is one of the largest collections of Estonian archives outside of Estonia. History doctoral student Maarja MerivooParro from Estonia spent last winter as a Fulbright fellow at the University of Minnesota, researching the Estonian collections there. In addition to her research, Maarja has done good work at the helm of the youth group of the Baltic Heritage Network. This time she proved her organisational capabilities as the main coordinator for the symposium’s content.

The IHRC is known as a storage location for the collections of Eastern European immigrants in America. The centre collaborates with very different nationality groups. In spring 2010, the author was able to participate at the seminar “The Migration Letter: Archiving Intimacy in the Postal Era,” which brought together a very multifaceted group of nationalities that all work with the collection and research of letters as documents of history.

In spring 2012, there was a large meeting of Latvians at the same location. This time the focus was on the historical heritage of Estonians and its research. The symposium “Researching & Archiving the Estonians in America” was held on 15th May on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Heller Hall. Around 40 people from the University of Minnesota and the local Estonian community came together in addition with visitors from afar – from the National Archive in Tallinn, Stanford University, and Lakewood.

Welcoming words were given by the organisers Maarja Merivoo-Parro, IHRC director Erika Lee and the IHRC archive and special collections director Kris Kiesling. Enda-Mai Michelson Holland, the director of the EAU, brought greetings from Lakewood.

The author gave a longer overview of the situation of the Estonian diaspora in the Year of Cultural Heritage, mainly focusing on three themes: how the Estonian foreign communities and cultural situation has changed in the world, the creation of VEMU (Museum of Estonians Abroad) in Toronto and the preservation and propagation of expatriate Baltic cultural heritage with the Baltic Heritage Network (BaltHerNet).

It is a well-known fact that Estonia’s reestablishment of independence placed diaspora societies into a new situation, reaching new ways of thinking and activities from them. During President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’s visit to Canada, a roundtable was held at the Toronto Estonian House. It was repeatedly mentioned that Estonian diaspora communities could, in addition to their typical national activities—including keeping language and culture intact from generation to generation—commit more to propagating collaboration with Estonia. Or, more specifically, these traditional national goals would be meaningful to bring life in to collaboration with Estonia. In the archives, this has already become a reality: both BaltHerNet and VEMU are examples in the preservation of the cultural heritage of Estonians abroad, indebted to collaboration between native and foreign archivists and archive volunteers. In addition to maintaining the cultural heritage of CanadianEstonians, another task of VEMU is cultural exchange: presenters and exhibits move from Estonia to Canada and viceversa, new books and film projects are being started. Presenters tugged at the heartstrings of listeners, noting that one of the more important functions of dwindling Estonian communities today could be preserving its history in a forward-thinking manner. BaltHerNet has supported such memory institutions in smaller Estonian communities by offering help and advice. In the early days of the joint operation, main principles were put in place and created on the basis of secure and trustworthy cooperation: to ensure the preservation of expatriate Estonian archives and its accessibility to users, regardless of their location and according to both the laws of the country where the archives are located, and to good archival practices in collaboration with expatriate Estonian communities and memory institutions in Estonia and elsewhere.

For already five years, the IHRC, National Archive, and BaltHerNet have worked to make the IHRC Estonian collections more accessible. Every spring there are two specialists from the National Archives who spend a month organising and describing the collections at the IHRC. This has worked for now, as the data for 289 collections in the IHRC databases has become more accessible. The visiting archivists from Estonia this year, Peeter Väljas and Aet Trans Tõnissoo, discussed the successful collaboration project. In Estonia the project is funded by the Compatriot’s Programme and in the United States by the IHRC. Parties are convinced that the collaborative work will continue until all 580 collections are set and the data is available on the Internet. Those interested can access IHRC Estonian collections at the website http://www.ihrc.umn.edu/research/vitrage/all/em/ihrc97.html

After the coffee break, IHRC archivist Daniel Necas came to the podium to give a thorough overview of the Estonian collections and their history. Collecting Estonian materials began in the early 1970s with the University of Minnesota professor and IHRC co-worker Michael G. Karni, who himself has Finnish roots. The Estonian collection, having been for many years one of the smaller national collections at the IHRC, is now one of the largest— ostensibly thanks to the materials that came from Lakewood. About 800 metres of shelf space of document archives, as well as publications, photographs, art and audiovisual materials belong to the Estonian collection. After lunch, Daniel took us for a tour of the archive. The IHRC uses a part of a very good and extensive underground storage facility. Unfortunately, this does not mean that it is ready to accept new Estonian materials—space is limited. Nor is there a single storage location for Estonian archives in the United States that could accept a large-scale collection either. The situation could change if the Stanford University Library, which got a new curator for its Baltic collections this February, formulates its collection policy and is guided by such.

The next speaker at the symposium was the recently chosen Stanford University Library curator Liisi Eglit. Liisi has worked at the National Archives and is also currently writing her dissertation. She gave an overview of the Hoover Institute archive and the Stanford University Library Estonian-related materials and future plans for two institutions. Some ventures have already been realised. One such collaborative project between the Stanford University Library and the Tallinn Museum of Occupation was an exhibition and documentary on Olga Kistler-Ritso, an avid supporter of cultural history, whose donation created the curatorial position at both the Museum of Occupation and the Stanford Library. Liisi is one of the organisers of the 2013 archive day under the auspices of ESTO/LEP. Thus the deliberations on the future of AmericanEstonian cultural heritage continue at the end of June in San Francisco.

Maarja Merivoo-Parro was the next to present, discussing the results of her research about the second generation of ethnic Estonians in the United States with a patriotic upbringing. In her presentation she convincingly demonstrated how important the various archival sources are, such as in the researching and mapping of Estonian finishing schools and other national sites (camps, Estonia Houses, and so on). She stressed the need for continued collecting—especially in those areas that were previously overlooked or omitted. She demonstrated that eloquent and admirable research sources may be found in amateur home videos, offering a view of one vivid example of the IHRC collections—a film about an Estonian girl growing up in a small American town. Maarja also reminded that the investigation of Estonianness is actually part of a much broader theme—ethnic issues in America.

The next speaker was Bernard Maegi, a historian of the younger generation with Estonian roots from Normandale Community College. He continued the question set by Maarja: how research into the immigration of Estonians can benefit from advancement in dealing with U.S. immigration history. Bernard pointed out that although it is a numerically small and relatively inconspicuous ethnic group, who have not brought their important holidays to American calendars nor opened powerful international restaurants chains, the invesigation of Estonians’ arrival to and acclimation in the U.S. is not only important for Estonians but for others as well.

The last statement by Kalju Kubits was of a personal nature. Being a child who was forced to leave Estonia, he recalled his escape as it felt and seemed. Kalju was forced to adapt, like other refugee children living between two languages and cultures. He has lived through decades of the lasting activities of the Minnesota Estonian community. Reminiscing about Richard Nixon’s participation in the opening of the Estonian House in 1964 and Mihhail Gorbachev’s visit to Minneapolis in 1990 led to a flood of memories for the Minnesota Estonians that had been present at these events. Kalju’s presentation was followed by a discussion where the need to start a diligent collection became apparent. We hope that the Estonians present were inspired and will start to do archival work both in their own homes and elsewhere together.

Yet the symposium had not ended. Choir director Kelley Sundin, recipient of the Hildegard and Gustav Must Estonian studies grant at the IHRC, elaborated on her Master’s thesis, collections of Estonian music and put together an introductory programme of our history and choir music, which was presented in November last year. Participants were able to listen to selected songs at the University of Minnesota music university students’ concert. It was moving to experience how the power of our song does not only affect us but foreigners as well—the singers were young Americans with no Estonian roots who, under the direction Kelley, had worked hard to understand the Estonian language and frame of mind.. Then the question remained: how do we bring these people interested in Estonian music to perform in Toronto? The choir director seemed to like this idea. We’ll see what the future has in store.

Buisnesslike meetings with new and old colleagues are not only educational but also inspiring. That’s how this symposium was in Minneapolis. And even if people have now gone back to their everyday lives, we are connected by common activites.

Piret Noorhani