Estonians in the USA

Kaja Weeks: Estonian singing voices in a poem

“Voices” is a poem by Kaja Weeks, an American of Estonian heritage, that celebrates Estonia’s ancestral rhythms, melodies and spirit in the context of Laulupidu, Estonia’s song festival.

Born in the United States as the child of the Second World War refugees from Estonia, Kaja Weeks is the daughter of Salme Parming (1919-2013), a noted Estonian-born rhythmic gymnast/trainer, photographer and Estonian-American activist.

She grew up in New York City’s Estonian diaspora which was culturally very active. “Old Estonian vocal music really appealed to me early on. In the 1970’s I was able to research and hear Finno-Ugric music in oral history archives in Helsinki, and I founded “Kannel” (Zither), a youth vocal ensemble that performed traditional Estonian music in the northeastern United States and Canada,” Weeks told Estonian World.

Today, her career as a classically trained singer and music educator who specialises in early developmental intervention is founded on the healing powers of the singing voice.

In the last decade, her Estonian roots have found their way into writing. Essays and other lyric poems, such as Mouth Quill (from the term “Suudesulg,” found in runic verses and signifying a singer’s magical tool) and the Coastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia), have been published in various literary venues. Weeks cites “Voices” as being directly inspired by Estonia’s 2014 Song Festival and the rich indigenous traditions of the Estonian people.

 

Voices (Song Festival, Tallinn, Estonia)

Song-Mother’s voices,

sounds of ancestors once slipped from tongue to air—

ribbon-like, still unfurling.

 

On the edge of the sea

a silver shell holds thousands, singers who face

thousands more on a grassy gentle rise. All inhale.

 

Though the hour nears midnight

sun skims waters of the Baltic Sea,

flames in the tower-torch leap high.

 

The singing will not stop,

Lee—  lee— lo, the sounds form Leelo!

Each ancient syllable earned with sweat and love.

 

A conductor, peering from within a laurel wreath

clasps his chest, lowers his head,

bows to the choir who has honored song.

 

The watchers become the singers,

the standing levitate,

the air is alive.

 

Swirling round, melodies rustle, loosen hair,

saying: we are a living sound—sing us speak us hear us.

Song-Mother’s voices—Hääli imedänne!

 

– Hääli imedänne – Magical voices in old Estonian

    –  Leelo – The old Estonian word for song and title of an actual song

An exhibition about Estonia visits North America

A traveling exhibition about Estonia that celebrates the country’s centenary is to visit North America over the course of one and a half years.

According to the organisers, the exhibition, called “Masters of Our Own Homes: Estonia at 100” is the largest of its kind and will visit four cities in North America. The exhibition will first open on the West Coast, at Stanford University, where it will be displayed as part of a major Baltic studies conference taking place from 1-3 June. From Stanford, the exhibition will travel to Toronto, Canada; Boston, MA; and Washington, DC.

The exhibition with light installation is 39 feet long and 12 feet high and weighs four tons. Each of its 244 exhibition panels shows a part of the Estonian story. The exhibition was created by the Museum of Occupations as a gift for the centenary of the Republic of Estonia, in cooperation with schoolchildren, entrepreneurs, artists and museums in Estonia and abroad.

“The idea for this kind of traveling exhibition was born in communication with Estonians abroad, in order to make it possible for them to be part of celebrating Estonia’s 100th birthday,” the project manager of the exhibition, Keiu Telve, said in a statement. “The exhibition pavilion not only tells the story of this small country but also gives you a real sense of being in Estonia. The picturesque landscapes, smiling faces of the Estonians and their stories help to bring the Estonia’s story to life. The exhibition can be seen as a miniature Estonia traveling to audiences who cannot visit Estonia itself.”

The exhibition will be displayed at Stanford University from 31 May until 6 June with its official opening ceremony taking place on 2 June. The opening event will feature a roundtable, “No Boundaries: An Oral History Project about Estonia’s Transformation in the Digital Age,” in which Sten Tamkivi, Ott Kaukver, Rainer Sternfeld, Andrus Viirg and Toomas Hendrik Ilves discuss Estonian innovation, identity, history, and future.

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Cover: The installation at the Tallinn’s Linnahall (images by Tõnu Tunnel).

An exhibit at Stanford Libraries presents 100 years of Baltic history

A new exhibit at Stanford Libraries, called “The Baltic Way”, aims to tell the complicated history of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the 20th century and considers the countries’ prospects and challenges in the 21st.

The exhibit, presented in partnership with the Hoover Institution Library & Archives and Stanford Libraries, will open on 10 May and run through 18 August 2018 in the Cecil H. Green Library, Bing Wing, on the Stanford University campus in California.

The exhibition is presented in two parts. A chronological narrative, presented in Green Library’s Peterson Gallery, begins with the run-up to the First World War and concludes with the three countries’ liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991. Aspects of Baltic culture and heritage, such as the region’s rich song traditions, reverence for nature, and penchant for innovation, are featured in the nearby Munger Rotunda.

The exhibit’s title, “The Baltic Way”, commemorates the 1989 Baltic Way protest, in which people in all three countries linked hands to demand independence from the USSR. The protest took place on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that paved way for the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. “The Baltic Way” also celebrates the three countries’ cultural heritage.

Tumultuous history

The exhibition takes visitors through the Baltic countries’ tumultuous history of autonomy, recurrent occupations, resistance, liberation and concern for the future.

“This exhibition is a powerful reminder of the threats to the Baltic region that unfortunately continue to confront Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and even Finland,” Michael Keller, the Ida M. Green University Librarian at Stanford, said in a statement.

“However, the exhibit is testimony to the extraordinary transformation the Baltic states have undergone after regaining independence in 1991. Freedom and democracy in those nations have permitted and encouraged artistic, economic, technological, agricultural, social, educational and cultural advances of extraordinary magnitude.”

The Baltic Way was co-curated by Liisi Esse, the associate curator for Estonian and Baltic studies, Stanford Libraries, and David Jacobs, the Hoover Institution Library & Archives project archivist, and produced by Special Collections exhibits designer Becky Fischbach.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Stanford Libraries will host an international Baltic studies conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of independence for the Baltic republics from 1-3 June.

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Cover: People standing in the Baltic Way in 1989.

Estonia’s Kaljulaid meets with president Trump

The president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, on 3 April met with her American colleague, the US president, Donald Trump.

Kaljulaid tweeted after the meeting that she was “happy to meet president Trump … on my first visit to [the White House]. [The] US-Estonian relations have never been as close as over the past few years.”

According to the Estonian embassy in Washington, DC, president Trump said the US never ceased to support independence of Baltic countries. “Your burden sharing in NATO is exemplary, you are contributing to coalition to defeat ISIS. Our economic relations are growing. We are enhancing cooperation in energy security,” Trump added.

Fox News also tweeted a quote from president Trump who said, “For a century that United States has stood with the people of the Baltics, in support of their independence, sovereignty and self-determination.”

The White House also announced after the meeting that more than 5,000 US troops will join multinational forces in this year’s Saber Strike exercise, the largest event of its kind to take place in the Baltic region.

Trump “tough” on Russia

In addition, the US president declared that “nobody has been tougher on Russia” than him.

“Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said in the meeting, according to CNN. “Now maybe we will and maybe we won’t. Probably nobody’s been tougher on Russia than Donald Trump. If you take a look at our military strength now, which probably wouldn’t have happened if the opponent had won … We’re now exporting oil and gas. This is not something that Russia wanted.”

The US president added that “just about everyone agrees” getting along with Russia is a good thing “except very stupid people”.

The Estonian president met with Trump alongside with the presidents of Latvia and Lithuania, Raimonds Vejonis and Dalia Grybauskaite, respectively.

In addition to meeting Trump, Kaljulaid will partake in a Baltic-US business forum and attend a dinner, hosted by the national security adviser of the president, H.R. McMaster.

Kaljulaid to visit General Einseln’s grave

On 4 April, Kaljulaid will give a public lecture and she’ll also visit Arlington National Cemetery, where she will pay her respects to the former commander of the Estonian Defence Forces, General Aleksander Einseln, who was buried in Arlington on 2 April.

The US established diplomatic relations with Estonia in 1922, and when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, the States never recognised the annexation.

While Estonian presidents frequently visit DC, only two incumbent US presidents have visited Estonia – George W. Bush in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2014.

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Cover: Donald Trump and Kersti Kaljulaid (courtesy of the Estonian President’s Office).

James Cameron to film “Avatar 4” in Estonia

James Cameron, one of the most successful movie directors of all time, announced that the fourth sequel in the Avatar film series will be filmed near Navi village in Estonia.*

Cameron made the announcement at a press conference in Hollywood on 31 March. “We considered various locations around the world and it wasn’t until I bumped into an old friend of mine from Canada (Cameron grew up in Ontario, Canada – editor) that Estonia as a possible location came up,” Cameron said.

Asked to specify, the film director, famous for such blockbusters as “The Terminator”, “Aliens”, “True Lies” and “Titanic” – in addition to “Avatar” – explained that his old friend stemmed from the Estonian-Canadian family and has recently resettled to southern Estonia. His friend shared the old Estonian folk tales with Cameron and also showed the pictures of sacred trees, which are still common in Estonia even today.

“To be honest, I didn’t know anything about Estonia before – but hearing the stories on how for Estonians, their god was in nature, made me realise that there is an interesting connection between the fictional Naʼvi species in Avatar and Estonians,” Cameron said. “The Naʼvi way of life revolves around the Home tree. And the ancient Estonians had a god called Tharapita who was worshiped in forest groves. They also have old folk tales, in which the sins of humans resonate in nature – lakes fly away to punish greedy villagers, or forests wander off in the night, never to return.”

Cameron added that another similarity with the fictional Naʼvi species was how Estonians felt that their way of life and nature was threatened. “The Estonians once started a ‘phosphorite war’ against the Soviet Union – an environmental protest against the opening of large phosphorite mines in the country. Now this nation is apparently concerned about losing its forests,” he said.

Navi village

Cameron said that, to his surprise, there was even a village called Navi in Estonia (Navi is in Võru County in south-eastern Estonia and currently has a population of just over 260 people – editor). “That they [Estonians] have a Navi village, amused me, of course. But then I realised that the surrounding area would also make a perfect filming spot and I asked my team to get in touch with the Estonian film institutions,” he said.

Cameron added that other factors helped to sway his decision to shoot one of Avatar’s sequels in Estonia. “They have pretty experienced local film crews, apparently – it turns out that they have made films for over 100 years in that tiny country.”

The film director behind the epic science fiction films is currently filming “Avatar 2” and “Avatar 3”, in California and in New Zealand. The “Avatar 4” shooting will start in Estonia as soon as the previous sequels wrap filming and is due to be released in 2024.

The first “Avatar” was released in 2009 and became the highest-grossing film of all time, having grossed $2.788 billion to date. The film is set in the mid-22nd century, when humans are colonising Pandora, a lush habitable moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system, in order to mine the mineral unobtanium. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe of Na’vi – a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora.

James Cameron found major success after directing and writing the science fiction action film “The Terminator” (1984). He is the fourth highest-grossing film director worldwide, after Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Michael Bay.

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Cover: A screenshot from “Avatar” (the image is illustrative). * Please note that this article was April Fool’s Day story. 

Stanford to host a roundtable featuring Baltic foreign ministers and professor Anna Grzymala-Busse

On 1 June, the Stanford University Libraries will hold a roundtable featuring Baltic foreign ministers and political scientist Anna Grzymala-Busse as part of the 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford University.

The roundtable is titled “Baltic exceptionalism?” and it’s featuring Sven Mikser, the foreign minister of Estonia, Edgars Rinkēvičs, his Latvian colleague, and Linas Linkevičius, the Lithuanian foreign minister. The event is chaired by Grzymala-Busse, a professor in the department of political science at Stanford University.

“As a wave of populism and political divisiveness seem to be rising elsewhere in Europe, the Baltic republics appear to have escaped these worrisome trends,” the organisers of the event said in a statement. “International interference in elections, anti-democratic sentiments, immigration, and a host of populist and protest parties dominate the political debates in the rest of Europe. Yet while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are firmly ensconced in Europe, and have certainly experienced political pressure from their neighbours, they appear to have weathered the storm far more robustly. The roundtable thus asks, to what extent one can talk about ‘Baltic exceptionalism’ and how it could be explained.

The roundtable will be open to public and is co-sponsored by the European Security Initiative at Stanford’s Europe Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Registration for the roundtable is now open through the 2018 AABS Conference website.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Baltic independence

The 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford University: the 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence will bring together scholars interested in Baltic studies from all over the world and foster collaboration between Baltic and Stanford researchers. The three-day programme, to be held on Stanford University campus from 1-3 June, will feature panels, roundtable discussions and workshops on 15 broad topics. The conference will also include numerous additional events, such as keynote talks by leading Baltic scholars, evening receptions, film screenings, exhibits and tours of Stanford’s Baltic collections.

The conference supporters include the American Latvian Association; the Baltic American Freedom Foundation; the consulate general of Lithuania in Los Angeles; Dennis Garrison, the Lithuanian honorary consul in San Francisco; the Latvian embassy to the US; the Hoover Institution Library and Archives; Jeff Nelson, the Lithuanian honorary consul in Virginia; Liga E. Hoy, the Latvian honorary consul in Northern California; the Latvian ministry of culture; the Estonian ministry of education and research; and the Stanford University Libraries.

Estonian World is a media partner of the 2018 AABS conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence.

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Cover: Stanford University Hoover Tower. Completed in 1941, the 50th year of Stanford University’s anniversary, the tower was inspired by the cathedral tower in Salamanca, Spain (image by jejim/Shutterstock).

Estonians in New York to hold cultural days

At the end of March, Estonians in New York City will be holding cultural days that also celebrate the country’s centenary.

The cultural days, held from 28 to 31 March at the New York Estonian House, will bring together Estonian ethno-folk music, unique Seto performers and a public forum to discuss the role of and the public interest in the Estonian culture abroad.

In addition, the festival will host a documentary film screening series, presenting films such as “Those Who Dare”, directed by Ólafur Rögnvaldsson, and a short film, “Raising the Flag”. Both documentaries are focusing on the Baltic nations’ path to restoring their independence from the Soviet Union.

Seto performers will take the stage at the Estonian cultural days in New York City.

For the past 48 years, the Estonian cultural days have been an annual event bringing together all generations and nationalities of people interested in the Estonian culture in the United States, the organisers said in a statement.

Since 2016, the cultural days have been put together by volunteers Kadri Napritson-Acuna and Valev Laube, supported by a large community of volunteers, sponsors, and enthusiasts.

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Cover: Estonian performers at the 2017 cultural days.

Estonian cancer treatment fund asks for Estonian-Americans’ help

The Hille Tänavsuu Gift of Life Cancer Treatment Foundation, an Estonian fund that helps cancer patients buy lifesaving medicine, asks for Estonian-Americans’ help to give a hundred Estonian cancer patients the chance for a longer life.

The foundation wishes to celebrate the country’s centennial by helping a hundred cancer patients get a chance for a longer fulfilling life or even recovery from the disease. To achieve this, the fund is inviting all Estonians living in North America to support the Estonian cancer patients’ fight.

According to the foundation, the Washington Estonian Society is hosting a gala event dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia on 17 February in Arlington, VA. During the event, donations will be raised for the Gift of Life Cancer Treatment Foundation and a charity auction will be held. Toivo Tänavsuu, an Estonian journalist and the founder of the foundation, will also be present.

On 21 February, an event will take place at the New York Estonian House, where people can also donate to the foundation, it said in a statement.

Helped more than 200 Estonians

The Gift of Life Cancer Treatment Foundation was founded in 2014, inspired by journalist Hille Tänavsuu’s fight with cancer. Now it has grown into one of the largest charities in Estonia. The foundation’s purpose is to support cancer patients whose treatment is not covered by the Estonian Health Insurance Fund. Over the past four years, more than 200 Estonians aged five to 83 have been helped by the foundation and more than €3 million have been raised in donations.

“Although our primary objective is to treat cancer patients, we also help cure the Estonian society with our activities by promoting charity as a lifestyle,” Tänavsuu said in a statement. “I invite all Estonians living in North America to support their own people’s fight with their terrible disease.”

How can you make a donation to the Gift of Life Cancer Treatment Foundation?

  1. In North America, you can donate via the Washington Estonian Society, which is a 501(c)(3) organisation:

Washington Estonian Society

5320 Waldo Drive

Alexandria, VA, 22315

Keyword “The Gift of Life”

  1. For donations made from Estonia, see the details on the foundation’s website.

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The images courtesy of The Gift of Life Cancer Treatment Foundation.

An Estonian community leader in LA wants to open the US market for Estonians

Renee Meriste, an Estonian community leader in Los Angeles, California, says that even though many in the US know very little about Estonia, this needs to be changed – and he wants to help open the American market for Estonian companies.

The United States hosts one of the most vibrant Estonian expat communities in the world – there are cultural societies, singing choirs and hobby groups across the country, from California to Washington, DC. Estonian-American organisations, such as the Estonian American National Council, also do political lobby work in Washington, if needed – especially when the security situation in the Estonian vicinity offers some concern.

According to latest available survey, approximately 28,200 US citizens have responded “Estonian” as either a first ancestry (47.4%) or second ancestry (52.6%). But in a country of 323 million, this is a small number. By comparison, there are over 650,000 Lithuanian Americans and almost 10 million Polish Americans.

Hence, very little is still known about Estonia in the US – but the good news is, some Estonian Americans want to change that.

Connecting Estonia with the United States

One of them, Renee Meriste, moved to the US from Estonia ten years ago, and has since become one of the figureheads of the Estonian community in Los Angeles. He recently set up a consulting firm with the aim to connect Estonian companies with the American market.

“I love Estonia and I would like to help more. For the last 10 years I have been living in the US and see so much opportunity for both countries. There are great Estonian products and services that could be well known here in United States,” he says.

Meriste concedes that many people in the US don’t even know where Estonia is – but this needs to be changed. He hopes young people and new ideas – the future of Estonia, as he puts it – will have a chance to flourish on the American market.

To help along with the aim, the married father of two, who has worked in the business world for years, emphasises, among other things, the importance of community support. “In a global world where the population is growing – and the number of Estonians is shrinking – we must stick together and learn and help and respect each other way more,” he says.

According to Meriste, there are many Estonians across the United States who are thinking about how they could help Estonia and share their experiences with regards to local market – from teachers, scientists, IT experts, marketing and business people to government dignitaries. “So far, the lack of communication has been a big issue – people have wanted to find ways to help, but they felt discouraged at times by the lack of support,” he says.

Meriste’s firm aims to help Estonian companies with relationship building, business strategy and market research in the US market.

Encouraging free thought and ideas

As a true American (Americans are more likely to believe they control their own destiny than Europeans), Meriste also notes that the European Union membership has made Estonia somewhat complacent. “In our past, we had ‘Mother Russia’ taking care of us; this allowed for a society that waited for dinner to be served. In the 1990ies, we broke out of this rule and started real progress towards our independence. Then we joined the EU and, at times, again we’re waiting for the ‘Mother’ – ready to take money, grants and support from the EU before we even start the process of our own idea in business.”

“Those who build businesses know that the idea has to come first – not trying to fit an idea into where the government money is. We must support this good union [the EU], but learn to not wait for our dinner to be served to us. We must encourage free thought and young people with ideas,” Meriste argues, citing the EU support as one of the reasons why Estonian Americans are out of the big picture in Estonia.

He wants to change that. “Estonian Americans should work and make ourselves noticed in every possible way. The experiences people have had in the US have amazing value and could help Estonia a lot.”

Meriste is also committed to encouraging Estonia to open a consulate in Los Angeles. “This would help educate companies here about how great we are as a country, how hard we work and how smart we are,” he notes. “If we want to survive as a nation and have our children celebrate Estonia’s 200th anniversary, we have to work together now. Not only as a people and a business, but also on a government level.”

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Cover: Estonian Americans having a good time during the West Coast Estonian Days in Los Angeles, August 2017 (the image is illustrative/courtesy of the West Coast Estonian Days).

The Stanford University Libraries to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Baltic republics

The Stanford University Libraries will be hosting a conference at Stanford University that will celebrate two important milestones – the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS) and the 100th anniversary of independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The 2018 AABS conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence will bring together scholars interested in Baltic studies from all over the world and foster collaboration between Baltic and Stanford researchers.

The three-day event is to be held on the Stanford University campus on 1-3 June and will feature panels, roundtable discussions, and workshops on 15 broad topics. Over 50 renowned scholars and specialists representing institutions and organisations in the Baltic states, the United States and Canada have helped put together the programme.

The conference will highlight the achievements of Baltic studies a century after the three nations gained their independence and 27 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Questions to be considered include: Why are Baltic studies important today? How does the region fit into larger global and transnational trends, including the growth of populism and increasing instability catalysed by the region’s eastern neighbour? What is the intersection between Baltic and East European studies?

Showcasing cutting-edge Baltic research

The conference will also showcase cutting-edge Baltic research as well as highlight and discuss the roles of memory institutions and the digital humanities in Baltic studies.

In addition to over 100 academic sessions (paper and poster panels, roundtables, workshops), the conference will feature several special events. Throughout the event, tours of Stanford University campus, the Stanford Libraries, and exhibits will be offered.

Registration for the conference opened on 15 January 2018 for presenting participants. General registration will open on 1 April.

Estonian World is a media partner of the 2018 AABS conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence.

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Cover: A group of students at Stanford University (the image is illustrative).

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