Over 60: Answering an age-old question about Yoopers

During World War II, we needed something to hold us together. Folk singer Paul Robson came to the rescue with the perfect choral work, “What is an American?” and left us with the most patriotic explanation that still is heard today – a well needed explanation that we should very much sing today during these times of a house slowly being torn apart by diversity in sexes, races, politics and religions.

For decades, another patriotic song asks a question, asked by non-Michiganders and “sung” for decades by friends and strangers alike: “What is a Yooper?”

The response is right there, as one crosses over the big bridge from the lower part of the State of Michigan to the upper (Upper – big hint) and it needn’t be sung; the five senses tell it all.

Crossing the straits separating lower and upper Michigan, one senses immediately that “we aren’t in Kansas any longer” – a change is in the air, the freshness of verdant scenery, the feeling of a grand isolation – and the curiously subtle identity of the natives (Aha, we’re getting closer.)

What is a Yooper? Simply anyone permanently residing in that rustic environment called appropriately the Upper Peninsula (Upper-Yooper – get it?)

So, what is a Yooper?

Yoopers are slowly morphing into traditional Americans, but careful listening will easily catch hints from the original Finns, who arrived somewhere in the 1600’s to enjoy the possibilities of a land similar to that of their Scandinavian homeland – wild, rugged forests, plentiful streams and lakes, and a relatively small population to enjoy their private pleasures – working as loggers, fishermen, miners, etc. They mingled easily in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and often married with the American Indians there. They purchased plenty of farming lands, wisely still passing them on to later members of their growing rural families; they prospered with hard work, grew up well into one generation after another, onto farms, in the copper mines, finding work at logging and fishing. And they developed into large families, built large homes to accommodate them. They discovered coffee; the aroma flowing from morning to night from huge coffee pots on the back of their equally large stoves, served anytime with or without massive homemade sweets.

Living in relative separation from later Scandinavians and, eventually, other Europeans – Italians, British, even far away Arabs – they blended into an odd mix of customs, and endless variations of a new language that became “Finglish.”

As newly morphed, they learned how to use that growing mix of English with their struggle to become Americans.

“Oh.wauh” ended a sentence in response to a comment; articles like “the” became “da” and often just dropped – as a Yooper once exclaimed, “To hell wid Michigan; I go DEE-troit.”

Newly created words and phrases flooded the developing language: “You becha,” Whachew say?” and “Holy wauh” became common, until the younger Finns recognize such expressions as derogatory – and Yooperisms faded slowly into a new blend that came, and was feared to have gone the way to a purer English, along with the communal ways, as the foreign culture became more and more “American.”

Most of them bought land, built homes and farms, courageously settle into a land apart from typical town or city folks, proudly retaining a kind of communal life of their own, while the next generations pulled away from their original backgrounds, until it was feared the Yooper image was slowing vanishing.

Impossible. When one travels across the Big Mac Bridge, one is met by a curious aura – in the air, the villages and the people – and it remains all the way up to Peggy Kauppi’s Mariner North Resort at the northernmost part of the “Copper Country,” where US 41 ends with a road sign that says so.

And when one turns South again, one senses almost immediately a return to the Yooper aura, though it slowly fades at the Big Mac to become another world again.

And that, my friends, is a gem of a land still occupied by a dwindling people, some of whom went South, sadly becoming “Trolls” – until the morphing draws them back to, at least for a visit, to leave Deetroit, behind, and for a little while allow their Yooperisms to return . You becha.


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