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Northland students find freshwater bond across borders

A team of young people worked to produce a video that explores their shared experiences growing up on mighty lakes, near and far.

Person talking in outdoor setting
Xander Ripley-Jaakola, 15, left and Johanna Bernu, 15, stand near several birch trees at Fond du Lac Tribal Community College on Wednesday in Cloquet. The two were involved with “Lake Stories,” a video production students created in collaboration with Russian students in Duluth’s sister city, Petrozavodsk. One of the similarities between the two locations is that birch trees are found in both places.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — It’s all too easy to dwell on that which might divide young people growing up in the Twin Ports and those coming of age in Petrozavodsk, Duluth’s Russian sister city nearly 4,400 miles away.

But a group of local high school students has collaborated with their peers in Petrozavodsk to produce a video celebrating their shared connections as residents of communities located on two of the largest freshwater lakes in the world — Lake Superior and Lake Onega.

Xander Ripley-Jaakola is one 15-year-old member of a local team of Indigenous students who recently joined forces with high school students in Petrozavodsk to produce “Lake Stories,” a short video now available on YouTube at youtu.be/TG-Yl361mSk and being shown as a preview to films screened at Duluth’s Zinema 2 theater this summer.

As the project got underway, students from both cities shared their experiences and images of home, and Ripley-Jaakola was immediately struck by the familiarity of the two distant communities.

“When we first got the presentation that they gave us, it kind of blew our minds how close and similar it was to how we live here,” he said.

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Person talking in outdoor setting
Xander Ripley-Jaakola, 15, talks about “Lake Stories,” a video production students created in collaboration with Russian students in Duluth’s sister city of Petrozavodsk.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“We learned about their native people, too — the Karelians — it was very interesting,” Ripley-Jaakola said.

Johanna Bernu, a 15-year-old Cloquet student, said she has become fast friends with Julia Averkiyeva, her Russian partner in the project, with whom she now communicates daily.

“Both lakes are so big and so unexplainable to the common eye that in both settings we created our own cultural viewpoints as to their importance and how they were created and how that plays into spirituality both here and there. So, it’s almost kind of a magical thing in a way to be able to see how we both created cultural connections to these huge freshwater lakes in similar yet different ways, based off of how we live,” she said.

Person talking in outdoor setting
Johanna Bernu, 15, center, talks about her involvement with “Lake Stories,” a video about how people in Duluth and Petrozavodsk are connected to local large bodies of water.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Working together, the students produced a just-over-6-minute video that weaves together images from the two lakeside landscapes along with student-written poetry, courtesy of Averkiyeva and Ripley-Jaakola, delivered in both English and Russian.

The scenic similarities of footage from the two locales can be disorienting at times, observed Ron Willis, one of the project organizers and youth education outreach coordinator for the Environmental Institute of the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

“It was like we were watching a presentation about northern Minnesota. You couldn’t tell the difference. Like in the video, that was the first thing someone said: I can’t tell the difference, what’s Lake Superior and what’s Lake Onega? There are so many more similarities than differences, he said.

“Even the fish,” Bernu chimed in. “They have something called the pike-perch, and that is one of my life goals is to go and fish and catch a pike-perch. It’s like a cross between a perch, because it has similar stripes and colorations to our perch, but shape-wise it would be like a northern pike.”

The project proved to be an eye-opener for Averkiyeva, as well, and a doorway to an unexpected close, personal American friendship. She said, “We found out that we have a lot of similarities, and it was really great to learn that two different cities in two different countries have really close cultures.”

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Irina Kosacheva, another Russian student involved in the production, said she found the collaboration rewarding on a personal level that transcended any diplomatic differences their respective nations may have.

“We learn from each other and we support each other. I think that’s really important these days,” she said.

Among the common threads the video reveals are the rich history of pictographs and boat building the two lakeshore societies share, though with clear regional variations.

“It was interesting to see that we are on different continents, but there are some things that are actually quite similar,” Kosacheva said.

Bernu remains fascinated by the variation, too.

“I like the trees. We have trees that are similar but different,” she said. “So, they have birch trees, but they have golden birch. Here, we’re known a lot for birch bark baskets and birch canoes and things like that. There, it’s very similar, but they use their kind of birch, which is not quite the same but it’s very similar. And they have a lot of different plants that they use in similar ways to us.”

A deep sense of stewardship also runs through the video’s narrative.

Ripley-Jaakola said the shared regard for maintaining water quality as a means to sustaining overall environmental health comes as little surprise to him.

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“That’s just the way all our communities were built up. We found the water to grow and cultivate,” he said.

Bernu found students’ joint concern for the environment gave her a greater sense of hope.

“I think the climate crisis is a global topic, not really a regional thing. That’s been demonstrated with ‘Fridays For the Future’ and different global movements like that. So, it was more empowering than surprising,” she said.

The video production project was expected to culminate in a face-to-face visit, and Tom Morgan, a member of the Duluth Sister Cities International, said the organization had a line on funding to send local Indigenous students to Petrozavodsk, but those plans have been scrapped as a result of diplomatic tensions related to the war in Ukraine. The U.S. Secretary of State’s Office is currently recommending no American travel to Russia.

Person talking in outdoor setting
Johanna Bernu, 15, talks about “Lake Stories,” a video production in which students talk about and compare their connections to Lake Superior in Minnesota and Lake Onega in Russia.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“That was tough news, we definitely wanted to go over there,” Ripley-Jaakola said.

Elena Krasnova, one of the Russian teachers involved in the project, also expressed disappointment.

“Of course, we are dreaming of meeting, either here or there, but that didn’t happen unfortunately. And I really feel sorry for the students, because they’re creative and talented. So, they deserve to know more about each other. To visit firsthand is absolutely different,” she said.

While an international visit in the near-future appears dubious, Krasnova remains optimistic the students will one day meet face to face. “We do hope, and we’ll never give up,” she said.

The project gives students a collaborative platform on which to build, said Vera Meshko, executive director of the Swedish-Karelian Business and Information Center, who helped coordinate the joint production.

“The video shows that positive and creative things are still possible, even in these difficult times. And people can find ways to do something good together, despite all the horrible things that may be happening around us. So, this final product — the mere existence of it — gives me hope,” she said.

Other local student participants in the production included Layla Misquadace, Shelden Misquadace, Olivia "Flu" Boshey, Avianna Baumann and Ayeden Diver-Anderson.

Both Morgan and Meshko said they are working on a possible next chapter for the collaboration.

“Ojibwe people arguably are the original inhabitants of northern Minnesota and Karelians are the original inhabitants of northwestern Russia. Both Ojibwe and Karelian lands were subsequently occupied by other nations, and both peoples are struggling with language and identity issues. We hope to explore some of these themes in subsequent projects,” Morgan said.

Meshko likes the idea, and said: “We would like to concentrate on the general topic of Indigenous peoples, both in Minnesota and here in Karelia, because they’re rich cultures. They’re immense, and you can discover so many things on your side and our side.”

Whatever the diplomatic obstacles, she said: “We have to continue talking to each other. Otherwise, things will just get worse.”

This story was updated at 8:04 a.m. July 21 to correct the spelling of Avianna Baumann's name. It was originally posted at 8:15 a.m. July 19. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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