My two treasured communities—mining and music—together

Kennedy Niska (left) and Kelly Heinonen (right), both Virginia High School graduates and current members of The Concordia Choir, are pictured with composer and conductor Dr. René Clausen. Submitted photo.

Kennedy Niska (left) and Kelly Heinonen (right), both Virginia High School graduates and current members of The Concordia Choir, are pictured with composer and conductor Dr. René Clausen. Submitted photo.

The Concordia Choir’s 2019 Northwest Tour kicked off on Feb. 23, in Brainerd. The 73-voice choir is conducted by renowned composer and conductor Dr. René Clausen. The tour included 15 concerts in 16 days spanning Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Oregon—including a stop in Virginia. The tour wraps up in Moorhead, MN, on Sunday, March 17, with a free public concert at Concordia College. (See feature story in the Feb. 15, edition of Hometown Focus.) To learn more, visit

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Before each tour concert, one of the members of The Concordia Choir delivers a devotional—a kind of pre-concert story or experience that mentally prepares us for the performance. I shared the following message with The Concordia Choir on Saturday, March 2, before our concert at Goodman Auditorium in Virginia.

VIRGINIA – Tonight, I would like to share what I know about our audience. To do this I must first elaborate on where we are, because the land and the people have literally shaped one another through culture and industry.

We are in the heart of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, home to North America’s richest iron deposits. Mines of iron ore and taconite have dotted the region for more than a century. The mining industry of northern Minnesota provided key raw materials that built a nation and fostered its identity. Without the iron, the world wars may have had different outcomes and our country’s infrastructure would be altered drastically. The tallest skyscrapers in our largest cities all the way down to the beautiful hall in which we are about to sing may have never existed.

Mines can be controversial when considering ethical and environmental principles, especially to folks who don’t live in the region and may have a misguided view of what we do here. I was born in Virginia, have numerous relatives who have made careers though the mines, and I am largely a product of the mining industry. I support safe and sustainable mining operations for the jobs they provide and for the materials they generate that turn into the necessary gadgets, appliances, vehicles we use every day.

There’s a phrase I often see on signs at union rallies and in windows and storefronts across town: “If it’s not grown, it’s mined.” If we want to have material things in our lives (even in 2019) continued resource extraction is the only feasible way to make that possible.

The environmental impact of open-pit mining cannot be overlooked, however. Controlled dynamite blasts break up ancient bedrock and giant diesel trucks the size of two-stall garages on wheels up to 12 feet in diameter carry the rock to facilities that crush it and liquefy it to remove the precious metals that are then processed into pellets. These pellets are shipped via rail to Lake Superior where enormous vessels carry the goods to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and beyond. There is a potential for accidents along the way, both concerning environmental safety and personal safety. However, mining must be done, and this region does it more cleanly and sustainably than any other I’ve been introduced to.

I know, partly because I spent two summers working in one of our mines. Since I was very young I knew that a career in the industry wasn’t for me, but I am still thankful for the experience—it was completely out of my comfort zone. I labored inside an industrial environment with and around equipment to the caliber I had never seen before. I met many intelligent people who know the inner workings of these machines. I worked with humble and kind people in the crushing part of operations. The mechanical systems there are incredibly complex, but the workers would simply say, “Our job is to make big rocks into smaller rocks.”

Though the social environment of the mine differed greatly from my beloved college community, I felt generally welcomed and I appreciated the opportunities to learn daily from others who had varying perspectives, interests, and beliefs—realizing that common ground and mutual understanding were almost always possible.

Current mines on the Iron Range are able to recycle their water supply and are largely powered by windmills and the burning of biomass products. The steam generated by the heating systems is filtered before it is released into the atmosphere. Dust collectors are constantly in operation, keeping minuscule particles created by rock crushing out of the air.

The old mining pits of the early 20th century are now full of fathoms-deep crystal-clear blue water (the closest being the source of Virginia’s drinking water) and the nearby tailings piles are home to trees, grasses, and the reemergence of all kinds of wildlife. The landscape has changed, but it hasn’t been destroyed—only transformed. It’s a different kind of beauty: topographically diverse, almost like Minnesota’s own Grand Canyon.

The people who live here love the land that is mined: the lakes, rivers, trees, and hills. To us it represents an endless bounty of opportunity for recreation and appreciation. The way native northern Minnesotans value their home is deeper, more ingrained, than any tourist or seasonable cabin-goer could imagine. Most believe sustainable mining practices and living can coexist for years to come, for human beings and for the larger ecosystem in which we reside.

Our communities are tight-knit and bind together in unbreakable solidarity. As the threat of mine closures or downsizing of operations is frequently present due to national and global political and business decisions, standing together is necessary. These people know tough times because they’ve been through them. Minnesota residents from other regions may sometimes view Iron Rangers as the underdogs of the state: the folks who do the dirty work, who live in the small towns, play with the rocks, and don’t get out much—past the bars, anyway.

Some of these assumptions may have some validity, but the generalizations are not indicative of the whole in any way, and the folks of the Iron Range are so much more. They are not only resilient and hardworking but also kind and compassionate. I love the people here and no matter where I roam this place will always be my first home.

Music is at the heart of all of our mining communities. The arts are a long-standing tradition in churches, schools, and public venues across the region. Numerous community bands, a symphony orchestra, multiple chamber ensembles and choral groups, and several theatre companies call the Range home despite its relatively sparse population.

When we perform, people come to support us, because it’s what we do. I didn’t realize until leaving home for college that Virginia High School is unique in that around 75 percent of the students are in at least one music ensemble and nearly half of the high school is in the choir program. It’s largely due to the reputation and work of fantastic educators and leaders, but it goes deeper than that. It’s part of our heritage. It’s who we are.

The Concordia Choir performed in Virginia last in 2013. Kelly Heinonen [a fellow Virginia High School graduate] and I were in the audience—and here we are now, as members here to perform for a new audience. The concert had a fundamental impact on who we are, shaping our paths to this day. It’s also important to mention that we were two individuals—part of an audience of more than 1,000. One thousand-plus students, musicians of all ages, Concordia alum, future Cobbers, and all sorts of other people from every corner of the Range: from Grand Rapids to Ely, from Duluth to damn near the Canadian border— here, together.

I cannot make any promises about tonight’s audience, but if it’s anything like the group that Kelly and I were part of six years ago we are in for a real treat. [Author’s update: they were just as wonderful!]

I may have a reputation for saying a lot of emotional things, but I promise you I don’t exaggerate when I say that tonight will be one that I will never forget. It is the one time I get to participate in my two treasured communities simultaneously, Concordia College and my humble mining hometown, and see them come together as one. Even though they are geographically, geologically, and demographically varied, I cannot put into words how similar they are in my heart. I truly believe that experiencing one another will change lives, enhance perspectives, and leave a memorable impact on all.

I wanted to share all of this with you, my choir family, because tonight I am gaining a whole new comprehension of what it means to complete the circle.

Kennedy Niska of Mt. Iron, MN, was a 2015 Virginia High School graduate and will soon be a 2019 Concordia College graduate.

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